John's Notebook: A Washington morality tale

How we behave when no one is watching is a test of character. Under pressure, do you do the right thing? That question was at the center of James Comey's testimony this week -- a Washington morality tale with an Oval Office encounter. A high pressure stage.

The president once told us the story of a titan of business who was so awed by the Oval Office, he broke down. James Comey says he felt pressured in the Oval Office to end his investigation into Michael Flynn. The president said he made no such request.

There are many disputed points. We don't know who is telling the truth because no one was watching. This highlights something essential about Washington though. Sooner or later, for people in power, it comes back to those tough, solitary tests.

The founders knew men would fail and designed a system to guard against it. The Senate Intelligence Committee was engaged in that protective service, making sure that when power and ambition are mixed, it doesn't lead to an abuse of power -- we've seen it in presidents and FBI directors.

There are people in Washington who will face these tests or who are mulling one they've just taken. And the question is: how strong are the standards you bring with you to the room where it happens? Do you keep faith with the voters, to your oath, to your institution? To the lessons your mother taught you?

Standards are what you bring to the character test. Those who keep them are admired, trusted and forgiven when they falter. But also, in Washington, while sometimes it might seem that no one is watching, the hearing this week reminds that eventually, everyone might be.