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Gazette Editorial: Ethics generally deal with actions, not words

The Berlin Ethics Commission’s decision that At-Large Councilman Thom Gulyas committed no breach when he allegedly criticized a citizen in harsh terms during a telephone call is almost a head-shaker.

This isn’t because the commission failed to do its job, or that Gulyas was right or wrong or that public officials just shouldn’t criticize non-officeholders. It is because more than half this country’s present elected officials, from the proverbial dogcatcher to the current president of the United States, would be out of office if that standard were to be applied.

Whatever Gulyas did or didn’t do, it’s been established at the highest levels of government that a politician can say just about anything he or she wants about anyone else with impunity.

Never mind President Trump’s Twitter assaults on others, President Harry Truman publicly called a critic of his daughter Margaret’s singing a “an eight-ulcer man on four-ulcer pay.” And if anyone really wants to hear an officeholder go off on individuals or whole groups of people, there’s Nixon.

But for sheer shock value, there was President Lyndon Johnson, who, when asked by a reporter why the U.S. hadn’t pulled out of Viet Nam, exposed himself and said, “This is why!”

Ethical breaches in government usually involve trading on a position or office for purposes of self-enrichment, and numerous politicians have been guilty of that over the years, with a few of them actually being caught.

But making disparaging remarks? President John Adams so disliked Federalist politician and former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton that he took to calling him a “bastard brat of a Scotch pedler (sic).” Not nice, obviously, but perfectly ethical.