What is your mission statement? Do you even have one?
Jill Long Thompson does. It is this: “To honorably and ethically use my talents and skills to benefit family, friends, community, country and world with the goal that all will be stronger for the efforts I make.”
The former congresswoman from Whitley County instructs students in her ethics classes at Indiana University to write confidential descriptions “of who they are and whom they want to become.”
“Many students have expressed that the exercise helps them identify and clarify their priorities, their personal values and the contributions they want to make to the world. They also tell me it helps them establish values-based priorities,” she writes in her upcoming book, “The Character of American Democracy: Preserving Our Past, Protecting Our Future.”
Long Thompson explores the values she believes Americans and their government representatives should demonstrate: integrity, accountability, transparency, fairness, compassion and respect for others. She writes that she has seen “the honorable, the not-so-honorable, and the downright dishonorable” in her years as a Democratic member of the U.S. House, undersecretary of the Agriculture Department and chief executive officer of the Farm Credit Administration.
Her “pillars of character” include current lawmakers John Lewis and Tammy Duckworth, heroic airline pilot ChesleySullenberger, and cereal maker and philanthropist W.K. Kellogg. She commends the character of former presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama and Garrett native Darwin Smith who, as CEO of Kimberly-Clark Corp., worked to improve the education, health and diversity of his company's workforce.
Among those Long Thompson finds less-than-honorable: Unnamed colleagues in Congress who accepted meals and gifts from lobbyists when she represented northeast Indiana in the 1990s. Unidentified federal officials who personally profited from government contracts. Bribe-soliciting former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. A public official who calls news outlets and reporters an enemy of the people. And any president refusing to disclose their income tax returns, put their financial holdings in a blind trust or prohibit government use of hotels and golf clubs they own.
“The lack of ethics and character among our nation's leaders in both the public and private sectors makes this one of the most disconcerting times in my life,” Long Thompson decides. “Even more disconcerting is the fact that the public outcry is not as great as it should be.”
She spreads blame: “Those who support untrustworthy candidates and public officials share the responsibility for all the untruths and damage they cause.”
The root cause of many of the nation's troubles is “a failure to make the connection between the rights we have as individuals and the responsibility we have to be good citizens,” she contends.
Long Thompson recalls past colleagues who “expressed their belief that ethics are a matter of opinion.” Her mission in “The Character of American Democracy” is to prove them wrong.
“To be our strongest,” she writes in the end, “we must hold ourselves and our leaders to the highest ethical standards that protect the process and essence of democracy.”
Brian Francisco reports about federal government and politics for The Journal Gazette.
“The Character of American Democracy: Preserving Our Past, Protecting Our Future” by Jill Long Thompson (Indiana University Press) 168 pages, $20
Publish date: September 2020