In Shakespeare’s Macbeth King Duncan reports the execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor with words that epitomize the meaning of the phrase “a backhanded compliment”:
I have spoken with one that say him die, who did report that very frankly he confessed his treasons, implored your highness’ pardon, and set forth a deep repentance. Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it. He died as one that had been studied in his death to throw away the dearest thin he owed as ‘twere a cureless trifle.
This passage came to my mind today as I was reading reports of President Trump’s decisions to purge FBI director James Comey from his Administration. The key sentence would have to be rephrased, however to read “Nothing in his tenure of office was so unbecoming as the manner of his leaving it.” President Trump acted to discard the FBI director as though it were a trifling matter. Many are pointing out that, given the circumstances this was not appropriate. They focus on the fact that, in the ‘midst of the Congressional inquiries into the Trump team’s possibly prejudicial ties to Russian interests, it could be construed as a defensive maneuver, intended to disrupt their progress.
Whatever partisan passions influence some folks to do, at the moment most members of the general public, including me, are hardly in a position to reach reliable conclusions about such speculations. In fairness to President Trump we should refrain from doing so. But I have always believed that in matters that may involve “injuries done immediately to the society itself” (as Hamilton puts it, Federalist #65), the salient consideration has to be fairness to the sovereign body of the American people, and preserving the Constitution that implements their self-government.
Jealous as they were of the existence and reserved power of the State governments, Americans of the Founding era were deeply suspicious of what they called “standing armies” controlled by the national government. They thought that, in the history of republican governments, such armed forces had always proved dangerous to liberty. This wariness persisted into the twentieth century. Though we think of the FBI as a law enforcement agency, it is, in fact, a national armed force, empowered to act domestically against suspected persons (both human and corporate.) The history of egregiously destructive abuses by communist and other dictatorial regimes, updated the American wariness about a national police force susceptible to inordinate personal or partisan loyalty and abuse.
The long tenure of the FBI Director (10 years), as well as attentive congressional oversight of its activities, reflect this wariness. It was also a lively concern for many of the conservatives who reacted against Barack Obama’s desire to see a “civilian national security force” as large and well equipped” as the military. Since the terrorist assault in 2001, they have also been concerned about the relaxation of respect for Constitutional provisions protecting persons and property under the jurisdiction of the United States, as well as due process of law.
Given these concerns, it has been considered important that the head of the FBI be, and be seen to be, a servant of the Constitution and laws of the United States, capable of pursuing facts and culprits according to the law, without fear or favor. Americans detest the idea of some KGB or Gestapo style state security force, banging down doors in the middle of the night to cart people off for interrogation and detention at the behest of servants of the state, whether the abusive power involved is wielded by some dictatorial Party chairman, some nationalistic Fuehrer or a popularly elected President.
Abuses by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, that came to light after his death, led to changes intended to prevent the agency’s Director from accumulating inordinate personal power. There is obviously no way to guarantee in every respect against such abuses. Formally assuring the President’s lawful power to dismiss the Director, without lengthy proceedings, contributes to that aim. But the use of that formal power has been hedged about with an informal understanding that it will be exercised with care, in respect of the role that the representatives of the people are constitutionally obliged to perform in the oversight of the agency’s operations.
In a sense that informal expectation is a matter of good manners—the expectation that the President will take care to safeguard the public trust that requires the FBI to be free of any taint of partisan, or even Presidentially self-serving, motives. So, this leads to an expectation concerning the manner of an FBI Director’s dismissal, such that, though the Director can, in extremis, be dismissed for no stated cause but the President’s displeasure; in practice the grounds for dismissal will be made available, as appropriate, to members of Congress; and, if national security concerns do not militate against it, to the citizens at large.
During the course of his Presidential campaign, candidate Trump did not work to develop a reputation for politeness. His straightforward, and sometimes even insulting rhetoric appealed to a constituency impatient with the pretense of propriety politicians use to mask cronyism, political cowardice and corruption. But once the election season ends, a President’s first priority ought to be to re-establish the environment for political discourse and activity that best serves the people as a whole, whom the Presidential office is, above all others, supposed to represent. His conduct ought to invite Americans to respect their shared responsibility as citizens. The sense of obligation to the public good arising from that responsibility ought to be a common ground of unity for the whole citizen body.
The word politeness is rooted in the ancient Greek word for citizen. It has a connotation of civility, or respectful conduct, because citizens are not supposed to treat one another with indifference, as strangers; or simply with hostility, as enemies. They are supposed to treat one another as friends, engaging with mutual respect in the activity that preserves the sovereign self-government they are supposed to exercise as a body. The way we conduct ourselves in civil life; and especially the way our representatives conduct themselves in office, ought to reflect that supposition.
For what is a constitution, after all? It is a framework for the way government is to proceed; and the manner in which its affairs are to be conducted. So, getting things done is not the only thing that matters. How they are done is also critical. The provisions of the Constitution should discipline all the activities our government undertakes. But the mind and heart needed conscientiously to maintain that discipline cannot be dictated. It must become a matter of habit, so that respect for the manner in which official duties are performed reflects the mentality, spirit, and outward demeanor with which the business of a free people is conducted. Even if President Trump’s abrupt dismissal of Director Comey did not arise from any blameworthy self-interest, it smacks of an unruly disregard for this requisite mentality and spirit. It was so unbecoming the civility of a free people that it raises doubts about what is becoming of this one. We must pray that he will study to act, in future, in a manner that dispels this question in a positive way.