Is America losing its moral authority?

American diplomats who are the global face of the United States are struggling with how to demand human rights, democracy and rule of law abroad amid concerns overseas and criticism at home over the Trump administration’s strong arm response to the protests across the country.

Lara Jakes and Edward Wong, The New York Times

My father was one of those faces of the United States in Europe and Latin America during his career in public diplomacy during the Cold War. As part of the United States Information Agency, his job was to project America’s image overseas, when much about our country was misunderstood, and even distorted, by our adversaries.

Dad’s career began in 1955 Caracas, when a military dictator ruled Venezuela. As he wrote in his 1995 book How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, America’s support of President Marcos Pérez Jimenez was predicated on stability — preventing Communist inroads and protecting American business investments in that oil-rich country — but went against our country’s democratic ideals. Dad’s personal feelings bled through in his conversations with journalists and university professors who chafed under the oppressive Pérez Jimenez regime. The dictator’s eventual flight into exile is the first story in my memoir-in-progress, When the Dictator Flew Over Our House.

Dad presented facets and facts about our country to counterbalance negative stereotypes. Sometimes, the stereotypes were lifted right off American television. Southern police officers turning fire hoses on civil rights protesters were offset by interracial jazz groups, candid conversations by leading American writers and other cultural leaders took on special importance.

From Minneapolis, Minnesota, arrived accompanied by his wife and his daughter Jane [yeah, the baby trumped the mommy in getting named here] Mr. Robert Amerson, who will work at the Embassy of the United States of America as Information Manager. For the distinguished travelers, we give our cordial greetings of welcome.

It may well be that the example of this nation will be more important than its dollars or its words.

Edward R. Murrow, USIA Director, US Senate confirmation hearing, 1961

American diplomats today are charged with carrying out the challenging assignment of holding a mirror up to this country while proclaiming the tenets of democracy. What would my father have said when it was his country’s own president that hid in his fortified compound and threatened to deploy the military against peacefully protesting citizens?

The White House is now so heavily fortified that it resembles the monarchical palaces or authoritarian compounds of regimes in faraway lands …

Matt Zapotosky, The Washington Post

The Trump White House called in the National Guard, Custom and Border Protection, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, and the Bureau of Prisons, and active duty military were put on standby in response to the Washington DC protests. On June 1, smoke, tear gas, pepper balls, and, according to protesters, rubber bullets, were used to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square across from the White House just before President Trump’s bible photo opportunity.

The use of the military to violently disperse peaceful protesters in front of the White House was the biggest gift we could possibly have given to Putin or Xi Jinping and to every other dictator around the world who delights in arguing that America’s government is no different than theirs.

Congressman Tom Malinowski, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Trump administration has been a godsend for Xi, if only in making him seem like a reasonable leader.

Steven Lee Meyers, The New York Times

And yet, American diplomats continue to hold up the values of our country, to demonstrate that is it the people, not one president, who are America’s keepers.

We will not try to hide our painful struggle, and instead believe that on his public debate will help us to emerge better and stronger.

US Embassy, Ankara, Turkey

May we continue to hold our country in our hands, protecting it from abuse by the ignorant bully in the White House.

American people are using our voices to demand change, and that is something that could not happen in so many countries where I served.

Ambassador Dana Shell Smith, former career diplomat

We must insist on change. Hourly. Daily. Weekly. Until we have restored the White House to thoughtful, intelligent, alliance-building leadership once again.

Spinning

There are no problems, only opportunities.

Old budget analyst adage

I spent my working years as an analyst in the New York State Division of the Budget. Making a solid case for a position was highly valued. When I spoke about our work with other State government managers, I’d say that if you could argue successfully that the ceiling was the floor and the floor was the ceiling, you were budgeting gold.

There is making an argument, and then there is spinning. The difference is facts.

In his recent column in The Washington Post, Greg Sargent highlighted Vice President Pence’s telephone conversation with governors, citing increased testing as the cause of more cases, and characterizing the explosion in the number of coronavirus cases as “embers.”

President Trump and his advisers have plainly decided they have no hope of truly defeating the novel coronavirus and getting the nation on track to meaningful, sustained economic recovery in time for his reelection. So they’re spending far more of their time on the next best thing: creating the illusion that we have already roared most of the way back to victory on both fronts.

Greg Sargent, The Washington Post

Coronavirus tests don’t create cases. Florida Governor DeSantis tried to explain away the overnight doubling in cases — from 5000 to almos 9000 this week — as a data dump. Yes, it’s data, but I smell a different kind of dump. Bullshit.

And embers? Where there is smoke, there is fire. And we are a nation on fire. We should be stopping, dropping, and rolling home.

The Wizards have spoken, but we must pay attention to the man behind the political curtain.

