ICYMI: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Sestak’s Quote Stumble Fails Trust Test

We all make mistakes; it’s human nature.

How we recover from our blunders is what defines our character and shapes our lives.

And in this, even the small mistakes — the ones that you think no one will notice, or that seem too trivial to address — count.

How we handle mistakes is a measure of our moral compass, a guiding principle of who we are as a person, a family or community member, a co-worker or a friend. It comes down to trust that you will do the right thing and hold yourself accountable.

This is especially true if you are running for office, from school board to city council to Congress and beyond, because lack of trust between government and its people is at the heart of America’s historic disconnection with their leaders today.

Eleven days ago, former two-term Congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat who represented suburban Philadelphia from 2007 to 2011, said he would again seek the U.S. Senate seat now held by Lehigh Valley Republican Pat Toomey.

He announced a platform of “restoring Americans’ lost trust in their political leaders by being accountable to the people,” with a bold but gimmicky walk across the state to show he knows what it’s like to walk in Pennsylvanians’ shoes.

It was typical political-showman stuff — except for a misattributed quote from a classic novel.

His campaign press release declared: “Standing in front of Independence Hall, Joe said America is about ‘We the People’ and that — quoting Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird — ‘You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.’”

Those words about walking in another’s shoes actually came as advice from the character Atticus Finch to his daughter Scout in Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Asked about the misattributed quote, a campaign spokesperson said Sestak “made the conscious decision to attribute the quote to the narrator, who was Scout.”

“Well, if you go with that theory, no one in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has a voice,” said Joseph Bentz, an American literature professor at Azusa Pacific University in suburban Los Angeles. “It’s just silly.

“Besides that, the quote is the heart of the novel, the moment Atticus teaches Scout to empathize with other people and see them from their perspective.”

Bentz said he could see no reason to purposefully misattribute a famous quote: “Atticus is the hero of the story, he is one of the most admired figures, and to attribute his best quote, even to Scout, is baffling.

“I can see how easy it is to misattribute a quote — that happens quite frequently,” he said. “When you figure it out, you fix your mistake, but to do it deliberately does not engender trust.”

People are tired of politicians believing that rules do not apply to them, only to us. How does that restore our trust, or strengthen our relationship with our government?

When we screw up, we have to fix it. But Washington, and those who want to hold power there, often lie to cover up mistakes, or commit wrongs because there are no consequences, or excuse mistakes by saying others made them too.

Said Purdue University political scientist Bert Rockman: “Nobody ever admits a mistake anymore, and don’t we expect politicians to be misleading?”

Perhaps. But shouldn’t we do better than that?

Rockman believes this episode won’t derail Sestak’s candidacy or affect voters’ view of him. Yet the public trust should start with politicians accepting accountability for their mistakes — and, if they don’t, then being held to account by us.

Sestak has not been accountable in this. In fact, he continues daily — sometimes several times a day — to send out campaign releases restating the misattributed quote.

Everything about this episode, and so many others like it, gets to the heart of what is wrong about our relationship with Washington today.

You want to be elected to Congress or to the presidency? Then stop believing you can bend the truth to fit your story, or that the rules don’t apply to you, or that simple arrogance can cut it.

Be accountable. Be authentic. And, above all, be competent — especially with the small stuff.

To read the entire column by Salena Zito, please click here.