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Moral Courage: The Power of “No”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Terry Newell
June 6, 2017


On September 11, 1972, three months after the Watergate break-in, White House counsel John Dean handed Johnnie Mac Walters, Commissioner of the IRS, an envelope. Inside were the names of 200 Democrats about whom Nixon wanted Walters to find information he could use against them. Walters went to Treasury Secretary George Shultz, who agreed with him that the request should be ignored. The envelope was locked, sealed, in a safe.

Nixon had fired the previous commissioner in 1971 for refusing to honor such demands and said of Walters (in a taped conversation) on May 13 of that year, before giving him the job: “I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he will do what he’s told, that every income-tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

Nixon was furious and threatened Shultz, who ignored Nixon’s demand to fire Walters. Walters would later give the list, still sealed, to the chief of staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation as a further demonstration that he ignored Nixon’s request. Walters would later testify in Congress during the broadening Nixon investigation.

What is the Obligation of a Public Servant?

This issue is not merely of historical interest. In January, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates announced her department would not defend President Trump’s executive order on immigration. She was promptly fired, and the president said she “betrayed the Department of Justice.”

Every federal public servant, from president to lowliest clerk, takes an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution. Civil servants do not take an oath to obey the president. While in almost all cases they should and do, this distinction matters. When orders conflict with Constitutional values and established law, public servants have a moral obligation to object. The way in which they do so, not their obligation to do so, is the relevant question. This is, of course, what Walters and Yates confronted.

Unfortunately, most civil servants get little help in thinking through this. Taking the oath is usually sandwiched between signing forms and getting office supplies on the first day at work, rendering it devoid of both historical and moral force. Nor do they receive training in taking an ethical stand. They have to figure out how.

How to Say “No”

Saying “no” is a one powerful way of demonstrating this moral courage. The Walters case offers some useful guidelines for doing so:

  • Make sure you are on firm ground. Does what you are asked to do violate a law or the Constitution? Does it violate rules, policies, regulations (a somewhat lesser but nonetheless important standard)?
  • Use your professional expertise to make clear why you cannot (and they should not) proceed as directed.
  • Point out the implications (outside scrutiny, legal challenge, etc.) of doing as asked. As Walters said years later, “IRS must be run nonpolitical. Our tax system otherwise will fail and we can’t afford that.”
  • Seek a powerful ally in the chain of command. In Walters case, that was Secretary Shultz.
  • Consider potential allies outside the chain of command (e.g. the Inspector General) or even outside the agency (e.g. Congressional staff).
  • Leave a paper trail (in Walters’ case, the sealed envelope) for the record on what you have been asked and why you object. Sometimes sharing that documentation (as a “draft memo”) will be enough to have higher levels change their minds.

In some cases, additional ways to say “no” may exist:

  • Offer options constitutionally acceptable for addressing the need. You have expertise your superiors may not. Look for a compromise solution.
  • Ask the request be put in writing and signed by your boss. This is a way of making higher level officials take responsibility for what they are asking. That may sober them up.
  • Write a carefully reasoned paper on why the proposed action is dangerous. Circulate it through a “dissent channel” if one exists or through the chain of command if one does not.
  • Ask for a reassignment as a way of protesting the action you are asked to take.
  • In extreme cases, “blow the whistle” to the media, Congress, interest groups or other public forums. This can be a career ending move, so try other things before taking this step.

Honor and Public Service

William Sessions, former FBI Director, said of Walters that “[H]e was a courageous and ethical man who understood the functions of government and his agency and the importance to the agency of what he did.” Neither he nor Sally Yates “betrayed” their agency or their president by saying “no.” Instead, they exemplified the finest traditions of public service.

Author: Terry Newell is President of his training firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former Dean of Faculty of the Federal Executive Institute. This is the first of four quarterly columns exploring moral courage in public service. He can be reached at [email protected]

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