Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Bill Dauster

Bill Dauster head shot.JPG

Bill Dauster worked for more than 30 years on Senate, White House, and campaign staffs, including as deputy chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and deputy director of the National Economic Council in the Clinton Administration.  @Bill_Dauster

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Too many people seem to think that the standards for political communication can somehow differ from the standards for how they live their lives elsewhere.  Maybe it’s because real power is at stake. Or maybe it’s because folks see others getting away with — or even gaining advantage from — bad behavior. But there’s no defensible reason to hold political communication to any lower standard.  And there’s every reason to hold it to at least as high an ethical standard as anything else in life. After all, we need good political communication to make our democracy work. Most of the people whom I’ve met in politics and government really do want to make the country a better place.  What we say should be grounded in that desire. In the end, don’t we want to aspire to so live our lives that the sum of our actions leaves the world a better place because of our having been here?

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

First: It’s nearly impossible to repair your reputation if you damage it.

Second: Political communication can have real-life consequences for real people.  When you get the point in your life when know someone whom a public figure has unfairly maligned, you learn how powerful and dangerous careless words can be.

Third: When you look back at your career, you’ll want to be able to do so without embarrassment.  And that career, even if decades long, can end a lot quicker than you might think.

3 ) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

I admire folks who say what they believe, even if it doesn’t serve their short-term interests.  In 1995, the House of Representatives passed a Constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, and Senator Mark Hatfield came under enormous pressure to support it.  But Senator Hatfield called it a “budget gimmick” and voted against it, the only Republican in the Senate to do so, and his vote determined the outcome. I wish that there were more people like Mark Hatfield.

Participating in White House economic meetings in the Clinton Administration also allowed me to see another true professional, Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, doing his job.  What the public and press will not have seen is that he would often sit in on White House policy discussions to learn the issues. His example counsels: Do the homework to know what you’re talking about and get it right.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

In the course of a career, it may well happen that your boss or client takes a position on an important matter with which you disagree.  Too many folks feel — or are made to feel — that they need to suck it up and represent that position. If the matter is important enough, it ought to be important enough to find another job.  But short of that, too many of us think that we’re indispensable. It’s an old saying that the graveyards are full of indispensable people. There will probably be others who are willing to represent the client on the matter in question, and one should have the strength to step aside and let someone else handle it, even if the client’s esteem then rises for that other person and falls for you.  When you look back on your life, your opinion of yourself will be more important.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Don’t do a job just for the money.  One can live well enough and keep one’s self-respect at the same time.

A career is a short time.  Try to live each day as if your career would be judged on what you did that day. Because the day will inevitably come when you’ll be doing the things on which your career will be judged.