I’m sure there are many technical explanations for the recent breakdowns in Secret Service protection that allowed an armed intruder to run right through the front door of the White House and an armed felon to ride on an elevator with President Barack Obama. But I’d also put some blame on the nation’s political class.
Just look at Washington these days and listen to what politicians are saying and watch how they spend their time. You can’t help but ask: Do these people care a whit about the country anymore? Is there anybody here on a quest for excellence, for making America great?
Yes, yes, I know. They’re all here to do “public service.” But that is not what it looks like. It actually looks as if they came to Washington to get elected so they could raise more money to get re-elected. That is, until they don’t get re-elected. Then, like the former House majority leader, Eric Cantor, they can raise even more money by cashing in their time on Capitol Hill for a job and a multimillion-dollar payday from a Wall Street investment bank they used to regulate.
Getting elected and raising money to get re-elected — instead of governing and compromising in the national interest — seems to be all that too many of our national politicians are interested in anymore. There are exceptions, to be sure, but it feels as if many do not take pride in their work in government.
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We’re at war in the Middle East, with U.S. military lives on the line, but Congress could not stir itself to return from a pre-election recess to either debate the wisdom of this war or give the president proper legal authorization, let alone take some responsibility. When everyone is so busy running, is it any surprise that no one is running the federal government?
According to PolitiFact, “Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso said, ‘This is the earliest Congress has adjourned in over 50 years.’ … Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine called it ‘the second-earliest recess before a midterm since 1960.’ Both senators are correct (if you excuse Barrasso’s use of adjourn instead of recess). For Barrasso, ‘over 50 years,’ takes us back to any year up to 1963, or 51 years ago. The record shows that since 1963, Congress often has taken short breaks in September, given lawmakers several weeks in October to campaign in election years, and even closed the books for the year in October. But an extended break from mid-September to mid-November has not occurred. Kaine’s claim is spot on.”
What does this have to do with the Secret Service lapses? It certainly doesn’t excuse them, but if you’re a federal worker today and you look up at the “adults” who are supposed to be supervising you, what do you see? You see too many self-interested, self-indulgent politicians who are only there to grandstand, spend most of their time raising money to win elections and then, when you, as a federal worker, make a mistake, be the first to rush to the microphones with feigned concern to investigate your competence — as long as the cameras are running.
Tell me that doesn’t filter down to every department, including the Secret Service. When so many above you are just cynically out for themselves, it saps morale, focus and discipline. If so many above you are just getting theirs, well then, why shouldn’t Secret Service agents doing advance work for the president’s trip to Colombia in April 2012 take prostitutes back to their rooms and have some fun on D.C.’s dime, too?
Any wonder that Gallup reported Sept. 8 that “only 8 percent of the one-third of all Americans who are following national politics ‘very closely' approve of the way Congress is handling its job.” As Jon Stewart noted: “Here’s how dysfunctional the Secret Service is at this point: Congress had to help them come up with solutions.”
I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but you feel today in Washington a certain laxness, that anything goes and that too few people working for the federal government take pride in their work because everything is just cobbled together by Congress and the White House at the eleventh hour anyway. It’s been years since anyone summoned us for a moonshot, for something great. So just show up and punch the clock.
In December 2010, I went to the White House for an interview. I entered through the Secret Service checkpoint on Pennsylvania Avenue. After putting my briefcase through the X-ray machine and collecting it, I grabbed the metal door handle to enter the White House driveway. The handle came off in my hand.
“Oh, it does that sometimes,” the Secret Service agent at the door said to me nonchalantly, as I tried to fit the wobbly handle back into the socket.
People who take pride in their work don’t just let the handle come off a White House door like that.
Again, I’m not excusing the Secret Service, but the recent breakdowns don’t surprise me when so much of the political class that oversees the service is so self-absorbed, risk-averse and shortsighted. When the people governing us become this cynical, polarized and dysfunctional, it surely seeps down into the bureaucracy. As above, so below.
© 2014 New York Times News Service