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Living In A Community Means Politicians Having The Courage To Take Media And Citizen Questions

Every elected leader faces a choice: tell the truth and do what's right for country and civility or deepen the divide


President Trump gave Congresswoman Liz Cheney a pen after he signed an executive order removing regulations pertaining to coal and proclaimed that he would revive the coal industry in America. That hasn't happened—the coal market is plunging due to a glut of natural gas. Both the President and U.S. Rep. Cheney claim that human-caused climate change is based on "junk science" but they've provided no evidence, capable of withstanding scrutiny, to back it up.  Photo courtesy The White House
President Trump gave Congresswoman Liz Cheney a pen after he signed an executive order removing regulations pertaining to coal and proclaimed that he would revive the coal industry in America. That hasn't happened—the coal market is plunging due to a glut of natural gas. Both the President and U.S. Rep. Cheney claim that human-caused climate change is based on "junk science" but they've provided no evidence, capable of withstanding scrutiny, to back it up. Photo courtesy The White House
“One of the key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace, good people don’t go into government.” —President Donald Trump

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney has a home in the Jackson Hole hamlet of Wilson, a delightful community where I once lived and which is known for its eclectic mix of smart, talented, engaged and opinionated people. She isn’t the only federal elected official to claim Greater Yellowstone as her permanent residence. 

In Montana, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte have homes in Bozeman. Among the retired ranks of federal legislators, there’s former U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson in Cody, former Vice President and U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney in Jackson Hole and former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in Bozeman, plus a wider array of noted politicians who own vacation places in the region. 

But back, now, to Ms. Cheney. When one is an elected public official, a traditional part of the unspoken job description is listening to constituents—not walling oneself off in an echo chamber of praise and affirmation; rather, hearing the concerns of citizens you represent and that includes looking them in the eye. 

Whether Congresswoman Cheney was a Democrat or Republican doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. 

American-style retail politics is the art of elected officials mixing it up with real people who go to the polls, and for those holding higher office, defending one’s positions by having them subjected to scrutiny from citizens and the media. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. 

A Jedi master in the art of rhetorical pugilism, Al Simpson has his own inventive language of zingers for dealing with the media, particularly when we pose irritating questions. But Simpson has never shied away from confrontation. In fact, he’ll tell you over and over again that politics ain’t bean bag. If you’re willing to run for—and hold—an elected office, he says, then you owe it to citizens to field their tough questions that may make you uncomfortable or possibly even reconsider your point of view. 

In recent years, coinciding with the raucous rise of the Tea Party, Republicans in the red state West have resorted to a new method of interacting with citizens. Town hall forums, held infrequently, are often conducted remotely via digital call-in on lap tops, cell phones and iPads. They are based on the premise that a politician in a rural state can reach more people, yet critics say they’ve become instruments for deflection, evading inquiries and they allow politicians to not have to deal with a discerning, non-meek media. Issuing press releases do not suffice.

In earlier days of journalism, no reporter worth her or his salt would accept a written statement—that easily could have been crafted by a PR person—and call that adequate. 

In Congresswoman Cheney’s case, asking her to explain why she claims the evidence of human-caused climate change is based upon “junk science” is a reasonable question. Specifically, what does she know that most of the most distinguished scientific professionals associated with the National Academies of Sciences allegedly do not? 

For that matter, this inquiry could be posed to all members of the Congressional Delegations in the three states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. What special proof do they possess that effectively refutes the National Academy’s increasingly resolute position is worth knowing since those legislators are making important policy decisions based upon their rejection of science. 

It's also insane and whacky to say the National Academies is captive to the Left, that scientists are pushing a ruse of human-caused climate change to earn their salaries and that "the media" is a ready accomplice.  Plus, contrary to the claims made by Congresswoman Cheney that Wyoming's coal industry downfall was caused by "a war on coal waged by radical environmentalists," prominent policy analysts note it is owed to a glut of cheap natural gas flooding the market and consumers demanding alternatives to burning coal as a power source.  Still, she and the President continue to peddle a fiction.

