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“Say it Ain’t So, Joe”

Albany is in high rhetoric mode, again:  this time in service of a call to arms on ethics reform in the wake of Joe Bruno’s conviction on corruption charges.  In a State where high minded sentiment rarely leads to meaningful action, New Yorkers are understandably skeptical.

A call for new ethics laws, like many reform initiatives, are born of moral outrage after the commission of highly publicized abuses.  Yet, precisely because they are reactive, these measures often fail to identify the real problems or fall short of correcting them.  Like new airport security checks taken in reaction to the latest terrorist threat rather than in anticipation of future ones, expedient half measures deplete public confidence rather than bolster it.

New Yorkers understand that ethical rules don’t make people ethical.  At best, such rules identify a narrow subset of conflicts of interest and set legal boundaries around them.  They do not eliminate conflicts, or guide public officials in the manner of justly resolving them.  That skill belongs to the world of integrity.

Integrity, is a broad personal commitment, not a narrow legal compulsion, to act in a manner beneficial to the community as a whole rather than what might otherwise appear in one’s immediate personal interest.   The founding fathers understood the tension between the individual pursuit of happiness, proclaimed as a natural right in the Declaration of Independence, and the promotion of the general welfare which is a central mission of the Constitution.

The problem is that politicians, like most people, tend to identify the general welfare with their own personal happiness.     In surveys on ethics, most respondents say that the word “ethical” means “what my feelings tell me is right”.  Relying on feelings is a pretty shaky way to fashion a moral structure.

To illustrate this, in another survey, 98% of Americans surmised that they were ”a better than average” judge of character.  Obviously 48% of them are wrong.  On any question involving right or wrong, one’s “feelings” will be as often wrong as right.

A basis more substantial than instinct to “do the right thing”–which everyone seems to believe they possess–is needed to induce political leaders to accord “the right thing” as much thought as rewarding campaign contributors, re-election maneuvering, party leadership ambitions and pecuniary gain.

Something more substantial than an ethics pledge will be necessary to curb the way our nation’s leaders act in the halls of Congress:  demonizing opponents, dialog through denunciation, communication through confrontation, consistency at all costs and the equation of integrity with rigidity of beliefs, usually their own.

It simply can’t be that politicians have no capacity to do the right thing.  They are capable of introspection, discernment of duty, personal commitment and taking risks for the common good–essential elements of integrity.  That’s why many of them went into politics in the first place.  Yet this impulse is all too often blunted by the cold, hard enforcing steel of partisanship and highlights the need, not for new ethics laws, but ways to induce our political leaders to realign along fault lines of integrity rather than political ones.

For the moment though, it seems as if the only game in town is party politics and we the people are sidelined.  Is it any wonder then, that Joe Bruno, the ultimate team captain in this brutal sport quoted Yogi Berra in assessing his fate?  “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Ironically, though, he may have unwittingly struck an important chord:  we’d better pray it ain’t over because we have a long way to go to rescue our democracy.

Stu Brody is the former Chair of the Democratic Rural Conference and founder of www.integrityintensive.com, an  integrity training resource for young political leaders and public affairs professionals.

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