Speaking Truth to Power



In a podcast from Season 3 of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell describes the 1980s hysteria that befell Washington with regard to supposed fraud in the medical research community. Democratic Congressman John Dingell was a formidable legislator who was in charge of overseeing  investigations at the NIH, the CDC, and the FDA for potential fraud. The problem was that researchers’ careers were being destroyed by matters as insignificant as a typographical error in a grant application.

In the middle of Dingell’s McCarthy-esque crusade, NIH director Bernardine Healy stood up against Dingell and his heavies, defending the work of the organization and refusing to make nice, even after successfully repudiating his accusations against her and scientists under her leadership. As Gladwell explains, Healy knew that the only way to stop the hysteria was to remain true to her principles, despite the fact that she needed Congressman Dingell’s support to fund the work of the NIH. In short, Bernardine Healy was willing to risk her career and speak truth to power.

Two years into a Donald Trump presidency, we need this kind of political courage more than ever. As the House of Representatives moves toward an impeachment inquiry, we need more Republicans to stand up and be true to their principles. We need more Republicans like former senator Jeff Flake, who declined to run for reelection rather than support the policies of the president. Flake recently spoke out in an op ed piece that appeared in The Washington Post, urging other Republicans to follow suit. (“Jeff Flake: Fellow Republicans, there’s still time to save your souls,” Washington Post, Sept. 30, 2019) He reminds them of his assertion two years ago, “’There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.’”

Another Republican who has been willing to speak truth to power is Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who called Pres. Trump’s tweet about the possibility of impeachment causing a civil war “beyond repugnant.” Kinzinger is paying the price. He is the only Republican Illinois Rep that Trump declined to name to his reelection team. (“Kinzinger only GOP rep left off Trump’s Ill. reelection team,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 3, 2019) As Kinzinger himself points out, he’s far from a “Never Trumper” and has supported the president on such issues as the military, immigration, and healthcare. All the same, he is willing to stand up for his beliefs and criticize the abhorrent rhetoric of the president.

The impetus for impeachment, of course, goes beyond rhetoric. It goes to the very heart of a corrupt and self-aggrandizing presidency that threatens our democratic institutions. History will certainly judge the actions – and inaction – of those in a position to make decisions on behalf of a venal and unscrupulous president or in service to the greater good of our republic.