Sunday, July 7, 2013

Washington Flacks, Job Seekers and Democracy

A real general

A real President.

A man who did not need an image maker

Don't stand in the hallway
Don't block up the hall

--Bob Dylan

Reading Bruce Catton's wonderful Stillness At Appomattox again, Mad Dog felt an old feeling well up, and that froth bubbled over reading Mark Leibovich's article in the New York Times Magazine about Darrell Issa's publicist, or what they call a "flack" in Washington, DC, Kurt Bardella.

Mad Dog was reminded of his brother's comment, "In most organizations, there are people who actually do the work, and then there are the rest, who actually do nothing, but simply pretend to work."

Mad Dog would amend this to, "In this American century, there are people who actually matter, on whom we all depend, and there are those who are simply posers."

Leibovitch's depiction does look like life imitating art, as anyone who has watched VEEP would recognized. The Vice President in this TV show is surrounded by people for whom the only reality is the image making they conjure up in their own minds. Their only real jobs are to keep their jobs. 

When asked to describe their jobs, they sound very important: The man who is supposed to be the "liaison" to the White House says he is  "the Go To Guy for All things White House" to the people in the Vice President's office. 
The VEEP's administrative assistant says she is the "trouble-shooter, problem-solver, issue-mediator, doubt-remover, conscience-examiner, thought-thinker and all-round everything-doer."  Her secretary who schedules her appointments says she is the 3rd most important person in the world because she controls access to the 2nd most important person in the world.  This may be fiction, but it is drawn from what you actually hear people in Washington say. 

There have been worse instances of political buffoons in our history, who caused real harm.

In the case of the Civil War, there was Samuel Butler, a man who wore the uniform of a union army general because he was politically connected and he got himself appointed general, although he had no significant training or aptitude--he could play the role in those days, by simply dressing up as a general.

Butler was a godawful general, a political hack, who never mastered any of the essentials of generalship. He managed to destroy a brilliant plan which would have broken through the last Southern defenses at Petersburg, simply because it was not his idea.  But he managed his image with great energy and he was so well connected, politically, neither Grant nor Lincoln could risk removing him. 

He did untold harm by simply being incompetent getting in the way--he blocked up the hall.

There are simply too many hangers on, people who convince themselves they have an important role when, in fact, they simply get in the way.

Today, there are "flacks" in Washington, DC whose job it is to hustle the talk shows and the media to get their bosses--Congressmen or Senators--exposure. These "flacks" do not write legislation; they do not puzzle out the economic impact of a new health care bill; they do not run the numbers when it comes to the impact of a tax on an industry. They are, like the literary agents, image people, people who supposedly control perceptions. 

Of course, if the world woke up tomorrow and every last one of these image people simply disappeared,  nobody (except, perhaps, their mothers)  would miss them. Government, hospitals, industry, transportation, telecommunications would all buzz along.  

During snowstorms in Washington, DC, you can hear radio announcements which say, "Only essential federal employees are required to report to work." That must cause deep seated angst among the flacks and image makers. Suppose a snowstorm provoked a reckoning of who really is essential?
In the internet age, one might hope "connected people" would no longer be perceived as being important, because anyone with a computer can now be connected, but Mad Dog suspects in Washington, the atmosphere is too thick with self importance masquerading as actual importance for anyone to really be able to see through the smoke to the mirrors.

Reading Leibovich's article, watching VEEP, or House of Cards for that matter, one has to ask: Is this any way to run a democracy?

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