The cover of what was once Time magazine's "Man of the Year" is now five women -- "the silence breakers" who spoke up about sexual harassment. This was a worthy choice, but it is not the one I would have made. I would have picked Oliver Schmidt. He took a bullet for Volkswagen.
Schmidt, 48, was sentenced earlier this month in Detroit to seven years in prison for his role in implementing and covering up VW's plan to cheat on diesel emissions tests. Amazingly, Schmidt, a German citizen, wrote to the judge that he was merely following orders. For that, he should have gotten another year.
To understand why Schmidt is my Person of the Year, you have to envision him in jail and being quizzed by his fellow cons. What are you in for, they ask -- murder, rape, arson, theft, embezzlement, tax evasion? He keeps shaking his head, no. Finally, to the amazement of his fellow cons, he says, "I lied for Volkswagen." The place erupts with laughter.
In the same way, the children of tomorrow will ask today's politician why they either lied for Donald Trump or failed to denounce him. The politicians will say that they needed to get re-elected or were hoping that some obscure bill they had been pushing for years would become law. But the kids would say, "What about America's moral standing? What about the obligation to be truthful and to unite the nation? What about what's on all those memorials in Washington?"
Schmidt, at least, had to face the ugly facts. "You viewed the cover-up as an opportunity to shine and climb up the corporate ladder," the judge said at his sentencing. Schmidt had to agree. The former VW executive cited a 2015 meeting with California's Air Resources Board during which he concealed that VW was cheating on emissions tests. His bosses gave him "a script, or talking points," he said in a letter to the court. "Regrettably, I agreed to follow it."
This could be the lament of Trump's Washington. America is off on a moral bender in which the lie has become the functional equivalent of the truth. Trump set the standard at his first cabinet meeting. "Never has there been a president, with few exceptions ... who's passed more legislation, who's done more things than what we've done," Trump preposterously said.
Heads nodded all around and Trump was slobbered with praise. Reince Priebus, for a moment the White House chief of staff, said, "We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you have given us to serve your agenda." That agenda, apparently, included the firing of the obsequious Priebus, but at that meeting he summed things up. The president expected praise. The president got praise. With the exception of defense secretary James Mattis, not a person in the room had the integrity or self-respect not to grovel. Honesty was not on the agenda.
It is not much different in Congress. Yes, here and there a Republican has stood up to Trump -- Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, John McCain and, episodically, Lindsey Graham -- but most of their colleagues have been mute. Unlike Corker and Flake, they have re-election in mind. In other words, they have put their career or some obscure policy agenda ahead of their conscience -- as if the passage of this or that bill compensates for accepting moral corruption.
Events come at us on a minute-to-minute basis -- "breaking news," in the signature hyperbole of CNN. But it's worth pausing to consider that the president of the United States backed the candidacy of Roy Moore, a credibly accused child molester, a fulsome liar, an intolerant religious zealot and a trafficker in racist symbolism, not the least of them being a repellent nostalgia for the anti-bellum South, slavery included. He got the president's endorsement.
Trump had his reasons -- his agenda. As always with him, it took precedence over moral leadership and common decency -- and tarnished the party he leads. At first some members of Congress spoke out, but then clammed up. The president's endorsement was met with a roar of silence. Trump's overriding accomplishment is plain: The Republican Party can no longer be shamed.
Oliver Schmidt is not the first corporate executive to lie for his company. He said he did what VW expected. In the Trump era that hardly marks him as unique -- just another morally hollow person who sacrificed his integrity for petty gain. If he took a place in the cabinet or Congress he would be among like-minded people. He is my man of the year because he is -- like them -- hardly a man at all.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
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