The Challenge of Public Service
The Power of Character
This selection is reprinted from Josephson Institute’s The Power of Character, which includes essays on a variety of topics from a variety of accomplished and interesting people.
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The Challenge of Public Service
By Governor Jane Dee Hull
Jane Dee Hull was the governor of Arizona and the first Republican in 65 years to be Arizona secretary of state and the state’s first female Speaker of the House. Known for her candor and tough pioneer spirit, Hull has long focused on ethics, first as a state representative in the state legislature and then as Speaker, taking decisive action after some legislators were caught up in the “AZSCAM” FBI sting in the late 1980s. She is well-respected for her dedication to children’s issues, focusing on the quality of their health and education. She serves on the boards of numerous community and service organizations including Arizona Save a Life Alliance (which promotes organ donation), Children’s Action Alliance, and Kids’ Voting of Arizona. She and her husband have four children and eight grandchildren.
I’ve been a politician for more than 20 years. I say that not as a confession but a statement of pride. Despite the well-worn cliches and easy cynicism about the ethics and character of politicians, I am an unrepentant public servant.
My love for politics took hold when I was campaigning for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Since then I’ve been hooked on the prospect of having a say in the policies that affect the everyday lives of my family, friends, and the citizens of Arizona. After years as a precinct committeewoman getting out the vote, I won a seat to the Arizona House of Representatives in 1978. Eight years later I was elected Republican Whip, the first woman to ever become part of the majority leadership in Arizona. In 1989 my colleagues elected me Speaker of the House. After three years as Speaker, I served as chairwoman of the Ethics Committee until I resigned from the House to run for secretary of state. I was elected. In an unexpected turn of events, I became governor when the previous governor resigned due to several federal convictions.
I’ve seen a great deal during my political career, from petty and major corruption to extraordinary demonstrations of integrity and courage. Yes, some of the people I’ve met fit the stereotype of the self-serving local politician, but I also have met men and women of exemplary character. Of course a political career marked by success and integrity takes a special type of person. First, political office is certainly no place for you if you are extremely materialistic. Though the media sometimes like to characterize political office as a lucrative job, there are very few successful politicians who could not make many times their public salary on the “outside.”
Second, you have to have a high tolerance for criticism and controversy. It’s unavoidable. I find some solace in the observation of a highly ethical politician who was chided by a colleague for going to such great lengths to avoid both improprieties and even the appearance of improper conduct. “Do you really expect you will avoid criticism by all this extra care?” his colleague asked. “No,” was the reply, “I simply expect to know I will be unworthy of the criticism.”
Third, you must have a high degree of tolerance for scrutiny into your private affairs and submit all details of your financial life for public consumption. I often hear people lamenting that politicians inevitably embark on a moral downslide after they enter office. However, I think many politicians bring their long-standing personal problems with them into office, problems that are then exposed in the bright light of public life. A politician today has to be ready to answer for anything he or she has ever done that might be considered improper. Nothing will be sacred. You will even be held accountable for the behavior of your extended family! Every comment, picture, letter, and bit of gossip is fodder for the rumor mill and a candidate for the front page. I doubt there is a person on this earth whose reputation could survive unscathed that type of scrutiny. Moreover, in this era of “gotcha” journalism, you cannot expect either the benefit of the doubt or the presumption of innocence. In politics, character attacks and accusations of any sort are so heavily publicized that, in many cases, the ultimate outcome hardly matters.
Fourth, the moral universe that elected officials must live in is fraught with temptations and pressures that test character on a daily basis. Here are some of them:
- Compromise. Compromise is an essential aspect of politics. As in the boardroom, deals are cut to get things done. There is nothing inherently unethical about compromise. In fact, in a democratic system that must accommodate differing views and opposing interests, it would be unethical to ignore other voices. The problem is that it is sometimes difficult to assess objectively and with a cool head exactly what is being compromised. Half a loaf is usually better than none, but compromises of principle exact too high a price. There are many considerations: the viability of the bill; promises you have made to constituents, public-interest groups, and colleagues; the spirit of the law; avoiding unintended consequences; and fairness to minority positions. Did the deal go too far? Was the goal lost in he pursuit of a “win”?
- Corruption and Rationalization. Politics offers an endless variety of temptations to subordinate the public interest to personal gain. This is corruption. In its simplest form, corruption is bribery and extortion, but in politics, abuse of power is usually much more subtle, especially when people want influence. Rarely do they offer a quid pro quo – I’ll give you this if you do that. However, an improperly motivated citizen can disguise a “pay-off” as a personal favor, a paid trip, a gift, a discount, a business opportunity, a campaign donation – you name it. The problem gets even tougher when a lobbyist is also a good friend or a when a powerful constituent or generous benefactor requests a special favor. It is so easy to rationalize in these situations. To maintain your character, it is necessary to be ever-vigilant and to consider not only your own motives but the motives of the person one is dealing with. And it’s not enough to know you have done nothing wrong. You’ve got to think about how the transaction will look in the newspaper interpreted by journalists.
- Dirty Politics. It has been said that “just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should.” Politics can be as rough as any contact sport and many politicians fight dirty. Mudslinging takes many forms – name-calling, mischaracterizing facts, distorting or lying about an opponent’s positions or actions, making untrue accusations or unfair innuendoes. It takes great strength of character to endure such tactics. It takes even more strength to resist the temptation to fight fire with fire or convince yourself that the end justifies the means.
- Special Rules. A public servant may have more opportunity to behave unethically simply because elected officials are governed by so many rules. For example, Congress requires its members to report any visit to a friend’s home that exceeds 48 hours. I would bet there is not a member of Congress who has not broken this rule. Since such visits are illegal, they must be classified as unethical, even if the rule does not seem to be a fair or rational standard. Even allowing a friend to pick up a lunch tab can be a violation.
