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Tell the Truth
The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.
In the weeks following President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, many of us felt like America was being torn in half. In response to the new president’s divisive policies and hurtful rhetoric, protest marches and demonstrations broke out, pundits screamed at one another on TV, and the “Resist” movement began gathering steam. People across the country demanded town hall–style meetings so they could tell their elected officials exactly where they thought our nation was headed. Some politicians agreed to face their constituents, but many refused, deciding it would be best to wait out the furor.
That February, I was scheduled to speak at an event for senior citizens in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The previous fall, I had been reelected by a comfortable margin, and now I was starting my third term as the U.S. representative for Maryland’s Sixth District. The event, which we’d scheduled months ago, was a workshop where seniors could get practical help and advice on topics such as Social Security and Medicare eligibility and programs. We hadn’t planned it as a town hall event, but because of the way things were going it had the potential to turn into one.
We were expecting about three hundred attendees and, given the topic and the particular location, I knew the audience would lean very liberal. I planned to open the workshop by telling the crowd about a bipartisan bill I was cosponsoring, which would set up a bipartisan commission aimed at extending the fiscal health of Social Security for seventy-five years, an issue that’s very important to me. The bill follows a model employed by Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in the early 1980s, when they successfully extended the fiscal health of Social Security for fifty years; since the passage of their bill, the poverty rate of seniors has been cut in half.
While my policy instincts are often considered progressive, my political instincts have always been bipartisan. I believe that my job as a member of Congress is to find the best ideas no matter where they reside, whether on the progressive or the conservative side or somewhere in between. I also strongly believe that legislation brought forth in a bipartisan way, with sponsors from both sides, has a better chance of succeeding in the short term and enduring in the long term.
During my second term, in fact, the independent site GovTrack.us ranked me as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, a designation I was proud of. Under normal circumstances, I’d be happy to tell any audience that fact, but these weren’t normal circumstances. Progressives were understandably furious with President Trump, and they certainly didn’t seem to be in the mood for working together.
Just before the event began, I turned to a member of my team. “Do you think it would be a mistake to talk about bipartisanship right now?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Probably best not to bring it up. This group wants you to be a partisan.”
Yet, as I stepped to the podium, that didn’t feel right. Yes, Donald Trump had been elected president, but that wasn’t going to stop me from working with the other side to get things done, so why should I pretend otherwise? Wasn’t it better to tell the truth, no matter the consequences?
I started my speech by talking about my bipartisan work on Social Security. Then I went straight to it, saying, “I was rated the third most bipartisan member of the Congress last year, by the way, by an independent group.”
I had no idea how the crowd would react to this news, but I didn’t expect what happened next: the entire audience erupted into applause. Apparently, this was exactly what this liberal group wanted to hear—and it was a great reminder that telling the truth about where you stand is always the best option.
* * *
My father, Jack Delaney, died in the summer of 2016, but if you had met him you would have understood immediately why I tend to prefer straight talk.
Dad was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, the son of a dockworker and a bighearted mother. He was proud of his Irish heritage, and he grew up scrapping and playing sports, eventually becoming a star high school football player in the town of Hasbrouck Heights. His high school sweetheart was a girl named Elaine, a pretty student at the rival high school who’d been named Miss Wood-Ridge of 1953. Elaine, too, was of Irish heritage, on her mother’s side, but her father, Al Rowe, was from England.
My parents married just after graduating high school in 1957. Rather than going to college, they went right to work. Dad joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as an electrician, a profession that provided him with a good living for sixty years. My mother was a bank teller at Wood-Ridge National Bank for a couple of years before giving birth to her first child, my sister, Diane. Four years later, in 1963, I was born, and the four of us lived in a Sears Roebuck house, the kind that people used to buy out of the Sears catalogue and have assembled on their little plots of land.
