Tilting at Windmills

March/April 2011 The ugly truth in twenty-one words… The bakery-industrial complex… Make-believe = survival

By Charles Peters

Washington at its best I

For those of us who came to Washington with John Kennedy, January was a time for both mourning and celebration. On the 20th, a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his inaugural speech was held in the Capitol rotunda. Congressional leaders spoke about how the challenge of “ask not” had affected them. I was struck by the fact that people whose speeches had rarely been notable for the emotion they aroused—people like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry—actually became quite moving when they described how they had been inspired by those words.

Washington at its best II

On the 22nd I attended Sargent Shriver’s funeral at a small Catholic church in Potomac, Maryland. Once again I was struck by the genuine emotion of the speakers as they praised the contagious enthusiasm Sarge brought to every task he undertook, and how the tasks he chose unfailingly involved service to his country, his church, and his fellow man. Bill Clinton summed it up: “He couldn’t have been that good—but he was.”

Washington at its worst

On the 24th, Angela Novello’s funeral was held in the chapel of the retirement home where she had lived outside of Silver Spring. Angie had been Robert Kennedy’s secretary before and during his service as attorney general and as senator. We had become acquainted during the 1960 campaign, and when I came to Washington the next year, it turned out we lived on the same floor of the same apartment building. And so began a lasting friendship.

During the seven years when Robert Kennedy was one of the most powerful men in the country, you would have thought that the number of Angie’s close friends had to be in the hundreds. Lobbyists, politicians, and reporters would all describe her as one of their pals: “Angie always takes my calls, and she usually puts me through to Bobby right away.”

But none of these close pals showed up at the funeral. Aside from her retirement home friends and her wonderful Italian family, originally from Calabria, I seemed to be the only male there. Women were a bit better represented. There were seven, including Ethel Kennedy and her daughters Kerry and Courtney. Still, when you remember the legions of pals she had in the ’60s, you realize just how cruel Washington can be. The Washington Post didn’t even deem her worthy of an obituary. Angie had a warmer heart and more common sense than most of us will ever possess. She deserved better at the end.

The ugly truth in twenty-one words

Earlier this year, I collected a series of headlines from the Wall Street Journal that tell the story of the economy in miniature: “Corporate Profits Are Up Like Gangbusters”; “On [Wall] Street, Pay Vaults to Record Altitude”; “Downturn’s Ugly Trademark: Lasting Drop in Wages.”

The man could lead

Sargent Shriver stands alone among government administrators I have observed in his determination to find out what his agency was doing wrong and to fix it. My job at the Peace Corps was to make sure he knew that bad news, even when it involved criticism of his own actions.

Shriver was also a great leader in other crucial respects. He inspired high enthusiasm and enormous effort from his subordinates. He also devoted careful attention to selecting them. He spent more time interviewing potential staff members than any other agency head that I’m aware of. And the selection of Peace Corps volunteers was done with such care, that despite the extremely daunting challenges that many of them faced—including the threat of deadly diseases, primitive living conditions, and having to create their own jobs—a lower percentage of volunteers quit before their term was over than under any future leader.

Don’t stick around

Shriver also understood that over time even good people can lose their dedication and become more concerned with promotions and benefits than with the agency’s mission. So he persuaded congress to put a five-year limit on Peace Corps employment. That limit is probably too tight, but Shriver was prescient in seeing the danger of tenure. It’s odd how an increasing number of people are becoming aware of the danger of tenure for public school teachers but unaware that the same danger exists for all public servants. That danger needs to be faced if we are to have better government. The truth is that, as things stand now, we have far too many civil servants who “work to the rule” and get excited only about issues involving pay and benefits.

The bakery-industrial complex

Veteran readers may recall we once had a feature called “Memo of the Month.” Its purpose was to publicize enough examples of bureaucratic prose to bring about reform in the language of government, especially in making it more concise. That we met with less than complete success in that mission is suggested by a memo that recently came my way. It is Military Specification MIC C 440 726C W W/Change. Its subject is “Cookies, Oatmeal; and Brownies, Chocolate Covered.” It is nineteen pages long.

Around the world in eighty beignets

Since Julia Child introduced us to French cuisine, food has gradually become very close to a national obsession. Hour upon hour of television time is now devoted to cooking and eating. Even the channels supposedly concerned with other matters, like travel, share the obsession. How do they manage to relate food to travel? By making the preparation and consumption take place in different cities and countries. It reminds me of the time when poker was the rage, leading the sports channel ESPN to justify its poker show by calling it The World Series of Poker. And the Travel Channel got into the act with the World Poker Tour. Travel has gotten so carried away with its new passion that its show 101 Tastiest Places to Chowdown actually seems to endorse gluttony.

We lost you at “bureaucracy”

I was delighted to read the Washington Post article on Barack Obama’s proposal to reorganize government agencies. Written by Karen Tumulty and Ed O’Keefe, it is a sophisticated account of the peril awaiting attempts to re-arrange bureaucracies. The fact that the Post article is exceptional, however, reminds me of another failed mission of the Monthly.

Our original purpose was to improve understanding of the way the institutions of Washington really worked. Though we have enjoyed considerable success with respect to lobbyists, the media, and the White House, we have by and large failed in our efforts to improve understanding of bureaucracy, perhaps because the subject makes most eyes glaze over. But I pray the reader’s indulgence in resisting the glaze for the rest of this column.

Stayin’ Alive

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.