I gasped a little when I scooped the Sunday Billings Gazette off the front porch.
“Tester to resign,” the front-page headline screamed.
It took a few moments to realize that half the front page was covered by a spadia, one of those single broadsheets that wrap around a newspaper, allowing it to fill half the front page with advertising. This spadia perfectly covered up the first three words of the headline: “Trump calls on.”
Talk about fake news. But it was a fitting cap to another week of dysfunction, disarray and discombobulation emanating from the nation’s Capitol.
Tester’s offense? He released a two-page summary of allegations he said were made by “23 colleagues and former colleagues” of Admiral Ronny Jackson, the presidential physician whom President Trump had nominated to head the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The allegations broke into three categories: claims that Jackson improperly gave out prescribed medicines, that he created a hostile work environment and that he was sometimes drunk on the job.
Now, you would think that if one issue on the American agenda is beyond partisan squabbling it would be how we treat veterans. We might argue about the best way to take care of those wounded in service to their country, but we all agree that we ought to do it.
Bipartisan consensus is especially important when it comes to the top administrators of the VA, which has been rocked over the years by allegations of inefficiency and corruption. While some of those complaints may have been overblown, we know we have to get this right.
Nevertheless, the usual partisan food fight broke out. Commenters at Last Best News accused Tester of a staging a “political hatchet job” and spreading “un-founded salacious rumors.” He was charged with telling blatant lies, acting as a “smear merchant” and being a “buffoon.”
One commenter referred to him as “fatboy, Jon Testicle.” Said another, “He made up lies to destroy a hero.”
Some pointed out that some of the allegations have been credibly disputed, even by the Secret Service. But that really isn’t relevant. Can you think of 23 people who hate you so much that they would be willing to lie to Congress to prevent you from getting a promotion? If you can, you have a management problem.
It would have been dereliction of duty if Tester and the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee he serves on had failed to look into allegations about Jackson’s personal habits and management style. The only question is how much about all of that Tester should have told to his bosses — the people who elected him. He could have acted like Trump, who said of Tester: “I know things about the senator I can say, too. If I said them, he would never be elected again.”
Trump provided no hint of what those things might be, and he probably never will. He is the master of the unspecified slur, such as when he continued to question Barack Obama’s birthplace long after it was obvious he had no idea what he was talking about. Or when he threatened to “spill the beans” about Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife, an especially nasty slur that has yet to produce a single spilled bean.
Trump can get away with blatant prevarications because no one, not even his fiercest supporters, expects him to tell the truth. By the Washington Post’s count, Trump made more than 2,000 false or misleading claims in the first year of his presidency. By the New York Times’ count, Tester is just one of 446 people, places and things Trump has insulted on Twitter since he began his presidential campaign.
But Tester, like every other living American, is held to a higher standard. If he had claimed to know secret things that would disqualify Jackson, he would have been accused of being a smear merchant and a liar. If he had dragged Jackson through a humiliating committee hearing, he would have been accused of a being a buffoon wielding a political hatchet. If he had stood silent and let the nomination go through, he would have been accused of selling out the nation’s veterans out of cowardice or political expediency.
Indeed, some White House officials apparently hoped the nomination would set a political trap for Tester, forcing him to stand up against a naval officer in a state that values its military. Other prominent Republicans, including a former defense secretary and the chairman of the Senate veterans’ committee, declined to criticize Tester, apparently happy to have a Democrat risk the president’s wrath over a nomination that many Republicans were skeptical about. Even Tester’s Senate counterpart, Steve Daines, R-Mont., our state’s palest flower, decided to stand aside and let Tester fight it out with Trump.
Critics are right that the public shaming of Dr. Jackson need not have occurred. Careful White House vetting would have uncovered and examined the allegations before they made it to inevitable public scrutiny in the Senate chambers. Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, even joined Tester in a letter to the president requesting documents that might shed light on the allegations.
When the White House failed, Tester, to his credit, chose to reveal the allegations, in all their sordid uncertainty. Whether his motives were pure as snow or slimed by political mud, the decision was correct. Politicians inevitably err, but they should err on the side of openness. The public’s business should take place in public, no matter how unpleasant that may be.