Protect Our Leaders

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump crossed a dangerous line when on August 9, 2016 he, I believe, suggested to a rally crowd that a way to keep a conservative Supreme Court would be to assassinate Hillary Clinton or, perhaps, judges.

I was a senior in high school when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963. I was finishing college at the University of Minnesota when Martin Luther King was murdered April 4, 1968, and then Robert Kennedy two months later.

These men transcended politics: they had greatness in their visions, fire in their words, and magic in their personas. So many hopes and dreams flickered when those men died – aspirations never extinguished but their energy dampened.

These tragedies inspired me to become an agent in the United States Secret Service. The image of a brave and desperate agent Clint Hill as he tried to save President Kennedy that dark day in Dallas moved this young man. Nobility resides in those willing to die to safeguard democracy.

I was trained to protect our leaders.

For half of my first year in the Secret Service, I protected former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. I also worked at the White House and traveled around the world in 1969 as part of President Richard Nixon’s security detail.

I know two things from these and other experiences in the Secret Service. First, courageous and determined women and men protect our leaders. Second, no one can be protected completely. If someone wants to get a shot at a leader, they probably can.

I fear for Hillary Clinton. As the first woman nominee for president with a long political history, she brings forth deep fear and hatred in extreme conservatives’–often prey to manipulation by talk radio and Fox News. We watched physically repulsive rage fueled by Republican pseudo-leaders toward Clinton at the Republican convention. We see and hear vulgar and rabid people—even young children—at Trump rallies. As Trump slides in the polls, what else might he say? Or, how might his “jokes” be interpreted by unhinged people? Aside from politics, many people in America are angry and afraid—legitimate anxieties exacerbated by Trump and other politicians. And we know that guns—even military automatic rifles—are readily available to deranged people.

Hillary Clinton faces danger. She and the Secret Service know it. I imagine her protective detail has grown since Trump’s reckless comments. I am sure hundreds of threats have been made against her life and many twisted and dangerous people are being watched and accounted for as she travels.

The agents of the Secret Service will do all they can to protect her and all our leaders. People who attend political events can keep their eyes open. And all can say a prayer for the safety and the well-being of those who want America to be her best self so our hearts will not be broken and our spirits disillusioned yet again.

Context Matters

Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are. Esmeralda Santiago

Shane Bauer, senior reporter at Mother Jones, worked undercover as a correctional officer for four months in 2014-2015 at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. The Corrections Corporation of America runs the prison.

Read his story here.

Bauer wrote:

Studies have shown that personalities can change dramatically when people find themselves in prison environments. In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he randomly assigned college students to the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift basement “prison.” The experiment was intended to study how people respond to authority, but it quickly became clear that some of the most profound changes were happening to the guards. Some became sadistic, forcing the prisoners to sleep on concrete, sing and dance, defecate into buckets, and strip naked. The situation became so extreme that the two-week study was cut short after just six days. When it was over, many “guards” were ashamed at what they had done and some “prisoners” were traumatized for years. “We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces of the kinds operating in this Stanford Prison Experiment,” Zimbardo reflected. “For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability.”

UPDATE: The Justice Department announced on August 18, 2016 that they would discontinue using privately owned prisons.

The Dalai Lama wrote: “We are all capable of cruelty and hatred.”

Later in the article, Bauer wrote of his own behavior changes while a guard:

Like I do every night when I get off work, I take a breath and try to remember who I am. Miss Carter is right. It is getting in my blood. The boundary between pleasure and anger is blurring. To shout makes me feel alive. I take pleasure in saying “no” to prisoners. I like to hear them complain about my write-ups. I like to ignore them when they ask me to cut them a break. When they hang their clothes to dry in the TV room, an unauthorized area, I confiscate the laundry and get a thrill when they shout from down the tier as I take it away. During the lockdown, when Ash threatened to riot, I hoped the SORT team would come in and gas the whole unit. Everyone would be coughing and gasping, including me, and it would be good because it would be action. All that matters anymore is action.

Until I leave. When I drive home, I wonder who I am becoming. I feel ashamed of my lack of self-control, my growing thirst for punishment and vengeance. I’m getting afraid of the expanding distance between the person I am at home and the one behind the wire. My glass of wine with dinner regularly becomes three. I hear the sounds of Ash unit as I fall asleep. I dream of monsters and men behind bars.”

Dysfunctional families and workplaces can have similar anti-human impacts on us. Occasionally I observe a person who can stand true to themselves against the forces of compliance to negative norms. They are courageous people who, as my friend Eleanor Velarde wrote me “…develop a secure relationship with the best within ourselves.” How does the world we choose to live and work in affect us?

The Dalai Lama wrote in Ethics for a New Millennium: “…when we mix with those who clearly indulge in negative behavior, seeking only their own benefit and ignoring others, we risk losing our own sense of direction.” He wrote of such behavior in all areas of life, not just in the most negative of places, like a prison.

A Tibetan proverb says when we lie on a mountain of gold, some of it rubs off on us; the same happens if we lie on a mountain of dirt.

The context we choose to live in will do much to decide who we become.

Choose wisely.

Optimize or Maximize Our Lives?

Everything in Moderation

Scoop Heuerman (my dad)


David Plummer used to see only one way to the top of the podium. The former Gophers swimmer believed he wouldn’t make it unless he stripped away everything but his sport, putting the pursuit of fast times above all else.

Earlier this month, with a 4-week-old son Ricky asleep on his chest, Plummer laughed at that thought. “I’m almost embarrassed at how long it took me to realize it,” he said. “But the better I try to do in every aspect of my life–as a dad, a husband, athlete, coach–the better everything goes.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune June 26, 2016)


The mechanistic world view, mostly unconscious, has dominated how we think about life and how to live it for 300 years. When we think of people as machines, we run them until they quit, breakdown or checkout. Then we turn to medicine for a quick-fix. Then we max out again.

A living system world view replaced and encompassed the mechanistic world view a century ago. We need to change how we think about life. We need to understand—at work and at home—that managing a social system (a company; a family) means finding the optimal values for the system’s variables (or the goals of the organization and the activities of the family). If we try to maximize any single variable instead of optimizing all variables, the person, the family or the organization will decline, suffer dysfunction, breakdown or die.

We can’t avoid occasional excessive stress and all-out effort in one area of life. Moderate stress alerts and motivates us and sharpens our focus. But maximum stress for a long time in one area of life puts stress on all aspects of our life and harms and destroys living systems–including people.

I’ve been a maximizer more than an optimizer over my lifetime—especially in my work life. I value excellence. I love achievement and strive relentlessly to accomplish my goals. I feel alive as I climb the newest mountain in my life. I’ve gotten a lot done. My late friend, Clinical Psychologist Diane Olson, Ph.D. said I had the intensity gene. As I age, my emotional intensity grows stronger than ever as I know time runs out for all of us and I want to do and experience as much as possible in my life. But at the extreme, I am perfectionistic and obsessive/compulsive. I don’t have a turnoff button. I am impatient and critical of myself and others. I burn out. I figured such intensity harms to me more as I get older than when I was younger. I took up meditation in large part to help me lower my appetites. I work to find the elusive moderation.

My dad was right and David Plummer had a valuable insight as a young age. I hope more kids who maximize sports to achieve unreachable goals, more adults who focus only on career aspirations and more organizations who die far earlier than necessary due to their singular pursuit of profit will learn the lesson David Plummer realized and the wisdom of my dad learned in the school of hard knocks.

As for me, I continue to work to learn how to live in new ways.