Sayin’ a mouthful
Frank talk is needed before leaders leave office
“Take this job and shove it. I ain’t workin’ here no more.” — Johnny Paycheck
It’s not unusual for newspaper types from time to time to hear a particular kind of plea from a public official — superintendents or school board presidents, mayors or city council members, and the like — who would rather avoid having a reporter at a meeting.
It’s mostly at so-called strategic planning sessions, those all-day meetings with lunch brought in from a local eatery so these leaders can review recent issues, brainstorm ideas for the future, toss around concerns and generally gab about public policy issues they’re responsible for overseeing. The person contacting the reporter knows such meetings are open to the public, but they ask the reporter not to be there anyway.
“No decisions are going to be made,” the explanation goes. “We just want an opportunity to have a full conversation and everyone will feel more comfortable being frank if they don’t have to worry that just a mention of an idea might end up on the front page of the newspaper.”
Journalists’ typical response leaves them unhappy. Public officials discussing public business — particularly broad policy conversations that eventually will sway the direction of a city, county or school district — should be carried out in the open. If public officials can’t be “frank” with the public, what exactly is it they’re trying to do?
But, let’s be frank here: Anyone who spends time around most political types know there are certain things they’ll say in private that they’ll never say in public. Why? Because there’s always another election around the corner or saying what one really thinks won’t be advantageous to advancing their cause.
In the last week or so, we’ve witnessed variants of the inability to be frank while serving the public on the national level.
We submit for your inspection the recent comments of Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
“We were not made great as a country by indulging in or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorifying in the things that divide us and calling fake things true and true things fake,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor, explaining he can no longer be “complicit” with President Donald Trump, so he will step down at the end of the current term.
Corker earlier had decried how Trump “debases our country” and is destroying the nation’s relationships around the world. He, too, does not plan to seek re-election in 2018.
Apparently, nothing frees the tongue quite so much as a decision not to seek re-election.
Just the other day here in Northwest Arkansas, former U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas gave his assessment of the state of government.
“People are frustrated with government because they feel nobody in it listens to them,” said Pryor, a Democrat who lost his re-election bid to Tom Cotton in 2014. “Guess what? Nobody is listening to them.”
Can you imagine Pryor saying such a thing when he was a sitting senator? It’s only been a couple of years. It didn’t all fall apart just since he left the halls of Congress.
Wouldn’t it be nice to witness such blunt talk before these elected officials are out of office or on their way out?
One of the more amazing aspects of President Trump is how so many of his supporters say they like him because he “tells it like it is.” Well, no, he doesn’t. He tells it like he wants people to see things. But the point is well taken. Trump’s popularity is in large part attributed to the fact he’s a nontraditional politician, one who says things a good number of Americans are saying themselves. They’ve gotten so tired of the gobbledygook that flows from the mouths of most politicians, they were willing to overlook flaw after flaw after flaw in a man they wanted to “drain the swamp.”
It would be nice if our elected leaders spoke clearly about the policies they support or the ideas they disagree strongly with. If they called a spade a spade. If they weren’t constantly calculating the easiest path toward re-election and making sure not to say anything that might upset their core voters.
Our nation’s future isn’t served by an irrational reverence for populism or a desire that our leaders will allow it to replace reason. Political leaders should listen to constituents, but they also should provide leadership that only they can deliver by virtue of the work they do, the staffs they have and the time they commit to a full understanding of the nation’s problems.
If being frank with the public is viewed as a negative, political leaders should re-evaluate what they’re thinking or doing, or they should take the lead in influencing the public toward their way of thinking.
What they shouldn’t do is wait until the door is about to hit them on the behind as they depart, or already has, before the public gets an honest assessment out of their mouths.