One of the things I continually forget in life is that there really are people who cannot be embarrassed. I think everyone believes they feel some level of embarrassment, but objectively, when you look at what people do as opposed to what the say, it’s clear that some people do not register the kind of mortification you or I would experience if we did something wrong and were caught red-handed.
An obvious case in point, of course, would be the new president of the University of Iowa, J. Bruce Harreld. Not only was Harreld’s resume insufficiently proofed, but he was caught lying about himself in two entirely different ways. One of those ethical breaches was so antithetical to higher education that the Iowa faculty censured him before he took office. Yet in the aftermath of that rebuke it never occurred to Harreld that his personal failings disqualified him from a job he had lied his way into.
A normal human being would never get over that. They would go on, but they would remember the sting of that public unmasking for years. J. Bruce Harreld is still scheduled to take office on November 2nd, and by his own press-release is determined to fight any slurs against his plastic values.
On Monday I was again reminded that some people do not have the capacity to experience normal human embarrassment when Iowa Governor Terry Branstad took time out of his busy day to dismiss recent revelations by regent Subhash Sahai. While it was known that five members of the Board of Regents, led by President Bruce Rastetter, conducted secret meetings with J. Bruce Harreld, what was not known is that the other four members knew nothing about those meetings until after the final vote. Like the wind-up governor he has apparently become, after Rastetter threw Sahai under the bus late last week, for the third time the governor came to Rastetter’s defense over what is clearly a fraudulent hire.
Branstad was asked about Sahai’s concerns this morning during the governor’s weekly news conference.
“I would point out the last time the Regents went through this, choosing a president of the University of Iowa, they had similar controversy,” Branstad said.
As the governor knows, there is no equivalence between what happened with the fraudulent Harreld hire and what happened in 2006, except that in both cases a politically connected and heavy-handed regents president decided that the board was his to do with as he pleased with. Yet even if there was some equivalence, you don’t simply overlook accusations of criminal or malfeasant behavior because those accusations sound like something that happened in the past. The police respond to each call in order to determine whether a crime was committed. The fire department responds to each call in order to determine whether there’s a fire. And the governor should respond to each report of malfeasance or criminality in his own government, in order to determine the facts of each case.
When a sitting member of the Board of Regents points out — not suspects, but actually reveals — that a majority of the Board of Regents kept him in the dark about secret meetings with the winning candidate, that’s not something that should be summarily dismissed with a flimsy political lie. Which is why — and again, I know this is naive — I was momentarily shocked by the governor’s brazen disregard for Subhash Sahai personally, but also his ongoing disregard for education, which is a sacred trust that all Iowans hold dear. From a few week ago:
So how can the governor square his claim that he played no part in the hiring process, even as he only spoke to one candidate, and that candidate was J. Bruce Harreld? Well obviously he can’t, but he doesn’t care about that. Politically, the governor has to insist that he played no part in the hiring process in order to establish plausible deniability, so that’s why he said what he said, even as that claim is in direct conflict with what he actually did. Unless there’s a federal investigation and the governor is put under oath, however, he knows there’s no price to pay for appearing incoherent in the eyes of the citizens that he technically serves.
Like I said, I forget there are people like that, and that quite often the very thing that allows them to take to the political stage is an inherent incapacity for empathy or self-awareness. If, as a politician, you have no problem defending pink slime against a non-existent conspiracy, you’re probably capable of doing or saying anything, particularly in defense of the people who bankroll your campaigns. Even if that means stomping on a sacred trust, or on a good and loyal Iowan that you yourself appointed to protect that trust.