Editorial: Politicians must think before speaking

Editorial Board

Making mistakes and being less than articulate during a conversation or debate are part of the inescapable human condition, but last week, prominent Iowa politicians drew attention to themselves in an especially unattractive way that fails to uphold the dignity of their office.

A congressman from eastern Iowa, Bruce Braley, made national news when he included the hashtag “TrailOfTears” when he tweeted about Ohio State’s men’s basketball team’s win Thursday. The Trail of Tears, of course, was the route many native Americans took to what is now Oklahoma after the federal government began its policy of Indian removal. Although we think the use of one term in the past should not forever govern its use, especially when all the victims and persecutors associated with an event have been dead for a century, we can see how some people would be offended by Braley’s tweet.

A second event is much closer to home, as it happened down in Des Moines at the Iowa Senate. Sen. Herman Quirmbach, who is an associate professor of economics here at Iowa State, treated one of his peers very poorly when the peer offered an amendment to an education reform bill. First-term Sen. Amy Sinclair offered an amendment to provide for an assessment to measure “the influence of a school district’s educational program on student academic growth and to guide school district improvement efforts.”

According to the Des Moines Register, Quirmbach “immediately tried to pick Sinclair’s amendment apart and repeatedly suggested she didn’t know what she was talking about.”

Braley has since deleted his tweet, and Quirmbach has since apologized to Sinclair, who says she wants to put the event behind her. Such debacles, however, highlight a huge problem with politics in the United States today.

Left and right, politicians say objectionable remarks and then apologize for them. For those of us that pine for the glory days of intelligent discourse, this is awful. For those of us who are sensitive to the remarks (think of the comments about “legitimate rape” offered by Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri — although he did not apologize for his statement), they are profoundly disappointing.

One aspect of public service is self-denial when it comes to gratifying the public servant’s own wants. During his or her term in office, he or she needs to hold the public good, and his or her public appearance, to a higher standard than ordinary citizens who have no formal authority or power.

Although we have a system where government officers are drawn from among the people, they represent us to the rest of the country and world. Further, as they are our leaders, it must be asked how well they can lead us when they cannot exercise some self control and think about the possible ramifications of their actions before they act on their impulses.

The fact that political action ought to be spontaneous and intuitive rather than scripted and stage managed does not mean that public actors have to speak before thinking or leap before they look. People all over the country deserve better than schmucks who remove all doubt about how little they actually care to learn something about the “other” and the other’s ideas by thinking that it’s acceptable to shoot (or talk) now and ask questions (or apologize) later.