How tweets poison a leader from the get-go

It used to be the emails. Now it’s the tweets that come back to bite people on the backside. And I’m not even talking about former President Donald Trump, whose tweets are part of the impeachment case being made against him this moment. What made Trump unpalatable for many was not that he tweeted, but rather the content of the tweets.

This is also what Neera Tanden — President Joe Biden’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget — learned at two nomination hearings this week. Several published reports point out that Tanden deleted some 1,000 tweets from her account after being nominated.

Oddly, perhaps, the critics ranged from no less than fellow progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont to staunch conservative Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). One tweet stated something about Sanders benefitting from Russia more than Hillary Clinton emails, or something — loaded language. During the Budget Committee hearing, Sanders called the tweets “vicious attacks.” In the same hearing, Kennedy said Tanden called Sanders “everything but an ignorant slut.”

At the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, ranking member Rob Portman (R-Ohio) brought up the tweets in the context of what he called rising incivility. As example, he cited a tweet in which Tanden had called Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “Voldemort,” a nasty and unattractive character from the “Harry Potter” series (I had to look it up). She compared Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to a vampire.

What does any nominee, regardless of party or political position, gain by having to start out apologizing a thousand times for intemperate remarks on social media? If confirmed, half the Senate — more than half if you count Bernie — will approach Tanden with the thought, “Time to deal with the tweet lady.”

It reminds of an early incident, when I made money with photography. Once a client was in a hurry for some black-and-white glossies, so I brought them to his house on a Saturday morning. He came to the door with his toupee missing, but with the sticky, circular holders still affixed to his head. To this day, that’s the only image I can conjure of the man.

The late George Shultz famously called trust “the coin of the realm.” Tweeted insults give you a trust deficit from the outset. I certainly wish Tanden well in an important post. I point out the tweet episode not to chide her but as an example of why this increasingly common practice is so destructive — not to the targets but to the initiator.

Politics and insults, they go together like bacon and eggs. The legendary lawyer Clark Clifford, some years before the BCCI fiasco, called Ronald Reagan an amiable dunce. According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, after accepting a pleasant concession talk from Thomas E. Dewey in the 1944 presidential campaign, Franklin Roosevelt turned to the people gathered at his home in Hyde Park, New York and muttered, “I still think he’s a son of a bitch.” Only a few people heard it, though. Lincoln wrote insulting essays anonymously, until discovered and challenged to a duel.

The difference now is people can make insults a part of their daily personae, broadcasting them to millions with a mere tap on a pocket-sized pane of magic glass. People toss them off with little more thought than men who once casually spat on the subway station floor.

Other than the repeated expressions of regrets for the tweets, Tanden’s testimony was unremarkable. She’s in favor of better technology by which the government delivers services. She wants everyone to have equal access to COVID vaccines. She supports cost/benefit analysis in rule-making, secure borders and information sharing. It didn’t come up, but she is a supporter of the federal workforce.

I don’t know Neera Tanden. She sounded as reasonable and conciliatory as any other nominee in the weird mixture of harshness and conviviality that characterize the hearing process. By all accounts, she is an accomplished person who has done much to further what she believes are correct policy objectives.

The Biden administration deserves an OMB in line with policies of the administration elected by the citizens. I wish Tanden well, and it’s naive to think that even without the tweets the Republican side of the Senate and the OMB would toast one another jovially. Yet surface civility and careful exercise of human relations can help debate. So maybe Tanden’s hearings ordeal will have the positive effect of making other opinion leaders modify their tweet and other social media behaviors.

Social media lowered the barriers to fame. It’s almost too easy. These platforms, for too many, act like a loaded gun, only with a twist. The bullets often make a U-turn and hit you, too.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

By the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30-40 offensive words.

Source: Association of Psychological Science

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