Politics, Money, Heroes and Cads

What makes one person a hero and another one a disgrace to an institution? It seems the answers should be apparent but a recent chain of events, and the allure of federal employee benefits for more people, will make some a little more cynical.

Life can be very confusing.

Social changes, new technology and globalization of the economies of the world make living much more complex than was the case in our parent’s generation or even more complex than it seemed during the turbulent decade of the 1960’s.

Anyone who reads or even watches the news on a regular basis could not be blamed for feeling overwhelmed. For many of us, it is probably easier and more rational to become increasingly cynical. Here is an example of a chain of events that is probably unfortunate but points out the complexity of the world in which we live.

A couple of weeks ago, FedSmith spotted a small article from a newspaper in Oregon about a Congressman proposing to expand federal employee benefits to domestic partners. The article noted that the bill was similar to an Oregon law that provided similar benefits for domestic partners to employees of the state.

We run a large number of articles each week from a variety of sources and this one did not seem too unusual. The next day, the floodgates seemed to open up.

Comments from readers were flowing in on the topic–both for and against the proposal. When we ran the article, it was from a regional paper and was somewhat unique in that it was not a national news story. The following day, the Oregon newspaper story hit the national press and it was appearing everywhere. Because of the interest in the topic from readers, and the passionate responses on the issue coming from all sides, we did a survey and then ran the results on the site. That survey generated a greater response and reflected the continuing interest in the topic.

Shortly after, the nation’s airwaves were filled with news about Congressman Mark Foley and his inappropriate e-mails sent to male pages working for Congress. He quickly resigned in disgrace, went to rehabilitation and the scandal continued to fill the airwaves for days afterwards. Politicians from both parties assured the nation they were shocked and dismayed about the actions of the Congressman in soliciting young men from his position of power. "Reprehensible," "despicable," "a disgrace to the House of Representatives," "deserve the collective outrage of the American people," "sickening behavior," were terms used to describe the former Congressman’s actions.

During the torrent of news stories about the former Congressman, I heard a reference to Gerry Studds, the first openly gay Congressman. Many readers who were interested in politics in the early 1980’s probably recalled the name of the Congressman who was rebuked by Congress for having had a sexual relationship with a male page who was 17 at the time.

That, presumably, would have been the end of the story except that former Congressman Studds died last weekend. This week, the news media is filled with stories about the former Congressman and his married partner. Hundreds of news stories are in the national news today noting that the husband of the former Congressman is not eligible to collect a federal annuity as a spouse would be able to do if the couple was a man and a woman. That is not a surprise to most readers who took our recent poll and who already knew that employee benefits of federal employees do not extend to domestic partners.

One report referred to the former Congressman as "blazingly articulate" and "widely respected by members of both parties." He went on to increasingly responsible positions in Congress and served in Congress. The Washington Post saw "something noble in Rep. Studds’ public admission" of being gay . He was cited by other leading politicians as a "role model" and giving people courage to come out of the closet.

One man who had a relationship with an underage male page working for Congress is being praised and remembered as a hero by some. He is also being used as a political tool to try and extend federal employee benefits to domestic partners.

Another man who sent inappropriate e-mail to an underage male page is disgraced and rebuked and clearly will not be appearing on the campaign trail for any candidate or coming back to Congress.

Why is one man a role model and a hero and the other man a disgrace? The distinction seems elusive. One obvious possibility is that the wave of publicity in all instances is just politics shrouded in noble rhetoric. All interested parties see a potential gain in making a person a hero or a disgrace.

No doubt, there are other distinctions to be made. For some, it reflects our increasingly complex society and, perhaps, a lack of consistency or principles that will make some more cynical and less civil in our political life.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47