It’s embarrassing to find merit in Donald Trump’s bellowings, but he did say something in Dubuque a few days ago (as reported in the Washington Post on August 25) that strikes a chord with me. He asserted that when politicians get to Washington:
They look at these beautiful buildings, these beautiful halls and all of a sudden they become impotent.
There’s something to this, and it applies not only to politicians but to all of us, I think, who succumb to Potomac fever – whether we’re elected to come here, or come to be employed by government and its appendages (lobby firms, law firms, etc. etc.) as working stiffs.
I don’t think it’s the beautiful buildings that does it, though; it’s the insistence that we all talk nice to each other.
We don’t have to be nice, but we have to talk nice; never say anything that could offend.
Which means, of course, never saying anything that could be challenging to anyone’s beliefs or conclusions.
I’ve observed the operation of this ethic for decades in the National Park Service, where one is expected never, never to say anything ill of one’s colleagues, their ideas, institutions, or programs. Everyone is understood to be giving 110% to their work, and doing great things for the American people and the world, all the time. Which is why we taxpayers continue to pay for anachronisms like the National Historic Landmark program.
But the demand that we all be Mister or Mizz Nicey-Nice has spread widely. I suppose The Donald’s comment caught my eye because I had just been told (very politely) by a client that I was simply too invested in a case I’d been working on, and had as a result insulted a federal agency official who, I’d suggested, had not dealt honestly or wisely with the case and was likely contributing to what could be a destructive and expensive impending disaster. I was told that I should apologize. Not being Mister Nicey-Nice, I declined to do so, leading to stunned silence by everyone else involved. At least my client confronted me with my perceived misdeed, though; I appreciate that. In most such cases, I suspect, clients and others just roll their eyes and cover their ears lest they be damaged by my malignity.
The real malignity, I think, is demanding nicey-niceness. Government needs honesty, even when it’s brutal, and though needless brutality is to be abhorred, it seems to me that if the choice is between being offended and being ill-advised, government and its agents ought to welcome, indeed encourage, offensiveness.
But that’s not the way it works in Washington; we must be polite, genteel, inoffensive. Which does add up to impotence. Whether or not it’s the buildings that do it, chalk one up for Mr. Trump.