Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Swearing Over Swearing In

Update 3:45 p.m. The Governor-elect will now allow folks "in the house" for the ceremony. I'm told his staff was working on this before the yelping started Tuesday, but it sure makes the media feel like it won one...

All my friends in the media are having a conniption (meaning: tantrum) over Governor-elect John Kasich's desire to keep his private home private, even as he's sworn in with a midnight technicality ceremony. My first question is: why is his house now considered public? This really isn't about the First Amendment or government transparency. It's about politics, silly

Kasich's decision to remain at home in a Columbus suburb -- providing stability for his family while he works his "day job" in the Governor's office -- tosses a monkey wrench of sorts in the land of government transparency.

Is this really at the same level as the swearing-in of LBJ with widow Jackie Kennedy by his side, at left, with the slain JFK in the hold below?

Prior Governors who called the Mansion home lived in a building owned by the state; the expenses of running the place, records of phone calls, all considered the people's business and therefore open to examination by friend and foe alike. That's the price one pays for serving their fellow citizens.

But Kasich's decision to stay at home and use the Bexley Governor's Residence for ceremonial purposes adds a wrinkle to how the people's business gets done. When he's living in his house, it's not the "people's house" but his private residence where his family lives. I think most of us, when pressed, would sympathize with his desire to offer as normal a life as possible for his family.

Which brings us to being sworn in as Governor at midnight, a largely technical exercise ahead of the more ceremonial inaugural bash set for January 10th in Columbus. It's to legally allow Kasich to act as Governor in the event of an emergency before the public show.

We're told there's plenty of precedent in modern Ohio political history to have the moment captured on film. At least that's the argument offered by the Associated Press and other journalism organizations, equating coverage of the act as a show of transparency in government. They want to be there to capture the moment, and make a good argument it is part of the people's business and should be open press.

But this isn't taking place in a state-owned building; it's in someone's personal, private residence. If "a man's home is his castle" is a dictum you embrace, then it stands to reason the homeowner decides who to admit to their home and is not bound to do so because that's the way others have done so in the past. I doubt many of us would consider giving up the privacy of our own homes as a price to be paid for serving our fellow citizens and neighbors. The Kasich home is still the Kasich home, regardless of what he does for a living, so long as the taxpayers aren't footing the bill.

And no, just because he's Governor doesn't mean we're footing the bill for his family's home. That would be like saying your employer has a right to inspect and enter your house on demand.

This "midnight swearing ceremony" may be part of history, but other public officials here and across the country have similar ceremonies without having a news photographer on hand. Even when new statehouse lawmakers were sworn in this week, I doubt every newspaper was lined up to have photos of the official event. Fact is, the candidates themselves usually send the media a photo. It's no different than life behind the curtain at the White House; it's not always an AP photographer snapping history. Some of the most iconic photos of our Presidents are taken by the official White House photographer, a surrogate for the press corps.

I'm not inclined to buy in to the outcry over transparency for a ceremony taking part in Kasich's private residence, and think it highlights for every potential public servant a good reason to think twice before putting their name on a ballot. A balance should be struck, and in this particular case a technical ceremony in an official's private home at midnight doesn't exactly rise as a litmus test of transparency for me.

That said, there are compelling reasons why the Governor-elect and his advisors should heed the protest letters likely to come from media and critics alike. Those reasons aren't in defense of open government; they are offered here because of the politics.

Governor Kasich, you have far more on your agenda than wasting time fighting over this. The most important times in any politician's career are those moments building support to get elected, and then the message you send on your first steps in office. What you will be doing in Columbus over the next four -- or eight -- years begins with how you project your leadership these next few weeks.

Your fellow citizens are far more concerned with how you intend to plug up to a $10 billion dollar shortfall -- that's $10,000,000,000.00, approximately $909 and change for every man, woman and child in Ohio -- in the budget without raising our taxes or cutting off our services. We're far more interested in the reforms you and your team will try to push through the Legislature while every Tom, Dick and Harry special interest squeals like a stuck pig and pulls out all the stops to protect their way of life. It matters more to Ohio how you get us and our neighbors working again, with jobs that make a difference to our community and provide a real future for our families without packing up the moving van and heading to Texas.

It starts with being on the up-and-up and building trust. Yes, it's your house. Yes, the histrionics from both sides over whether they'll get a picture of you swearing the oath before going to bed at midnight seems silly. But this is politics and the media, both of which you are all-to-familiar with.

Use some common sense: let the AP or a pool photographer enjoy a brief moment of hospitality in your home to take a photo for posterity. If you absolutely protect the privacy of your own home (I'm with you on that one, by the way) see if the local city hall or library if they mind you using their building to be sworn in at midnight. Get the Ohio State University's official photographer to snap away and send the images to the media. It was good enough for John F. Kennedy; it should be good enough for John R. Kasich.

You accepted the transition of private citizen to public leader when you filed the papers to run for Governor. Leadership is knowing when to pick a fight, and this small potatoes isn't worth the time, energy and political capital as you prepare to undertake the hardest job in Ohio.

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