The politicians’ 12-step program

It’s hard to forgive a public servant who betrays the public’s trust.  And for some of those public servants, it’s hard not to be forgiven.  But thousands of disgraced political figures in American history have gotten on with their lives, closing the book on whatever it was that made them political lepers and finding something else that restores value to their lives. 

They reconcile themselves to the fact that many of those who were or claimed to be their friends as long as they had something the “friends” wanted will never be part of their lives again; that the power they had will never be theirs to enjoy in the future; and things they once loved are gone forever.  And they move on. 

Two of the many Missouri political figures whose collapses the Missourinet has covered in our four decades are listed as co-authors of a new book–Senator Jeff Smith, who went to federal prison for eight months for lying to investigators about a campaign finance law violation, and former Speaker of the House Rod Jetton, whose one-night stand with an old friend led to an assault charge that ultimately led to a misdemeanor guilty plea and probation.

Jetton is now working for a civil engineering company in Poplar Bluff.  Earlier this year he founded a newspaper, The Missouri Times, that covers state government and politics.  It enables him to stay close to politics and government although he is unlikely to be a significant participant in the process for some time if ever. 

Smith is an Associate Professor of Urban Policy at the New School in New York City. He writes an advice column for politicians, former politicians, and politician wannabes.  He also has written for some national magazines and has political advice column.

Former two-time Kentucky State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, who has a blog called “The Recovering Politician,” has enlisted Jetton and Smith to write chapters for his book, “The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis.” They are the only ones on the list of twelve co-authors whose careers were ruined by accusations of criminal activity although another co-author, former New York Assemblyman Steve Levy,  ran unsuccessfully for the governorship and his subsequent campaign for the New York legislature included questions about campaign contributions that eventually led him to refund the money to donors and to withdraw.

Smith recently wrote in his column, “I think the key is to repair and reinvent yourself in a way that stays true to the best of who you are. For instance, if you lose your professional license, could you still offer counseling at a halfway house after you complete your sentence? Or perhaps at a shelter for the homeless or victims of domestic violence?Something that will be therapeutic for you and helpful for others. For me that’s taken many forms, from teaching about the legislative process and addressing elected officials about ethical dilemmas to advocating for educational opportunities inside prison.

“I won’t lie to you: Prison sucks. But it forced me to pause and reflect and thus gave me an advantage over the Sanfords and Weiners on the road to recovery…You must constantly remind yourself that failure is not falling down but staying down.”

Jetton told us it is important to own up to a mistake and to sincerely apologize for it, although “People, especially if you’re a politician, they have a tendency to really doubt if you’re serious about that. or whether you just got your hand caught in the cookie jar.  You’re sorry for getting caught but you  may not necessarily be sorry for your mistake.   It…just takes time. of people watching you, looking at you and wanting to decide whether you really did feel like you made a mistake and  you are sorry for it or whether you’re just trying to save your skin and get out of a tough spot. ” 

We included our interview with Jetton and a speech from Smith at a Missouri Association of Counties conference last November with our story about them on yesterday.

Ultimately, though, their world will not wait for forgiveness.  They move beyond seeking it  and build new lives apart from their past.  But politics for many is an addiction.  While they know they can never experience the highs and lows, the pressures and obligations of it, they seek ways to remain some part of the system.  Smith does it through his writing and teaching.  Jetton does it through the newspaper.  Some, who have been forced from office by defeat or by term limits, go back and become county officials. Some are found in the hallways outside the chambers in which they once served, lobbying former colleagues and others.  Perhaps the dozen stories in the book will help others who can never go back into the arena shorten their addiction recovery time and find new meaning in life.   Their writings, and the writings of the other ten co-authors could be guides for years to come because we know this: 

Somewhere, as you read this, a man or woman in whom the public has placed its trust as a public servant is breaking that trust.  It could be happening in any number of ways.  As long as the activity is a secret, things are fine. 

But they never know when a slip of the lip or a piece of gossip will reach the ear of a reporter.  They never know when an associate in trouble will cut a deal by talking to an investigator or a prosecutor. They never know when someone they abuse decides too much is enough.  

But then everybody knows.  And who they are and who they think they could be is destroyed.  Maybe a book co-authored by a couple of Missouri politicians whose careers ran aground in scandal can help them get beyond who and what they were



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