Friday, June 29, 2007

Two Women – Two Decades

I’m sitting in the elegant House Ways and Means Committee room, my old stomping ground. I was an expert chart-holding staff guy who would sometimes be summoned here during hearings and sit on the dais behind my mentor, Congressman Bill Thomas, who would later became Chairman of the panel. I’d slouch in my "staff" chair and dream of setting tax policy – write-offs for football bets, clothing allowances for Hill drones, exemptions for underachievers.

Today, my current boss, a veteran of politics and one of the savviest people on health care in town, is testifying calmly and confidently, sparing with Democrats in their new found ascendancy. Suddenly there’s a tap on my shoulder and who is it but the first person to hire me in town and with whom I continue to keep in touch.

The person who tapped me on the shoulder and for my first job is Cathy Abernathy and the current boss is Leslie Norwalk. Abernathy to Norwalk – two bookends of my near two decades in politics – no big deal except for the but for the fact that both are women, both have been exceedingly successful, and between them, came a succession of strong females who were my superiors and contemporaries.

Now, I have no illusions about how women are treated or viewed sometimes in this town, or anywhere else for that matter. Washington, like the country, can be a misogynistic place, and factor in the stakes involved, i.e. power. Moreover, I confess I’m guilty of some of the locker-room behavior in this realm, despite the fact I sometimes revel in my right-wing, ex-Army, lacrosse playing, gum-chewing, caveman ways.

But in looking at Abernathy and Norwalk in the same room, I tumble to the fact that it’s been my good fortune to be serve, sycophantically so perhaps, two political women, emblematic of the way politics has evolved in Washington.

Cathy was the two-decade old chief of staff to Bill Thomas, former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the architect and engine behind the tax cut policies that will define this administration and this economy. Abernathy has been in the game since the 1970s, when Thomas was an obscure state legislator from central California; then, a new Member in a weak, flailing minority; then, a tactician who put the GOP in control; then, the chairman of arguably the most important committee in Congress. Yeah, he’s a remarkable guy, and yeah, he suffers no fools.

But what goes perhaps unnoticed, is the tremendous affect Abernathy had as his right-hand woman as he rose and rose and rose. I know because I saw it every day for more than 3 years. It’s impossible to describe what it takes to succeed to that level in politics -- and staff is vital. The grinding of monster egos, the subterfuge, the strategic fights, and the defeats suffered – and I’m talking about just from fights from folks in your own party. Don’t even get me started about what it takes to conquer an entrenched majority.

Abernathy was the field marshal in this crusade when there were few women on the Hill and a small handful in leadership positions. I saw what women faced -- the sheer disdain some men had about females. Always the innuendo about looks -- are they attractive, heavy set, mousy, ill-clothed – and about temperament: are these females figureheads, weak, are they pushovers, will they cry, are they dragon ladies? Abernathy made it despite the chauvinism. She could be hard as nails and I felt it smartly when I disappointed her. And yes, I took it like the simpering male I am, oh har har.

At the hearing, my current boss, Leslie Norwalk -- the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, a kind of noteworthy agency that runs the largest health care program in the world, covering 91 million Americans at a cost of of $646 billion annually-- is showing grace under pressure as Democrats try to take her and her agency apart. This is about the 9th hearing where she’s taken a pounding – nothing personal, you see, this is the way it’s played. Norwalk gives it back, poise gained during years as an attorney and a Bush 41 and 43 appointee when, as she once said, she "was always underestimated.”

Other women I’ve known and worked with in town include the late Ann Eppard, who like Abernathy, was a chief of staff to a senior member, Bud Shuster. Like Abernathy, she spent a lot of time in the wilderness with a minority member – helping him get to the House Transportation Committee chairmanship. There’s another, Suzanne Sullivan -- who like Abernathy and Eppard, was along time staffer for another chairman, Rep. Rep Norm Mineta -- who also was a top FAA aide (for another impressive female, Jane Garvey) and is now, yes, an evil lobbyist. Kathleen Harrington was another one of my bosses, a top official in the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and a chief of staff to Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, one of the sharpest minds on health care in the entire country.

Every one of them brought a similar leadership style to the job – overpowering knowledge, politeness, a bit of breeziness and a larger bit of steel – succeeding in a town that, admittedly, has grown a bit more mature. And the interesting thing is, the hearing room in which Abernathy, Norwalk and I sit is jammed with women; yes, some of them venal lobbyists, but others who are advocates, staff and yep, Members.

