Our Leaders Have Secrets

The sight of all those chanting in unison to Chris Christie’s “prosecution” of Hillary Clinton raises a question about how we view the notion of secrets. Certainly it was ironic that this spectacle was led by a man whose colleagues are all embroiled in a court case in his home state over what some would say was his secret plan (with secret and now missing communiques to boot). The candidate he came to celebrate, Donald Trump, won’t release his tax returns though every candidate has throughout history — and so the inevitable, what is he hiding gets whispered and speculated on. This is the first election seemingly where both candidates have secrets to spare — and the electorate is left to sift through and manage what matters to them.

There are different layers and types of secrets, private facts we would like to share with some but definitely not all. Secrets or information we don’t want to lose, don’t want someone to steal, or others to find out about it. The question of the new era will be who will be the gatekeeper of our secrets and how they will be protected — as well as what do we get to keep secret? Are there secrets that our government must keep for national security? How much transparency is needed to ensure democracy? How about personal choices in life — who has the right to know and how does it affect what we do? Security and transparency of our information will be the battleground of privacy protection and accountability in the years to come. Will the rules be the same for our leaders?

We all have secrets. Some make it an art form to deny them. And as an attorney I know this all too well―the false denial sometimes becomes more of a distraction than the secret itself. We’ve become so partisan and vicious; the fear of these candidates for leadership is that America can’t handle the truth. This is because we don’t seriously consider and examine our values and what is important as a country, like decisions regarding drugs, personal health, faith and science.

In political campaigns, what we learn about a candidate is in large part shaped by what we’re presented by the campaign itself — an algorithm the candidate and advisors have decided, maybe even tested for what they think most likely voters will care about this time around. Campaign strategies are designed to present the image of a candidate to maximize palatability — to create the perfect candidate, not to present the actual person. But we have to ask how culpable we are — the voters — in setting candidates up to feed us certain kinds of “truths” to pass an impossible litmus test? At the same time we are waiting for the attack ads, the press battles where the dirty laundry, the hypocrisies or worse are exposed. Our appetite for uncovering secrets is seemingly unending — they fuel our favorite dramas and it feeds an industry of magazines, TV shows and websites under the category of gossip.

And as voters we are not immune―we keep secrets from ourselves about how we view candidates. Who we vote for in the voting booth is a secret by law, but in this Presidential election, the supposition is that certain voters will be dishonest when asked about whom they voted because voting for one candidate will subject the voter to ridicule or shame. Like the “Bradley effect,” voters falsely claimed they voted for Obama when they didn’t because to vote for the other guy means one is a racist.

As in every election the presumptive question is: What do we really want to know about those who seek to be our leaders? Is it really their character or a measure of the judgments the leader is likely to make? Will they make the same decisions you would make? Does the leader represent you well? If all candidates have secrets — secrets about how their values, policy, and decision-making, how do we evaluate their competence as a leader?

We have to ask better questions about their decision-making process. How will you decide if we should go to war, raise taxes, raise the minimum wage, modify Obamacare, and forge relations with Congress? Maybe Christie had the right idea — though he was the wrong person to do it. Ask the candidates questions like a lawyer, not like a reporter. Give the candidates the deposition you’ll want them to have once they’re in office. At least the public will get an answer or know that the candidate/witness is being unresponsive. It’ll take time to analyze the answers, but we’d learn a lot more and there would be fewer secrets about our leaders’ goals and acts.

About the author:

Robert Buschel is an attorney in Florida who handles both criminal and civil cases, some of which have been featured on 48 Hours, Dateline as well as other national news outlets and in People and USA Today, The Miami Herald and Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. He is a member of the Florida Bar, California Bar and admitted as Attorney of the United States Supreme Court. His first novel By Secret Majority, a political thriller set in the White House, will be published in August. www.bysilentmajority.com