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In politics, principles matter more than prestige and perks

I grew up in the ’60s, when everyone in my age group was consumed by the Vietnam War.

How could our nation’s leaders make such a terrible decision, we wondered, and why didn’t those who expressed doubts or opposition to the war resign their public offices in protest?

I once asked a former cabinet secretary of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations why he hadn’t resigned, after he told me he had had grave misgivings about the war.

“I had a mortgage to pay,” he replied.

Some five decades later, the question arises again, with other men serving a different president.

Being elected to the highest office in the land and as leader of the free world has not improved Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents A history lesson on the Confederacy for President Trump GOP senator: Trump hasn’t ‘changed much’ since campaign MORE. He constantly reminds us who he is — a man who is ill-informed, has no sense of our country’s history and seemingly believes the presidency should be used to punish, ridicule, malign, demean, denigrate and divide.

Tuesday’s press conference revealed the real Trump.

His remarks on Monday, condemning the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched and attacked people in Charlottesville, Va., were just for show. His words were written by someone else, and seemed in no way to reflect his true feelings.

So, now is the time to ask again the question of so long ago: What about the people he picked to serve in positions of great responsibility?

Let’s start with those standing right next to him in Trump Tower at Tuesday’s press conference.

Gary Cohn is his chief economic advisor. There were reports afterward that Cohn was upset by Trump’s words. At what point does Cohn say to himself that he has had enough?

After all, Trump declared that there were “very fine people, on both sides.” Among these “very fine people” were self-proclaimed Nazis and Klansmen who chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

Cohn is Jewish — so how can Trump’s words not deeply offend him?

Also standing next to the president was Stephen Mnuchin. He is the secretary of the Treasury. And he, too, is Jewish.

How can Mnuchin remain silent and be part of this administration?

I can only imagine that the prestige and the perks of high office are so dear to these two that they can’t bring themselves to give those up.

Cohn and Mnuchin apparently have made a decision: Their stations in life replace principle and conscience — they have chosen to trade their souls for titles.

Do the words “Never again,” which are so important to Jews around the world in recalling the horrors of the Nazis’ Holocaust, mean something less to them? 

Just hours after Mnuchin stood beside Trump at the press conference in New York, I saw him sitting at the prime table of a restaurant in Washington which has become the place to be seen. Two black SUVs were parked in front; bodyguards were seated nearby. 

All of this might give someone a false sense of importance and worth. To give it up might mean a diminution of one’s supposed station in life — no longer given the prime table, no longer accorded as much deference and respect.

Both of these men must realize all too well that their treatment by others is not due to their essential personal qualities, but to the offices they temporarily hold.

And yet, Cohn and Mnuchin are both multimillionaires. Unlike that former cabinet secretary back in the ’60s, a monthly mortgage payment is surely not a problem for them.

How sad if standing next to Trump does not make them uncomfortable, if what he says and does is just “business as usual” to them.

Especially when the rest of America’s 320 million citizens, most of whom are not so financially secure or treated with such deference, will continue to be horribly embarrassed by Trump’s words and actions.

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner. Previously, he was the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, where he co-hosted the “D.C. Politics Hour With Mark Plotkin.” He later became the political analyst for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station, where he hosted “The Politics Hour With Mark Plotkin.” He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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