Take it from this certified knuckle-dragger that times have changed. Because it wasn’t like this 19 years ago when Abernathy and I were sitting side-by-side in these chairs and I was dreaming of my special exemption.....

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lacrosse Captain Standing Alone, Standing Last

Take a glance at those three rascals standing next door. The two older fellows are nice guys; the youngest is finishing his second year at Boys Town. All three play lacrosse, a sport demanding a combination of athleticism, endurance, and raw power.

The eldest, Devlin, plays lacrosse at the Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland, a 77-year-old traditional boys school cut from the old model: jackets and ties all day, sir and Mr. the only greetings, athletics required, and the boys call each other by last names. The most overwhelming thing about the place is the constant refrain drilled into these kids from 3rd to 12th grade: Integrity, discipline, selflessness. Even a casual visitor to the place is a bit astonished by the prevalence of this ethos and the tightness of the community, from the grounds, to the way the kids behave, to the bearing of the teachers. It’s remarkable place.

In the Landon gym hang photos (stared at with school boy fascination by Dev and his pals) of one of the school’s best lax teams ever, nationally ranked and captained by a guy who unfortunately got his 15 minutes of fame during the past year in a saga that brought out the worst that a biased media, a venal prosecutor, a cowardly university president, and a militant, racist academic corps can produce. He is David Evans from Bethesda, Maryland, captain of the Duke Lacrosse team.

Now, I don’t know Evans but virtually everyone in the nation knows the outline of the Duke University Lacrosse team story right now so nothing bears repeating. We know the whole ugly saga was pure fiction and for the families of the three accused lax players, it was an estimated $5 million legal ride.

Because of my ties to elements of the whole sad fiasco -- my kids at Landon, my mediocre college athletic career, my service as a zany dad with three sons who are members of the local lacrosse community -- the whole fiasco hit me, yes, like a monster check at midfield.

First, the college where I played three sports was so small that if you had a heartbeat, you made varsity and if you could throw a football 20 yards you were 3rd string quarterback. It was here I learned how to play lacrosse badly, which I proudly do to this day. So the deal is, I’ve been around hundreds of college athletes, men and women, in my day. Yeah, there are some knuckleheads, but let’s get one thing straight: The fact is, well-to-do lacrosse players at good schools -- and I’ve known dozens and dozens of such guys -- are simply not the ones garnering a lot of felony crimes. (David Evans was going to work at Goldman Sachs, not in the NBA or NFL.)

Second, as an admitted ideological caveman observer of the ideological scene, I once again viewed in full color the step-by-step destructive nature of the liberal academic mindset. There’s the utter venality of the Duke faculty – The brave Group of 88 ---and the woefully pathetic Duke President. I guess we’ve come to expect this kind of behavior, improbably, from those we expect to teach and guide our kids -- particularly those privileged white kids who do double duty as soulless jocks. You know, the ones who are so dense they end up working for investment banking firms in New York.

But hey, wait a minute -- isn’t it these Neanderthals who have the talent to get into Duke, and whose parents can pay the freight – through tuition and gifts -- that enables these high-minded professors to write their path- breaking studies on “Subjunctive Adverbs in Pre-Chaucerian Dialects”? Sheesh folks, thank goodness that those wily Duke admissions officers, who bring in all those crass, rich, over-achieving jocks will never
get a shot at the Nelligan boys, who are three sullen, geeky dullards (why, look
at that photo, man).

But the Duke case, most of all, represents so baldly the militant liberal imagination that will assume the absolute worst about anything that is white, male, and well-off. Throw in the jock angle, and you’ve hit the jackpot. No adherence to justice (an all lax team police line-up), no clear evidence (dated phone and ATM records, no DNA); no proof (2 recantations by the accuser, eyewitness accounts) can deter these fatuous academics from screaming about race and wealth.

The media, always culpable, always desperately wanting to believe the most outrageous proposition if a score can be settled, follows blindly. Add a venal prosecutor who plays this situation, through deceit and cunning, like a master, and you have an Olympian morality play about race and privilege in America. But of course, you don’t. None of it happened.

