Today, we must have a President who knows how to serve us abroad – but also at home. Which is why I ran my first congressional campaign under the refrain, “I’m a former Navy Admiral, running on national security … that begins at home, in health security,”
This was due to the awful day when my wife, Susan, and I watched as Alex, our then-four year old daughter … was wheeled out of surgery at Walter Reed military hospital with her saddened doctors beside her. We couldn’t get the brain cancer, they told us… and when asked, they gently replied, “She has about three, perhaps nine, months.”
But our little warrior fought on, through burning radiation, and the ravages of high dose chemotherapy, and two more brain surgeries, with the best medical specialists our nation could provide. With her courage, Alex beat that demon. I knew then that I needed to answer to you, the American people. Because you had kept your word by providing the military healthcare coverage that saved our daughter’s life.
As Alex’s treatment neared its end and I had left the Navy, I thought of the day when she had begun her chemotherapy. Susan and I could not help but overhear in that small room the conversation of hospital counselors with the parents of the young boy who was Alex’s roommate. He had just been diagnosed with cancer, but they were struggling to figure out how he could stay because the family was without health coverage. Susan and I knew too well the anguish they were feeling, and that helped show me that I needed to work for every family to have the healthcare coverage that we have had for Alex.
I changed from being an Independent in the military to Democrat, returning home to Pennsylvania to run for Congress. It was a nearly 2 to 1 Republican District where I had been raised, bringing a sign my daughter had painted, “Joe Sestak is walking in your shoes.”
Honored to be that Republican District’s second Democratic congressman since the Civil War, I was fortunate to be the highest-ranking military officer ever elected to the U.S. Congress when I entered it just as the Great Recession began. And much as we did that grim night of 9/11 on the hill above the Pentagon, we set up a command center in our new congressional office under Captain Bill Walsh, my Naval Academy classmate. Our office was open seven days a week until 9 pm every night to deal with the devastation to the lives of our constituents that the Recession was causing.
Under Bill’s leadership, the staff helped save from foreclosure over 800 homes of families who had lost jobs; overturned denials of treatment for diseases by health insurance companies for those who had missed payments; reversed rejection of services for those on the autism spectrum; assisted over 4000 veterans across Pennsylvania and also the country, many home from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD and other challenges. I visited the penitentiaries where too many were who hadn’t had care; helped broker fair, instead of discriminatory, public funding for Cheyney University – our nation’s oldest historically black university, where I later taught after Congress; brought together thousands of small businesses on the verge of bankruptcy at procurement summits; while protecting seniors from the rising scourge of elder abuse, and aided women in job discrimination cases.
In all, our congressional office handled four times the constituency cases of the average congressional office. I also returned to the Treasury the pay increases that Congress had given itself during this economic meltdown.
Meanwhile, Bibie Boerio, my Chief of Staff in our Washington DC office, used her 30 years of business experience to work on the issues that arose from our walking in the shoes of our constituents. As a result, the House majority leader cited our first year efforts as “the most productive” of our freshman class, ending up passing 19 pieces of bi-partisan legislation during my first term, from the first increase in funding for autism in 12 years to advancing opportunities for women in small business and the first Elder Abuse Victims legislation in 17 years.
The National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice, the National Education Association and Conservation League, NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign, the AFL-CIO and the Alliance for Retired Americans as well as Disabled American Veterans, rated our record of public service from 95 to 100%. I do believe the automatic weapons we carried as we boarded sanctioned ships in the Persian Gulf should not be on our streets in America. And the NRA understandably gave me a failed grade. But my Republican District understood, and re-hired me by 20 points without my having to air a single campaign ad.
But the constant refrain in the thousands of constituency cases we handled was: why isn’t a government of the people, more accountable to the people?
The official Commission on the cause of the Great Recession said that it was the “breakdown in ethics and accountability” by government officials who lacked the ‘”political will” to say “no” to the wealth and lobbying power of the financial industry – or really, to any other power.
Corporate taxes, once half of government annual revenues, are now less than 10%; Facebook lets a third party put a program on it that captures our personal information that is sold to enable Russian hackers; we have a telecommunications duopoly with the worst speeds and near highest cost of developed nations; no net neutrality and no serious cyber security laws; but we do have 165,000 opioid overdose deaths after pharmaceutical lobbying brought a halt to the clampdown of illegal pill mills by the Drug Enforcement Agency because, as a DEA supervisor said, “Everyone was making a lot of money.”
At least some people – such as former politicians – are making a lot of money: in the last twenty years, 450 Senators and congressmen have become lobbyists. Their revenue increased 400% during those twenty years that the income of working families has been flat-lined.
I know. I saw such offers.
We must end our government’s capitulation to corporate power and moneyed influence, with its revolving door for corporate lobbying jobs. Government must reassert itself as the honest force of accountability for the people. And because corporations have given China control of their technological supply chains, we must also restructure their corporate commons that China now exploits at the risk of our security. U.S. businesses should not be doing the business of China, and then lobbying us to do so.
To the people, Washington DC has become a restricted circle of entrenched political elite and corporate lobbyists who feel empowered to bypass the public good for their self-interests. The president is not the problem; he is the symptom of the problem people see with a system that is not fair and accountable to the people, for far too long.
