November 2006 Ethics Dunce

Senator John Kerry

People make mistakes and say stupid and hurtful things, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally but without sufficient thought. When they do, the ethical approach is to accept responsibility and apologize. It's not easy, but it is simple. What one should not do, and is clearly unethical, is to deny what was said and gratuitously insult both those who called the unfortunate comment to one's attention and any other vulnerable target available. This is Senator John Kerry's approach, proving yet again the Scoreboard's long-held opinion that his ethical instincts are miserable, even by the low standards of his chosen field.

Here is what Kerry said in a campaign appearance on behalf of Phil Angelides, Democratic challenger to California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at Pasadena City College:

You know, education--if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.

Republicans and conservative pundits naturally pounced, but so did more objective critics, who interpreted Kerry's words as denigrating the intelligence of the soldiers in Iraq. This is certainly a reasonable interpretation of what he said. Kerry, he implies now, was referring to George Bush and not the soldiers as the "you" stuck in Iraq, and it's possible that this is true. But his intended meaning doesn't matter concerning a perceived insult, does it? A soldier, or the parents and friends of a soldier, could reasonably take Kerry's statement as a gratuitous insult, and Kerry is 100% responsible for his choice of words and any misunderstanding they engender. Whatever he meant (and with Kerry it often seems that he himself isn't sure), an apology is appropriate and necessary.

But because White House press secretary Tony Snow and partisan media critics were among those who suggested as much, Kerry responded this way:

Statement of John Kerry Responding to Republican Distortions, Pathetic Tony Snow Diversions and Distractions

October 31, 2006; Washington - Senator John Kerry issued the following statement in response to White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, assorted right wing nut-jobs, and right wing talk show hosts desperately distorting Kerry's comments about President Bush to divert attention from their disastrous record:

"If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they're crazy. This is the classic G.O.P. playbook. I'm sick and tired of these despicable Republican attacks that always seem to come from those who never can be found to serve in war, but love to attack those who did.

I'm not going to be lectured by a stuffed suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium, or doughy Rush Limbaugh, who no doubt today will take a break from belittling Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's disease to start lying about me just as they have lied about Iraq. It disgusts me that these Republican hacks, who have never worn the uniform of our country lie and distort so blatantly and carelessly about those who have…"

And so on. The Scoreboard actually assumed the above was a parody when it first appeared. It's not. I hate to belabor the obvious, but just to be clear in case there are some readers who think the above rant is reasonable and fair, let us review the ethical fouls here.

  • Whether Kerry's comments were actually intended to insult President Bush (and if they were, they were spectacularly ambiguous, even for a politician prone to saying things like "I voted for it before I voted against it.") or were meant to imply that only scholastically deficient and intellectually inferior individuals end up in the armed services, a soldier finding them offensive and personally insulting could not be accused of hyper-sensitivity. Thus Kerry's characterization of his comments as being "desperately distorted" by critics is plainly contradicted by what he actually said. Calling comments distorted when they have been interpreted fairly and accurately is called "lying."

That's Ethics Foul #1.

  • Whether Republicans and conservatives jumped on Kerry's words to "divert attention from their disastrous record," or simply because it is right before a closely-contested election and a supposed leader of the Democratic party making such a foolish comment in public is like manna from heaven for the GOP, Kerry's statement was what it was: potentially hurtful and insulting. It is Kerry who is using irrelevancies to deflect attention from his own mistake. The Republican record makes Kerry's statement neither better nor worse, and doesn't lessen his obligation to accept responsibility for it. This is an avoidance of accountability and responsibility, which is...

…Ethics Foul #2.

  • Kerry says, "If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they're crazy. That's good, John: now say that any soldier who was insulted by your remark is crazy. I know, I know… anyone who would think a veteran like you would call another veteran crazy for thinking you would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq must also be crazy, right? Let's go over this again…

    Wouldn't it be a lot easier to just learn to say what you mean, if indeed you know? I suppose anyone who actually expects someone with the rhetorical record of Senator Kerry to express his opinions by using clear and unambiguous English is also crazy. And, come to think of it, they might be. Disrespectful and unfair.

And Ethics Foul #3

  • Kerry's next tactic is to personally insult anyone else who had the audacity to find his statements objectionable. Let's see: they are "nut jobs," "crazy;" they avoid combat (or maybe they just got good grades, right, Senator?), they are "stuffed suit mouthpieces," they are "hacks," they are "doughy". But the combat record of Kerry's critics is, again, irrelevant to what he said. Tony Snow is doing his job professionally and in support of his employer, and does not deserve to be belittled with pejorative terms like "mouthpiece." Kerry has press spokespeople too, and they would not appreciate being referred to in this manner; did Kerry's Catholic upbringing omit the Golden Rule? And whenever Senator Kerry is annoyed by a Rush Limbaugh barb, he calls Limbaugh "fat," or some equivalent. This is indefensible conduct from any national political figure, but especially from one who has frequently bemoaned the loss of civility in public discourse.\

Ethics Fouls #4, #5, #6, #7, oh, who knows?

Yes, Senator, Rush Limbaugh's recent attack on Michael J. Fox was indeed ignorant and offensive. And Limbaugh, unlike Senator Kerry, had the decency to apologize; he also managed to do so without insulting all those critics who condemned his mocking of Fox's involuntary movements during a political ad. Rather than attacking Limbaugh, Kerry would do well to learn from his example.

In all, a truly despicable ethical performance by the junior Senator from the Bay State. It's not too late for him to apologize, but now he has even more people to apologize to.




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