Photo: AP

If I were to make a list of people who should be held to the very highest standards of professional conduct, first would be any surgeon operating on me, and second would be all current and former Presidents of the United States.

There are certainly public figures in this world that can be held to less than the highest standards of professional conduct. Actors. Pro athletes. Models, artists. Whatever. If they trip on their shoelaces or make bad career decisions or sell out for ad dollars or turn into pathetic wheedlers in need of constant praise, well, that’s annoying and all, but it won’t really affect your life. It’s just more fuel for the tabloid news cycle. These people ultimately operate in the realm of entertainment, where real world consequences are low.


Then, there is the real of Extremely Important and Powerful People who do have a meaningful effect on millions and millions of lives and who therefore should be held to the highest standards of professional conduct, due to the terrifying power and influence of their positions, and in the interest of establishing a baseline level of conduct for future holders of their positions that will protect us all from terrible people exploiting the great power of those positions. For example: Current and former Presidents of the United States. I would also add Current and Former Powerful Government Officials in there. Do you see the difference? It’s not really a “big deal” if, say, Johnny Depp turns out to be kind of a lunatic. Disappointing to fans of 21 Jump Street, sure, but not really a danger to future generations. But if some of the world’s most powerful people establish a pattern of embracing low standards of professional conduct without consequence, that will—yes—establish a pattern that low standards of professional conduct are acceptable. And that would be a bad and dangerous thing for all of us, because—again—these are some of the world’s most powerful people.

I’m going to pull a few examples right out of thin air here. Hmm. Okay. Let’s take Barack Obama. Former President of the United States. If you do not think that he still wields an extremely high level of political power you are fooling yourself, brother. Is it “okay” for Barack Obama to take a six-figure paycheck from a Wall Street firm for a speech, not long after the exact same behavior helped to sink the Democratic nominee for president? Not long after a campaign in which it became painfully clear that such behavior disgusts Americans so much that it would cause them to vote for candidates who might never have had a chance in previous elections? When such behavior reflects not just on Obama himself, but on his entire political party and, more importantly, on the progressive movement he is supposed to be a part of? Is it okay for Obama to take this money, which constitutes hypocrisy and thereby undermines the ability of the progressive movement to advance, because he had a hard job? Because you like him, and because he’s cool, and we want to be his friend?

No. It is not okay for him to do this. Because—remember, we agreed—we will hold the most powerful people in the world to high standards. Not average standards. Not low standards. High standards. In fact: the highest standards! It is only rational, if you want to be one of the world’s most powerful people, that you accept the highest standards. Not legalistic, “I am technically allowed to do this” standards. The highest standards of professional conduct.


Hillary Clinton just lost a gimme election due to her behavior of exactly this sort. Is it okay to let her off the hook for this, because she had a hard time, and because we sympathize with how shitty it must feel to lose to a huge idiot? No. Because she is still an extremely powerful political figure. And we agreed to hold her to the highest standards of professional conduct. Is it okay because Bill Clinton did it too, and everyone should be free to sell out as much as Bill Clinton did, and besides, he really makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room when you talk to him? No. We will not allow the Democratic Party to get away with blaming their recent loss on uhhhh, James Comey, and Russia, and Wikileaks, and not any of their actual conduct and policy positions, just because we prefer the Democratic Party to the other one. We will hold them to the highest standards. Not to the standards of a mediocre sixth grader giving an 80% effort in pre-algebra class. The highest standards.

George W. Bush started a war under false pretenses that resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Should we soften our opinion of him because he paints bad pictures? No. We should not.

Yes, Cory Booker seems like a great guy, but we should hold his policies to the highest standard. If you are a Republican, you should expect your leaders not to try to bend the rules of math just because you are on their side. America’s most powerful people are not just symbols. They do not deserve your political support and approval because they seem like someone you would like to have a beer with, or because they are attractive, or because their vast social media staff crafted a funny viral video for them to star in. They deserve your support only if they adhere to the very highest professional standards. Maybe someone wants to be “just a regular person” who “needs a break” and just wants to be “treated like everyone else?” Fine. That is absolutely fine. In exchange for that we make only the modest demand that you not be one of the most powerful people in the world. That you not hold the power to help shape the fate of millions of people in your hands. As long as you don’t have that, it’s fine—we’ll cut you a break! But if you do want to be one of the world’s most powerful people, then—I’m sorry—you get the very high standards. Don’t fucking cry for the most powerful people in the world. Be hard on them. They asked for this!

The relevance of this point to Donald Trump is too obvious, and absurd, to include here.