My father was a no-nonsense kind of guy—he had a strong handshake, liked his sports, enjoyed having a beer with his buddies. Every day, he’d get up before dawn, put on his usual uniform of work boots, jeans, and a T-shirt or flannel shirt, and then head out in his pickup truck to his current job site. Dad worked hard at his trade, and he taught my sister and me that same work ethic. He was also very good at his job: he became the foreman on some of the biggest projects in northern New Jersey, including overseeing much of the electrical work in the old Giants Stadium when it was constructed in the mid-1970s.
One of my favorite things to do as a boy was to go to work with him, riding in his pickup truck with the big toolbox in the back. He’d show me around the sites, teaching me the rudiments of the electrician’s trade and giving me small jobs to do. He showed my sister, Diane, and me the value of hard work. In fact, I can’t remember a time as a kid when I wasn’t working during breaks from school. I spent summers as a mason and excavation laborer, a painter, a landscaper, and most often as an electrician’s assistant, working side by side with my father.
Dad was the strongest person I knew, always winning arm-wrestling competitions in local bars and performing feats of strength for his buddies. He wasn’t a showboat, but he carried himself with pride and expected his fellow workers to treat him with respect. Usually they did. But one day, when I was about ten years old, I saw what happened when they didn’t.
That morning, a Saturday, we hopped in the pickup truck and Dad drove us to a sprawling industrial job site. The project was well under way, and my dad’s team had been running wires through the studs and installing hundreds of outlets. He wanted to check on their progress, but to his surprise he found carpenters installing Sheetrock on the walls.
My dad walked up to the foreman responsible for the carpenters. “What the hell is going on?” he asked. “You weren’t supposed to do this for another two weeks. You’ve covered up all my outlets; I can’t even find them.” The foreman shrugged and said, “Too bad, Jack. The Sheetrock came in early, and I told my guys to put it up. Your problem, not mine.”
At first, my dad just looked at him. Then he said, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to find the outlets myself.” Then I watched as he bent down, picked up a lump hammer, and smashed a hole into one of the walls. Then he smashed another, and another, each time saying, “Nope, no outlet here!” After he’d punched about a dozen holes in the freshly installed Sheetrock, the foreman took a swing at him, but Dad grabbed him by the shirt and knocked him to the ground with one punch. Just then, the project manager overseeing the whole job came running up. My dad turned to him, his eyes sparking with anger. “This is why you need union contractors,” my dad said. “We work together.”
My father worked hard and played hard, and he used to love going to the bar at the end of a long day on the job. He’d drink a few beers with his friends, an assortment of local electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and masons, and sometimes he stayed late enough that my mother would feel compelled to go get him. She’d bring me and my sister along, sending me into the bar to collect him as she sat outside in the car with the engine idling. I didn’t mind; I knew all his buddies. I’d go in and say hello, and they’d all greet me with “Hey, Johnny!” And sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d get to hang out for a few minutes with my dad and his friends while he finished up.
Dad was also industrious. As a young electrician, he used to collect small pieces of discarded copper wire, which he’d take home in his lunch pail. Most of the pieces were two or three inches long, very heavy gauge (about a half inch to an inch thick) and covered with a heavy rubber outer jacket insulation. For months, he would stack them in a growing pile in our basement. When the pile got to be about four feet high, he’d spend hours after work skinning the rubber jackets off the scraps of wire with a pocketknife. He’d stay up most of the night, and by the morning he’d have a pile of copper wire that we could sell by the pound. This was the early 1970s, when copper wire sold for about a dollar a pound, so we’d make several hundred dollars. The work was tedious and long, but I remember how proud I felt when he invited me to join him for this nighttime ritual.
My father’s strong work ethic made it possible for him and my mom to save enough money to buy a second house, a two-family unit that later produced rental income. The place was completely dilapidated when they purchased it, and some of the happiest memories I have as a boy were of spending weekends together with my dad, fixing up that house.
While he didn’t express it the same way most parents do today, my dad was a warm, caring, and loving father. Whenever Diane, my mom, or I was sick, he would always find a phone during the day so he could call to see how we were doing. After work, he’d bring us a present or a favorite food, and I can remember him cracking open the door to my room on many nights to check on me.
