On television, 17 years ago, a fictional President speaks to his Chief of Staff:
President Bartlett: When I think of all the work you put in to get me to run. When I think of all the work you did to get me elected.
I could pummel your ass with a baseball bat.
[Two join in laughter]
– From The West Wing, October 6, 1999
It happened years ago, but the hostile work environment left its mark in my memory. Sometimes, a bad time can leave a longtime scar. Like a hit in the head with a frozen boot, this experience made an impression on my mind.
There was no doubt that new middle management intended to get me out. And word was floating about the office gossip mill that I was one of two targets. The quality and amount of my work was well regarded. There had to be something else.
The first two written complaints concerned my disrespectful attitude toward two fellow employees. One of those employees became furious when she discovered that her name had been used in a complaint against me. There had been no disrespect.
The other? Well, we had some professional differences.
Both complaints stayed in a file that had been established for me.
The third complaint was entitled “Corporate Misconduct” with a subheading, “Final Warning”. The misconduct was that I had, a few weeks before, laughed derisively at a co-worker.
Derisively laughing? Really? In a later calmer moment, I remarked that the complaint ought to have been written in crayon.
I sought out the co-worker to apologize. I remembered the incident. She had unintentionally said something she felt could have been offensive. I had told her there was no offense, and we had joined in laughing it off. Or so I had thought. Now I wondered whether my laughter had been misunderstood.
And so I apologized. She was bewildered. What was I talking about? She had made no complaint.
Word eventually filtered upward. I was told later that upper management, including the corporate legal department had gotten interested, then involved. The harassment stopped.
I remembered the series of written complaints as I heard the news of James Comey’s dismissal. There is no doubt in my mind that he was unsuited for the job. His violation of long-standing policy had tilted the presidential election. It was one of several factors, any one of which could have been said to be decisive. All of them were, I suppose.
After Senator John F. Kennedy became President John F. Kennedy, he spoke ruefully about the small popular margin. That was back during the naive days in our republic when it mattered, at least morally, that the winner of the electoral vote was also the choice of the voters.
Kennedy told one audience that he felt like the mayor of a small town who was elected with a one vote margin. For his entire term, at least one constituent each day would say to him, “I’m the one who put you in office!”
Experts tell us that, without James Comey’s violations of protocol, Donald Trump would have remained citizen Trump. Hillary Clinton’s use of private email had been subject to multiple public, partisan investigations. Comey called her out on it.
It is true that the remnants were still being wrapped up by the FBI. But possible collusion between Donald Trump’s closest advisors and a hostile foreign government, the subversion of the American election, was also under investigation.
James Comey conducted a shrill, scolding denunciation of Hillary Clinton. The much more serious investigation of Donald Trump remained unknown outside of government circles.
Comey should have resigned months before he was fired.
And yet. The man leading an investigation was fired by a President whose administration is the target of that same investigation. He was fired at the recommendation of an Attorney General who had had been forced to recuse himself from that same investigation because of his close involvement with those who were being investigated.
In every respect, it fit the definition of a bad situation.
Leaks from within the White House show that almost any bad situation can get worse. Reports now surface that President Trump had personally ordered the Justice Department to find a reason, to find any reason, to justify firing the head of the investigation into Russia, and the Trump campaign, and the Trump administration, and potentially into Trump himself.
Does fear of investigation necessarily extend to intolerance of criticism? Is that same fear and loathing shared by those around my President?
The national atmosphere has not been a happy one for Donald J. Trump, or for his administration. A prickly President, overly sensitive to the slightest criticism, intolerant of dissent, seems not to have been pleased by recent testimony before Congress by his FBI Director. His displeasure had to have been amplified by the request of that FBI Director for more funds to expand the investigation.
The over-reaction to criticism has extended like a bad case of garden infestation to his overly submissive Attorney General. It spreads to the Senate supporters of that Attorney General, colleagues of the former Senator.
A fellow member of the United States Senate was voted into silence by a partisan majority when she quoted civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. These are the words of Mrs. King as quoted by Senator Elizabeth Warren:
Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.
Coretta Scott King, March 19, 1986
The Republican Senate Majority Leader also spoke:
She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Senator Mitch McConnell, February 8, 2017
And an otherwise nearly silent protester, at least up to the moment of her arrest, was convicted for giggling softly at an absurd endorsement during a Jeff Sessions confirmation hearing.
Jeff Session’s extensive record of treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented.
Senator Richard Shelby, (R-AL), January 10, 2017
If Senator Shelby heard the soft chuckle behind him, he did not show it. The assembled onlookers did not appear to notice it.
The arrest of the giggler and her later conviction for derisive laughter at the absurd whitewashing of a record notable for a distinct lack of sympathy for the rights of black people … well, it did all bring back memories for me.
Derisively laughing? Really? Did the Senate, for that derisive moment, become a sandbox?
The diligence with which the Attorney General of the United States searched for any excuse for which the President could fire a public official also brought to mind a more anxious time in my own professional life when middle management looked for reasons.
During those precarious months, I sat one morning with my initial boss, who was still there but in another position. He was aware of the tension. I remembered that old television episode as he and I spoke.
And so I reminded him of how he had recommended my hiring, how he had been a supporter and a mentor over my initial years.
“When I think of how you made it possible for me to have a career here – – I could just pummel you with a baseball bat.”
We laughed. Perhaps he laughed more than did I.
Today, patriots are not laughing at what is being done at the highest levels of our country.
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