The Legitimacy of Authority

Author: Gary Hart

Starting a few years back, possibly in the 1980s, parts of our society refused to take political legitimacy for granted.  That is to say, they began to question, often repeatedly, whether certain individuals had the right to lead.  The mantra was: “we need to know more about him or her.”  The process by which this questioning is carried out is called “scrutiny” and, once let loose, it rarely ends.

Throughout most of our history candidates for office provided their life stories as an aspect of campaigning.  They told us who they were and, by and large, we took their word for it.  No doubt this benign good faith acceptance let a few fakers, but not many, slip through.  I had some early experience with this.  Though I had known and been known by the journalistic world, including close friendships with very prominent journalists, for at least fifteen years, after I became a serious national candidate the cry went up: “we don’t know who he is.”

President Obama is the most recent example of this.  Though elected by a clear majority of Americans who knew of his background, virtually unique in national political history, he continues to be plagued by forces who seek to deny his legitimacy to lead.  This will not end.  The question is whether the media will continue to take showmen and self-promoters seriously as creating what they call “the news.”  We are told by editors and news people that Donald Trump requires coverage, even live television coverage, because he is “making news.”  Donald Trump doesn’t decide what is newsworthy.  Journalists do.

These are not partisan observations.  George W. Bush’s legitimacy to lead was repeatedly questioned by many Democrats who claimed he did not have the intelligence to be president, but even more significantly that his election in 2000, by what turned out to be one Supreme Court justice, was not legitimate.  Rightly or wrongly, what now seems to be an endless questioning of the legitimacy of national leaders as newsworthy is taking its toll.

We have no way of measuring the impact of this skepticism run amock, this often mindless or even vicious passion to tear people down, on the caliber and quality of those who choose to seek political office and particularly high national office.  We do not know, and probably never will, how many men and women of quality who wish to serve this nation for the most noble of reasons simply decide not to submit themselves to this “scrutiny” in the interest of preserving their dignity and self-respect.

I have no solution, other than serious introspection by citizens and journalists alike, to this problem.  But it is a problem, and a serious one that will not go away on its own.  One thing is obvious.  It is not enough for those who decide what is, and is not, “news”, those who place stories in papers and on national television, to say that they are mere passive bystanders who have no choice but to give the Donald Trumps of the world legitimacy at the expense of the legitimacy of our national leadership.

4 Responses to “The Legitimacy of Authority”

  1. Gary Hart: The Legitimacy of Authority Says:

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  2. Jim Engelking Says:

    All true, Gary, but the purveyors of what passes for news in the MSM are no longer professional and responsible journalists. They are mere wage slaves to their corporate bosses. And CU is closing its School of Journalism. Trump was newsworthy for one day, like so many curiosities. Same with Palin. Same with most train wrecks. Why was Trump at the Correspondents Dinner? Why am I even mentioning his name? The fact that the Rehnquist Court selected the President in 2000, despite a 19th century federal statute, was news, but not properly reported by the MSM. The fact that John Roberts had been part of the Bush legal team that guided the case to and through the Rehnquist Court was not reported by the MSM, even when he was rewarded by nomination to be the replacement Chief Justice. There is no Fourth Estate anymore, merely sideshows to entertain the masses. Cheers. Jim

  3. George Harben Says:

    Senator Hart, I think this goes back decades. The biggest one I can recall was the Hayes/Tilden presidential election of 1876. Tilden got more of the popular vote; Hayes won due to the electoral college vote.

    In 2000 Senator Ashcroft lost to the recently deceased Governor Carnahan. The polls were kept open in key precincts after they were scheduled to close and questions were about the legitimacy of the election. Senator Ashcroft handled the situation with class. He accepted the voters verdict and refused to use legal maneuvers to keep the seat.

    Of course one of your 1974 freshman classmates had to run in a special election since the Senate did not accept the winner as determined by the NH sec of state. Senator Durkin won the special election convincingly in 1975.

    I also recall in your first race for president. Your legitimacy was questioned in part due to due to ridiculous charges about your last name and the year of your birth. It was a simple way for people to easily discredit your campaign and in my opinion very unfair.

    You have the recent MN senate race as yet another example.

    Your post gives all of us pause to think. First, sometimes the concerns raised by a losing candidate are legitimate. However, when minor issues are picked up by a respected individual and the media chooses to run a story on it, then that is a different issue. I am not sure if the loudest voice gets attention or for another reason.

    In fact, I think an underlying reason points to data I once read from former Gov. Richard Lamm. I may not get the exact figures right, but in the early 60s an overwhelming number of the public trusted the government to do the right thing and respected the media. More recent data indicates that the opposite is true. When a substantial plurality or perhaps majority of the public has little or no faith in key institutions, then we must continue to expect these types of stories.

    A second reason is if I can get people to question your legitimacy and you spend your time responding to those charges, then I win. You are not explaining your policies, you are responding to charges. With a plethora of news mediums and outlets, those that make legitimacy charges will find a platform. It takes staff time and effort. Generally, it is unfair and unwarranted. But, it certainly can move the public.

    The solution, I agree with you, I am not sure an easy one is readily apparent. But I have faith in the voters.

  4. T.A. Says:

    I agree with the poster that said this goes back way before the 1980s. James Garfield was accused of having an illegitimate child.
    This idea of questioning legitimacy is simply an effort to look for an easy disqualifier, so that one can avoid having to defeat a person politically, based on their ideas.
    It is what it is. Both parties do it with equal frequency and intensity. The media goes along with it, but usually doesn’t apply the political golden rule and certain candidates they like (Obama) got minimal pre-election vetting while those they disliked (Palin) still today undergoes nonstop vetting.
    Most mature folks have given up expecting this to end and simply accept it as the cost of entering politics. It’ll only end when journalism fundamentally changes.

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