Much of who I am today I owe to my dad. He taught me to work hard, never to back down, to stand up for friends, and to care for and protect family. In his world, this was the code by which you judged yourself. And in everything he did, he was a straight shooter, a man who said what he meant and meant what he said, no matter the consequences.
* * *
One of our government’s biggest problems is that it makes decisions based not on facts, but on politics, emotions, and ideology. This leads to huge problems in governance because instead of creating smart policies we’re creating partisan ones.
I’ve been an entrepreneur for three decades, and the experience of creating and building companies taught me a lot about the value of facts and the necessity of telling the truth. When starting a business, you have to be relentlessly honest. Is there a real opportunity? Do you have the resources to pursue it? Is your strategy working? You have to constantly analyze how you’re doing, where you’re succeeding, and where you’re failing, and then adjust accordingly. If you try to fudge the answers to any of these questions, your venture will most likely fail; the more honest you are with yourself, the better your decision making will be.
I did my best to be objective—or, to put it another way, brutally honest—about the strengths and weaknesses of my businesses. Here’s one example. In the summer of 2008, I was CEO of CapitalSource, a company with $4 billion in market value that I’d cofounded in 2000 and taken public three years later. Our business was providing loans to small and midsize companies, and over the eight years of the company’s existence we’d had an amazing run. CapitalSource filled a real need in the market, and we’d helped finance thousands of companies, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Then, in the late summer of 2008, the financial crisis struck. Confidence in the market began to plummet, and I knew our stock was going to take a massive hit. Some other financial companies tried to downplay or hide the extent of the potential damage in an effort to reassure their shareholders. I decided to go the opposite way.
Working with my team, I created a clear-eyed analysis of how our portfolio of loans was likely to perform based on the coming credit crisis and economic downturn, which we expected to be significant. We put our loans into categories, with detailed disclosures showing the balances, our reserves, and how much money we could expect to lose. We prepared aggressive estimates of just how bad the situation could get, and then we put it all out in the open for people to see. I believed that even though things were tough and about to get even more painful, CapitalSource would survive the crisis, provided we were honest. Though I hoped that this display of transparency would reassure our investors and bondholders that they could trust us, there was no way to know for sure.
We sent out our analysis via the required public disclosures, and while it caused anxiety in the short term, our honesty about the challenges we faced had the effect I’d hoped for. The fact that we’d communicated with our stakeholders with total transparency helped to restore confidence, and, thanks to this and other factors, our company ultimately rode out the financial crisis, one of the few financial services companies that was able to do so. We avoided any defaults, paid back all our debts, continued to grow our business, and didn’t take any money from the government, even though we were eligible for it. By comparison, our main competitor, a company called CIT, ultimately had to file for bankruptcy, even after receiving a massive government bailout.
Telling the truth is a smart strategy in business, and in government. If we want to restore trust with the American people, we need to communicate directly and honestly with them.
* * *
Telling the truth is a trait that seems to be in short supply in American politics these days. Each party basically tells lies about the other, insisting that the other side is invariably corrupt, stupid, naive, or just wrong about everything. These messages have the short-term goal of winning elections, but they do lasting damage by eroding people’s trust in their government.
The U.S. government is unique in the history of the world, and as such it has long been a source of great pride for Americans. Our Founding Fathers didn’t invent democracy, but they did create a better version of it—one that, two hundred fifty years later, endures and remains the envy of the world. Our three equal branches of government, and the checks and balances they provide, have granted us unprecedented stability, security, and economic prosperity, and the Founders’ intentional decentralization of power has kept us safe from autocracy. And while our system is not perfect, it does work, despite what we all hear to the contrary these days.
It’s important to understand how much the U.S. government’s evolution was influenced by two factors: the eight-year Revolutionary War that overthrew the British monarchy in favor of democracy and the never-ending battle between those who want to invest more power in the states and those who want to invest more in the federal government. These two factors led to the creation of a system of government that requires broad support, not merely a simple majority, before anything can get done. In other words, the success of our government requires broad buy-in—and right now, we don’t have much of that.
