Political Culture: Taking a Hit (For All of Us)

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Like most people I know, my favorite feature in Us Weekly is the “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” spread. You know, Brad Pitt with his fly down, Ryan Phillippe pushing a cart at Ikea … (No, I do not read Us Weekly! Sometimes I just, you know, catch a glimpse when my wife leaves it open on the vanity.)

Next week, Us readers might see a spread featuring Michael Phelps (“They take bong hits in public!”), Tom Daschle (“They cheat on their taxes!”), and Christian Bale (“They tear underlings a new asshole!”). A lot of those readers might be appalled. But how many of them would have a right to be?

OK, forget Bale — that tirade truly was out of the ordinary. But before we send Batman after these other two arch-villains, can we please take a moment to consider the sheer mundaneness (mundanity?) of their actions?

The bong water swirls, and makes the News of the WorldPhelps is a 23-year-old with pockets full of dough and time on his hands. He’s part of the Pineapple Express generation, for crying out loud! How many of his peers, much less their ’60s-bred parents, really care if his idea of blowing off steam involves sucking down illicit smoke? A recent survey quoted no fewer than 42 percent of Americans who said they’ve tried pot, and the nation’s marijuana laws are steadily becoming as flaccid as the stuff supposedly renders its male users (I have no direct evidence, of course). Why is this a big deal?

As for Daschle, yes, the dollar value of his outstanding tax liability was eye-popping. Still, I encourage the working mom who has never once handed a wad of cash to the nanny without reporting it to the IRS — or the homeowner who has never once acted on his impulse to fudge the “charitable contributions” line on his 1040 — to cast the first stone. The rest of us should pause a moment. There must be some reason why tax-debt resolution has become such a growth industry in this country — and it can’t be that liberal politicos are the only ones responding to all those commercials on Fox News.

Right now a lot of folks are downgrading Phelps from Olympic Hero to “poor role model,” and calling Daschle (and Tim Geithner, and Nancy Killefer) hypocrites. But, really, who holds the double standard here? A Wheaties cover boy who gets photographed while attempting to live the Entourage life — or those who demand model citizenship from famous people in real life, even as they thrill to bad behavior on TV (and fondly remember their own “experimentation” with pot)? A government appointee who admits, and attempts to make amends for, his past shirking of IRS obligations before overseeing the nation’s tax dollars — or those who demand perfection in these matters from their public servants, even as they plot creative ways to shave a few bucks off their own tax bills?

Look, I’m mostly playing devil’s advocate here. Daschle absolutely had to go — not just because of his IRS indiscretions, but because of his suspiciously huge post-Senate salaries, the free trips and other perks, and the too-cozy relationships with health firms that could compromise his work at HHS. Mostly, though, it seems he had to go because Geithner beat him to confirmation, and the Obama administration can only have one tax cheat at a time.

The president and the tax cheat in happier daysNever mind that Geithner is now in charge of the IRS’s parent agency – he was pitched to us as some sort of magician who was uniquely qualified to direct a bank bailout that practically nobody understands. (How many times did we hear that Geithner was “too important to lose” over a matter as inconsequential as his tax problems?) Daschle, on the other hand, was merely the most qualified person to shepherd health-care reform through Congress. He was hardly irreplaceable enough to overcome the general public fury toward high-living corporate execs, and toward perks like that car service Daschle accepted but (until now) never paid a dime for.

Phelps, meanwhile, was just plain stupid to light up that bong where somebody could camera-phone him doing it, and Kellogg’s or Nestle or those foreign-language-DVD people, or any other firm that hired him to endorse its products, would be well within their rights to kick him to the curb right now. That’s because those companies are using Phelps to build positive images for their cellphones and cereal and whatnot — and because image is perception. If Phelps is tainted, so are the products. Phelps no doubt has “morals” clauses in all his endorsement deals, and his acceptance of $100 million or more for those deals was also an acceptance of the responsibility to behave himself – in public, at least.

That last bit is the rub, though, isn’t it? Pot smoking is illegal in this country – unless it’s being used for medicinal purposes in some states – but there’s no great public clamor to curb recreational, at-home marijuana use. Thus, Phelps’ biggest faux pas was not the act of putting a bong to his lips, but doing so publicly at a time when so much national pride (and so many greenbacks) are riding on his ugly mug.

This picture is fuckin' ANNOYING!In the end, Phelps will probably make out OK. Maybe he’ll lose a deal or two, but maybe not – after all, now he’s not only a hero, he’s superbad. Daschle and Killefer, on the other hand, are likely not the last Obama appointees who will be hung out to dry over their past activities, legal or not. Next to go may be William Lynn, the Defense Department undersecretary-designate for whom Obama so quickly undermined his own no-lobbyists rule. In the wake of Daschle’s fall, can Lynn still be as indispensable as Obama and Bob Gates insisted he is?

At least Obama is willing, unlike members of a certain other recent administration, to take responsibility for what he’s already called his own “screw-ups.” He’d better get used to it, because he set an awfully high bar for himself throughout the campaign and during his Inaugural Address, when he said, “Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

In light of recent events, one can only say, “Good luck with that, Mr. President.” Because when he or his appointees prove unable to meet that standard, the American people – imperfect as we are – clearly are prepared to pitch a fit that would make the Dark Fuckin’ Knight blush.