I got a call recently from an old friend, Tim Weiner, who worked with me years ago at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Tim, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for his journalism, is one of the nation's leading experts on national security, intelligence operations, and related agencies.
His current assignment from The New York Times Magazine is to write a profile of Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI, who has been appointed special counsel by the Justice Department to lead the investigation into connections between members of President Trump's campaign staff and Russian government operatives. I knew Bob Mueller in school decades ago, and Tim wanted to talk to me about his earlier years.
I clearly remember that well before our college years, Bob’s character and his values were already firmly rooted, and he stood out from the pack because of that. More than 50 years later, those same values are protecting philanthropy as much as they are serving the Department of Justice.
Bob was a gifted athlete and a genuine leader at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., back in the early 1960s: He was elected captain of the soccer, hockey, and lacrosse teams. He was also a strong student, and — because of his skills and a very genuine and self-effacing leadership style — he was well liked by his classmates.
Even then, he seemed destined for a life of service. His play on the ice and the lacrosse field was instructive as to character: He won through skilled stick handling and play-making, not through brawn and bullying.
I also didn’t realize until that interview how relieved I was that Bob, who has exceptional capability and integrity, is leading a process that can ensure that our security is protected and our laws upheld. While the country’s attention may be riveted on the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob’s role will have greater reach in the long run. Although the common perception is that his assignment is to investigate the administration, I see it in a broader context:
The U.S. Justice Department has always had the lead role in protecting the rule of law in this country — and Mr. Mueller is now the principal in fulfilling that assignment. The rule of law — our Bill of Rights, the courts, our traditions of freedom and justice — these are the true underpinnings of American character and success. They are critical to the strength of most American institutions, including philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as a whole.
After all, philanthropy is the formal name we give to the bargain between benefactors and the segments of American society they choose to serve. Without the rule of law, that compact can't be sustained. There is a reason true philanthropy doesn't flourish in Russia, Venezuela, or North Korea: Most of the resources put forward for the common good are easily subject to fraud, abuse and corruption.
A Shared Agenda
Community foundations and other nonprofits across America are particularly dependent on this construct of trust and law. And they have flourished because of it. Community foundations work with nonprofits to produce a shared agenda of improvement: common goals, shared resources, collaborative action, all with a profound belief that working together can provide greater benefits for all.
This is the most troubling failure in President's Trump's assessment of the Paris Climate Accord — and his offensive assertion that he represents a place like Pittsburgh in exiting the accord: The vast majority of Pittsburghers believe in the idea that there can be a win-win result for countries that share the burden of addressing the very real problem of climate change. Mr. Trump doesn't, as he said.
In fact, he seems not to believe in the very principle of community action. The view he puts forward, particularly regarding climate change, is that everything is reduced to a battle in which he can win only if others lose. The rule of law assumes the opposite: that there are shared principles, values, and goals that we — Americans and citizens of the world — can advance together.
By its very existence, community philanthropy rejects tribalism in favor of individual efforts working collectively to advance the common good.
When one talks with Americans around the country — left, right, conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat — one almost always encounters an appreciation for freedom as the defining American characteristic. But one does not always encounter an appreciation of how freedom works. Having our rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights is necessary but not sufficient. It takes the strong assertion of those rights, backed by an independent judiciary and a robust tradition of the rule of law to ensure we stay free. Any drift away from the rule of law can threaten our freedom.
It is not just our freedom as citizens that is at stake. Our economic success, too, has been built on the rule of law. Entrepreneurs, workers, consumers, managers, and investors all have their interests protected by the law, and these protections have made our economy the strongest in the world.
It is this system that Bob Mueller and those working with him at the Justice Department and the FBI must protect. The success of our society, and America's place in the world, are at stake.