“I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”
The speaker behind the belligerent words: Sean Spicer, the rookie White House spokesman, who started his new gig with a nervous, blistering put-down of the press corps for reporting that President Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd was smaller than President Barack Obama’s.
No questions allowed, just an angry defense of an untruth.
But this time it wasn’t reporters on the other end of his attack. It was career men and women in the State Department, hundreds who had used the dissent channel to express their feelings about Trump’s executive order aimed at refugees.
And then came a newer blast from the White House furnace, this one targeting Sally Yates, the acting attorney general who said she could not defend Trump’s immigration order because she believed it to be unconstitutional.
First, the president fired her, as was his right, but that wasn’t enough. The language used in the next message said Yates had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”
It went on to accuse her of being “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration” without any evidence to support the accusation.
The new residents at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t see this as an honest disagreement. They labeled it as a betrayal committed by this 27-year Justice Department veteran.
The question: betrayal of what?
If Yates had simply ignored her own values, her own beliefs, she could have continued to be attorney general, but at what cost?
Go back to her answer to Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for U.S. attorney general, when he asked, “You think the attorney general has the responsibility to say ‘No’ to the president if he asks for something that’s improper?”
She responded, as you hope Sessions would believe as well, that the attorney general is obliged “to follow the law and the Constitution.”
And she stood by those values, surely knowing her actions would cost her a job.
I believe it would have been stronger if she had resigned, just as Elliot Richardson did decades ago when President Richard Nixon ordered him to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.
It’s not easy to walk away from a position that you have worked for years to obtain. I know. I did it twice and both times it was hard and it hurt.
But the question is really a simple one: Is any job worth surrendering what you believe, worth vacating your values, worth, in your mind, damaging the institution itself?
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more than one side to the discussion.
In my cases the men I worked for owned the newspapers. It was their right to demand what they believed was the right thing to do. It was my right to disagree.
It wasn’t an act of bravery, as some have described Yates’ decision. Doing what you believe is right is not brave. I like to think that it takes a little moral courage. But it can also be frightening.
And that’s why I will never forget a mentor, the late Gene Patterson, a brilliant editor and writer and someone who was the conscience of the South in his newspaper roles in Atlanta and St. Petersburg, Fla.
The morning after I announced my first resignation, there was a telegram on my desk.
The message: “You will always have a job in St. Petersburg.”
I ended up elsewhere, but that one sentence read like a feel-good novel to my wife and me.
My hope is that Sally Yates received an email the morning after with a similar message.
There has to be room for dissent.
Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for The McClatchy Company. He can be contacted at email@example.com.