Kevin McCarthy probably has no sense of the shame he should feel when reporters from The New York Times finally laid bare his hypocrisy, his weakness, and his lack of an ethical compass. At least we can still find examples of the best of human character and principle in brave soldiers in Mariupol.
There are times when two news stories hit the front pages on the same day and create a jarring juxtaposition… a stark contrast of two simultaneous events that put an issue in sharp relief.
Consider this amazing example: on February 10, 2015, two stories appeared on the front page of The New York Times. One reported that Brian Williams was suspended without pay by NBC for exaggerating his exposure to danger while on a combat assignment. The other announced that Jon Stewart was leaving The Daily Show after turning it “into an influential platform for news and media commentary, both in the United States and around the world.” The “real news anchor” was leaving in disgrace for lying about his reporting exploits, while the “fake newsman comedian” was exiting a hero, lionized for his gutsy, uncompromising truth. Epic irony, geometrically multiplied when it arrived in our newsfeed on the same day.
Flash forward to this past week. CNN shows video clips made inside the steel mill in Mariupol that has become the Alamo of Ukraine, the astonishing last stand in which hopelessly out-manned and outgunned Ukrainian soldiers refuse to surrender to the barbarian Russian butchers who have invaded their homeland. The Ukrainians display steely resolve to see the mission through, at whatever cost.
In that very same week, we learn from a new book written by reporters from The New York Times, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell were keenly aware in the days following the January 6 insurrection that Donald Trump's actions warranted that he be removed from the Presidency immediately. Initially they appear full of resolve to take Trump on, but soon assess that the course of action they advocate would put their own careers and power at risk. They cower, retreat, spin on a dime, and abandon their efforts to effectively rebuke Trump.
In the very same week, we see, on the one hand, ordinary Ukrainian soldiers in imminent grave risk, yet are ready to die to protect their homeland's freedom and democracy.
And, on the other, the most senior leaders in the Republican Party, revealed to be frightened, easily intimidated, and unwilling to defend our freedom and our democracy lest it come at a cost to their power and ambitions.
The book, “This Will Not Pass,” goes on sale May 3, but the tidbits released in advance interviews alone are explosive. Reporters Martin and Burns assert that McCarthy said that he intended to go to Trump and suggest that Trump should resign. They report that McCarthy discussed the twenty-fifth amendment with Liz Cheney, and that Mitch McConnell said “if this isn’t an impeachable offense, I don’t know what is.” The reporters say that McCarthy claimed that he had spoken to Trump and that Trump himself had acknowledged being responsible in some measure for the insurrection.
Any of these bombshells in isolation is shocking. Taken together, they are an open-and-shut case that the two top Republicans in Congress thought Trump should not be allowed to remain in office even for the scant days that remained in his administration.
But here’s where it gets just too perfect. Immediately after the story about the new book broke this week, Kevin McCarthy claimed that the reporting was “totally false and wrong,” and his spokesman announced that “McCarthy never said he’d call Trump to say he should resign.”
The two Times reporters then immediately produced a recording of McCarthy saying exactly that, simultaneously letting it be known that have plenty of delicious audio recordings still under lock and key. These guys knew McCarthy’s MO – lie, deny, pivot, and accuse -- so well that they baited their trap brilliantly. They initially only released the written quote, and then waited for the predictable McCarthy to lie about its veracity. Then, boom! The reporters immediately produced the audio recording, instantly cementing their credibility and revealing McCarthy to be a brazen liar.
There is no doubt that McCarthy, Fox News, and the Republican Party will scramble to discredit this reporting, but those darn audio tapes will make that task daunting. Do we believe The New York Times and its reporters? Uh, yeah. The New York Times understands that if it lied or distorted the truth, its income stream would evaporate, just as surely as Fox News knows that its income stream would evaporate if it ever started to tell the truth.
The bottom line is simple: Kevin McCarthy’s initial reaction to the January 6 insurrection was exactly right. In his public statements following the insurrection, McCarthy said “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump." He went on to say that Trump must “accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-Elect Joe Biden is able to successfully begin his term.” For good measure, McCarthy added “Some say the riots were caused by Antifa. There is absolutely no evidence of that. Conservatives should be the first to say so.”
Now, we learn that in private, McCarthy was even more adamant about Trump’s malfeasance. Here are some particular juicies: “What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that and nobody should defend it.” “I’ve had it with this guy.” Again, in private, Mitch McConnell appeared still more outraged by Trump’s behavior, saying “the Democrats are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us.”
And yet, in the days that followed, McCarthy and McConnell rapidly came to understand that their outrage and eagerness to dissociate themselves and their party from Trump was not playing well among the party faithful. They suddenly realized they were holding a losing hand. So they quit.
Rather than stand up, stick to their guns, and lead based on their own understanding of the gravity of Trump’s actions, they cowered, retreated, and completely abandoned any notion of principle, any recognition that now was their moment to stand up and defend American Democracy against an act that McConnell openly acknowledged was a certain impeachable offense.
Threatened with a loss of standing in their party, they ran for cover. McCarthy famously made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss Trump’s ring, which ended with an embarrassing photo op in which Trump appears to be laughing at McCarthy's obsequiousness.
It is a startling contrast to Ukrainian soldiers stand unflinchingly at their posts, facing death, but refusing to capitulate.What happens to our nation when the people making the decisions that either protect or weaken our democracy are themselves weak, frightened people who run from “principle” the moment it threatens to cost them something?
That last phrasing was intended to invoke the one of the most astute comments about the concept of principle, made by the great advertising man, Bill Bernbach. The creative legend who founded the great Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency once observed that “a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.” Indeed, I once had the opportunity to personally experience exactly what Mr. Bernbach meant.
