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Justin Amash On the Exquisite Veracity of Truth Telling

‘Truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.’ – Lord Acton

On December 18, 2019, Congressman Justin Amashvoted to impeach Donald Trump. Since he was elected as part of the tea party wave in the 2010 mid-term elections, Amash has consistently shocked his colleagues by his unerring adherence to conservative/libertarian principles. He voted to repeal federal legislation against same-sex marriage and opposed gerrymandering; sponsored a bill ending the federal prohibition against marijuana; unfailingly supported efforts to reign in government spending; and opposed any abridgement of personal freedom.

Amash, however, is no longer a Republican. On July 4, 2019, Amash announced in aWashington Postopinion piece that he was leaving the GOP and notiedthat his commitment to integrity and truth-telling lead him out of his party. 

No great fan of President Trump — he called him a “childish bully” in 2017 — as early as May of that year Amash asserted that if allegations were true that the President pressured former FBI Director James Comey to end the investigation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, it was an act worth of impeachment. 

As a result of these actions, Amash been subject to a torrent of abuse from his former colleagues. White House aide Dan Scavino called on Michigan Republicans to defeat Amash in the Republican primary. As if on cue,by August 2019 reports circulatedthat as many as five Republicans were exploring the idea of challenging Amash in the 2020 elections. President Trump called him a “loser” who sought notoriety through “controversy.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Amash of voting with Nancy Pelosi more than with his party (PolitiFactjudged that to be false). Amash has learned the tragic irony in H.L. Mencken’s dictum, “The men the American public admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.” 

American history is replete with political figures for whom truth-telling is a rhetorical device rather than the foundation of an honorable life. If, in contrast, integrity and fidelity to the truth are essential to Republican governance, a journey into the past provides enlightening insights. Consider if you will, three other courageous American politicians — Alexander Butterfield, Margaret Chase Smith, and Edmond Ross — who were unwavering champions of truth-telling, consequences be damned. 

The experience of Colonel Alexander Butterfield illustrated the importance of truth-telling as a regular part of professional engagement. After retiring from the U.S. Air Force in 1969, his college friend, H.R. Haldeman, hired him as deputy assistant to President Richard Nixon, a role that included managing the documents that crossed the President’s desk and running the White House in Haldeman’s absence. In early 1971, Butterfield supervised the installation of a secret taping system in Nixon’s offices. Butterfield felt his White House job was tedious and left in early 1973 to become head of the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Called before the Senate Watergate Committee in June 1973, Butterfield confirmed that Richard Nixon had been secretly taping his conversations and phone calls and subsequently “triggered a constitutional crisis.” Each time he was questioned by Watergate investigators he told the truth. While he did not participate in the Watergate burglary, he admitted to his role in legally supervising the cash used to pay for the break-in. Despite his transparency, Butterfield received no political retribution for his revelations. He was forced to resign from the FAA in March 1975 by President Ford, who cleared the government house of all top Nixon officeholders, and struggled to find employment for two years. Eventually he established his own consulting firm. By 2015, in retirement, he was a Ph.D. candidate focusing his work on presidential pardon power. 

Often circumstances require the truth-teller to stand alone when all the world is demanding they relent. In 1950 Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) was a moderate Republican when the party was beginning to shift fiercely to the right in the late 1950s. Despite threats to their existence, moderates like Smith did not go quietly into the night. Smith was elected to her deceased husband’s House seat in the early 1940s and like her husband she supported much of the New Deal legislation of Franklin Roosevelt. She backed the foreign policy of President Harry Truman and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, remaining there until 1973. 

Soon after taking her seat, Smith learned the painful penalty exacted of those who stand against the whirlwind of popular anxiety. At first impressed with the accusations of Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy (R-WI), Smith soon became disenchanted with his tactics of abuse. It was the time of the second great Red Scare in the early days of the Cold War and McCarthy rose as the prince of anti-communist darkness. When his evidence of wide-spread communist influence in the federal government was not forth-coming, Senator Smith spoke with integrity. She expected that the majority Democrats would provide a brake on McCarthy, but was disappointed when they proved themselves as timid as her Republican colleagues in the face of his campaign of political terror. 

On June 1, 1950 she stood in the well of the Senate and made a “Declaration of Conscience.” Without mentioning McCarthy’s name she precisely described his methods ones that had “debased” the Senate making it a “forum of hate and character assassination.” Smith decried the idea that her party should use the “four horsemen of calumny – fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear,” to obtain victory.  Smith quickly came to feel the rage of the four horsemen of the Republican right. When several of her moderate Senatorial colleagues supported her declaration, McCarthy called them “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.” He replaced her on his committee with Richard Nixon, and supported a primary challenge to her re-election in 1954. Smith weathered the political storm, but many conservatives considered her to be anathema and blocked her rise in party politics.

A commitment to truth can also place a public servant in direct opposition to one’s allies and one’s partisan affiliation. In 1868 President Andrew Johnson was impeached and tried for violating the Tenure of Office Act, which restricted the President’s ability to hire and fire officeholders. Johnson survived conviction in the Senate by a single vote. Senator Edmond Ross(R-KS) provided the decisive vote that spared President Johnson the disgrace of removal. As a passionate abolitionist and war hero, Ross came to the Senate in 1866 and was expected to join fellow Radical Republicans in removing Johnson. 

Some who voted for acquittal saw the case presented by House managers as unfair. Some feared a future in which presidents became pawns of a dominant legislature. Some believed the president had a right to choose his own subordinates. There is some evidence that bribes and patronage jobs were offered to some of the Senators, Ross included, but subsequent investigations yielded no compelling evidence of malfeasance, so no Senators were charged, and there were no convictions. 

Ross’s decision to acquit Johnson, to place himself on the side of truth as he saw it, brought an end to his political career. In fact, none of the Republican senators who voted to acquit Johnson — Fressenden, Fowler, Grimes, Henderson, Trumbull, Van Winkle, Dixon, Doolittle, Norton and Ross — were ever elected to office again. 

Amash. Butterfield. Smith. Ross. They were from different eras, parties, and opinions, but consistent, honest, citizens of integrity and character possessing a strong fidelity to the truth. They held to their convictions with integrity, told the truth as an ordinary part of their professional lives, stared down popular discontent to tell the truth as they saw it, stood alone while others around them bent to the demands of popular anxiety, defied those with whom they were in alliance, and, even in loss, grasped on to the passion that animated their principles.

All reside in vivid distinction to Winston Churchill’s lament, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

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