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Paul Greenberg / February 13, 2009

A Touch of Chicago

You can’t say this new administration isn’t changing Washington. Because, politically, the nation’s capital is starting to look a lot like Chicago on the Potomac, complete with the sleazy deals and subsequent embarrassment.

Just because the new president came out of the Daley machine, and had his own ethical problems before he became the Hope of the World, didn’t mean Barack Obama couldn’t reform Washington. A new era of Change was in the offing! The country was about to get the most ethical administration in history. (Again.)

Tell it to Mr. Dooley, the fictional Irish barkeep in Finley Peter Dunne’s timeless columns for the late and otherwise forgotten Chicago Evening Post. From his key listening post on Archer Avenue, Mr. Dooley, bless his Irish soul, had seen ‘em come and seen 'em go – reformers, that is – and he didn’t have much use for 'em. Or as he put it in a brogue straight out of County Roscommon:

“A man that’d expict to thrain lobsters to fly in a year is called a loonytic; but a man that thinks men can be tur-rned into angels be an iliction is called a rayformer and remains at large.”

Mr. Martin Dooley, saloonkeeper and philosopher, would not be surprised at how rapidly this angelic administration is turning into an only human one, with all the ethical compromises pertaining thereto:

First there was the still-mysterious case of Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico who chose not to become secretary of commerce in the Obama administration after all. Something about a grand jury investigation and his not embarrassing our new young president – who must be aging fast these hectic days, thanks to friends like Mr. Richardson.

After l'affaire Richardson came another exception to the high ethical standard that Barack Obama was bringing to Washington. It seems his choice as secretary of the treasury – Timothy Geithner – had failed to pay all of his taxes. (The bill came to $43,200 counting interest.)

It was all rather embarrassing for someone who’s been picked to collect taxes from the rest of us. Still worse, Mr. Geithner didn’t cough up till he was chosen for the Cabinet and realized that a confirmation hearing was bearing down on him.

There’s nothing like the prospect of a congressional hearing to wonderfully concentrate the mind – and add to the coffers of the U.S. Treasury. And show appointees to high office the error of their ways. By now confirmation hearings have probably saved more office-seekers than any tent meeting.

Like confession, such hearings are good for the soul. Indeed, they’re becoming largely indistinguishable from confessions as one distinguished appointee after another raises his hand and swears he’s sorry for not paying his taxes. It’s become almost a rite of passage for members of this latest Most Ethical Administration Ever.

Then there’s Tom Daschle, who until just the other day was Barack Obama’s choice to head the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services. He was going to straighten out the country’s physicians, hospitals, health insurance companies, and indeed the whole jumbled hodgepodge of a mess that is the American health care “system.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t even keep up with his own fiscal affairs, let alone those of every patient in the country.

The former senator failed to pay taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars of income and, politically worse, didn’t mention that little problem when he was being “thoroughly vetted” for the appointment. A busy fellow just can’t be expected to remember every little thing. And he would have brought with him a record of collecting millions in consulting and speaking fees from a wide variety of outfits with an interest in his official decisions. Not exactly reassuring.

Does anyone think that if Messrs. Geithner and Daschle were Republicans nominated by a Republican president, they’d have stood a chance of being confirmed by a Democratic Congress, what with their record of paying taxes, or rather not paying them?

No need to mention the new president’s choice of Nancy Killefer as chief performance officer of the U.S. government – before she was caught not having paid her household help’s employment taxes. Some duties, it seems, she didn’t perform.

The first, disorganized days of the Obama administration haven’t reached the proportions of another Most Ethical Administration Ever – the Clinton administration’s crack-up in the spring of '93 – but it’s getting there.

Here’s one good sign amid all the ethical murk: The clearly new president has just admitted he’s screwed up. To know you’ve got a problem is the first requirement for solving it.

But how many more Richardsons, Geithner, Daschles, and so questionably on can this “reform” president take on, and still be thought of as a reformer?

The problem cases are starting to mount up.

Barack Obama’s great strength as a leader has been his ability to inspire hope – the genuine, lower-case, real thing. But public opinion is a fickle beast, and bright hope can turn into contagious cynicism with dismaying speed.

At this rate, the grand illusion that was Barack Obama’s charismatic campaign could quickly turn into a grand disillusion with his administration. That kind of disenchantment is bad enough in good times. In times like these, it could be crippling. Remember the Carter Years, aka Malaise? Please, not again.


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