My senior year of high school, I served as a page for the Idaho House of Representatives. I was also a member of the Lewiston High School chapter of the National Honor Society. The NHS recognizes scholarship, service, leadership, and character, and four graduating seniors were tapped to address these topics at the year’s end initiation ceremony. I was assigned to speak on character.
In preparing my remarks, I took advantage of my access to key legislators in Boise and interviewed several leaders from both parties to elicit their views on the importance of character in the legislative process.
The interview I most remember is the one I had with Sen. Richard (Dick) High who represented a district in Twin Falls and later served with distinction on the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. Sen. High, a Republican, was universally respected by his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle.
“What role does character play in legislative success?” I asked the senator.
“Character makes all the difference,” he replied. “A man’s word is his bond. If you give your word and break your word, you are finished here.”
Sen. High went on to explain why trust, once broken, is so very hard to regain. He acknowledged that legislators will occasionally have good reason to change their minds but, when they do, they should give their reasons and inform those to whom they earlier made a commitment. He emphasized that anything less would be dishonorable.
I incorporated Sen. High’s comments, with attribution of course, into my speech on character, noting that the cornerstone of character is honesty, fair dealing, and keeping one’s word.
Last weekend as negotiations to keep the government open spiraled downward, I was again reminded of the importance of trust among players in the legislative process and the age-old truth that the ability to rely on one’s word is critical, that trust, once broken, is very hard to regain.
President Trump promised to sign DACA legislation that had garnered bipartisan support. He promised to “take the heat.” He promised not to second guess the senators. He promised not to require changes. And, then – in the blink of any eye – he broke each and every promise.
When Senators Graham and Durbin, a Republican and Democrat, met with the president to present their agreed upon proposal, Trump flipped and he flopped – and he broke his word.
In the aftermath of Trump’s abrupt reversal, Mitch McConnell tried mightily to pin the blame for the ensuing government shutdown on the Democrats, but try as he might, his words rang hollow.
Senator Schumer, observing that negotiating with the president was like negotiating with Jello, directly called-out the elephant in the room. Schumer said, in no uncertain terms, that the president had reneged on his promise. Schumer made clear his view, based on experience, that the occupant of the Oval Office could not be trusted.
While Schumer spoke, McConnell maintained his game face, keeping up the pretense that the president was blameless. But McConnell knew better. Just the previous day, McConnell himself had publicly complained that he felt paralyzed in moving forward not knowing what legislation the president would accept. McConnell knew that his GOP caucus, no less than Schumer’s Democrats, could not rely on the president to keep his word.
It seems that Trump has stiffed employees, contractors and others his entire adult life. His businesses have seen repeated bankruptcies. American banks so devalued his credit that he couldn’t get a loan, so he turned to Russian banks to bail him out.
Always, it seems, he moved on.
But he is beginning to find out that, as president, there is no moving on. There is no other Congress to which he can turn. Neither party trusts him, though the Republicans will pretend they do. But at the end of the day, his credit is worthless.
Dick High was right. And character still matters.