During the Watergate fiasco, one interview stamped itself on my memory. Larry O’Brien was the national chairman of the Democratic Party, and it was his office that was broken into my Richard Nixon’s “plumbers.” O’Brien had a long political career in Massachusetts which concluded with his appointment as the manager for both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaigns. Johnson had rewarded him with an appointment as U. S. Postmaster General. While Nixon’s men scrambled to escape the tightening noose of Congressional investigations and impeachment subpoenas they engaged in an unseemly display of finger pointing as they tried to heave one another beneath a tsunami of criminal indictments.
O’Brien was asked what would have happened if a similar disgrace had unfolded in the Kennedy White House where he served. His reply was enlightening. He said, “Six Irishmen, myself included, would have marched onto Pennsylvania Avenue and thrown ourselves on our swords and that’s the last you would have ever heard about it.” He went on to explain that these willing volunteers would have served out their federal prison sentences in silence, and none would have yammered on or written books about who was responsible, who was to blame. This scenario stands in stark contrast with the criminal scrambling to cover their tracks evidenced by Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Liddy, Dean, Mitchell and others.
I’ve often wondered why President Nixon couldn’t command the kind of loyalty from his personal staff that O’Brien was alluding to. Certainly part of it can be attributed to his prickly personality and paranoid impulses. He was not a warm and fuzzy guy. Even his friends didn’t particularly like him, as their memoirs would later recount. Perhaps the more significant factor was an unremarked change that overtook American politics during the 1970s. Elected officials became wary of surrounding themselves with friends and loyalists. In a post-Watergate world, it smacked of cronyism. Newly minted executives, from mayors to presidents, began to appoint transition teams charged with identifying the “best qualified” applicants to serve in their administrations. Cabinets were stuffed with very bright resumé jockeys who had little or no political experience and even less commitment to the policy priorities of their newfound bosses. This has frequently proven disastrous. Without a rooted sense of place or a familiarity with local history, and no appreciation for the unique character of political dynamics, their smarts rarely prevent them from blundering into messes that embarrass everyone.
Term limits have only exacerbated this problem. Few politicians are afforded the years required to accurately assess the strengths and weaknesses of their colleagues. Nor are they able to gradually assemble a cohort of like-minded and loyal compatriots. Instead, an ‘every man and woman for themselves’ imperative has produced a defensive mindset that keeps all others at arms length just in case they unexpectedly implode. Representative Laura Bradford’s recent treatment at the hands of her own leadership provides a case in point. Presumably, she originally received her committee chairmanship because she supported Speaker Frank McNulty in his leadership election.
Whatever transpired during her traffic stop in Denver, Bradford reasonably expected that she would be treated as innocent until proven guilty. And, if guilty, her leaders could or should have expected that she would acknowledge responsibility for her behavior, taking whatever actions, up to and including resignation, that were appropriate to the seriousness of her misbehavior, if any. However, none of this works without mutual trust. The Speaker, by his won admission, sacked Bradford as chair of the Local Government Committee before he had an opportunity to speak with her directly, responding instead to hearsay allegations — rumors that were swiftly refuted by the Denver Police Department. By then, a legislative ethics committee inquiry had been launched.
No one has emerged from this contretemps untarnished. Many public observers still believe that a politician received deferential treatment, while Denver Police find themselves embroiled in an internal investigation to determine whether its officers initially misrepresented the incident and the Speaker has found it expedient to reinstate the Grand Junction legislator to her post. At the end of the day, this entire affair has proven a tempest in a teapot over nothing more than a routine traffic violation. We will never know whether there was actually more to it.
The Speaker would have been well advised if he had refused to comment, much less taken precipitous action, until he had confirmed all the facts. In the meanwhile, he should have expressed his personal confidence in Representative Bradford, who is generally regarded by her colleagues on both sides of the aisle as an earnest and hard working legislator. Instead, his decision to prove himself a quick-to-respond, ‘tough on crime’ disciplinarian has backfired to the considerable embarrassment of all concerned. You can’t help wondering how long troops can remain loyal to a leader who evidences little apparent loyalty towards them?
Contributing columnist Miller Hudson served in the Colorado House for two terms from 1979-1983.