Friday, January 23, 2009

A Lesson in Politics

Tuesday was a red-letter day for me in many ways. I saw the good in some people assuming leadership of our country, while I saw others in charge of our community watch their political clout fall apart like falling dominoes. I’ve spent a few days trying to figure out how to write about it, and this is probably the twentieth draft I’ve come up with, but that’s how significant I consider what happened.

While the country focused on Barack Obama becoming our 44th President, Portland became embroiled in scandal as our current mayor, Sam Adams, admitted to having a relationship with an 18 year old man he had been mentoring, and they had met when he was 17. Adams had denied any wrongdoing up until Tuesday, even saying that allegations of misconduct were grossly exaggerated because the relationship was platonic. However, Willamette Week, a local alternative newspaper in Portland, presented new evidence earlier in the week and they were ready to go to press on Wednesday to break the news that Adams had indeed lied. Before that happened, Adams changed his story and even admitted that he had asked the boy to lie about the situation if asked. The past few days have seen a crazy media frenzy, web posts calling for support or resignation, and a near paralysis of city government.

As I read through and listened to Obama’s speeches on Tuesday, his demeanor, language choice, and composure struck me in giving a speech of that much significance. The first African American taking office as the President, and he showed mettle that even I didn’t believe he had. He basically admitted that as a country, we’ve lost our way and it’s not going to be easy to get back on course. Some of our allies don’t like us very much, the parts of the world that want us to suffer have grown over the past 8 years, our credit rating and reputation around the world have sunk to new lows, and everyone, business and personal included, are struggling to make ends meet. Getting out of this mess won’t be easy at all, and yet, his words filled me with optimism and hope. I know things are pretty bad right now, it’s hard not to pick up a newspaper or watch a newscast and not see the reports of job layoffs and, bad economic news, and come to the conclusion things are OK, unless your math skills are suspect. What Obama showed more than anything was true leadership, saying that while things are bad, they can get better and I will do what I can to make that happen. It won’t be easy, because there are obstacles in the way, and our choices will involve short term pain and suffering, but we must go through this to realize the end success. It was an incredible honest and forthright display, and one that makes me proud to have this guy as my President. He’s not Black, he’s not African American, he’s the President, and I am ready to see what he will do during his presidency. So far, closing Guantanamo Bay prison and freezing salaries of some White House staff is a good start, and agreeing not to torture prisoners I think adds some icing to the cake.

What our previous President failed to realize what that the rules apply to everyone, including himself, and his various decisions about the War, corporate oversight, torture, and diplomacy as a whole were all grossly wrong. Hindsight will do that to some people, but until the very end, there was no admission of guilt, no real regrets until it was towards the very end when he admitted, “we probably shouldn’t have declared victory when the job wasn’t done.” It was a surprising admission, but I think received entirely too late, because the damage was already done.

Which bring me to the tale of Sam Adams. The depth of this story is becoming very clear over the past few days, as the general timeframe and events are being put together. He met the teenager, who was an aide of a State Senator and agreed to mentor him. In spending time together, they grew fond of each other, and apparently, they hooked up after he turned 18. They have remained in some contact, but nothing more since then. When asked about the boy, Adams said the relationship was above board, and he was simply mentoring him because he was struggling with coming out. The allegations never went any further until recently, when Adams was forced to admit the true nature of the relationship and admit that not only did they have sex, but that he asked him to cover it up. This information, had it been known before the election last year, probably would have affected the voting, but we don’t know for sure. One of the reporters from the Mercury, another alternative newspaper, became a sustainability chief for Adams recently, despite questions about her background and the fact that she was the main investigator for their publication into this story when she was a reporter. Oregon’s Attorney General has indicated he’ll investigate the situation to see if there was any wrongdoing, and Adams hasn’t decided whether he’ll resign or fight, but the entire situation is a true mess. There's even been talk of a recall happening later this year. If you read the various links I’ve posted, you can see that this is one truly messed up situation.