In 1986, President Reagan gave voice to many people’s mistrust of government when he said, “I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” And it’s not just conservatives who feel that way. According to Pew research, Americans’ trust in the federal government is approaching an all-time low and keeps on dropping. These days, a majority of Americans sees our government as dysfunctional, corrupt, and unresponsive to their needs, when it should be accomplishing precisely the opposite: we should be engaging in the transformational work of bettering lives.
The American people have correctly diagnosed that we have a problem. But the remedy they’ve chosen, Donald Trump, is completely incapable of fixing it. If anything, the hyperpartisan, “alternative-facts” universe that the Trump presidency has ushered in has made things materially worse. And that has led to a national crisis of confidence. As Americans, we identify closely with our ideals and history. When we lose faith in our government, we also lose faith in ourselves.
So, what can we do to restore that faith? The first step is to tell the American people the truth. Here are just two ways I would do that within the first one hundred days of my presidency.
1. Engage in open, televised debates with members of Congress
If you’ve ever watched the Prime Minister’s Question Time in the British Parliament, you will understand what I am proposing. Once a week, the prime minister appears in the Commons Chamber and, for thirty to forty-five minutes, takes whatever questions the members of Parliament and the House of Lords want to ask. There’s nothing flashy about the process; the prime minister is down in the trenches, surrounded by shouting, hissing, applauding people. There’s no hiding, no obfuscating. The give-and-take is chaotic but genuine. If the prime minister doesn’t know the facts or the issues, it is painfully clear to everyone.
Compare this to our current system of White House press briefings. A few times a week, the president’s press secretary stands in front of the White House press corps and, in theory, answers questions. In reality, these press briefings have devolved into propaganda sessions. The press secretary often deflects legitimate queries, and rarely do reporters have a chance to ask meaningful follow-up questions. For a while, the Trump administration banned television cameras from the briefing; they actually wanted to move the cameras out of the White House. The administration has also played favorites when choosing the reporters who get to ask questions. This isn’t the kind of truth-telling session the American people deserve.
The American president also communicates with the nation through a weekly radio address, which, in the Internet age, has become a weekly YouTube or FaceTime Live video. But here’s a question for you: When is the last time you watched one of those? Did you even know they still existed? These are three- to five-minute written speeches, with the president sitting and looking into the camera, and very few people pay attention to them. Who wants to spend time watching a canned weekly speech?
For those who prefer more spontaneous, off-the-cuff pronouncements, our current president obliges almost daily on Twitter. Unfortunately, there is often little truth in his tweets, and it’s virtually impossible to break through the cacophony on Twitter and have any meaningful debate about what he’s written. Instead, his tweets are debated vociferously on cable news shows, with the president nowhere in sight, safe from having to defend or back up whatever claims he’s made.
What I’m proposing is something substantively different from all this. As president, I would engage once a quarter, for two to three hours, in a televised open debate with members of Congress. The American people deserve to hear real debate about real issues. They deserve to have a president who is unafraid to face the opposition, to hear other points of view, and to engage in constructive dialogue about how best to move forward. Transparency is the greatest tool for getting at the truth and bringing forth new ideas, so let’s open the door to real debate and let the light shine in.
2. Deliver a true State of the Union address
Whenever I watch a president deliver a State of the Union address, I’m struck by the fact that no matter which party is in power, the speech usually has very little to do with the actual state of the union.
These annual addresses have become glorified campaign speeches, complete with planned applause lines and emotional acknowledgments of people planted in the audience. They’re interrupted repeatedly by standing ovations, though usually from only one party. Think about it: these rare events bring together the men and women who serve at the highest levels of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Is conducting a partisan pep rally really the best use of everyone’s time?
I believe the State of the Union address should be exactly what the title implies: a speech about what is truly happening in the nation. As president, I would describe the good and the bad, and offer prescriptions for how to fix what’s broken. Instead of an exercise in patting the back of my administration, I’d offer a substantive policy agenda for further improving the state of the country. Let’s save the campaigning for campaigns. We should take advantage of opportunities such as the State of the Union address to provide facts, introduce new ideas, and move the nation forward, rather than further divide it.