In his recent conversation with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said that Americans can handle the truth, but only if we have not been lied to in the meantime.

This virus will not follow public rhetoric. No amount of wishful thinking is going to change the fact that we have many more months of this. We’ve got to figure out how to live with this virus.

Michael Osterholm, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy

The Coronavirus timeframe is untouched by Election Day. Its scope is much, much longer. There is no amount of spinning that will change this reality.

It feels overwhelming. So, how do we proceed?

With leadership that tells the truth and gives us a path forward. My old boss Andrew Cuomo has set the bar.

But the long-term view is challenging. We won’t have a vaccine for many months, and that means that the virus will continue to infect people. How do we stay the course?

My personal experience with resilience shows me that, while the moment to moment reality of our lives may be challenging, it is possible to forge ahead with confidence. Again, it’s about leadership.

When I came to myself after almost six weeks in the Amsterdam ICU, I was thrilled to see how slim — skinny, even — my legs had become, until I realized that I couldn’t move. Anything. How did I not fall into despair at that moment?

The constant encouragement of the amazing medical staff at OLVG Hospital kept me on track. The loving support of my husband, daughter, sister at my side there in Amsterdam kept me going. The small gains gave me traction and slowly led to larger gains and milestones. Being able to swallow real food. Being able to hold a fork. Being able to peel a tangerine, never mind that it took an hour.

The OLVG staff had high goals. When I first met with my physiotherapist, I just wanted to be able to lift my hips off the bed so that I could graduate into a more independent set of diapers. “Well, okay,” Gemma said, “But I’d like you to walk.”

I walked.

That’s what leadership does. But only if those people have the right tools.

I was in the hands of a different physiotherapist one day when I collapsed. I was shocked, but not just by the fall. It was the woman’s terrified reaction that really unnerved me. Needless to say, I stayed away from her for the rest of my recovery, and Gemma had me walking independently by the time I flew home. Yesterday, I ran two miles.

Be well, wear your mask, don’t touch your face. And hold Washington leadership accountable by electing someone who has the knowledge, skills and abilities to lead us during this terrible time.

Flying Blind Into the Storm

I am spitting mad that the people making decisions for Americans — in the government, who we have elected to help us live our lives — are opening the doors to the resumption of economic activity without knowing — through widespread community testing and contact tracing, none of which are even discussed — what we are likely to face. Remember that trust exercise in which one person is blindfolded and told to fall back into the arms of others? It’s like that, only this time everyone is blindfolded.

The callous disregard is rending our county, our state, our country into shreds.

Do you honestly think that the governor would take the risk with the health of the entire state by opening hair salons and nail salons without any scientific input?

Hal Valeche, Palm Beach County Commissioner

We are at risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory here.

Lake Worth Beach Commissioner Omari Hardy

Send more people back to job sites, restaurants and retail stores before we have a proper handle on things, i.e. testing and will get sick more people will die.

The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board

This is state-sanctioned killing. It is deliberately sacrificing the old, factory workers, and black and Hispanic Americans, who are dying at higher rates.

Dana Milbank, The Washington Post

Trump gets protection from others [wearing masks] but will not protect them in return [by wearing a mask] for utterly selfish reasons. No single action better captures Trump’s narcissism.

Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post

Nobody is blaming me.

Donald J. Trump
Cover, The New Yorker Magazine

Yeah, people are blaming you. Lots of people. As you like to say, “many people“ are saying this.

You are so far over your head, and you’re taking our country down. You need to go.

Civil Servants and Politicos

Now, it’s personal. When this immoral president makes scathing remarks about moral career government employees, he’s aiming at my home turf.

I was a state government civil servant for nearly 30 years before retiring to Florida. My BA in Urban Affairs and Masters in Public Administration qualified me to enter the ranks of the Budget Division of the State of New York, and I was appointed up the budget examiner career ladder based on my success in examinations designed to assess my analytical skills and knowledge of public administration. I was part of the “permanent government.”

New York State Capitol, where I used to work

My first boss stressed that our role was to serve with “neutral competence.” That sounds boringly dull, but let me explain why it matters.

Just as the Foreign Service reports to an appointed Secretary of State and, ultimately, to an elected president, the Civil Service reports to appointed agency heads and elected officials. In my case, it was a Budget Director and a Governor. During my tenure, handfuls of Directors came and went as four Democrats (M. Cuomo, Spitzer, Paterson, A. Cuomo) and one Republican (Pataki) directed the ship of state. The framework in which each Governor’s policies were carried out was the budget, a layered, complicated, $150+ Billion instrument developed, negotiated, and implemented by the Budget Division and employees like me. We were like the buoys in roiled waters, steadily marking the waterways. Without us, the ship of state would have run out of fuel or crashed or gone aground or never left the dock at all.

