We're in the middle of a vetting avalanche, I'm convinced of that. Anyone stepping into a new job - especially one that comes with housing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - should be prepared to have every word, decision, thought and social media post dissected ad nauseam. By dissected I mean examined, pulled apart and, at times, refashioned so that its original meaning and context no longer survive. Is this fair? And of equal importance, is it smart?
"Vetting" is a term whose origins relate to the veterinary sciences . To "vet" once expressly meant to evaluate and appraise an animal, typically a working animal, for some useful purpose. With time, the term expanded to include evaluation of a person for certain roles or positions in which pre-approval was necessary. Think of vetting a college applicant for a spot in the class of 2020.
Which all seems quite reasonable, yet I can't shake the idea that vetting a person is a very different proposition from vetting an animal. Regardless of how many common elements exist between the two enterprises - checking on health records, behavioral predispositions, working style - I wonder if our modern obsession with getting everything "right" is causing us to overlook what matters most.
Ben Carson is the latest politico to chafe under the spotlight. His response is reactive recoiling, complaining that he is being scrutinized to an unprecedented extent. Really? Just look at the background checks performed on Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Marco Rubio and countless others whose lives have been examined to a degree that even the sanest person would find maddening. As fellow GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said on Morning Joe: "This is part of the process. This ain't bean bag, as we say." I don't mean to imply that the process of vetting should be discarded. How else could we discover discrepancies between political proclamation and actual practice, or learn of real lapses in character that could have profound implications if left uncovered?
But we may be reaching a watershed moment where the benefits of proper vetting are overshadowed by a zealous desire to either ordain perfection or, more frequently, find fault. When the media itself starts questioning the practice, you know something is afoot. This growing unease with vetting is potentially problematic. While it is perfectly reasonable to ask Jeb Bush about his history of working with state legislatures, do we really need to know what he thinks of fantasy football gambling? Worse yet, when the vetting process amplifies a past incident that is salacious but non-character destroying or non-criminal in nature, it turns attention away from the candidate and toward the questioner. It undermines the process itself and if the process is discounted, it erodes the faith people have in the very thing designed to help them avert disaster. Further, it opens the door to all kinds of shady characters and crackpots grabbing for power unencumbered by fear of their true selves being exposed. A lack of faith in reasonable, focused vetting hurts today and, without question, hurts the future.
So how do we reasonably examine a Presidential candidate, business leader or even the person we entrust with caring for our children while we are out of the house? Well, one's prior history does hold value, as does gaining an understanding of a candidate/applicant's views on topics most relevant to the role sought. In other words, does what you say line up with what you do and support what you once did? There are other highly relevant factors that one's history and beliefs can uncover; factors like resiliency, transparency, fairness, compassion and wisdom. Factors relevant and vital to any role, especially roles where the lives and welfare of the many rest in the hands of the few.
So yes, vetting is here to stay as a necessary evil, an evil no one chooses to encounter. We are, each of us, owners of something in our past we'd rather not see come to light. Something that may have shaped who we are but does not express the full sum of what we are today. Dig up what matters to the job one seeks and refrain from doing more. After all, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.