An enduring riddle about social and political affairs is whether the “old days” were ever really better.

Was there once more decency, truthfulness and courage in the world than there is today?

Nostalgia for better times when America was “great,” or suffered less inequality, or was not so polarized — or something — unites a divided country today. I don’t have a clue whether, on the whole, this sense of a lost Golden Age is justified — particularly on the pressing question in this “post-truth” era of honesty in public life.

But I’ve been watching political shenanigans long enough to have a case study or two to offer.

Here is one: A quarter-century ago, Mark Dayton was a zealous, even self-righteous scold about public integrity — about the betrayal involved whenever public servants cheated the people they worked for.

This did not make Dayton particularly popular back then. The public paid little attention, and the hyenas who have circled hungrily in all epochs, looking to feast at the public’s expense, often resented his holier-than-thou pronouncements.

Whether “times” have changed or not, Dayton seems to have changed a bit. On Feb. 7, Minnesota’s governor responded to clear confirmation of unethical self-indulgence with taxpayer resources among his own appointees by mounting a spirited defense of the hearty partyers — and delivering a scolding to those who questioned them.

Michele Kelm-Helgen and Ted Mondale, formerly Dayton’s hand-picked top executives at U.S. Bank Stadium — the “People’s Stadium,” as the governor used to call it — have resigned in disrepute for turning choice suites set aside for the people’s business into private party rooms for friends and family and DFL groupies.

But in his initial response to Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles’ pointed report finding that Dayton’s agents had violated a “core ethical principle,” the governor minimized the issue.

Mondale and Kelm-Helgen, Dayton wrote in an official statement Feb. 7, had “demonstrated their exceptional dedication and ability” in their stadium work, and only political opportunists were using “this single episode” to “deride and impugn” them. Later, all concerned said Dayton did not ask for resignations.

This wasn’t Dayton’s approach to such goings on back in the early 1990s, when he was state auditor — a different position from legislative auditor. Elected chiefly to monitor the integrity of local governments and public pension funds in Minnesota, Dayton was in those days something of a scourge to self-dealers, including, at times, close political allies.

The case I remember best started in 1991, soon after Dayton had been elected auditor. Several staff auditors who scrutinized local government books confessed to systematically padding their expense accounts, mainly claiming excess mileage.

Dayton investigated, decided the auditors had violated the public trust (even though their actual auditing work was fine) and fired them.

That was far from the end of it. One union staffer appealed his discharge. A labor arbitrator ruled against Dayton and ordered the pilfering auditor reinstated. Outraged, Dayton took the unusual step of challenging the arbitration ruling in court.

(Let me pause here to note that it was this quixotic crusade of Dayton’s that first got me interested in the problem of arbitration and public-employee discipline — the difficulty public managers often have in holding misbehaving public workers accountable. This includes wayward police officers, a particular concern in recent years. I’ve continued to write about this major gap in public accountability all these years.)

Dayton waged an epic battle against that system, to fire that less-than-honest auditor. He won the case in district court, but then lost on appeal before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Dayton defiantly pressed his protest all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In its 1993 ruling, the state’s highest court conceded, in unforgettable language, that the fired employee’s “conduct would appear to violate a well-defined and dominant public policy against the embezzlement of state funds by public employees … .”

Well, yes. But still, Dayton lost. The auditor got his job back. More important than punishing the theft of public resources, the court held, was that the finality and authority of labor arbitration be upheld — or something.

It was a memorable and noble losing battle Dayton waged back then against the forces of complacent corruption. Unfortunately, one sees now that apparently Dayton learned its real-world lesson all too well.

There are more important things than honesty in public life — lots of more important things.

Today America has a shameless liar in the White House, much to the dismay of many. But it may be only the shamelessness that’s really new.

There are many things President Trump doesn’t understand. But he understands that the American people have become fully numbed to what I’ve called the “culture of mendacity” in public life — to the constant dishonesty of subtle stretches and evasions, of misrepresentations cloaked in nuance, complexity and fancy language. They’re so completely onto this game, Trump understands, that one no longer needs the pretense. Even colossal, flagrant whoppers strike millions as mainly political business as usual. The only truth that counts is what side you’re on.

Has this bone-deep cynicism always been there, waiting only for the right provocateur to fully exploit it? Or has the world gotten worse as too many idealists have learned too many real-world lessons?

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.