Lessons on integrity in politics

To the extent that each of us strives to practice integrity, our communities and world benefit – and everyone is capable of doing this. In this article written some years ago but still relevant today, a man shares life-changing lessons he learned following his pivotal role in the 1972 Watergate scandal.

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My integrity was tested in the White House while I was Deputy Counsel to then-President Nixon, and appointed to co-chair the “Plumbers,” a team tasked with discrediting an antiwar activist who released classified documents about US Vietnam War strategy. We were also supposed to track down any other “leaks” of classified documents. But in carrying out our assignment, we broke the law.

Our actions came to light as the Watergate case began to be prosecuted. I chose to plead guilty and willingly accept any sentence the court would impose because I felt I needed to do that in order to reestablish my own sense of integrity.

Some time later, I began to examine what the idea of “integrity” really signifies. The word derives from the root “integer,” which means “whole.” From this, I worked out three questions I could ask to keep my bearings under pressure.

The first is primarily intellectual: “Is the proposed action whole and complete?”

The second addresses the moral dimension, which we often associate with honesty and uprightness. It asks: “Is it right?”

The third question, fundamentally spiritual in nature, is this: “Is it good?” I added this third question because I felt that integrity also means perfection, an unimpaired state. Since God is good, this question really asks, “Is the proposed action Godlike?”

Whenever I’m under enormous pressure or the stakes are high, I’ve found that’s the time to be still and to ask those three questions. And my experience has taught me that when you can answer them affirmatively, you’re safe.

In thinking about responsibility, I was struck by a passage of Mary Baker Eddy’s in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” that says Jesus “did life’s work aright not only in justice to himself, but in mercy to mortals, – to show them how to do theirs, but not to do it for them nor to relieve them of a single responsibility” (p. 18). So while prayer in Christian Science begins with the spiritual premise of “perfect God and perfect man” (Science and Health, p. 259), it’s important to make choices that are in harmony with that premise, which prove it to be true.

That was in a way what led to my guilty plea. I’ve learned in my study and practice of Christian Science that to recognize a sin aids you in destroying it. I had to be clear about the abuse of power that I’d engaged in, so I could honestly say, “That’s not the kind of thought with which I want to be associated any longer.” Then I had to take responsibility for it.

Psalm 26 was extremely helpful, saying, “I have trusted also in the Lord; therefore I shall not slide” (verse 1). And then there’s this conclusion: “I will walk in mine integrity” (verse 11). I got to thinking, What does it mean to “walk in mine integrity”? I was praying with this passage in Science and Health, which uses Mind as a synonym for God: “All that really exists is the divine Mind and its idea, and in this Mind the entire being is found harmonious and eternal” (p. 151). For me, that healing statement defines the source of spiritual integrity. And the next sentence showed me how to walk in this integrity: “The straight and narrow way is to see and acknowledge this fact, yield to this power, and follow the leadings of truth.”

To the extent that we’re clear in consciousness about the power and presence of God, good, Mind, then the path unfolds. And that’s what actually happened in my case. Shortly after I pleaded guilty, one of the most respected Seattle lawyers agreed to represent me in the attorney discipline process. He said we were going to take “the long view.” We needed to find ways for me to show that I’d understood what went wrong and to take steps to correct it. Well, it took us seven years from that moment until I was eventually reinstated by the court to the practice of law. But it all came together because of that farsighted, long-term view.

Now some decades have passed. But breakdowns in integrity and abuses of power are so very much in the news these days. They still need healing.

In many situations, the premium on winning is so high that it overrides a person’s inner sense of what’s right and wrong. You get so swept up with a group and its “groupthink,” that you lose your individual ability to perceive what’s going on. There are also other threats to our integrity that come in the form of vanity, arrogance, or immaturity. But we all have within us, from God, the essential qualities that keep us safe, such as humility.

The challenges and the threats that come along may change. But to stay absolutely anchored in what we know is right and good – in one’s highest sense of integrity – is a perennial demand.

Adapted from an article published in the April 14, 2008, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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