It’s simply unacceptable for an elected official to believe that if they disagree with science because its conclusions undercut their thinking and the interests of their campaign contributors they can, therefore, declare them invalid without debate. How convenient, too, to attack media as a ploy to duck answering questions. The media doesn't cause anyone to not tell the truth.
It’s simply unacceptable for an elected official to believe that if they disagree with science because its conclusions undercut their thinking and the interests of their campaign contributors they can, therefore, declare them invalid without debate. How convenient, too, to attack media as a ploy to duck answering questions. The media doesn't cause anyone to not tell the truth.
In the old days before the advent of cell phones when I was a young journalist in Jackson Hole, evasion was not a tactic employed by Congresswoman Cheney’s father, Dick Cheney, who held the same seat she currently occupies. On several occasions, Mr. Cheney’s press secretary Pete Williams, (today a legal expert who covers the Supreme Court for the national network NBC) would invite the media to meet with Cheney and it happened with every member of Wyoming’s Congressional Delegation who passed through town. 

I interviewed Mr. Cheney, former U.S. senators Simpson and the late Malcolm Wallop and Craig Thomas that way; similar kinds of engagement happened with governors Mike Sullivan, Jim Geringer and Dave Freudenthal. And, in Montana, they occurred with Senator Baucus, the late Senator Conrad Burns and Congressmen Pat Williams (Democrat), Ron Marlenee, Denny Rehberg and Rick Hill  (Republicans) as well as governors Schweitzer and Bullock (Democrats) and Republicans Marc Racicot and Judy Martz (both Republicans). 

All of the above were not afraid to hold regular press conferences, converse with reporters one on one and, most importantly, appear live before their constituents, even before crowds that might not treat their appearance as a political pep rally. 

What changed? Besides listening to political advisors telling them to evade press scrutiny (and, relatedly, by not getting relentlessly called out on it by the media), Ms. Cheney’s attitude appears to be that her pronouncements are beyond scrutiny.
What does an undeniable patriot say? Retired Four-star Army General Barry McCaffrey, a top military commander in the Persian Gulf War. recently wrote this tweet. McCaffrey received three Purple Heart medals, two Silver Stars and and two Distinguished Service Crosses for his combat duty in Vietnam.  He was highly respected as a leader during the Presidential administrations of George H. W. Bush (who enlisted Dick Cheney to serve as Defense Secretary) and Bill Clinton.
What does an undeniable patriot say? Retired Four-star Army General Barry McCaffrey, a top military commander in the Persian Gulf War. recently wrote this tweet. McCaffrey received three Purple Heart medals, two Silver Stars and and two Distinguished Service Crosses for his combat duty in Vietnam. He was highly respected as a leader during the Presidential administrations of George H. W. Bush (who enlisted Dick Cheney to serve as Defense Secretary) and Bill Clinton.
 It isn’t just U.S. Rep. Cheney refusing to hold a real no-holds barred local press conference in Jackson Hole where she says she holds permanent residence and whose youthful staffers treat media questions with aversion or hide behind written statements. Up north, in Montana, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte (both Republicans who worked together at a tech company in Bozeman and became multi-millionaires when the company sold) have adopted the same strategy of evasion. 

Yes, if you remember, Congressman Gianforte attracted national attention—and he even received plaudits from the current President of the United States at a political rally in Missoula—for body slamming a journalist from The Guardian who asked him questions he didn’t like about health care. Gianforte pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, but, notably, only after his staff claimed the incident didn't happen and eyewitnesses stepped forward to refute their portrayal of alternative reality. 

Daines and Gianforte have touted their close friendships with the President and Mr. Trump considers them among his most loyal political defenders. 
One question I would pose to them, as men who identify as staunch Christians, is imagine if a Democrat were to behave as President Trump has, insulting rivals (including in his case, fellow members of his own party and respected military generals) with childish name-calling, declaring Americans he doesn’t like to be enemies, making thousands of claims that do not pass fact-checking muster, conducting foreign policy the impetuous way he has, evading release of his taxes, dismissing the gravity of Russian interference in our elections and exhibiting unprecedented unstatesmanlike conduct using this thumbs, not his brain, on Twitter. 

Is it really worth it staking their personal reputations forever by making excuses for a person who has violated every virtuous code of honor associated with the office?

