The President? Congress? America? Is Anybody Listening?


The White House touted the State of the Union address as an opportunity the President would use to bring the country together. What did that mean? There had been a year of actions and Tweets by this President that had served to undermine such messaging, so I was more than a bit skeptical of what we might hear. Doesn’t bringing a country or any group together require listening? Understanding?

Unfortunately, this was yet another missed opportunity for this President. The message I heard was one of fear and blaming and not one of listening to others and bringing people together. Fear of immigrants, linking them unfairly as a group with  gangs and violence, and all but ignoring the positive contributions immigrants have made and continue to make to America. How quickly this administration forgets our own immigrant roots. But when your own fear drives the message, it’s convenient and consistent with our country’s history of blaming  people of color.

Our church is doing a “season of listening” this Lenten season. The idea is to have many of us visit our fellow church members and engage in a 45 minute conversation for the purpose of getting to know the other person better. To be able to “go deeper” in our conversations. To actually “see” the other person. Our training intrigued me because there was an emphasis on listening to understand. . . and not just listening to let the other person finish so we can then share our own views and beliefs. How often do any of us listen, generously? We were instructed that we should listen at least 70 percent of the time during these conversations. How often do we do that? How often do our elected leaders do that? Imagine what they could learn.

I was intrigued by the invitation our facilitator (a pastor with years of training) gave to each of us. We were invited to ask “courageous” questions. For example, if someone mentions that after their divorce they started doing a great deal of gardening. Do you take the easy way out and ask them if they were gardening flowers of vegetables? Or, do you seize on the invitation the intentional mentioning of the divorce gave you to go “deeper?” Perhaps you acknowledge how difficult their divorce must have been and ask them how they were able to move forward after that difficult time.

As I reflected on this evening of training to be a more thoughtful listener and courageous questioner, I found myself thinking of the recent government two day shut down, and the conversation about the “brave” U.S. Senators who had gathered in the office of Senator Susan Collins, where they were able to negotiate a path forward (although for just 3 weeks). Many of the Senators involved  in the bipartisan conversation spoke glowingly about the Native American talking stick (apparently a gift from North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp) in Senator Collins’s office that was required to be held by the person talking, requiring others to be quiet. It was designed to create order, deter interruptions, and foster listening.

Rather than shaking my head at how this Senate story highlighted, yet again,  how dysfunctional our House and Senate have become,  it struck me as a wake up call, an opportunity, for each of us to realize and acknowledge how much work everyone has to do, to be a generous listener, to listen to understand. How else do you bring people together? The House and Senate are no different. The talking stick scenario brings that front and center.

While part of me wants to applaud the Senate’s ingenuity to borrow from Native Americans to figure out a practical way to listen to each other and get something done, the other part of me sees a sad irony in the use of a Native American talking stick, used to bring needed order and an opportunity to be listened to,  heard and seen, by an overwhelmingly body of older white men that has, historically,  ignored Native American voices and the voices of those in this country who are not white.

But talk is cheap. Until the actions of the President  and Republican members of the House and Senate, who find themselves in the majority, show a willingness to truly listen, to understand, America is destined to be mired in more of the same dysfunction. We all lose as a result of such dysfunction. The President ostensibly reaching out to the Senate Democrats to unite  a divided country seemed positive on its face. Yet, this must be followed by actual listening and dialogue. That needs to include not only a willingness to listen to understand, but a willingness to actually change one’s mind and modify one’s position as a result of such dialogue.

Fast forward a couple weeks to where President Trump praised the work done by his now former staffer Rob Porter, who was forced to resign after allegations of abuse by Porter’s two ex wives. There were pictures of Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, with a black eye she said she received from his punching her. Holderness reportedly provided these pictures to the FBI during their investigation as part of Porter’s pending security clearance. . . a security clearance he never received. Was the White House or the President listening? Did they even ask why Rob Porter had not been given a security clearance?

Porter’s first wife, Jennie Willoughby,  had filed an emergency protective  order against Porter. CNN has reported White House officials were apparently aware of the allegations made against Porter as early as January of 2017. Did White House officials hear the allegations? Did the men in charge not want to hear them?

How does this President bring people together? He publicly praises Rob Porter, a man on his staff who abuses women. The President said:” We wish him well.. . . He worked very hard. I found out about it recently and was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well. It’s obviously a tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career, and hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad. Now he also as you probably know, he says he’s innocent. And I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent. So you’ll have to talk to him about that. But we absolutely wish him well. Did a very good job while he was at the White House.”

Nothing about the women victims from this President. What does the President wish for the victims of Porter’s abuse, Jennie Willoughby and Colbie Holderness? Does he wish them well? Does he even think about them? Do you suppose he knows they are also “very sad.” The President’s statement tells me he’s not listening. He does not understand. The President does not “get it.” The President stresses Mr. Porter’s denials. The President has a disturbing history of stressing the denials of male abusers, whether Rob Porter, Roy Moore, or himself. What lies ahead for our country,  whose leader lacks the moral integrity and/or skill set necessary to condemn an abuser’s actions and rightly focus his concern on the well being of the real victims?

This is a President who has perpetuated a culture of abusing women and not believing women when they bravely come forward and shine the light on the abusers – whether physically, sexually or psychologically. We don’t just wish our president could and would do the right thing by calling out abusers, we expect them to do it. Those Republican lawmakers who continue to excuse this President’s moral bankruptcy, for any reason, are complicit in the dire consequences and real life carnage that is left in its wake.

This is not what bringing people together looks like. It’s the opposite. Yet this is the President. There is nothing normal about either this White House or this President.

Another wrinkle to this story is that the White House initially sought to circle the wagons and defend Mr. Porter. As part of that process,  the President’s communications director, 29 year old Hope Hicks, helped draft the press release in defense of Mr. Porter. The allegations of abuse made against Mr. Porter by his ex-wives were initially called “vile” by Hicks and the White House.  Oh, did I mention that Ms. Hicks was dating Mr. Porter at the time? Is anybody listening? MeToo?  What’s “vile” is how this was handled by the White House. Ms. Hicks and her boss should be fired –  if anybody was truly listening to understand, to see Jennie Willoughby, Colbie Holderness, and all the women in this country who continue to be abused, not heard, and not seen.

When will we, as Americans who struggle to still claim a country with a moral compass, tell Jennie Willoughby, Colbie Holderness, and all the other brave women in this country who continue to be subjected to tone deaf male dominated systemic abuse,  that we see them, we hear them, we believe them and we understand? When and how do we finally and loudly tell our mostly male elected political leaders that we’re going to hold  the male abusers, and those who support them, accountable come Election Day? How about right now, in 2018, by intentionally electing more women leaders who “get it?”

America, are you listening?







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Tom Fiebiger is a recovering civil rights lawyer and politician, having spent 25 years representing workers that were discriminated against and a term in the North Dakota State Senate. The God he understands is more about grace than judgment, has a sense of humor and a big tent. Fiebiger's best gift is his family.

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