The story of Steven Slater, the flight attendant who went berserk and illegally left his post by throwing himself down the escape slide, unfolded as the White House lost key senior staff. There are parallels here.
Slater, to my mind, is no hero. Despite the swell of Internet fans that liked the melodramatic way he quit his job after an altercation with a passenger over baggage, he now faces the possibility of up to seven years in jail for shirking his duty to oversee the safety of passengers and crew.
The real heroes are the flight attendants who always act professionally, no matter how many rude passengers they encounter or how bad a day they personally are having. The friendly skies haven't been very friendly for a long time. Flying, especially in those hellishly uncomfortable middle seats, hasn't been much fun for a long time.
What struck me about the Slater incident is how many people would love to have the job he so publicly tossed away, despite its drawbacks. (After 9/11 it should be clear to everyone that the primary job of flight attendants is cabin safety, not food.) When 14 million people are unemployed, it's startling to see someone disdain a job, any job. Slater's ex-wife says he loved his job and was always professional. But now he'll always be the guy who flipped out.
We've seen a lot of departures and flare-ups without dignity lately. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander in Afghanistan, had to resign after being far too candid to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine about his commander in chief. After 40 years in Congress, Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., refuses to accept a reprimand for alleged ethics violations and stands in the well of the House for 37 minutes on a rant demanding a full-scale hearing, no matter the harm to fellow Democrats.
Typically for an administration's second year, the White House has started hemorrhaging talent as more than a dozen overworked, exhausted aides give notice. Even though they joined the White House already acclimated to 60-hour work weeks, they've begun to burn out after 84-hour work weeks.
But so far they have gone quietly and without messy tell-all book contracts about life inside the glass house, second-guessing over health care reform, continuing contretemps on Iraq and Afghanistan or the hair-pulling contests we know have erupted over economic policy. We must brace for even more administration departures after the midterm elections in November. (It is to be hoped, for the sake of national stability, that the first family stays.)
Prevailing wisdom says that most Americans really like their jobs — the sense of purpose and accomplishment at day's end, the camaraderie of the workplace, the paycheck.
Nonetheless, the Labor Department says that in June 2 million people voluntarily quit their jobs. This is down from 2.9 million who quit on average each month in 2007. With five applicants for every available job opening, quitting is a huge risk, except for former White House aides who almost all go on to high-paying executive jobs at much higher salaries, with full health insurance.
There are many reasons for quitting, of course, besides the "I'm-mad-as-hell-and-can't-take-it-anymore" approach of attendant Slater: family, health, desire for personal fulfillment elsewhere. But few want to quit in an economic downturn that seems to be here for the long haul.
Most of the time, if we tamp down irritation and discomfort and make the best of things, the day will go a lot more smoothly, on the job or up in the air.
But courage must be admired. A close relative quit her job this month after 14 years of pent-up frustration, without knowing her next move. On her last day — a Sunday — she worked 10 hours without pay to make sure everything was done.
On the job or in the air, a dignified exit is cool.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service