The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Hidden Mosaic

Discovery News reports archeologists found a Roman mosaic floor beneath the Catholic Cathedral of Reggio Emilia in Italy. Composed of tiny tiles, the mosaic is notable because of three mythological scenes portraying naked human figures.

Symbols associated with the figures –an ivy crown, a lotus flower, a fish, two ducks, and a type of crooked cane called a lituus – suggest they are associated with a Roman religious cult known as the augurs. Thus, early Christians built their church over what was once a temple to a cult of pagan gods.

Archeologists say this was no oversight and it was quite common in the Third Century A.D. for Christians to build on top of preexisting structures. Indeed, the builders clearly saw the mosaic floor and treated it with little regard, erecting the pillars of their church’s foundation directly on top of it.

Meanwhile, in our nation’s capital, Republican Senators have been eyeing President Obama’s Cabinet nominees with a scrutiny that would make any archeologist proud.

If Obama’s supporters view him as some sort of “messiah,” building a new church of credibility and high ethical standards over the ruins of George W. Bush’s Washington, then a hidden mosaic lying beneath it has been brought to light that strikes many of them as heretical in nature.

This mosaic contains it own collection of individuals, each stripped naked in the light of public inspection.

First, some Republicans raised concerns over Eric Holder, the first African-American nominated for the post of Attorney General. Holder was involved with the pardon of fugitive and Democratic contributor Marc Rich as well as a decision to reduce the sentences of sixteen members of the Boricua Popular Army, categorized by the FBI as a terrorist organization. He eventually earned confirmation.

Next, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Commerce, withdrew his name because of a federal grand jury investigation into pay-to-play dealings on his part. Richardson feared the airing of this issue at his confirmation hearings.

After this, Senate confirmation hearings for Treasury Secretary designee Timothy Geithner revealed he had not paid $35,000 self-employment taxes for several years, even though he had acknowledged his obligation to do so. Geithner also incorrectly deducted the cost of his children's sleep-away camp as a dependent care expense and his housekeeper's employment visa lapsed during the last three months she worked for him. Despite considerable doubts and notable embarrassment, the Senate confirmed him.

Then came yesterday, bringing with it a double whammy.

Nancy Killefer, nominated for the position of Chief Performance Officer, withdrew her name because she feared a distraction over a 2005 incident, in which the District of Columbia government had filed a more than $900 tax lien on her home for failure to pay state unemployment tax on household help.

Finally, former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, withdrew later in the day over a public outcry. Some had long insisted his work at the law firm of Alston & Bird was tantamount to lobbying.

However, the real deal-breaker came with the revelation he received access to a limousine and chauffeur while a paid consultant at InterMedia Partners but did not declare it on his annual tax forms. Daschle reportedly also did not pay taxes on an additional $83,333 that he earned as a consultant to InterMedia Partners and revised his deductions to remove $14,963 in charitable donations claimed between 2005 and 2007.

These public figures also had another common factor beside corruption – they were all members of or closely connected to the Clinton Administration.

Holder was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and Deputy Attorney General. Richardson was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Energy Secretary. Geithner held an array of Treasury positions, most notably Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs. Killefer served as Assistant Secretary for Management, CFO, and COO at Treasury. Daschle was Senate Majority Leader for six of the eight years of Clinton’s Presidency.

My intent here is not to damn the Clinton Administration as unusually corrupt. Rather, the Clinton Administration was characteristically corrupt and this is damning enough, given Obama’s campaign message to sweep away “business as usual” in Washington.

How such a politician would end up with Cabinet nominees of this ilk is simple enough.

While Obama’s supporters loved his freshness, some of them – and certainly most of his critics – deeply worried he lacked the necessary experience to govern competently. The financial crisis that exploded during the closing months of the campaign, combined with ongoing concerns over national defense and foreign policy, only served to exacerbate this apprehension. Quite possibly, it ultimately extended to the President-elect himself.

In casting about for Democrats with real-world federal government experience, Obama had few choices beyond former Clinton officials. As a result, his proposed Cabinet quickly became top-heavy with them.

Obama argued that he would be the moral beacon who would guide his subordinates to use their impressive experience to reform the very corrupt system of which they were all products. It seemed to work. Democrats and Republicans alike praised the competence of the team he selected. His approval ratings soared.

Obama built an impressive-looking church of credibility. Alas, it was only a matter of time before the mosaic of the old cult of Clinton, nee competence, began poking through and disturbing its pristine façade.

Daschle claimed an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times was among the things that motivated him to withdraw. This thesis, nailed to the door of the church of credibility, asserted, “Daschle is another in a long line of politicians who move cozily between government and industry. We don’t know that his industry ties would influence his judgments on health issues but they could potentially throw a cloud over healthcare reform.”

The Washington Post, argued back in defense of the cult of competence, contending, “Daschle deserves to be judged also on the basis of his long career in public service and his knowledge of and interest in healthcare reform . . . [I]f Obama still wants Daschle in the job . . . he's entitled to have him.” A variety of analysts and advocates joined in the bewailing over Daschle’s departure this morning, calling it a “loss of momentum” and “serious setback” for healthcare reform.

In many ways, this pruning of some of the Clintonistas may be a good thing in the end. The fierce urgency placed on prior experience was causing Obama to neglect some of the balance he promised for a diverse Cabinet.

Case in point – While the loss of Richardson is regrettable, Obama’s replacement pick of New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg brings in another Republican to an Administration where Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood threatened to be a token representation, given Defense Secretary Gate’s tenure is understood by all to be temporary.

“Gregg is no window-dressing Republican for Obama's Cabinet; he is the real, conservative thing, with an admirable commitment to getting entitlement spending under control,” admires the Washington Post this morning.

Moreover, at a time when Republicans seemed determined to oppose Obama’s stimulus package at all costs, Gregg extols it as an “extraordinarily bold, aggressive, effective and comprehensive plan.”

“This is not a time for partisanship,” Gregg goes on to reprimand. “This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other. This is a time to govern and govern well.”

When Obama said on Monday that he stood by Daschle “absolutely,” Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina criticized him as “losing credibility” with such unrepentant support. “Part of leadership is recognizing when there has been a mistake made and responding quickly,” DeMint lectured.

It took Obama only one day to learn his lesson. “I screwed up,” he admitted repeatedly in various television interviews. “I’ve got to own up to my mistake, which is that ultimately it’s important for this Administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules . . . one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes.”

Those skeptical of Obama as political messiah are right to feel satisfaction in this self-acknowledgement of his naïveté at governing. However, those who admired him are doubtless also pleased to see a return to culpability and responsibility by the White House.

For all his tirades against the subject, it is ridiculous to believe that a McCain Administration would have contained fewer members with past lobbying ties. It is even more absurd to conclude a President Hillary Clinton would have appointed fewer members from her husband’s past Administration.

As Jody Powell, former Press Secretary in the Carter Administration, told the New York Times today, it is better to establish lofty goals that might go unmet than lack goals altogether. “If you set standards, you’re going to fall short on occasion and you’re going to have to compromise on occasion,” Powell said. “But you’re probably also going to get more done.”

Various pundits predict a setback for healthcare reform with Daschle at the helm or without him. So give another, perhaps more native Obama nominee a crack at it. Let credibility without proven competence balance against competence with proven doubtfulness of character.

Obama chose to build his church not upon a rock but over the shifting tiles of a half-hidden Clinton mosaic. Let us hope, for all our sakes, he sank the pillars of his foundation very deep.

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