From my own experience, I’ve mentored young people from my university, and I think the idea is one of the best gifts you can give a young person. I don’t think anyone in college can fathom what it is like in the working world, and having someone guide you through the trials can be a wonderful thing. But then again, most of the mentees are high school or college aged, and so they may be naïve to how things really work. Some of my mentees were female and attractive, but I was more struck by their talent and desire to succeed, and I didn’t view them in any other way but as a person asking me for help. I’m also reminded of their age when girl and I recently attended a Portland State football game, and I was caught staring at the cheerleaders, and girl pronounced to me, “Hey, you are old enough to be their father!” The staring immediately stopped, and I sat there, embarrassed at my gawking.

But then again, I’m a straight male. The whole issue here is dealing with a gay mayor and a gay young male. Things work a lot differently in that world, as I have learned in talking with some of my friends who happen to be gay. Hookups happen a lot, and it’s nothing for them to have one night stands with random folks, much like what you might see in any other bar anywhere in the world. People meet up and sometimes they have sex, right after they meet. It happens, and there’s not a whole lot that people offended by that can do. The best hope you can do for children about sex is to educate them on the dangers, and hope they make the right choice. Needless to say, I’ve made some smart choices, and some rather dumb choices, but nothing bad has happened. I consider myself lucky in that respect.

I’m not a public figure, though, I’m a guy living in Portland with my wife and cats. My background matters to her, my employer, but I don’t have to face the intense scrutiny that folks in the public eye face daily. There isn’t a whole lot of things that are considered taboo anymore, and so anyone interested in politics should prepare themselves to have their private life ripped apart, examined to no end, and then put out on display for all to see. It’s a tough existence, and I applaud anyone with the stomach to actually put up with the process. But we’ve made this process ourselves, by allowing quick snap judgments to determine a candidate’s likeability, and information can be distorted in efficient 30 second snippets. That happens when people allow single issues to determine their thoughts about potential candidates, or voters don’t take the time to actually read and try to understand the issues at hand, so they choose either not to vote or vote based on the quick snippets. Trust me, you can do some effective damage with simple, short ads. Just look back at the Smith - Merkely campaign for Senate, and watch the carnage from that campaign, as both sides took shot after shot, and in the end, Merkely was left standing, barely.

I can understand why Sam Adams chose to bend the truth when asked, because he felt like the alternative would be distorted and lessen his chances of winning. But he also had a chance to do something truly noble that day, and not play the game of politics like everyone else, and instead he answered a political question, albeit a risky one, with an even riskier political answer. I’d expect someone with 20 years of experience in politics to take that tact, and personally, the part about him having sex with the boy doesn’t bug me. As far as we know, it was an act between two consenting adults, and it’s none of my business. Things like this happen all the time, but in this case, it’s a public figure involved and he originally told a lie to cover it the facts.

We expect our leaders to perform with integrity and humility, and what Sam Adams did shows neither. He should have displayed the tenacity to live with the truth, and let things fall where they may, but he didn’t. And now, the city waits to see what happens next. Selfishly, I really want MLS to come to town, and Adams is a major proponent to this idea, and now I’m not sure of it’s future with this. While we have the desire and passion, there isn’t a true political heavyweight involved with this if Adams resigns. And for something like this, you have to have someone with the foresight, integrity and ingenuity to make it work, and while Adams has two of the three, the integrity is now called into question.

But does that mean he won’t be a good mayor and he can’t get past this? Absolutely not, which is why I am hoping he remains in office long enough for the facts to come out and the investigation to be completed. People make mistakes, and part of showing integrity is admitting to an error in judgment and then doing everything possible to restore people’s confidence. Politicians are human, and I think anyone that expects them to be completely without baggage is just being unrealistic. I don’t even think Gandhi or Jesus could survive some of the true attacks that some people have endured running for office. But true leadership means standing up and taking responsibility for what you’ve done, and I’m hoping that he does that, for the good of the city. Running way now just makes things worse for everyone.

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