Back when I was in the advertising business, our biggest client dropped us due to a merger, and the loss of that revenue threatened the viability of our company. It seemed entirely possible that we would go out of business. Several days later, we got a call from a cigarette company inviting us to compete for their account, which would have instantly replaced all the lost revenue and then some. My business partner and I turned the offer down flat without a moment’s thought. We would rather not have a company than have one that hawked a deadly product to vulnerable people.
Sure, that principle cost us money, and it could have even cost us our company and our jobs (it didn’t, we scrambled and survived). But it was an easy decision. There are times and situations when it is better to get fired, better to resign in protest, better to accept the risk of defeat in the next election than to abandon an important principle. And -- to paraphrase Mitch McConnell -- if defending our Constitution, our democracy, and our freedom aren't important principles, then I don’t know what is.
You see, Kevin McCarthy, it is actually better to lose your job than to lose your soul.
We are once again reminded of the immensely powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
Am I saying that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell are “good people?” Well, yes, in this narrow sense: the recordings prove that these two Republicans know right from wrong. They totally understand what Trump was trying to do, and they vigorously condemned it. So they qualify as “good” in Dr. King’s usage simply in the fact that they truly did understand that Trump’s behavior was reckless, destructive, and worthy of impeachment or forced resignation.
But – to Dr. King’s point -- they cowered from acting on their knowledge, preferring to hide in “the silence of the good people.”
What are we doing wrong as a country that we are producing so many unprincipled leaders?
It used to be that liars like McConnell and McCarthy would pay for their weakness. When Ben Franklin said “honesty is the best policy,” he was actually not making a statement about ethics or morals. It is simply practical advice – honesty is simply a better policy, let alone a better philosophy. If you develop a reputation for being a liar and a cheater, people don’t trust you, and you lose value as a human being… as someone to hire, as someone to trust with an important task, or as a friend, and as a spouse. You are devalued. Old Ben was simply saying that it makes no sense to be revealed as a chronic, inveterate liar.
Today, however, developing a reputation as an efficient and effective liar earns you regular gigs on Fox News. Today, millions of Americans tune in at 8:00 to hear the freshest, best lies on the market.
Of course, Kevin McCarthy is not a particularly adept or intelligent liar. The recordings now in the possession of The New York Times reporters were of conference phone calls attended by many Republican lawmakers. McCarthy is apparently just stupid and naïve enough to have failed to realize that in the era of the iPhone, everything is recorded.
McCarthy is living proof of the veracity of Ben Franklin’s adage. It's a fair bet that once the book and the rest of the quotable quotes are released by the Times reporters, McCarthy will be the walking dead even in his own party... scorned by the vengeful Trump, viewed as a traitor by the right wing of his party, worthless to his own constituents, and not much to look at in the mirror.
In fairness, it must be said that this level of ethical depravity is not unique to the Republican Party. It was the Democrats who nominated weapons-grade philanderer John Edwards for the Vice Presidency in 2004. And the parade of allegations stamping Democratic New York Governor Mario Cuomo as a sexual predator prove that repugnant misogynistic behavior and abuse of power are among of the few remaining bipartisan practices in our government. Yet in defense of Democrats: they took their own bad guy down. Once upon a time, Republicans took down Nixon. Now they destroy people like Liz Cheney, who have the guts to speak the truth.
It is certainly time to ask how we expect each succeeding American generation to maintain a sense of morality and ethics when so many of the major politicians in positions of power are so transparently hypocritical and so lacking in principle. How do we teach young people that lying is wrong when lying is the overtly obvious behavior of leading Republican contender for Speaker of the House of Representatives?
How do we teach young people that there are such things as matters of principle? That there are decisions to be made that can come with a cost, but that cost is worth paying in order to preserve our sense of integrity, our dignity, and peace in our soul?
It is certainly time to ask our institutions of higher learning to examine how they manage to hand out fancy degrees to people who clearly lack any sense of morality, ethics, or conscience. Hey, Harvard and Princeton – would you like to stand up and take credit for Ted Cruz? Yale and Stanford, you both had a crack at Josh Hawley. Perhaps our vaunted institutions of higher education should evaluate what steps they are taking to ensure that their graduates are grounded in ethics, principle, and human decency, because for every Barack Obama Harvard claims credit for, they have unleashed a Mark Zuckerberg and a Ron DeSantis as Johnny Appleseeds of the new American hyper-hypocrisy.
Maybe the real answer, Harvard, is to invite guest lecturers from a steel factory in Mariupol.
If, God willing, they live to tell the tale.
Yes, a twenty-five-year-old Ukrainian soldier knows more -- and understands more -- about principle, about democracy, and about freedom than the man who could well be the next Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States Congress.
Maybe that’s why the Ukrainians are shocking the world with their ferocious defense against an overwhelmingly well-armed authoritarian thug.
And maybe that is why the United States is sinking ever closer to the risk of authoritarian rule.
All of you who wonder whether Joe Biden was the right choice for President, or who somehow feel disappointed in his administration, or who worry about his age and his physical stamina should understand one thing: the only good news in this whole story is that in 2020, the man of character and principle won.
Given all that we knew, it was far too close, but in the end the American people opted for the man of principle over the charlatan huckster whose core skill set is ignorance, deceit, and moral depravity.
Whether than remains true in 2024? Well, that could well be our Mariupol.
Our battle to fight to the end, with our freedom and our democracy on the line.
But here's the good news, Democrats. We can beat a party of ethically rudderless people like Kevin McCarthy,
All we have to do is be as ferociously principled as the brave Ukrainians in a steel factory in Mariupol.
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