It wasn’t so long ago that Barack Obama was on the campaign trail, talking about hope and change, about the purity he would bring to Washington. A true believer could maybe imagine a movie musical and a melodious voice singing, "The hills are alive with the sound of music … "
Now comes reality, governing, and two cabinet nominees who evaded taxes, one nominee faced with corruption allegations and another nominee who was going to keep an eye on government performance but who apparently neglected to keep an eye on her own.
If Obama has kept his panache — and as you watch him come and go on TV it appears he has — he has seemed in a wrestling match with certain of his campaign promises. We see as much in the saga of Tom Daschle, who has now taken himself out of consideration to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
Daschle is smooth and likeable, but from the start he represented much that Obama criticized as a candidate. The former Senate majority leader was a fiercely partisan, overly ideological Washington insider who followed up his Senate tenure with a fantastically remunerated D.C. job involving cozy relationships with special interests trying to influence public policy.
Those interests just might have had an opportunity to try coaxing Daschle to their point of view on important issues of health care if he had made it to the cabinet, but it turns out that Daschle had dodged $100,000 or more in taxes. It didn’t seem that Obama or any other Democrat seemed to care much — hey, this is Tom, one of us, a good guy, we like him a lot — but to their credit, even some liberal columnists and editorialists saw things differently, wondering where Obama’s standards were hiding.
So maybe because of that stir, he’s gone now, announcing his departure not all that long after Nancy Killefer decided she wouldn’t be the nation’s first chief performance officer, someone trying to whap governmental waste and foolishness on the head. It seems this consulting firm executive had failed to pay an unemployment tax for household help that is required by the D.C. government. Answering questions about that could be a distraction in her new job, she said.
A third nomination dropout was Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor chosen by Obama to serve as secretary of commerce. Just one problem. A grand jury is probing whether anything was amiss when the state awarded a contract to people who had contributed to Richardson’s political campaign, and who could say what would develop?
Then there’s Timothy Geithner, who did not drop out, who stuck with it, who is now secretary of the Treasury Department — and is therefore a boss of the Internal Revenue Service — even though he had welshed on paying $43,000 in payroll taxes while working at the International Monetary Fund. Published reports assure us he had been told what he owed. There’s no excuse.
Then there’s William Lynn, picked as deputy secretary of defense by Obama even though he had recently lobbied on matters that would be before him in the new job. This was a specific violation of an Obama pledge, just as all the these cases run contrary to — at least the spirit of — Obama’s sincerely intoned ethical pronouncements both before and after the election.
It wasn’t just exacting standards Obama was talking about, but something on the order of Puritanical overkill, along with stories about how there had never been such extraordinary diligence in investigating potential members of an administration. What we have gotten instead is a wink, a nudge, a ha, ha, ha and down the road we go.
The sanctity of the republic has not thus been horribly imperiled, but just maybe some voters will have learned to be wary of ultra-idealistic campaign rhetoric, if they had not already. After all, it is not the sound of music we’ve been hearing lately.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)