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An Act of Courage

Lee Burns

Honor, Truth and Duty—ideals that have guided McCallie for more than 100 years—are, sadly, elusive in today’s world. They are situational, even secondary, in a society that most highly esteems success, prestige and power. At every turn, we are told to do or say whatever it takes to win, to get ahead, to promote and protect oneself. Is honor but a quaint notion, the truth but a malleable tool of manipulation, our duties limited to our own interests?

Historian Jon Meacham writes that as individuals and a country, our base, selfish instincts wrestle with our noble virtues—our better angels. This week, a better angel won.

29-year-old John Harris, an assistant U.S. Attorney, found himself testifying before the North Carolina State Board of Elections about the allegations of voter fraud in a Congressional election in which his father, Mark Harris, had won a narrow 905-vote victory over his opponent in November. The elder Harris, was seeking to have the election results certified so he would be seated in the United States Congress.

Reports emerged shortly after the election that there were irregularities with absentee ballots, and that the Harris campaign had engaged the services of McCrae Dowless, a veteran political operative with a reputation of dirty tricks in prior campaigns. Harris acknowledged the campaign had hired Dowless, but he denied having any warning or knowledge that Dowless might commit voter fraud.

But John Harris knew that wasn’t true. In fact, he had had warned his dad, both verbally and in writing, about what he believed to be illegal tactics Dowless had previously used.

Further, without his father’s knowledge, he had been subpoenaed as a witness in the case and called to testify.

What is a son to do when his own father is not being forthright under oath about something as vital as the integrity of our democratic process?How does he respond beneath the glare of national media attention while surely knowing his father’s livelihood and reputation hang in the balance? John Harris did what is right. He testified, truthfully and fully, with his father seated just steps away.

He professed his love for his father, even as he shared information that contradicted his father’s sworn testimony. He honored the truth. He discharged a duty.

The cameras in the hearing room that day captured the scene: his father, weeping. They were, I hope, tears of pride in the virtue of his son rather than of sorrow for the electoral victory which would soon vanish.

John Harris graduated from McCallie in 2008. He was the President of our Senate— a student-led  honor council that seeks to seeks to ensure that students are behaving honorably and truthfully in all aspects of their lives at McCallie. He was also a member of McCallie’s chapter of the Young Republicans.  

John’s actions didn’t derive from political allegiance or expedience, or even the strong pull to protect one’s family. They sprang, with courage and conviction, from noble ideals: the virtues of honor, truth and duty.

At the conclusion of his testimony, John said he thought about the lessons he wants to teach his young children and the need to rise above the politics that divide us. He said we can all do a lot better. He’s right, and he showed us how to this week.