Take Iraq. It was justified as a preventive war by our leaders at the time, then embroiling us in its expanding conflict throughout the Middle East, into Africa and beyond as it created the more brutal terror of ISIS. Politicians of both parties who supported that decision did not understand either the complexities of the world, or the limitations of military power.
That tragic mistake left two decades of unaccountable consequences in the Middle East for the United States and the world, leaving America with enormous, and still untold, human and economic costs, and for Americans, a loss of faith in U.S. leadership, and unfortunately, also our engagement in the world.
Then this trust deficit cratered completely … after political leaders across the spectrum and over time stripped away the oversight and dismantled the safeguards of the one place in America where a wall is definitely needed … to keep greed out, and accountability in … but the politicians tore that down also, and so the inaptly named Wall Street was left unfettered to shatter our economy and with it, millions of Americans’ lives, in the Great Recession.
And no one, not one political leader –or any other — has ever answered for themselves to be accountable for the carnage of either that great recession … or that tragic war.
It is this unaccountable leadership that is responsible for the lack of trust in America today that undermines our sense of national unity, of whom we are and what we stand for.
Hobson’s Choice, written long ago, speaks to what Americans most want and most need from their leaders today. It is a tradition I grew up with on the sea that with responsibility goes authority, but with them both goes accountability. This accountability is not for one’s intentions, but for the deed. For the Captain of a ship is given honor and trust beyond others; but let the ship go aground, or other disaster occur to his crew, then he must answer for what he has done. No matter what, he – or she — cannot escape this accountability … of answering for oneself.
There really is no choice; for the crew of a ship – like the people of a nation — will not long trust leaders who feel themselves above accountability for what they do — or fail to do. And when trust is lost in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos, as has begun to happen with the U.S. ship of state, today.
This is our Hobson’s Choice … not just to win this Presidential election, but to heal our nation’s soul. We need a leader who is trusted by the people because he is willing to be accountable to them — above self, above party, above any special interest … no matter the cost to him.
Our epic challenge – is to regain the trust of Americans … all Americans … by a President … who the people know will remain accountable to them, even when they disagree. We have no choice, for we cannot meet the defining challenges of our time without a united America.
Our nation, above anything else, yearns for someone accountable only to the American people, no matter the consequences to himself.
That is why I originally ran for the U.S. Senate, despite the opposition of our party’s Washington establishment. I disagreed, that a Senator should be our party’s nominee, who had humiliated Anita Hill – allowed to do so, by members of our party as she testified about her sexual harassment by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. There was no pleasure in opposing every member of my party’s elite to defeat Senator Arlen Spector – who defected his Republican party only to avoid defeat in its primary — but there would have been less in not standing up to demand accountability for the thirty years of his damaging votes as a Senator, including against Ms. Hill.
In my second race, I walked 422 miles across Pennsylvania, from the border with New Jersey to that with Ohio. I held a town hall each day in small towns and cities, and then went to each of the remaining 67 counties. During my walk I had two calls … one came as I was walking through a rural town and a gentleman called out to me — “Admiral, I’m a Republican, but I love what you’re doing!”
The second was a mandate from the Democratic Senate leadership to “stop walking and just fundraise.” But if one had any feel for how Americans felt that 2016 election year, you would have sided with the Republican, as I did. The expected cost, was that our Senate leadership then sought a primary opponent, funneling over $6 million into false opposition ads. Others featured our party’s highest Washington leaders, in order to win the primary. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania was then lost as the Republican ads pointed out that Washington’s chosen democratic candidate was one of its own, a revolving door lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.
If the establishment had joined me on my walk in Pennsylvania, it would not have had to wait until election night to learn that the biggest deficit we have in America today is not the debt, but the trust deficit.
And that distrust is what I most want to fix, by returning accountability to the White House … and to our government … for the American people.
Come aboard an aircraft carrier with me for a moment and see what the American people most want and most need, where 5,000 American sailors live, work and go to war together. At an average age of 19 ½, they run the ship’s nuclear reactor, fix a pilot’s plane before he or she takes off in it … without the pilot even questioning them … just a professional salute before the plane is catapulted into the dark of the night, which … after dropping a few continues upward for the ride of your life … Disneyland has nothing to hold over that ride.
But sometimes, the Air Boss calls out to stop the launch, to change out planes, something is wrong and they need another aircraft over Afghanistan. And then you see what America most wants, today. A young sailor comes out on that dark, windy carrier deck, and goes underneath the belly of that plane where the pilot cannot see, and unhooks the plane from the catapult. No pilot will turn off his or her engines until they know that they have first been unhooked from that powerful sling … because if a mistake were to be made after the plane’s engines were turned off, and the plane were still attached to that catapult as it was suddenly slung forward, it would be the last ride of the pilot’s life.
Since the young sailor knows that the pilot cannot see him unhooking the plane, the sailor then walks in front of the aircraft, and looks up at the pilot and gives a very simple signal that says it all: “Go ahead, you can trust me, because I’m willing to be accountable by standing right here until you turn off your engines, open up your plane’s canopy, and are safely on deck. And if I made a mistake, and you start heading overboard to your death while still in the plane, you’re going to go right through me, and I am going to go with you to my own.”
No one in America believes that anyone in Washington DC is willing to stand in front of that plane, accountable to them. As your President, I want to … for all Americans, so we can accomplish our agenda, together, before the hour is too late.