For Obama and other public servants, three tests of integrity

To halt the erosion of public trust, we must restore covenantal ideals.

Rarely before in American history has there been such a need for the restoration of public trust in our government and businesses.

As Barack Obama takes the oath of office, he does so amid widespread disappointment in the alleged mercenary conduct of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), the insatiable greed of some in the business community that precipitated the economic meltdown, and the unprecedented Ponzi scheme apparently perpetrated by Bernard Madoff.

These scandals have eroded public confidence and have led to further cynicism about our institutions of government and business. In response, calls are mounting to enact various reforms designed to prevent – or at least uncover faster – such ethical breaches. But something much more fundamental is needed: a restoration of covenantal ideals.

Those who accept the mantle of public service enter into a de facto covenant – a binding agreement – with those who are led, and the first tenet of that covenant is integrity. Public trust can be restored with a clearer understanding of that covenant. Government and business leaders must understand that their part of the covenant requires them to adhere to the highest standards of integrity and civility. Those who are led are also required to perform at their highest standards of integrity and civility. This reciprocal covenant may well involve a degree of selflessness and mutual sacrifice seldom demanded of our citizens today.

Almost 40 years ago, I was sworn in to Richard Nixon's White House staff. After taking the oath of office, I was given four commissions appointing me to different positions during my tenure over the next four years. Each commission began with these words: "Reposing special trust in the integrity … of [your name] the president appoints you to [your position]" This preamble should have been an imperative for me to fulfill my part of the covenant between myself as a public servant and my fellow citizens.

However, in response to what I erroneously concluded was a national security crisis involving the leak of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, I committed a serious crime. I approved a "covert operation" to get derogatory information on the leaker of those documents and deprived a fellow citizen of his right to be free from an unreasonable, unwarranted search of his office, violated the "special trust" that was reposed in my integrity, and breached my duty under the covenant.

Since reentering and practicing law for 28 years after five years of disbarment, I have reflected deeply on what integrity required of me. Specifically, it required that I be able to answer "Yes" to three questions that all public servants should ask themselves before taking any action.

The first question is intellectual and lays the foundation: "Is it whole and complete?" We must think decisions through to their second, third, and fourth-order consequences.

The second is moral: "Is this the right thing to do?" Decisions should align with core values such as truth, fairness, respect, responsibility, and compassion.

The third question is intuitive and spiritual: "Is it good?" Decisions should benefit others and at the very least do no harm.

If we had asked and answered these questions affirmatively during the Pentagon Papers investigation, we may have avoided the collapse of public trust that resulted from the ensuing Watergate scandal, a two-year coverup, and the first resignation of a sitting president.

We can be optimistic that our new president understands his role and ours in the covenant. During the campaign, Mr. Obama declared: "The American people want to trust in our government again – we just need a government that will trust in us."

Thus far, he's also made high-quality appointments to federal positions. One of the brightest lights in this talented group is Prof. Dawn Johnsen of the University of Indiana Law School.

As the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, she will ensure that the actions of our public servants are consistent with the rule of law, our constitutional system, and our ideals and ethics. Her impressive résumé suggests that she will take on her duties with great legal skill and a deep personal integrity.

"Trust is the coin of the realm." This profound truth adorns a wall in the Center for the Study of the Presidency, where I work. By demanding that all appointees fill out the most rigorous applications for their positions to avoid conflicts of interest and purely mercenary and self-serving behavior the Obama team is clearly dedicated to restoring public trust in our government.

It's a good start. Going forward, our job as citizens is to make sure we – and they – uphold that trust.

Egil "Bud" Krogh, former deputy counsel to President Nixon and author of "Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons from the White House," is currently senior fellow for leadership, ethics, and integrity at the Center for the Study of the Presidency.

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