One Problem with Big Government: Often Run by Crooks and Liars

May 7, 2019

Presidential candidates are proposing ideas to expand government, including a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. One flaw with such schemes is that they would give government officials large new powers to be exercised not by angels but often by very shady characters.

James Madison wrote that politicians sought office “from 3 motives. 1. ambition 2. personal interest. 3. public good. Unhappily the two first are proved by experience to be most prevalent.”

There are news stories every day that buttress Madison’s point. Here are two that caught my eye.

Catherine Pugh: “Personal Interest”–as covered by Brakkton Booker of NPR,

After weeks of growing pleas for her to step down, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has resigned, her attorney said Thursday.

… Pugh, a Democrat, is under investigation for alleged “self-dealing” in connection to the sale of thousands of copies of a self-published children’s book series. Many of those sales went to entities that she had influence over or that sought to do business with the city.

… The Baltimore Sun reported she has received roughly $800,000 over the years from the sale of the books. Some of the biggest benefactors include the University of Maryland Medical System.

UMMS is a private nonprofit for which Pugh served as a board member until mid-March, when she resigned from the position. It paid Pugh roughly $500,000 for copies of the books spread out in five payments from 2012-2018, according to the Sun.

A separate payment by health giant Kaiser Permanente of more than $100,000 for some 20,000 copies of the book between 2015 and 2018 was also reported by the Sun.

The payouts for the books came at a time when the company was seeking to provide coverage to city employees. The city’s spending panel, which Pugh sat on, eventually awarded the company a $48 million contract with the city in 2017.

Richard Holbrooke: “Ambition”–written by Adam Kushner of the Washington Post, 

The late diplomat possessed heroic talents, achieved feats of strength and rose high. But his own flaws undid him. 

… Behind all of it was a desperate, gnawing ambition that drove him to behave monstrously toward both his colleagues and the people he ostensibly loved.

… Holbrooke “was an absent husband and an indifferent father.” He cheated frequently over his three marriages and propositioned his best friend’s wife. After his son Anthony was born, he kept a lunch appointment with George Kennan before going to visit his wife and meet the baby in the hospital. Holbrooke pushed away his mother, brother and children because his third wife didn’t like them.

It was even worse inside government, where he fought constantly for status and recognition, leaked (and lied about it) to hurt rivals, kowtowed to bosses, terrorized subordinates, and elbowed his way into meetings where he wasn’t needed or wanted. “He is the most viperous character I know around this town,” Henry Kissinger, the greatest operator of them all, once said of Holbrooke.

What does government service look like when it’s so self-serving? When Holbrooke became assistant secretary of state, he told the deputies he’d inherited that their offices needed repainting — and then replaced them while they were out. … He crashed so many of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s meetings and motorcades that Vance’s secretary sent a memo: “You may not insert yourself as a passenger in the Secretary’s car unless this office has specifically approved your request to accompany him.”

When national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wanted him fired for chatting “warmly” with the Vietnamese ambassador in Laos before Washington restored relations with Hanoi, he lied and said the report of the meeting was just an act of Soviet disinformation.

When a mentor, Averell Harriman, died, Holbrooke harangued his widow into letting him give a eulogy; then he shuffled the name cards at a meal after the service so he could “chat up the right dinner guest.”

… Holbrooke begged Pakistan’s foreign minister to tell Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what a good job he was doing. “You will have heard that he was a monstrous egotist. It’s true. It’s even worse than you’ve heard,” [Biographer] Packer summarizes.

… Packer truly shows Holbrooke’s ugliness. It is everywhere, and it’s revolting. … Holbrooke spent his career accruing enemies, and his comeuppance arrived in spurts. (“I’m going to be the next Henry Kissinger,” he said in his early 30s to a lover who actually knew Kissinger “and found him to be a pompous asshole.” She dumped him).

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