Rectitude. A word one doesn’t hear much. Even the sound of it strikes one like a quaintness from the past. And yet, it’s a word I’ve heard quite a bit lately in reference to now ex- Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. That is the image that the media has seized upon in its narrative. Bob Mueller, the straight arrow. The guy who plays by the rules. In some versions of the narrative, he is portrayed as a tragic figure, a man no longer of these times. I suppose in some sense that is true. But I think the more valid perception is that this is more a commentary upon the times than of the person.
From the progressive side of the Great Divide, Mueller was to be the savior, the bringer of the truth. And we thought that the truth, once revealed, would be determinative. In that sense, those of us who believed / hoped that were also out of step with the times. Truth and facts, fade in significance among the cacophony of other “facts” and misinformation and misunderstandings and half-truths and lies, and knowingly and easily discarded when they do not fit one’s desired or expected narrative which competes among dozens of other narratives. Truth and facts have become menu items where there are apparently no bad choices, all are equal, and there are no discernible consequences for bad choices.
This consideration has some bearing upon the current Democratic debate about whether or not to impeach. Although the Constitution calls for at least hearings, the current political realities cautions against that Constitutional function. The hope has been that once the truth is revealed, the American people will respond. But that was the past.
Mueller, a marine veteran, 12-year head of the FBI, has chain-of-command honor etched into his being. To maintain that kind of dedication, one must retain a tremendous faith in the system that one serves, a faith in justice, that in the long run, the values embodied by that system will win out and show itself to be worthy of such devotion, worthy to the individual and to the greater society.
But those who play by the rules are often in a weaker position when facing those for who those rules have no meaning or who understand the advantages of having an adversary whose hands are tied by his honor, by his rectitude. Playing by the rules only works when there are refs who are there to enforce the rules, to hold all the participants accountable. Without them, rules become less significant, the system loses its integrity.
In this case, the refs should be the American people. But the American people no longer value these qualities, do not see an advantage to submitting to rules that might call for an outcome different from their desire. In this environment, Mueller’s rectitude has no impact, no significance. In fact, it leaves him looking a bit naïve, his previous image of all-conquering hero down-sized by these times to that of a good (for whatever that’s worth) but impotent non-factor.
Bruce Springstein’s “The Promise” contains this line:
“When the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference,
Something in your heart goes cold.”
The common modern response to that is that there are many truths, many aspects to the story, that it depends on whose truth one is referring to. But that’s not what’s really going on. It’s not simply a matter of selecting one truth over another. It is a diminishing of truth itself. Truth is a box that is easily checked off without much effort or analysis, as long as it is consistent with one’s beliefs. There is no seeking the truth, no great hunger to know what really is, no motivation to accept a notion that weakens one’s certainly in a world in which there can be no real certainty. Truth is an inconvenience stripped of its power by tribal rationalizations, and then safely disregarded.
Something in our hearts has gone deathly cold. I don’t know if Mueller understands that or cares about that. Much respect to him if he does know and continues regardless. That naivete takes much moral strength and also a faith that in the end the system will right itself, that those values will win out, will prove to be enduring.
But in the meantime, he is operating in a void in which Barr / Trump has used what are perhaps the man’s greatest virtues against him. They have been emboldened to declare that hot is cold and up is down and black is white with impunity. They look us in the eye and tell us that what we read and heard are the opposite of what Mueller wrote and said. They know that the one man who could put the lie to their efforts will not do so because of his honor and devotion to a code they have no regard for. They have somehow managed to play him, played him by his own rules.
We observe this, remark upon it, and then go on with our day, yet another aspect to our ideal of what is the norm and what is acceptable eaten away by these troubling times and this corrosive regime.