Democrats must be held to account, too, the same as Republicans. But does a politically–driven loathing of Hillary Clinton justify the condoning of the President’s crass behavior? If they answer yes, I would ask them, then what does it mean for the future of our country and democracy? This is an important question and their answers would reveal much about their character. Moreover, what message does such action send to impressionable young people? 
President Trump and one of his most stalwart defenders, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana. No matter what Trump's actions, tweets or questionable conduct that critics say violates the decorum of the presidency, Daines has refused to hold town hall meetings with constituents in his home town and defiantly suggests that the President can do nothing wrong.
President Trump and one of his most stalwart defenders, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana. No matter what Trump's actions, tweets or questionable conduct that critics say violates the decorum of the presidency, Daines has refused to hold town hall meetings with constituents in his home town and defiantly suggests that the President can do nothing wrong.
In October, The White House announced that it was cancelling its subscriptions to
The New York Times and The Washington Post  and may seek to have the subscriptions of those newspapers cancelled for all agencies in the U.S. government. This followed a story in The Washington Post that noted in Trump's first 993 days of office, fact-checkers found him to have made 13,435 false or misleading claims, illustrating his unmatched serial propensity for communicating untruths. The President first revealed that he would prohibit The New York Times from being delivered to the door at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Fox's The Sean Hannity Show. 

This is what totalitarian regimes, the kind that the U.S. has long condemned, do. The First Amendment of the Constitution—free speech and freedom of the press—only seems to hold validity for the President if it agreeably serves his interests and fans his ego.  

The President, who struggles to accurately recall history, often compares himself to George Washington. Has he forgotten that part of President Washington's legend, ingrained in generations of Americans at the grade-school level, was his demonstration of virtue by avowing he "could not tell a lie."

Again, what does such sycophantish doting by his defenders mean for the future of our country and for democracy? What civic lessons are we teaching our children?  Since misters Daines and Gianforte flaunt their faiths as Christians, can they honestly claim, before God, that Jesus the peacemaker would abide the lying and unChristlike conduct of the President? Both political parties are better than this.
Again, what does such sycophantish doting by his defenders mean for the future of our country and for democracy? What civic lessons are we teaching our children? Since misters Daines and Gianforte flaunt their faiths as Christians, can they honestly claim, before God, that Jesus would abide the lying and unChristlike conduct of the President? Both political parties are better than this.
Lots of people talk about the ill-effects of tribal divisiveness in our society, the need for more civility in our daily lives and comity expressed between politicians in state capitals and on Capitol Hill. 

At the University of Wyoming, the Haub School of Natural Resources and the Ruckelshaus Institute have held a series of events focused on the problem of incivility and the need for more respectful behavior. 

The essence of community, however, is not only about being supportive of neighbors and citizens in times of need, it is seeing people different from us as more than a party affiliation, religious denomination, occupation, gender, race, or background. Just as democracy must be fiercely guarded against undemocratic actions, so too civility from degrading acts of incivility that presently are condoned to play out unchallenged.

We are past the point where the latter can be easily remedied by politely requesting that elected officials please refrain from demonization and scapegoating, be it their political opponents, the media or even members of other religions. Part of the blame stems from retired politicians—true former statesmen and women— who apparently do not have the courage to call out their own publicly even as they complain about it under their breath. 

The community we want, need and deserve must be built upon insisting that elected officials be held to account for their words and actions. 

There are a lot of questions that I, along with my media colleagues in Jackson Hole and Bozeman, would like to pose to U.S. Reps. Cheney and Gianforte and U.S. Sens. Daines, Barrasso and Enzi. Not only are the first three especially dodgy when it comes to evading media, but they won’t even answer requests for interviews nor stand before constituents who disagree with them. What good is a politician who can’t stand the heat? 

How can there be community, based on the principles of representative democracy if the very human exponents of it are not devoted to total transparency? What does it say about the soundness of their convictions if they cannot defend their own statements which, in turn, raise many important questions that demand answers their constituents deserve to know? Another question: what good is any media outlet that doesn’t hold elected officials to account? 

The media isn't perfect nor should it be beyond justifiable criticism. Nor are politicians. Nor political parties. Nor citizens. The Obama Administration certainly did not behave saintly or always cordially in its dealings with the media.

But if Barack Obama had the guts to be grilled by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, then one would think the fiery Liz Cheney, Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte possess the chops to tangle with a few bumpkin reporters in the boondocks of the West. Or maybe all they can handle is bean bag?

Below are two eulogies delivered by politicians—Simpson and Obama— for friends President George H. W. Bush and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings who served on different sides of the aisle. Each is a reminder of what the tenor in Washington and in our communities ought to be. There's a lot those presently serving in office could learn from listening to their words. 

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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