A few years ago, a friend of mine went to work in the Clinton White House. It wasn't one of the big-name jobs, but it was a big deal to him. He was a not-very-well-off kid raised by a hard-working single mom. He had gotten a good education on scholarships and dreamed of doing something to give back, to make life better for kids and for families like the one he'd grown up in. He saw the job as a way he could do his bit and, sure, see a bit of the glamorous side of Washington.
The problem was his friends, one in particular whom I also knew, who had no idea why his old buddy was no longer so available for impromptu barbecues and golf games and long chinwags on the phone. The old friend had never held a high-pressure job, certainly not in the White House.
"He can't be that busy," he would grumble.
Well, actually, I tried to explain, he is that busy. I had covered the previous administration, so I knew a bit about the job our mutual friend was doing, and I knew about the days that started as the sun was coming up, the 200 phone messages he would have gotten by lunchtime and the phone calls to friends and family that would end with a "gotta go" instead of a "goodbye" when his boss walked into the room.
I have been thinking about this as I have been thinking about the last couple of weeks' arguments over executive pay and the tax foibles that have undone the president's nominees.
Can I just tell you? I have the same visceral reaction everybody else has when they hear that executives whose companies got taxpayer bailouts have been quicker to line their own pockets with the money than to actually lend any to businesses and people who are starving for cash. And, yes, it is hard to swallow when you learn Tom Daschle somehow forgot to pay over $100,000 worth of taxes on a car and driver placed at his disposal by a friend.
But then comes the inevitable overreaction: A qualified nominee named Nancy Killifer was evidently forced out for her apparent failure to pay less than $1,000 to the same D.C. tax office that couldn't figure out that one of its own employees was stealing tens of millions of dollars. For all I know, Killifer's taxes are sitting on the desk of the person who was too busy stealing to cash her check.
Please. Where is the sense of proportion?
So now I think we want to ask ourselves, is this really what we want? Do we really want to force people out of government because they trip up on the same stupid mistakes a lot of people make?
But that is actually the easy question. The harder one is this: Are we going to accept that some people's lives are just not the same as ours anymore? That people do change when they get these big jobs? They see more people, they go more places, they do more things. And can we entertain the idea that some jobs are harder and more complicated than others, that people are going to expect some perks for doing them, more money, maybe, or maybe some latitude to ride around in Town Cars or snooze on their taxes?
This is not a warrant for profligacy or for selfishness or for unbridled greed. The government, it seems to me, has a right to make some demands for the money it is investing in these companies, and citizens have a right to expect their officials to make the same effort to comply with the laws as the rest of us. But maybe we need to get real about the fact that the time people spend proving to us how real they are keeping it — by dropping their R's or refusing to wear black tie, or whatever — has nothing to do with the jobs we need them to do.
Yeah, they are that busy, or they should be. And maybe we should worry more about what they are busy doing.