For example, if I were giving the State of the Union address today, I would start by talking about the crucial factors that are impeding our ability to prosper and lead. First up: our misdiagnosis of the issues associated with globalization and technological innovation.
Globalization has fundamentally changed our economy and society over the past several decades. And although becoming more connected globally has been good for both the United States and humankind in general, it has also caused significant pain and suffering in large parts of our country and destabilized parts of the world. Acting as a great sorting machine, globalization has improved the world’s standard of living, ushered in an era of innovation, driven tremendous economic growth in certain industries, and lifted billions of people out of poverty—but it has also disrupted communities and created great inequalities in economic opportunity. Because it has helped build a global middle class, it has contributed to keeping America safe. At the same time, though, the increasing ease of global connections has created new risks such as the ever more virulent spread of terrorism and epidemics.
The truth is politicians in both parties knew that while becoming part of a global economy would have numerous benefits, it would also cause hardship and pain for many people in our country. Democrats and Republicans alike failed to respond to the fears expressed by those who almost certainly would be hurt. We could have, and should have, handled this transition far better. In short, we didn’t do our jobs.
There are two reasons why it’s critical to address the challenges of globalization now. First, unless we honestly address the core issue—that is, how political gridlock has prevented us from responding to rapid change—we will undermine the benefits we’ve gained from a global system of institutions, alliances, and trade, benefits that have contributed enormously to American prosperity and security. Second, we are currently hurtling toward a similarly disruptive period, this time from technological innovation. As with globalization, Americans will enjoy many benefits from this new era, but if we fail to act, huge parts of our country will again be left behind.
As president, I would take active steps to deliver a long-overdue response to those hurt by globalization, while also focusing on how we can prevent something similar from happening again as the pace of technological change accelerates. We need a new social contract that will allow all Americans to feel more secure and to thrive in today’s world.
* * *
I want to make a final point about the importance of telling the truth. Unfortunately, we find ourselves suffering through a period in American politics during which civility has gone out the window. The level of discourse has become less and less respectful, which diminishes our ability to work together and get things done. This trend is largely the result of decades of misrepresentations, with each side calling the other names and insisting not just that their ideas are wrong but that they are bad or even evil for suggesting them.
One of my fellow members of Congress is a medical doctor. A while ago, he left his surgical practice because he knew that after a certain age, he would find it difficult to maintain the hand-eye precision needed for surgery. After he stopped practicing medicine, he decided he’d like to do some good by serving the public, so he ran for Congress and won a seat.
This guy is a smart and accomplished person; he also happens to be a Republican who believes the Affordable Care Act is not working, something he and I completely disagree on. I think the Affordable Care Act, while imperfect and in need of improvement, has been a transformational step forward, one that significantly advances basic social justice. My colleague disagrees, so he’s been working hard to try to repeal this legislation. As a result, he’s taken a lot of heat from certain quarters. When speaking with him one afternoon, I was taken aback when he described to me the kinds of things people had said about him.
“They say I want to kill people,” he told me, getting visibly upset. “I’ve spent my whole career saving people’s lives, literally, in the operating room. It’s what defines me.” The slurs, he said, were hurtful and unfair. And he’s right: we need to have open debates about policies, but we also need to draw the line and make it clear that calling someone a murderer because of his political beliefs is unacceptable.
A similar dynamic occurs whenever Democrats talk about gun safety. Even when we’re proposing commonsense legislation, such as a law to keep guns away from people on the Terrorist Screening Center’s no-fly list, gun proponents claim we’re trying to take away everyone’s guns. They never suggest that we simply have different views on how best to stop the ongoing carnage from gun violence in this country; instead, the other side pushes the rhetoric to an extreme level, claiming that we’re trying to destroy the American way of life. It is not only absurd but also very damaging.
We have to stop lying about each other. When the level of discourse sinks this low, when our lack of civility leads to calling each other names, it damages our ability to work together. If we want our political system to work more smoothly, we have to restore honesty and civility. And that starts at the very top—with the president, who should represent every American.
Copyright © 2018 by John Delaney