Archives for the month of: April, 2004

Often, when we think of career-ending ethical lapses, brash young people come to mind. We think of people such as Nick Leeson, the Barings Bank rogue trader who single handedly brought down England’s oldest financial institution. Or Jayson Blair, the relatively young reporter on the rise at the New York Times, who fabricated stories and the details surrounding them.

Confining such ethical gaffes to kids makes it easy to chalk them up to irrational, youthful exuberance. They got ahead of themselves. They became drunk with newfound power. They didn’t have the maturity age and experience brings. Like Icarus, they flew too close to the sun, and their wax wings melted.

But, just as often, it’s those with experience, the lions in their fields, who make the most egregious moves. People, like Daedalus, father of Icarus, who warned him against flying so high, who should know better. Like Joseph Ellis, tenured professor who fabricated his own past so as to make it better teaching material. Like Pete Rose, who seems not yet to have understood why he shouldn’t have gambled on baseball while managing a team.

Like a recent erstwhile Daedalus, Darleen Druyun.

Druyun is the former Boeing executive who joined that firm in January 2003 after a many-years-long stint as a top procurement official for the Air Force. In that role, she oversaw huge airplane contracts, including the C-130 cargo plane. It was her leadership that placed a questionable lease agreement on the table whereby the government would lease instead of buy a number of mid-air-refueling-capable tankers from Boeing — probably a bad deal for the government, surely a good deal for Boeing.

While she was serving as the government’s top negotiator with the defense behemoth, Druyun’s daughter, Heather McKee (a Boeing employee who had gotten her job through string-pulling by her mother), sent encrypted e-mails on her behalf to company officials, letting them know her mom was planning to retire. It’s not clear whether her mom put her up to it or not. Regardless, McKee’s e-mails put Druyun in play by indicating that, while she was considering going to work for competitor Lockheed Martin, she was still open to offers.

It is difficult to imagine a better example of wrong behavior from an official who supposedly holds the public’s trust. This story has it all: self-dealing, clandestine arrangements, nepotism, and big bucks at stake. It also has a huge dollop of cynicism wrapped in sanctimony.

McKee’s e-mail pitching her mom’s employment pointed out that Druyun was particularly fond of Boeing because the company “has her most admired quality: honest values.”

The same honest values, one wonders, that encouraged McKee to realize she ought to encrypt her e-mails? The same honest values that urged senior Boeing executives to take a private plane to Orlando for a secret job meeting with Druyun, where the deal was offered and then the hackneyed “this meeting really didn’t take place” was uttered? Or, is it possibly the sort of honest values that caused Druyun to think that, after getting the lucrative job offer, that she didn’t need to recuse herself from Boeing-related negotiations until two months later?

This week, Druyun has tearfully admitted all. It is indeed a tragedy. Druyun had a long and distinguished career, having won awards and developed a reputation for passion and scrupulousness. What seems clear from the chain of events and how they are discussed is that, throughout the saga, Druyun never doubted her own morality. And so, it is easy to scapegoat her.

It is difficult, on the other hand, to face the lesson her story has for the rest of us. But Druyun’s temptations are not so different than those of anyone who makes decisions on behalf of others, who has a family, and who would like a new job — not so different, in other words, than many of us who ordinarily feel satisfied that our own ethical houses are in order. We have honest values and admire honest values, therefore our actions, we feel, must be based in honest values. But, ethics consists of what we do when people aren’t looking, when it seems possible to get away with things. Previously a faceless bureaucrat, Darleen Druyun now has the limelight, and the insufficiency of just having “honest values” is on display for all to see.

So many of us act without thinking, assured of our own morality because our intentions are good, and our hearts are in the right place. But, how do we know? Darleen Druyun did not, and while her own contrition now seems very real, the damage she has done to her former agency and former company will not be undone anytime soon.

Daedalus, worry not about Icarus, but look to your own flight.

(From the April 5, 2004 edition of The Christian Science Monitor)

If you’re someone who believes the right wing has more “opinion leader” outlets than it can shake a stick at, and that the left has done a dismal job of keeping up, these are heady times indeed. The new “liberal radio station,” Air America, is up and running with Al Franken as the marquee draw. Former Clinton White House official John Podesta has gotten the new “liberal think tank,” the Center for American Progress (CAP), off the ground.

Meanwhile, former vice president Al Gore is rumored to be near a deal to establish a liberal cable channel.

These efforts are designed to combat the many conservative talk-radio stations, conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and conservative TV news outlets such as Fox News Channel.

But the new organizations all suffer from the same problems. They are all in danger of failing to do what they claim they want to do: become “antidotes” to right-wing thought.

Why?

* They’re too negative. Each of these outlets (save the cable channel, which does not yet exist) defines itself by what it opposes or what it is not. Air America says, “The right has had its say for the last three years.” CAP says, “Every day we challenge conservative thinking that undermines the bedrock American values of liberty, community, and shared responsibility.”

* They’re too stereotypical. Both Air America and CAP behave like the right’s caricature of the left. In an environment in which non-Republicans are having their patriotism questioned, does Air America really need to offer a morning drive show called “Morning Sedition?” It just confirms the suspicions of the skeptics and further marginalizes the left.

* They’re too gleeful. CAP is designed to be (and billed as) a think tank, offering concrete policies and ideas that are essentially progressive. But think tanks work and are listened to because, while they take an ideological stance, it is typically not overtly political. But CAP seems to revel in playing electoral politics. Someone discovered some private notes and memos of a Bush administration staffer, and CAP has, for days now, been enthusiastically posting them and commenting on them. Its website reads more like a campaign site than it does a source of information.

If the desire is to offer red meat to the faithful, this strategy may work well. But, to win the hearts and minds of undecided America, they are far, far from where they need to be.

Think about Fox News Channel’s infamous motto, “Fair and Balanced.” It promises something that a broad swath of Americans feel they lack: balanced news coverage. Certainly conservatives believe themselves to be shut out of the opinionmaking industry, and will gravitate to such slogans, but in addition, most of America sees no place for themselves in public discourse. Fox’s motto speaks to them, too … and so the network picks up adherents; people begin to look to Fox as an information source.

Meanwhile, the new Air America focuses on not being Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. If a listener is vacillating, or just feeling fed up with what he hears, he’s not going to seek out information from sources as polarized as these. But maybe he will if he wants propaganda, or only to hear opinions he agrees with.

But if a listener’s heart or mind is ready to be won over by an alternative to the anger and vitriol seen on the right, these new left outlets will turn him off just as much, if not more so. He’ll end the day even more shut out than when it began, because of these frantic efforts to achieve partisan parity.

And so, where are we to look for a public voice that is truly balanced, is not trying to sell, and is not spinning the truth?

I’ve yet to discover it.

[(c) 2004 Christian Science Monitor. Used with permission.]