Just after the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, the newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy called Richard Bissell, the CIA’s deputy director of plans, into the Oval Office for a farewell chat.
“If this were England, I would probably have to resign,” the angry young president told Bissell, whose agency had gone ahead with a hare-brained – and unsuccessful – invasion plan for Communist Cuba that had been hatched during the previous administration, “but it’s not, so you’re fired.”
More than sixty years ago, accountability was already a loosey-goosey construct in Washington. But at least then staff knew their place. Today, with a visibly ailing president hard-pressed to remember in which corner of his various properties classified documents have been strewn, it is very much the staff that runs the show.
The White House is apparently not the only place in Washington where the inmates run the asylum. Yesterday the marshal of the U.S. Supreme Court released a 20-page report on the investigation into which disgruntled clerk leaked the Dobbs decision last year and guess what? We just cannot know, the report found.
This finding only empowers un-elected and un-confirmed young men and women to do what they feel they must, regardless of what their actual job description says. Imagine the eunuchs of China’s Forbidden City, whispering and hissing to one another about the course of the nation while the Emperor sat oblivious on the throne. The brokenness of that system opened the door to Mao and the Communists.
And the best Washington could do then was simply to provide the background scenery for dark-hearted staffers like Roy Cohn (then counsel to Wisconsin senator Joe McCarty) to disingenuously ask, under the glare of the klieg lights, “Who lost China?” Today, at least some of those staffers actually report to China.
One-time Volvo salesman and now Northern Virginia congressman and star of the Washington social circuit Don Beyer said last fall he was unaware that his own scheduler was flitting about the Hill and corralling other staffers into events orchestrated by the Chinese embassy. Perhaps if he were spending more time doing his job and less time strutting about at Café Milano that wouldn’t be the case.
Then there are the staffers for the ever-preening Adam Schiff who, in the run-up to former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, coached former CIA director John Brennan’s mole in the Obama and Trump administration on how to officially become a “whistleblower” about high-level phone calls to which he wasn’t even a party. This, you see, is how the game is played.
To be clear, not all Washington staffers are double-dealing, mendacious, sniveling little twits. Every now and then, a good one gets elected in their own right. The example that springs first to mind is Wisconsin congressman Mike Gallagher, who will lead the House inquiry into Chinese influence in America. I met him when he was a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee covering the Middle East – where he actually fought as a Marine. Alabama’s freshman senator Katie Britt had been top aide to Richard Shelby, whom she succeeded, just as our own Susan Collins filled the shoes of Bill Cohen for whom she’d worked for 18 years.
But mounting evidence suggests these are the exceptions as opposed to the norm. Perhaps the poster-child of the ambitious, ends justify the means staffer we’ve now come to expect from Washington is none other than Hillary Rodham (now Clinton), whose supervisor at the time called her “dishonest” and “unethical,” adding that if he had the power to have fired her, he would have. (The George Soros-funded Snopes “fact-checking” site subsequently went to great lengths to poke holes in the House Judiciary Committee Counsel Jeff Zeifman’s first-hand recollection).
Was Kennedy a bit rueful when he compared our system to England’s, which the prime minister takes responsibility for his underlings? For all the shrill talk about democracy dying in darkness, one simple fact cannot be ignored:
If the principal cannot control his/her staff, then it is he or she who must go.