Taking the Lumps Proves Character

Estonia’s Pakri Lighthouse showed up in a recent re-election campaign video for Representative Lee Zeldin as an inadvertent stand-in for the famous national landmark at Montauk Point. Democrats, including Mr. Zeldin’s opponent, Perry Gershon, quickly made fun of the campaign gaffe. Resistance Facebook and Twitter lit up with derisive posts.

It is not as if Mr. Zeldin doesn’t know what the Montauk Point Lighthouse looks like; he and his family were there as recently as 2016. Had he reviewed the ad, it is most likely that he would have noted the difference. The YouTube version, which the congressman narrated, was still on Mr. Zeldin’s YouTube page Monday; later in the video, the correct Montauk Lighthouse appears. Someone, and by that we mean Mr. Zeldin, had not been paying attention.

This was amusing, sure, but the case of the swapped lighthouses brings up the question of how much a candidate can be blamed for the errors of his or her staff. 

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo won the recent primary despite releasing a false claim that his challenger, Cynthia Nixon, was anti-Semitic. David Gruber lost a primary for a Democratic East Hampton Town Board nomination after his supporters spread a false story that the eventual winner, David Lys, must have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. How the governor escaped significant damage from the bribery conviction of a former senior aide in the “Buffalo Billion” bid-rigging scheme boggles the mind as well. Then there was his infamous termination of the Moreland anti-corruption commission, which drew an investigation from then-United States District Attorney Preet Bharara.

Neither Mr. Zeldin nor Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Gruber have fessed up or apologized, as if doing so would be an admission of guilt and not a moment to show their mettle by taking an admirable high road.

Given that his battle to remain in office now looks like a dead heat, it is understandable that Mr. Zeldin would seek to distance himself from the lighthouse snafu. But Mr. Cuomo’s resistance to making amends was an inexplicable mistake given the near certainty of his victory in the Sept. 13 primary. As for Mr. Gruber, his failure to apologize was par for the course. But the point here is not to bash any particular politician but to consider if it is fair to fault them for the errors of their staff and supporters. 

Just about the first lesson elected officials learn is to take credit when things go well and deny involvement when they do not. But that does not make it right or an admirable example for others. Great leadership does not include wriggling away by blaming subordinates. President Harry S. Truman famously kept a sign on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Here,” which expressed responsibility and his willingness to answer for decisions that might not work out. 

Inasmuch as admitting mistakes is a show of character, evasions matter. A government in which leaders stand up and take their lumps is far better than one in which they dash for cover when missteps are made. History quickly forgets the weasels.