Brian Williams vs. Nixon–who gets a second chance?

Today the Vatican clarified that the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis did not mean an endorsement.

That sure clears things up, doesn’t it!

Naivete isn’t something a Pope is normally accused of.  But his assent to meet with the county clerk from Kentucky who has refused to issue marriage licenses to gays surely qualifies.  It shows naivete about the way people see truth.  Those supporting Kim Davis saw the meeting as endorsing her actions.  Those NOT supporting her saw the meeting either as a bad idea or as merely supporting the broad principle of freedom of conscience.

And so we learn a truth about truth — we accept that part which supports our position; we reject the part we don’t like by mitigating it.

“Mitigating” means “lessening” something — making it smaller than it seems.   The word is rooted in “mite” — a tiny coin (as in the biblical story about the poor widow donating two mites).  Mitigating the truth means lessening its impact.

Those supporting Hillary Clinton mitigate the stuff about the e-mails.  Those opposing her raise it to the max as illustrative of everything “Hillary.”

Now — we have the case of Brian Williams.  The former anchor for NBC Nightly News fell from his high perch after being found to have exaggerated his role in some on-the-spot incidents in Iraq and fabricating his presence at Hurricane Katrina.  He was found out — and suspended.  Today he is back, but only in a tugboat.  He is doing some minor broadcasting on MSNBC rather than being returned to the “mother ship” — NBC Nightly News.

Those supporting him — like me — like to see somebody get a second chance.  Instantly, voices arise — “What about Richard Nixon?  No liberals wanted to give HIM a second chance.”

The cases are similar — both persons violated public trust.

The cases differ, however, in this way:  Nobody is VOTING for Brian Williams.  It’s an in-house decision by NBC.

In 1969, Richard Nixon did not came to Washington, D.C. with broad support.  He lost the popular vote — won the electoral vote.  He was always running below 50% approval as President right from the start.

He was impeached for trying to obstruct investigation into the illegal activities of his Committee to Re-elect the President (wire-taps, break-ins, payoff money…).

Personally, I don’t think it was enough to bring down a President.  Other Presidents did as much or worse if we’re talking moral lapses (John F. Kennedy), warping the Constitution (Franklin Roosevelt trying to pack the Supreme Court) or illegal moves (Harry Truman taking over Youngstown Sheet & Tube during a strike).

The impeachment of Nixon occurred in a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.  It was a Democratic coup d’état similar to the “Republican coup d’état” (in the words of Rep. John Conyers) when President Clinton was impeached for perjury about an affair.  And so we learn another truth about truth:  There is no such thing as THE truth.  Actions are highlighted or diminished according to those who have it in for you vs those who support you.  Your opponents regard one mistake as fatal.  Especially in politics, any little bit of information becomes bait for the feeding frenzy.  The “rush to resignation” is the easiest, cheapest call by any politician whenever an opponent makes a mistake.

Removing a President from office is such an earth-shaking move for the nation — it wasn’t worth the crisis it created.  If President Nixon had 60% support in the nation instead of under-50%, he would have survived and finished his term.

Even AFTER he resigned, he was relied upon (quietly) by succeeding Presidents for advice.  President Clinton spoke at Mr. Nixon’s funeral, crediting him for his “wise advice.”

Getting a second chance depends on how public are one’s mistakes, and how serious, and — frankly — whether anybody’s out to get you.

As a minister, I have learned — after a sermon — that one remark or another that I made was inaccurate.  The mistakes were pointed out by individuals who knew better, and I was all the more careful about my research.  Nobody ever made a big deal out of it.   But if there were individuals in the pews who had it in for me, I have no doubt they WOULD have made a big deal out of it.

Earlier, as a teenager, I was a professional journalist at the age of 15.  Mistakes that I made in a small-town newspaper could be overlooked.  In addition, the errors themselves were not front-page news.  I survived and learned.  Not long ago, a reporter for The New York Times was found to be fabricating stories.  HE was fired.

A second chance for THESE individuals would rest entirely with employers who know them well enough to trust them with a gift of grace.

It’s different, however, in politics.  A gift of grace is rarely given — if the opposition is in control.  Rather, a second chance has to be fought for — and only succeeds if supporters mitigate the mistakes.  The entire person is considered, and what one still has to offer.

Getting rid of a person entirely is a costly move when someone like Richard Nixon or Hillary Clinton or Brian Williams has accomplished so much and still has much to offer.

Martin Luther talked about how quickly people want to kick out others.  “There is a difference,” he said, “between changing government and improving government.”

People make mistakes.  People in power make mistakes proportional to their position.  The instant calls for resignation accomplish little.  They’re primarily part of the feeding frenzy.

I prefer that a public figure takes chastisement — learns from it — and proceeds.  It is precisely our blunders that make us better.  We know better than ever where the boundaries are, and the cost of crossing them.

In Judaism, there is a saying:  Next to someone who has done wrong but who has repented, not even a holy man can stand.





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