In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion reads the paper
(Editorial note: For those not in the know, John Swallow was elected as Utah’s attorney general in 2012. He served less than a year before resigning. He is currently being prosecuted for multiple felonies. )
I was a freshman in college and overly idealistic when I first met John Swallow. Some of my high school friends had grown up in the neighborhood where he lived, and a family member involved in politics had met with Swallow multiple times when he was a state senator (District 51, 1996-2002). Back then everyone in my life who knew Swallow gave a consistent report: This guy is the real deal.
They told me he was kind, personal, principled, and strong, but not at all petty or partisan. His record in the state house was everything I (as a young conservative) wanted to see, with most of his legislative work bespeaking common sense, efficiency, and constitutional values. And the year before he had been recognized as Taxpayer Advocate of the Year by the Utah Taxpayer’s Association.
I saw in Swallow a “Mr. Smith,” and I wanted to send him to Washington. When he decided to challenge Congressman Matheson in Utah’s newly (and very favorably) redrawn 2nd District, I volunteered without a moment’s thought.
I reported for duty at the campaign headquarters, a cramped clump of basement offices in a dated business park in Draper, UT. Phones, with their lines stretched all over the floor,were ringing. Folding chairs surrounded folding tables, which were covered in poorly photocopied leaflets. A large section of the floor was littered with yard signs, which mostly still needed to be attached to wooden stakes. It was inauspicious, but the unimpressive surroundings only reinforced the narrative that we were the underdog. Poverty and purity were on our side.
Jason Powers, the campaign manager, showed me around—all three or four rooms—and instructed me on the art of placing yard signs. (On land no one seems to own or take care of, on major thoroughfares, visible from both directions—if at a corner, place at a 45-degree angle from the intersection.) John was busy making fundraising calls—a skill that would ultimately take him far—but during a break he came out to meet the new guy.
“John, come meet the new guy,” Jason beckoned the candidate over. “He’s going to be interning for us.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said while shaking my hand in a very warm and kind, but not at all creepy way. He looked young and happy. His shirt was clean and white. His tie simple and red. It was a thrilling moment for me. “Thanks so much for your help. It’ll be great to get to know you.”
There wasn’t much to the exchange. A short time later John was back in his office making calls, and I was on my way with a trunk full of yard signs and dreams of working in the office of a U.S. congressman.
It was the best day I had working on the Swallow campaign.
A day or two later I was at a folding table doing some grunt work when I witnessed what would become an all too familiar scene. It went like this:
That was the process that occurred before we scripted local caucus meetings, and brought people in from neighborhoods privately to rehearse their lines. (Some people might believe that was happens at Utah’s caucus meetings is spontaneous and free from the effects of special interests—I know otherwise.) That six-step back-and-forth between Jason and John also occurred before insinuating “leaks” (proving nothing) were released to reporters, as our campaign ads went negative (and then very negative), while more insincere (dishonest?) courting of donors occurred, and as John’s platform became more and more whatever our audience wanted to hear.
I grew to hate Jason Powers. From my seat at the folding table, his only value was victory, and power the only thing worth fighting for. It seemed to him morality was a simple equation—if doing something was likely to help us (or hurt our opponent), and it wouldn’t be known or held against us later, then it was the right thing to do. I hated his brutish demeanor. I really hated him because he was winning the only election that mattered: the race for the candidate’s mind and will.
As the weeks went by John and Jason butted heads less and less. Eventually, the whole campaign felt like the last line from Animal Farm, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
– – –
John Swallow lost by about 1,600 votes.
Instead of jockeying for an office job in Washington with “Mr. Smith,” I went back to my old life depressed and disillusioned. (Even if Swallow had won, I wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with him or politics as usual.) The only lesson I thought I had learned at the time was that it may well be impossible for an honest man to get elected to any high office. Lots of decent men and women can get a few thousand votes, but to get a hundred thousand votes or more, you have to be so many different things to so many different people, that I doubted if you could ever be yourself. And what is being yourself if not the most basic kind of honesty?
– – –
In the years since, I’ve watched John and his career. I’ve wondered why he became something he wasn’t. Why did Jason win John over and not vice versa?
I don’t really know the answers and I think John would argue he hasn’t changed at all. (And I think he believes that.) But from my spot at the folding table, from all the time I spent listening to the heated discussions between manager and candidate, it felt like John thought the good he could do as a winner was greater than the bad he would have to suffer as a contender. He never seemed to doubt whether or not he belonged in high office, and, being so self-assured, anything he was told was necessary to get him there had to be tolerated.
When considering such a capitulation of character, I don’t suppose John is the only elected official who has traveled questionable paths in bad company. (I would bet all I have that someone holding higher office has done something far worse than anything John has been accused of.) I also realize making such compromises with ourselves is a part of life, and that no one is immune. (If any man is living perfectly up to his ideals, then I am struck by meanness of his aspirations.) But when it comes to living our values, there is something to be said for trajectory. The passing of time should always find us closer to the mark.
As I see where John’s trajectory has taken him, it feels tragic. I really liked the man he was; despite many opportunities, I could never bring myself to vote for the man he seemed to have become.
The day I found out he resigned as Attorney General, a quote from Lincoln came to mind:
Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.
You could substitute the word “lawyer” for “politician,” or probably a thousand other things. I wish John would have. He probably never would’ve gained the office of attorney general or lost himself in the process.