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Rob Curley: Author Tom Mueller, who has Spokane roots, explains America’s ‘Crisis of Conscience’

Sometimes things are just meant to be.

Like when you work for seven years researching and writing a book that takes a massive deep dive into the complicated and often misunderstood world of whistleblowers only to have one of the largest and most important whistleblower cases in our country’s history begin at almost exactly the same time your book is to be released. That’s exactly what happened to Tom Mueller.

His new book – “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud” – will be available in bookstores across the world on Tuesday and absolutely at Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane. It’s almost as if the book-loving literary gods wanted to give Mueller a little help by having Congress open an impeachment inquiry based upon a whistleblower just days before his book would go on sale.

In an email interview and phone call with The Spokesman-Review, the New York Times best-selling author offered another explanation. He jokingly suggested that maybe there’s something to 1930s Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez’s belief that it’s better to be lucky than good.

Dumb luck?

Hardly. Especially the dumb part.

Mueller has long been able to tie things together in intelligent and relevant ways for seemingly obscure subjects that become investigative page-turners once they have piqued his interest. That’s what happened with his first book – the 2011 New York Times bestseller, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.”

Initially, people were dismissive of a book about bad olive oil as nothing more than a first-world problem not needing a solution, but Mueller’s tale was filled with so much history and so many fascinating stories that it began to sink in that olive oil fraud was “paradigmatic of identical problems throughout our food chain,” Mueller said last week. Only it was all done in a way that made a liquid fat often associated with purity seem like something with closer ties to Tony Soprano than to religious rituals and tasty food.

Because none of us fully understood all of the corruption, deceit and profit surrounding olive oil.

It’s that sort of connective and thoroughly researched storytelling that makes “Crisis of Conscience” such an interesting read as well – regardless of which side you’re betting on in our nation’s latest and greatest presidential drama.

Tom Mueller's book "Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud".  (Courtesy Mueller)
Tom Mueller's book "Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud". (Courtesy Mueller)

“I’ve become convinced that whistleblowers are a very important litmus test, or rather canary in a coal mine, for the health of our democracy,” Mueller said. “The more extreme the corruption in the public and private sphere, the more whistleblowers will come forward – because after all, no matter how widespread corruption, we all retain some form of individual conscience, a sense of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to human behavior.”

It’s all of that bad human behavior being brought to light by some very unlikely people that makes his latest book so darn good. There’s a moment when you go from being intimidated by its nearly 600 pages to being a bit sad that it’s going to end. Each turn of the page is so rewarding on so many different levels.

Speaking of meant to be, it’s also a bit of fortuitous fate that one of Mueller’s first national book tour appearances for “Crisis of Conscience” is happening in Spokane. Mueller is one of our upcoming featured authors for The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages book club. He will be our speaker on Monday, Oct. 28, at the Montvale Events Center. Tickets are on sale now and we expect the event to sell out quickly.

So why is a guy with a national best-seller, who has written for the New Yorker, National Geographic and the New York Times – all while living or working in 48 countries, and currently in Italy – and whose book is so perfectly timed for this exact moment in our country’s history that the Washington Post rushed a review of it late last week, starting his speaking tour in Spokane?

Because Spokane is his hometown. Kinda.

Mueller has come to Spokane and its surrounding lakes every summer since he was born. His grandparents had a cabin on Spirit Lake where they’d congregate each year for informal family reunions. The family still has that cabin and still meets there.

“Though I spend a lot of time abroad and on the road, my official residence is Spokane,” he said. “My mother and brother live on the South Hill, and I stay with them every chance I get.

“I’ve seen the city evolve remarkably over the decades: the growth from Geiger Field to Spokane International Airport, the Expo grounds (where a distant relative of mine was the chief engineer) and Spokane Valley filling with buildings clear to the Idaho line. I feel more at home in Spokane than anywhere else in the U.S.”

Which is why he had to start his book tour here. Well, that and we asked nicely.