My middle kid, Braden, recently beat the odds of having me as a dad and was admitted to Landon. He plays lax and has seen the photos of Evans and team in the gym
As well. As a parent, I know it’s a school that sternly develops the best in kids, sees the best in them, and stands by them, despite their sometime setbacks. How ironic that David Evans, a solid product of Landon, expecting something at least equal from Duke, found himself in a place where the worse was assumed and he and his teammates stood alone.
Until of course, after enduring the lies and disloyalty, they were the last ones standing.

Friday, June 8, 2007

No slacker--Big Fred grinds it out

“We need to revisit the Improper Payments Information Act and focus on Appendix C to OMB Circular A-12. We’re looking at $21 billion in billing errors, and these H-codes gotta be adjusted, as per Clinger-Cohen.” Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN), press conference, Senate "Swamp"outside Capitol, May 21, 2001.

None of the five people reading this need my dim mind to weigh in on the Saga that is the race for the GOP presidential nomination. There are plenty of other seers who see this race with keener minds than mine, starting with Aaron “Be Free” Hase, Adventure Man and Blogmeister General. Indeed, of all the Republicans running, I have to say, as hackneyed as it sounds, that John McCain’s personal story is something that provides me with inspiration in many facets of my everyday life.

But the inevitable entry of ex-Senator Fred Thompson into the brawl-o-rama get this hack wound up like a cat in a rocking chair factory. No, the big man Tennessee doesn’t need zany Coastmaster in his corner but I feel the record needs correcting here. Every profile I’ve read on Thompson contains references, by the typical unnamed coward sources, to him being “lazy”, his Senate career lackluster, and gasp, there’s not a piece of legislation with his name on it! (Well gee, Teddy Kennedy has his name on a bunch of bills – and that’s made the nation a better place, n’cest pa?)

My experience with Senator Thompson dates to when I was the public affairs chief for GAO, the Government Accountability Office, a legislative branch agency providing oversight of the feds. Thompson was chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, the complementary panel to GAO. It’s kind of a backwater committee, with not the visibility of say, Foreign Affairs, or Armed Services, or Appropriations. But the committee is essential to investigating the mechanics of government – and how those gears can be made to work more efficiently.
So yeah, Thompson was a big show boater – a huge proponent of the Clinger-Cohen Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996, doncha know; which required that the “government information technology shop be operated exactly as an efficient and profitable business would be operated.” Then there was his support for the President's Management Agenda, announced in the summer of 2001, “an aggressive strategy for improving the management of the Federal government…focusing on Expanding E-Government: Improved Service Delivery for the American People Using Information Technology and Expanding E-Government: Partnering for a Results-Oriented Government.” Yowzah, man, hot Hot HOT! Front page baby!

Thompson was committed back of GAO’s High Risk list, another blockbuster for serious students of government but relegated to a desultory affair, that identified those agencies in government that were performing sup par, wasting taxpayer dollars, and thus needed fixing.
These are the kinds of endeavors that are dull as dishwater but vital as air for those who want a Government That Works. Thompson was the guy who knew all these arcane subsections and cites, and while other members were dancing around getting headlines on the issue of the day, Thompson was grinding it out in Committee; I know, I had to attend those hearings and they were full of minutiae.
In fact, of the many Members I’ve dealt with in my primo roll as the number-one Hill hack, Thompson was one of the two or three who always impressed me as immersed in details, the guy who took on these arcane and non-headline issues, and pursued them doggedly. Another, coincidentally enough, was Senator Joe Lieberman, ranking on the Committee and a genuine friend of Thompson’s.
So we zing to the press conference outside the Senate, with just a few journalists, with Thompson going on calmly about improper payments and Medicare, the maddening system of billings done by Medicare providers that involved waste, fraud and abuse with a capital WFA. Then- OMB director Mitch Daniels was with Thompson, but Thompson knew this subject matter cold.
So now I hear the stories about Thompson, which are typical of 1. Opponents who want to drag him down, which is the way it works, and 2. A lazy press corps who but for a few stalwarts, didn’t cover this subject matter when Thompson was preaching at the wind.
Now, I’m too much of a nothing burger to have any say in this race. But Thompson, whatever his faults, is not getting a fair shake. When you’re waxing on about OMB circulars and Clinger-Cohen’s e-billing protocols, you’re not exactly lazy or lackluster. In fact, you’re actually doing what government is supposed to be doing, which is trying to do better.