Opinion: Picking Your Help Like Picking Your Friends - Assistant Week


By Matthew DeMello

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

As the old saying goes, you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick… Well, you get the idea.

In public relations, the company kept by a public figure says everything about them that spectators need know, and that includes those in his employ. For all practicality’s sake, the ethic makes sense. Take politics for example, where what you know is usually amplified (if not outright calculated) by who you know, though, perhaps unjustly.

In the lead up to the 2000 presidential election there was a brilliant SNL sketch where then-candidates Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush are in the midst of a debate when the event turns into an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? When stumped on a question, Gore opts to poll the audience (a furtive jab at the former Vice President’s preoccupation with polling data and being well-liked) while Dubya instead runs to the phone-a-friend option at the first sign of hesitation.

The joke says a lot about the public’s initial perception of candidate Bush that plays a significant part of his presidential legacy 12 years later. Particularly, that those who supported Bush felt his ineptitude as a leader would be compensated by his choice of advisers.

As our nation enters a debate over whether or not to risk limited military action in Syria, we are again reminded of how potentially disastrous and costly this conflict could be based on the build up to the invasion. Though we’re not so much reminded of these concerns by the former president, but instead by his former cabinet members, and quite vocally in fact.

Perhaps more than George W. Bush himself, we associate these more peripheral yet essential figures — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, etc. — with the most consequential actions of his presidency. We collectively do this so much that we are better convinced that they had a larger say in its outcome than the president probably did, regardless of what is true.

Current events amplify the importance of why a politician should choose friends wisely, but they also call into question the logic of the public’s investment in responsibility when the assistant to a public figure behaves out of line with what it is expected of their employer.

Take, for instance, a relatively minor scandal that broke earlier this summer. Jack Hunter, a former aide to Senator Rand Paul, resigned from his position in July after it was uncovered that he at one time professed a deep and profound sympathy for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

Highlights from Hunter’s brief stint as a conservative shock-jock known as the “Southern Avenger” include inciting “racial pride,” asking whether recent Abercrombie & Fitch settlements meant white people were going out of style, and generally concluding that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a good thing.

Part of me doesn’t want to make much of these details because, while defending slavery in any context should call into question anyone’s ethics, I have a hard time believing that makes Rand Paul — who has neither said nor supported these claims himself — a categorically bad person. However, one detail makes why Paul considered Hunter a worthwhile hand to have around downright perplexing. While many of Hunter’s most controversial remarks under the “Southern Avenger” monicker were made a long time ago, he only gave up the gig last year.

To make matters worse, the Paul family has a well-documented problem with racism and always appears to sit a bit too close to racist interests for the comfort of the young, well-to-do libertarians who look to the senator, Rand, and his father, former Texas representative Ron, for answers in everything freedom.

(In speaking of papa Ron, you can find some quality YouTube footage of him defending certain tenets of the American Confederacy below.)

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, the first impression anyone gets of a ruler “is seeing the men he has about him.” Yet Jack Hunter was not just a poor choice of aide for more than mere guilt by association, his past actions reflected the worst of what people who hate Rand Paul would like to think he is.

By comparison, Joe Paterno had the exact opposite problem. He was complicit to criminal activity that, at least at first, no one who heard the news believed someone so accomplished and upstanding could possibly be associated with. When the evidence of Paterno’s advanced knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s misconduct was deemed irrefutable, the world was shocked to a see a campus full of protests in support of Paterno. Such is the power of the inverse.

For Rand Paul, racism wouldn’t be his worst crime, at least in this instance — that would be callousness. I for one have a hard time holding someone entirely accountable for the past actions of someone in their employ, especially in the omnipresent ‘gotcha’ media we live with now. Yet I have an even harder time believing that a Senator who likes to ask Howard University students why Republicans have lost the black vote is so lackadaisical with background checks.

It is the same reason The New York Times will print a front page story on the lack of diversity in President Obama’s second term cabinet. It’s no longer who, specifically, is residing in a powerful political circle but how they reflect the leader in its center.

Perhaps this is more than as it should be, especially if we as an informed public get the wrong message from the mishap (i.e. Rand Paul maybe tactless, if not intolerant). Though if, as a politician, you’re not fully aware of how your allies may come to be the public face of your legacy, just turn on a television and watch the cable news coverage of the Syria intervention debate.

Notice who seems to be strangely absent from the conversation?