And we did it long before there was even a whiff of a new whistleblower in Washington, D.C. – which means Mueller is about to start racking up some very big airline miles here pretty quickly as organizations and universities around the country reach out to him to explain what all of this might mean.

Not surprisingly, it’s complicated …

… but also a really good story …

… just kinda intricate.

Which is partly why the book has so many pages.

It even goes back to the beginning of our nation. Actually, even before the beginning of our nation.

“Crisis of Conscience” makes the case that our Founding Fathers were the original whistleblowers, both in actions and in words. As you make it further and further into the book, you realize that Mueller uses whistleblowing to explore what democracy and citizenship really mean.

“I freely admit that I didn’t start out to do this or to write the book I eventually did,” Mueller said last week. “It seemed – like all good emergent phenomena do – to arise of its own from the disparate subject matter and life stories I was working with.

“In a time where the actions of so many make conscience seem dead, even ridiculous, to have people remind us that they were willing to make the ultimate personal sacrifice in the service of real truth, justice and the collective good of our nation. The ultimate message – that humankind has great good as well as evil, and the capacity for remarkably principled behavior – is powerful.”

Powerful is exactly the right word. So is insightful.

In many ways, “Crisis of Conscience” became Mueller’s attempt to understand – to dig up the root causes of – how America became a very different nation from the one he grew up in. That’s not saying that there weren’t serious problems before and that there aren’t incredible strengths now.

But it is saying that this country is extremely different than it was even just a few decades ago.

Still, there’s a sense of constructive questioning throughout his book – and not just because Mueller did hundreds and hundreds of interviews – that he’s trying to find out how the United States got to this exact place and at this exact moment. This explains the wide-ranging nature of his attempts to understand the whistleblower psyche … to get into the minds and the civic sense of those few who remain, in some sense, old-fashioned Americans.

At least Americans as initially defined by our Founding Fathers.

Then again by Abraham Lincoln.

And even by a current, and somewhat surprising, politician: the seven-term Republican senator from Iowa, Chuck Grassley. The guy who also served three terms in the U.S. House before running for the Senate. And that was after eight terms in the Iowa statehouse. The guy who has the current record for the longest streak of not missing a vote in the United States Senate.

You know, the same guy who is currently president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third in the presidential line of succession.

Yep, as outlined again and again in “Crisis of Conscience,” the conservative’s conservative has been one of whistleblowers’ biggest allies and proponents on Capitol Hill throughout his entire career. Grassley has gone out of his way to say whistleblowers are some of this nation’s biggest and most important patriots. He then made sure they had protected status within our federal government for all they do to look out for the best interests of Americans.

Grassley is personally responsible for many of this nation’s most important laws pertaining to whistleblowers. Yet he has been largely quiet during this current White House whistleblower case.

“Grassley has always been the most stalwart supporter of whistleblowers in Congress,” Mueller said. “But his stalwart support for President Trump is a mystery to me – a likely indication of just how extremely polarized our politics has become.”

Though it also could be a matter of practicality, a possible calculation Grassley has made so he can continue to best serve the desires of his Iowa constituency. And that’s easier when you’re in the same party as the person in the White House, even when you don’t always agree. Still, as Mueller points out, it sure appears the principled politician from the Midwest is “supporting a man whose basic ethical framework couldn’t be more different from his own, and doing so purely for political expediency.”

And that seems to have even bled over over into the president’s very vocal stance on the current whistleblower making waves in Washington.

“When Trump suggests this person is a spy and should be dealt with as spies were once dealt with – which means death – so far as I am aware there has been nothing but dead silence from Sen. Grassley,” Mueller said. “I think, frankly, this is disgraceful, and wish I could imagine a more honorable explanation of his silence, and all the harm it does to the whistleblower rights, as well as to the image Grassley has worked so hard over decades to build, than naked political calculation.”

You see, it’s complicated. Non-trivial. Possibly even Daedalean. A real pickle.

Definitely a can of worms.

Which is why it’s so great we’ll all get to talk with Mueller a little later this fall when he visits our newspaper’s book club. Besides, he’s a hometown guy.

Almost like it was meant to be.