Conduct Unbecoming: A Cautionary Tale of 3 Governors

The ex-governor of Virginia and the sitting governors of New Jersey and New York have recently discredited themselves with actions and statements that seem to put them above the people they serve.

01.23.14 10:45 AM ET

As I reflect on the actions of three governors who have made the headlines in recent days, one word immediately jumps to mind regarding their behavior: unbecoming. All too often it seems that those who have been given the high honor and responsibility to lead their fellow citizens have forgotten what it means to be one of We the People.

Let’s start with Bob McDonnell, the former governor and attorney general of my Commonwealth of Virginia. A dedicated public servant and one who generally received good marks from Republicans and Democrats alike, McDonnell and his wife were indicted yesterday in Richmond on a series of federal corruption charges  that reads more like a Christmas laundry list from one of the Real Housewives television programs than legitimate requests for “favors” from an alleged upstanding governor and first lady of Virginia. Whether McDonnell and his wife defrauded the Commonwealth is a question that will ultimately be decided in court. What is not at issue is that McDonnell is the first governor in Virginia’s history to face federal corruption charges, something predecessors such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry would find unbecoming.

Keeping in mind that the indictment is the government’s side of the story and that McDonnell will have the chance to clear his name, the damage to his reputation and political career are devastating. How could the governor and his wife request use of a supporter’s private jet, or ask that Mrs. McDonnell be given an Oscar de La Renta dress and other such trinkets without sounding warning bells of impropriety? The whole matter seems sketchy.

While McDonnell alleges that he has paid back the value of the gifts and loans he’s taken with interest, he misses the point: We the People are tired of unaccountable public servants who act in an unbecoming manner that appears to put their own personal and political interests above ours.

Which brings us to the newly inaugurated second-term governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. We know the particulars of the George Washington Bridge-Gate scandal well enough not to revisit them in full here. Christie maintains that he never directed his staff nor knew of any plans to disrupt traffic on one of the busiest bridges in the world as a form of political payback against the Fort Lee, N.J. mayor who failed to endorse him for re-election. This may well be true and there is no concrete evidence to the contrary that the governor himself acted improperly.

The most damning thing about the Christie incident is, I think, that we’ve been given an inside and unfortunate look at the atmosphere that permeated the governor’s state house. In other words, Christie may well have never given the order to inflict pain on his perceived political enemies, but I suspect the tone and culture of his administration led his staff to believe the governor condoned using the force of government to bend or break those who stood in his way. 

While the Republican has admirable political and leadership skills, one also suspects that his reputation as a bully hits a little too close to home as being genuine rather than a misguided perception as to his character. This conduct is unbecoming in one who seeks to unite all of the citizens he was elected to serve rather than currying favor for a favored few while seeking retribution against those who don’t support the governor’s political prospects.

Speaking of character, or lack thereof, brings us to the recent words of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. During a radio interview with “The Capitol Pressroom,” Cuomo opined that “extreme” conservatives have no place in the State of New York.  Who are these out of touch extremists, you ask? In Governor Cuomo’s view: “Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and if they are the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.”

Perhaps Cuomo’s sentiments are in line with a majority of residents of the Upper East Side of Manhattan or the well to do residents of Westchester County. As a native Californian and resident of Virginia, I can’t say for certain. 

What I do believe, however, is that the chief executive of New York State should not criticize his fellow citizens for supporting the sanctity of life or the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms that is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. I won’t even dignify his “anti-gay” remark, as I have no idea how he defines the term. 

Cuomo’s comments are reminiscent of the man whose Oval Office the governor himself would undoubtedly like to occupy one day. Who can forget when President Obama proffered the following regarding people who lived in small towns in Pennsylvania and across the Midwest? “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

I suspect the comments offered by Cuomo and the president reflect a wing of the Democratic party that will stop at nothing to demonize their political opponents whose differing views are cast as “extreme” or “bitter.” The thought must have occurred to Cuomo and Obama that in a vibrant democracy, political dissent should be respectfully encouraged. Governor Cuomo’s words are unbecoming for the high office he has been given the honor to lead as they represent a narrow-minded approach to governing. If you’re not with me, you must certainly be against me.

I have some advice for the two sitting governors in their respective state houses to reflect upon that is clearly too late for former Governor Bob McDonnell. In a letter written by John Adams to his wife Abigail immediately after he became the first president to move into the White House in 1800, Adams noted: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and that all that shall hereafter inhabit it may none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

 Now etched in the mantel of the White House State Dining Room, this simple phrase should be well remembered by those are given the privilege and responsibility to govern others. One can only hope that the lapse of honesty and wisdom shown by these three governors is the exception and not the norm of those who now run for elective office and represent We The People.