Sen. Jeff Flake, a U.S. senator from Arizona and a Latter-day Saint, announced his resignation this week.
Some say he showed courage, while others called the move cowardice, or even calculating. It’s long been a political parlor game to weigh motives of politicians, especially when they are deciding whether to exit or enter the arena.
But in the Trump era, the stakes seem heightened.
President Donald Trump, who Flake vigorously denounced in his recent resignation speech, offered his own theory on why Flake and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee are both resigning from the nation’s top legislative body: “The reason Flake and Corker dropped out of the Senate race is very simple, they had zero chance of being elected. Now act so hurt & wounded!”
Craven or clear-eyed? Brave or bloviating? Quixotic or cogent?
At a time of diminished trust, our default position tends toward cynicism. A politician’s actions are increasingly interpreted through the lens of self-interest.
Politicians can’t be believed. Authority must be questioned. Institutions merit inquisition.
If you trust Trump, Flake is a sore loser; if you believe Flake, Trump is Charles Foster Kane.
It may be worth pondering the social impact of projecting the worst ulterior motives on our public servants.
Don’t get me wrong. Skepticism has its benefits (see Watergate), but unyielding cynicism can have corrosive costs. Society should never condone or become complicit in evil designs, immorality or the promotion of sheer boorishness.
But now, more than ever, we need a bit more trust.
The historian David Herbert Donald shares a story about meeting John F. Kennedy in 1962. At the time, Kennedy was, apparently, displeased with historians.
“A group of scholars had been in the Oval Office hoping to enlist (Kennedy) in a poll that ranked American presidents,” Donald explains. “I was not one of those visitors, but the next day when I gave a talk in the White House about Abraham Lincoln, the subject was much on his mind.”
Kennedy expressed his dissatisfaction “with the glib way the historians had rated some of his predecessors as ‘Below Average’ and marked a few as ‘Failures.’” Kennedy resented the entire effort.
With great feeling, Kennedy insisted that “No one has a right to grade a President — not even poor James Buchanan — who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”
It’s the role of the press, historians and the commentariat more broadly to make public judgments, and to, as appropriate, level criticism and uphold community standards of morality.
But this duty must be exercised with wisdom and a healthy sense of one’s own human frailty. Readers of this column already know that this is a standard I haven’t always lived up to. But it’s nonetheless one worth striving for.
In talking about journalism, the late-Latter-day Saint Apostle, Elder Neal A. Maxwell observed, “We discover so many wonders when walking carefully through another’s garden, not by crashing into it with a Mack truck. Tenderness is usually better than trapping, so far as learning about another is concerned.”
He continues: “These insights have given me pause when I see so much of modern journalism searching for sensation — a search which can be addictive to journalists as well as to audiences.”
A certain kind of “accusatory patriotism,” he suggests, can have unintended side effects, conditioning “citizens to become eager to believe the worst.”
Perhaps there are sound reasons for assuming the worst in our public figures; but, there may also be sound reasons to tread lighter on one another, particularly at a time when America’s divisions are in desperate need of reinforced bridges built from trusses of trust.
We must ask whether Flake was wrong or right. We must analyze whether Trump and his policies are good or bad. But, we must also ask such questions about ourselves.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News.