Remedial Ethics

By CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY

New York Times

November 10, 2005

"Bush Orders Staff to Attend Ethics Briefings; White House Counsel to Give 'Refresher' Course"
- The Washington Post, Nov. 5

GOOD morning, everyone."

"Good morning, Mr. Bonhoeffer."

"I hope everyone had an ethical weekend. I thought we'd start this morning with a situational exercise. Karl, suppose a reporter called you and said, 'I will write a very favorable article for my paper and make you look really good if you will tell me a super-duper classified national secret.' What would the correct thing to do be?"

"Tell him, 'Let me get back to you on that?'"

(Laughter)

"All right, settle down, everyone. This is no laughing matter. Anyone?"

"I would tell the reporter, 'I could, but that would be wrong.'"

"Thank you, Nicole. Technically fine, but can you tell us who in the White House first said that?"

"Bill Clinton?"

"I don't think he ever said that."

"Eleanor Roosevelt?"

"No. Anyone?"

"Spiro Agnew?"

"You're getting warmer. Karl, please put away your Blackberry. Can you tell us?"

"Richard M. Nixon, 37th president of the United States. Three-hundred-and-one electoral votes to Humphrey's 191."

"Very good. And what happened to Mr. Nixon?"

"He retired, wrote influential books and became a senior statesman."

"No, Karl, he resigned. Or didn't you have television and newspapers in Salt Lake City?"

"I went to the Nixon Library on a field trip once. They didn't say anything about any stupid resignation."

"Let's move on. Now suppose - yes, Mr. Cheney?"

"I have to go. I have a meeting."

"Please sit down. This is important."

"So's my meeting."

"Perhaps you'd like to share with us what it's about?"

"Torture."

"Thank you. I was planning to talk about that tomorrow, but since you've brought it up, let's talk about it now. Would you give us all an example of when you feel it is ethical to torture someone?"

"If that someone was about to launch an attack on the United States. Or making me late for a meeting. I think that under those clearly defined circumstances, tearing out their fingernails or immersing them in boiling oil would be, yes, a reasonable policy."

"I'm glad you brought up the subject of oil. Let's suppose there was an energy-related company. And a high government official, say, used to work for it. Now let's say that his country - call it Country A - went to war against Country B. And the energy-related company then got a very lucrative contract to rebuild Country B. Now let's say that the high government official agitated - indeed, pushed - his government to invade Country B in the first place. Do you see any potential conflict there?"

"None at all."

"Anyone? Yes, Harriet?"

"The vice president is the second most brilliant person I have ever met, and if he says it's O.K. to pull out people's -"

"Harriet, we're not discussing whether someone is smart."

"Sorry. I withdraw."

"I'm out of here."

"Mr. Vice President, class is not over until I - what is it, Karl? I asked you to put away your Blackberry."

"It's Tim Russert. What if he's calling to reveal the name of another undercover C.I.A. operative?"

"Then you put your hands over your ears and say loudly, 'Not listening! - La la la la la la la!' This is what Aristotle advises in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics. Why don't we end there for today? Don't forget the assigned reading. And a few of you still owe me papers!"

Christopher Buckley, the editor of Forbes FYI magazine, is the author, most recently, of "Florence of Arabia."