New York State Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase through which I showed many delegations of the Department of State International Visitors Program

Neutral competence. It’s a very good thing. “… careful, meticulous, whip smartmeasured demeanor and diligence in representing both Republican and Democratic administrations.” That’s an excellent description of a professional civil servant, and it’s how the Washington Post describes Marie Yovanovich, a Foreign Service Officer under assault. (Diplomat criticized by White House known for her diligence)

FILE – In this March 6, 2019 file photo, then U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, center, sits during her meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, Ukraine. (Mikhail Palinchak, Presidential Press Service Pool Photo via AP) (Associated Press/AP)

When a career public servant achieves the highest ranks in an appointed position, as Ms Yovanovich has in being our ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and, most recently, Ukraine, she takes her work ethic with her. The Post article continues:

Yovanovitch “is reserved. She is collected. She is not a flamboyant person,” said Nancy McEldowney, a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria who said she has known Yovanovitch for about 30 years. Yovanovitch has always known that the role of diplomat “wasn’t about her” but about “serving American national interests and supporting the people around her.”

Budget Directors serve at the pleasure of the Governor. Ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the President, and it’s routine for an incoming administration to manoever their picks into the ambassadorial roles around the world. Sometimes, they choose a seasoned diplomat, like the ambassador that my father, Robert C. Amerson, first worked for in 1955 in Caracas.

Ambassador Fletcher Warren had a reputation as an experienced professional Foreign Service officer, whose ability had propelled him up through the ranks. Behind his jovial smile and the personal interest seemingly concentrated on each individual lay … the analytical prowess and careful judgement of successful diplomacy. (How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship)

When presidents choose for an ambassador loyal party supporters and campaign donors instead of a seasoned diplomat, they risk bringing in persons who believe that the official authority of an ambassador ‘extraordinary and plenipotentiary’ should cover everything. Warren’s replacement, Dempster McIntosh, had an unpredictable temper directed at Embassy staff, and, worse yet at least to Dad, a tin ear for language:

On one occasion the Amb had agreed to cut the ribbon inaugurating our major USIS exhibit of photographs, called the ‘Family of Man.’ … exceptional and striking photos from all over the world, selected by famed photographer Edward Steichen as representative of humankind in all our moods, foibles, nobility. It was a theme that called for serious inaugural words, and I wrote something brief for the Amb to read. During the afternoon, tape recorder in hand, I helped him work on the Spanish version — pronunciation, emphasis, fluidity — to little avail. That evening, an invited group listened to our Ambassador turn a few simple words of the beautiful local language into an embarrassing, mangled mess, as if the sounds uttered had no comprehensible meaning to him.(How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship)

McIntosh’s replacement was Edward J. Sparks, who was, my father wrote, dignified, quiet-mannered … a career man who had come up through the ranks and served at many Latin American posts. He knew the area, he knew the language, he knew the value of embassy officers and their judgement. (How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship)

The permanent, apolitical government is loyal to a fault: policy is the pervue of the elected officials. But public servants do come across policies they disagree with, or, as we are seeing now in Washington, official actions that conflict with established norms, laws, or the Constitution. The very brave become whistleblowers. For Dad, Vietnam was such a determining issue. In a personal recollection, Dad wrote about what happened when he was USIS Area Director for Latin America during our last few years in Washington:

These were the years of heavy slogging in Vietnam, when USIS officers were being asked to serve there not only to handle information and culture in that war-distorted atmosphere, but also as public-information advisors out in the boonies where the Viet Cong often threatened danger. Frank Shakespeare, a conservative idealogue and President Nixon’s choice to run USIS, thought senior officers of the Agency ought to see USG operations in Vietnam personally, so as to provide greater authority when convincing our people to serve there willingly

So, one morning I climbed onto Pan Am flight #1, heading across the Atlantic: this flight circumnavigated the globe, stopping in Athens, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Teheran, New Delhi, Bankok, then Saigon, for two weeks of briefings, helicopter rides, observing USIS people in remote areas of Vietnam and troops carrying their rifles, hearing the thunder of big guns in the distance … Impressions of Vietnam hardly resulted in enthusiasm for the USG role there, even though I could see that USIS people were doing their jobs honorably, even while separated from their families. I suppose some of them — super-patriots, perhaps swinging bachelors at heart — enjoyed that kind of assignment. I would never do for me. That family separation factor, plus a growing personal disapproval of the war itself, made it easy a year later to turn down a possible assignment to Saigon,though it might have been a major creer boost. Ambition and “duty” are not everything.

There are about 8,000 career foreign service officers representing this country around the globe today. There are 2 million Federal government employees and hundreds of thousands more state and local government employees. These “servants” of the public sector are quietly going about doing their work every day. Resist the urge to pile on.