Stories of members of Congress who are terrible to their staffs are unfortunately a part of the fabric of Washington. In the late 1990s, one congressman from New York would (allegedly) make his staffers pick the corn out of the cafeteria chowder. He really didn’t like corn. Or his staff.
When you treat the people closest to you like garbage, it doesn’t stay a secret long. Republican or Democrat, man or woman, the stories are told with the same contempt and too often with a reciprocal head nod that comes with having experienced similar treatment.
Which is why the stories of Senator Amy Klobuchar’s treatment of staff came as no surprise to those in Washington: many similar stories have been written about lawmakers before. Even so, they do not reflect well on Klobuchar’s ability to be president. How you treat your staff really does matter.
First and foremost, it speaks to your character and ability to lead. But it also speaks to your ability to recruit and retain talented personnel. It reflects your values, and it makes people consider if they can trust you to do the right thing when nobody is watching. The existence of a separate persona behind closed doors alongside a public reputation for being nice creates a conflicted, wary electorate.
It also creates a sense of entitlement that we don’t wish to see in those elected to serve us. It is not simply about the misuse of government employees, but the misunderstanding of the position of honor, and the obligations that come with it.
Klobuchar defended her treatment of staff, saying, “I am tough. I push people, that is true,” and noting that she has high expectations of herself, her staff, and the country. She said she threw a binder down, not at a staffer. Putting the trajectory of the binder aside, it’s clear that Klobuchar doesn’t deny the spirit of the criticism.
Truth be told, only a small number of elected leaders act like this. It’s not the norm and it’s not to be expected, excused or accepted. The vast majority of members of Congress treat their staffs extraordinarily well.
I was a part of one such family. Perhaps it was from his time as former Rep. Tom Bliley’s intern and driver that Majority Leader Eric Cantor understood that loyalty and kindness to staff are rewarded with hard work and dedication in turn. Or perhaps it’s just that he is a good person, like so many other members on both sides of the aisle.
The passing of Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) this week served as a stark contrast to the Klobuchar news. He was a man adored and respected by staff over decades, who remained loyal in life and committed to his causes after his death. Dingell’s benevolence did not hold him back from having an enormous legislative impact in his career. Arguably, it enabled it.
Dingell also knew how to treat other people’s staffs, which is another trait that is reserved for the brightest leaders. I was a recipient on more than one occasion of his kindness and pączki (Polish donuts eaten on Fat Tuesday).
And it wasn’t just him. Back when I was a lowly intern at the Republican Governors Association, then-Governor George W. Bush treated me like an equal, engendering a loyalty that I carried into his service for seven years after that meeting.
It’s also why I remain sensitive to the current president’s character faults and why I placed such a premium on his integrity, or lack thereof, in 2016, when I opposed his candidacy. The fact that so few people stay put in this White House and so few others care to work for it is directly related to how choppy its performance has been.
It’s also why I still bristle at the stories from the Clinton White House, and their supposed poor treatment of household staff and Secret Service. There are plenty of available candidates who prize character and decency. We shouldn’t be forced to choose from those who do not.
So yes, many will dismiss these Klobuchar stories as the work of opposition research and negative politics. But it will be enlightening to see how many staffers view these revelations as a reason to jump onboard one of the other 20 available Democratic presidential campaigns.