Responding to unethical behavior
Arizona is a wonderful state to live in, yet those familiar with recent Arizona political history, or for that matter politics in general, know that not every public official consistently lives up to the highest standards of public- service ethics. Often you can take the temperature of a culture from the opening acts on late-night television. I knew politics in Arizona was suffering from a high fever when Jay Leno began to mention us by name. It all started some years ago with a scandal that became known as AZSCAM, where several state legislators were convicted of accepting bribes. Then came the impeachment and federal indictment of the governor, who used public funds to pay off personal debts, and the conviction of yet another governor, my immediate predecessor. This sort of criminal behavior, coupled with various ill-advised, off-the-cuff remarks from officials, left all public servants exposed to sarcastic one-liners, judgments, and ridicule.
I was speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives when some of my colleagues – some I called close friends – were caught in AZSCAM. I immediately ordered those indicted to no longer vote on issues until they were cleared of all charges. Later I became the house ethics chairman, a post that would give me the opportunity to help clean up the legislature’s soiled image. I called together community leaders, political leaders, legislators, and others to define a code of ethical behavior appropriate for elected officials and their staffs. Our guiding principle was that there was hope, that the majority of people want to do right. To help them do right, all guidelines had to be crystal clear. Our group created a user-friendly ethics manual to help lawmakers in their daily decision-making.
Confronting public cynicism
Despite such efforts – and similar efforts taken by public servants elsewhere – public and media skepticism abounds. There seems to he prejudice against everyone who seeks public office, and the position of “elected official” seems to rank somewhere below tax collector and tabloid TV reporter in the public’s esteem.
The public’s disdain for politicians has become mundane, commonly thought to be hardly worthy of comment or reflection. Nothing could be further from the truth. This reflexive, unthinking mistrust and disgust reduces civic activism, voting, and law abidance. As a result, we are producing a generation of timid and fearful political candidates who are unwilling to make the tough choices that duty requires of them. Many principled people are unwilling to make the financial and privacy sacrifices to enter the political arena because it seems like such a thankless task. This is not healthy for the country.
I am not saying we ought to go easier on people who abuse the public trust or that the press and public should lower their expectations. I simply suggest we need a fairer, more balanced, and more generous approach to the way we treat our public servants. Life offers many chances at bat, and no one bats .1000. We all make bad decisions. Yet our culture tends to turn elected officials’ careers, personal lives, mistakes and misunderstandings, and everything else into media entertainment.
Quixotically, people demand the highest of ethical behavior from politicians yet do not believe politicians are capable of it. We as citizens must learn to judge fairly and reasonably – and we must be accountable to the highest standards ourselves before we hold others accountable. In the end, it will take character to judge character. What is important is to keep scandals in perspective and not lose sight of the vast majority of honest, hardworking men and women who sit in state legislatures and Congress.
Doing one’s best
The only way a public figure can deal with the challenges of public office is to make a personal decision to do one’s absolute best to maintain integrity. Ultimately we can only control our own actions.
In my case, I think of character in terms of guiding principles that help me assess a situation and govern my behavior. These principles operate in the background. I do not run hundreds of “character checks” a day. Rather, I rely on my instincts about right and wrong, instilled in my brain and heart by experience, intellect, and religious teachings. I do, however, occasionally pause to assess the ethics of my conduct a bit more explicitly to see where I might have done better. My approach to thinking about and dealing with ethical principles and the consequences of choices has also benefited from a Josephson Institute seminar some years ago, which helped me isolate the core values that are the basis of my own character: honesty, integrity, fairness, kindness, empathy, accountability, respect, and reliability – the list goes on and on. As a woman, wife, mother, eight-time grandmother, and former teacher, I have worked all my life to make these principles the guiding force in my life and in the lives of my children, grandchildren, and students. I have also placed these virtues at the center of my political career, as have many of my colleagues throughout the nation. Sometimes that is quite a challenge.
In public service, perhaps more than in any other setting, one has the opportunity to put some of the harder virtues into practice – listening with an open mind to opposing viewpoints, dealing respectfully with anger and disappointment, verbalizing beliefs and principles, and striving to deal fairly and honestly with everyone. A responsible public official must handle all financial matters with precision and openness. Accountability requires us to be willing to admit to mistakes publicly. The key is never to lose sight of the reason why one is in politics: to serve the community by assuring that laws and bureaucracies improve the present and future of one’s neighbors and neighborhoods.
I resolved once I became governor that the cloud that hung over Arizona’s capital was going to be dispersed by a new standard of conduct. I hired staff as committed as I believe I am to the core values of responsibility, integrity, commitment, and efficiency. I challenged all state agencies to conduct business according to these values. I tore down all of the artificial barriers that prohibited people from talking to one another, and I encouraged open meetings and public discussion. I believe most people strive to behave in an ethical manner. It is that assumption that I mean to exploit. I expect the highest of ethical standards. I set an example in both my personal and professional life.
And I still unhesitatingly encourage people who want to make a difference to enter the arena of public service. Despite the many trials and tribulations involved in seeking, retaining, and wielding public power, being an elected official is, in the end, a wonderfully rewarding life. If I were to mentor a young woman considering a public-service career path I would begin by showing her all of the opportunities to affect policy and law in a manner that reflects her highest beliefs and principles. I know of no other career that provides as great an opportunity to effect directly the lives of so many people. And I would tell her how interesting and stimulating it is to to meet and work with so many people from all segments of our society.
For most of the dedicated people I know, commitment to public service in the face of the heavy personal costs is itself a demonstration of character. There are great psychological rewards from knowing you are on the front lines fighting to improve the quality of life in cities, counties, states, and the entire country. Quite simply, it’s meaningful work.