23 January 2009

The Case For And Against Mayor Sam Adams: It's About Trust

1925.It's been a busy day down at City Hall.

Inside, the Portland City Council tries to take care of the business of the people, which will not wait. Outside, the people petition for a redress of grievances: Those against Sam, followed by those against. And, in typical Portland style: a little raucously, but one giving way to the other without much hassle.

And, for the second day in a row, the hardest place in Oregon to find a Sam Adams would be at Portland City Hall.

If there's been one encouraging thing in the last several days it's that (from this POV, at any rate) the scandal clouding the first month of the Adams administration has not really been about his sexual orientation or even the fact that, depending on who you talk to, Beau Breedlove was or wasn't street legal when he and Sam liaised back in 2007.

It's been about the trust that Sam shattered by hiding what he did, and that's what it should be about.

When the local media got on the trail of the relationship, Sam had a choice. He could have come clean and, in Portland's rather forgiving climate, had what some would call a spot of bother before moving on and becoming the very visible gay 51st Mayor of the USA's 30th largest city. Most likely, given the competition, he would have won anyway.

But he decided to hide it. As a certain person of wisdom has said, it takes just five seconds to tell the truth, but it takes the rest of your life to tell a a lie. And this lie, it can be argued, helped pave his way to the Mayorality. And, given the savvy for which Sam has been famous, it's hard to believe that he couldn't have known that, given the proper frame, he wouldn't have gotten a pass and, at least for the time being, not had to deal with it at all. The frame was provided, the lie was believed, and for his trouble, Bob Ball was knocked out of the Mayoral sweepstakes to boot.

Now, two years on and this cancer on the career of Sam Adams has metastasized. Sam's a survivior, though, and it would be foolish to count him out. He has done nothing that legally requires him to resign. Because of his cynical actions to cover up the Beau Breedlove affair, though, he finds that he's burned his bridges of trust with a lot of people who trusted him. He has breached the faith.

It's the trust that it comes down to. Trust is, indeed the coin of the realm.

Now, depending on how you feel about Sam, there are two main positions that we can see that it's reasonable to take (NB: The following thought experiments are in no way to be taken as necessarily characterizing anyone's views on the subject by my own. This issue is way too complex!)

1. It's reasonable to expect Sam Adams to resign.

The problem with Sam isn't the sex, and never has been. We don't base our view of him on whether or not he's gay, as a matter of fact, we voted for him because we're impressed with his intelligence, his energy, his determination. He saw his ultimate destination as the Mayor's office in the city he dearly loved.

We voted him in because he's a hard worker, a bright fellow, and, yes, maybe a little because he was gay, because we're Portlanders, and we have a progressive reputation, and that's just the way we roll, yo.

But when Sam revealed ... on the most important day this united republic has ever seen ... that he lied to avoid a scandal two years ago, we took it personally. This isn't some big official all the wa across the country who's been hardened and jaded by the centrifugal forces of national public service. This is Sam. Hell, some of us have met him, and he's as affable and genuine as they come.

But when the crap was about to hit the fan, he didn't level with us. He told a story we knew we would respond to to take the heat off him, and we helped him damage the reputation of someone who was telling the truth.

We were used as useful idiots.

Now, we aren't so naïve as to expect that everyone is Simon-pure. Yes, we all lie sometimes, sometimes to save our own skins. But we take that on ourselves in our personal lives. But when you lie at that level, you lie on behalf of all of us. You have a higher standard. If it was that bad, then maybe the thing to do was step down from your pursuit.

Why do you have a higher standard? Because trust is the most valuable thing we have in the public arena, and the most fragile. It falls apart at a touch, and once shattered, may never be regained. And, Sam, you atomized it, using the knowledge that we would defend you utterly, and in doing so, bruised what little faith we may have had in the Portland system.

We can't extend that trust twice, and maybe never again, and now we don't believe in you–we are embarrassed by you. And if you have a dram of integrity left in you, you know as well as we do what you must do next.

2. It's reasonable to expect Sam Adams to stay and fight.

We are as shocked and disappointed as anyone that Sam did what he did. Trust is hard to come by, and he really kicked it in the teeth here.

Do we wish that he'd not lied and came clean at the time? Damn straight we did, because that was the Sam we knew. What you saw was what you got.

But Sam's lied and he lied just when we need him the most. We worry that everyone's going to come down on him because he's a gay man who's being portrayed as someone in a power position taking advantage of a starry-eyed youth. And, of course, he's broken the bond of trust and goodwill he's built for twenty years with the citizens of our fair town.

And now people are calling for his head.

That's understandable. Confidences are the core of Sam's business. If you've breached the faith, what is there?

But we'd ask you to step back and take the larger picture in. Yes, Sam lied, but he himself has called this an anomaly. Based on our history with him, we tend to agree. Who hasn't been so terrified of his or her that they haven't done something dreadfully stupid.

After all, Sam may be Sam, and we may be fans. But Sam is human, as are we. And are we not a society who believes in second chances and redemption? We would want that chance for ourselves. We would be hypocrites if we didn't extend it to Sam as well. Moreover, there's no way for Sam to make up for whatever damage he caused if we simply cut him off at the knees.

Sam shouldn't resign. He should work to repair the damaged trust he's caused–which is a big job, and no mistake, but it's something he can do. He's tough, he's smart, and he has a history of hard, hard work. Because, more than anything else, Sam's the kind of bright, energetic leader we need now, and it would be a damned shame that he should have to resign after an affair that, while embarrassing, has no bearing on his ability to be our Mayor.

So, the way I see it, as far as the scandal goes, we have a choice we have to make for ourselves. Has Sam utterly ruined our faith in him in everything?

Do we still trust him? Do we see this episode as an anomaly, or do we think that this is more than just a blemish on his character?

Steve Duin had an intriguing take on it; that Sam should fight it out in public and campaign again for his spot.

But how do you feel about it? I think it comes down to trust. Can you? Do you think that Sam can govern effectively? Do  you believe in good-old, American-style redemption?

Do you think Sam deserves a second chance?

I don't know about anybody else, but I'm still trying to work that out.

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Dale said...

Reasonable points all. I could quibble here and there, but I've already stated my case (and then reiterated it and then overstated it) so I'll let it go.

This is a tangle that no one needs and I hope that whatever happens with Sam Adams, that we don't find ourselves with such a case again.

Time will tell.


Sam Klein said...

I guess I'll know when I decide for myself how badly the trust I placed on Sam was damaged and if it will ever be repairable.

I need to let this go too. It's amazing to me how personal this has all become.

I can see both sides, though ... and I don't fault anyone for whatever opinion they hold. This has become such a personal thing for everyone.

All of us who care about Portland have been damaged.

We'll only be able to heal once Sam figures out what he's going to do. That part just isn't in our hands, I'm afraid.