Are White House ethics briefings a waste?

To those who care about the nation's ethical barometer, the announcement that 3,000 White House staffers are now getting hour-long ethics briefings raises a knotty question: Is this good news?

To President George W. Bush's supporters, the briefings signal his sensitivity to charges of unethical behavior among staffers. They see this action as a decisive response to the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on charges related to the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Given the president's thrashing in recent polls - with 58 percent of the American public telling a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Nov. 4 that he is not "honest and trustworthy" - his supporters applaud this vigorous assertion of his concern for integrity.

To his critics, an hour's lecture by a White House lawyer seems almost derisory. They suspect the announcement of capitalizing on training that the White House must undertake anyway, according to a 1990 requirement for "mandatory annual briefings on ethics and standards of conduct" for most government employees, specifically including Executive Office staffers. They see the fuss over training as an admission of a damaged ethical culture. And they point to a "do as I say, not as I do" attitude on the part of the president and vice president, who have exempted themselves from the sessions.

Listening to this point-counterpoint, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a senior manager at the Office of Government Ethics in the early 1990s during the Clinton administration. His office oversaw these newly inaugurated briefings, which he told me had already settled into a one-hour format conducted by trainers who repeated them relentlessly, week upon week.

"The trainer walks into the classroom," as I recall his description, "and in effect says to the class, 'Look, you don't want to be here, and I don't want to be here. So let's get this over with. Here's what you need to know: Last year you could skate this close to the law, but now you can only skate that close. Any questions? Good. Sign here.' "

My friend had already started getting calls from thoughtful civil servants in various agencies around Washington, asking, "Is this really all there is to ethics?"

Of course not. Done well, a good ethics session brings people right out of their seats - and sends them down the hall after class in animated chatter that rages on into the parking lot. Why? Because ethics addresses the toughest choices facing humanity. It's not just about right-versus-wrong moral temptations that can be handled by compliance lessons. It's about right-versus-right ethical dilemmas that pit two of our deepest values against each other - dilemmas where neither side is wrong, where powerful moral arguments reside on each side, and where we've got to choose.

I don't know the content of the current White House sessions. But given that they're coming from a White House attorney, I rather suspect they're more about compliance than integrity - more about right-versus-wrong than right-versus-right. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for compliance. But our leaders need more than that, especially given the ethical dilemmas we face:

• Should oil companies keep or surrender profits from hurricane Katrina?

• Should government legislate more explicitly against steroids in sports?

• Should foreign nationals be sharply interrogated to combat terrorism, or is that torture?

• Should a ruined city below sea level be rebuilt or relocated?

• Are schoolchildren being tested too much or not enough?

• Is free trade in the Americas a boon or a boondoggle?

• What's the right balance in Supreme Court nominees between competence and ideology?

These are immensely complex questions, raising profound moral issues. They'll never be solved by trying to make one side "wrong" and then choosing the opposite. So no amount of compliance training will equip policymakers to deal with them.

Yet dealing with such questions is their mission. We don't elect leaders just to transact the daily business of government. We elect them to bring resolutions to the knotty ethical challenges facing democracy in an age of global confusion and confrontation.

Do these briefings make such resolutions easier or harder to find? Kudos if they help White House staffers build practical frameworks for applied integrity. But catcalls if they merely administer a kind of moral cod-liver oil to those who never wanted to be there in the first place, and who come away convinced that whatever isn't illegal must be ethical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rushworth M. Kidder is president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine. His most recent book is "Moral Courage." For more information, visit www.globalethics.org.

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