With the capital awash in star-spangled sentiment this week, it seems appropriate to recall a patriotic parable so dangerous that it undermines the governing ethos of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington.
Leaving office in 1953, as biographer David McCullough writes, Harry Truman "traveled home from Washington unprotected by Secret Service agents ... He had come home without salary or pension. He had no income or support from the federal government other than his Army pension of $112.56 a month ... Truman had been forced to take out a loan at the National Bank in Washington in his last weeks as president to tide him over."
The Myth of Cincinnatus -- the Roman general who saved the Republic and then humbly returned to his farm -- is as outmoded in 21st century Washington as remembering that slavery and Prohibition were once in the Constitution. Instead, these days the governing philosophy of governing is that doing good by selflessly working in the White House entitles you to do well for the rest of your life.
Barack Obama bid a grateful farewell to Robert Gibbs
Wednesday by stressing to The New York Times that his press secretary "had a six-year stretch now where basically he's been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay." As a senior White House aide, Gibbs modestly earned $172,200 last year. That income alone -- leaving out any earnings by his wife -- would put Gibbs in the upper 8 percent of all American families, according to 2009 Census figures
Yes, Washington and its close-in suburbs are expensive places to live. But it is a safe guess that most print reporters who pepper Gibbs with questions at his daily briefings make less than $172,000 a year -- and they somehow manage to live in Washington as well. Salaries for federal judges
(all of whom boast educational pedigrees that outstrip Gibbs' undergraduate degree from North Carolina State) start at $174,000 and waft skyward to $223,000 for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Obama's sympathetic comments about Gibbs' financial sacrifice illustrate that populism remains an abstraction for the president, despite the persistence of the worst economic downturn since the Depression. In the world of Obama (or Clinton or either Bush), it is par for the course that William Daley
, the new White House chief of staff, served as Midwest chairman for JP Morgan Chase between his stints in government. Or that Rahm Emanuel made $16 million as an investment banker during the three years between his departure from the Clinton White House and his 2002 election to the House.
If Gibbs were immediately heading to a comparably paid job in the president's 2012 re-election campaign, only a churl would complain about his need for some time off -- as Obama put it -- "to step back, reflect and retool." But at his press briefing Wednesday
, Gibbs announced without a flicker of embarrassment, "I will have an opportunity I hope to give some speeches." The Washington Post reported that Gibbs has hired Washington lawyer Robert Barnett
to negotiate these speeches and other potentially lucrative engagements after leaving the White House. While the departing White House press secretary ruled out a book "in the near future" and doubted that he would ever work for a political candidate not named Obama, Gibbs did not offer any Sherman-esque denials about taking on corporate work.
To be fair, Gibbs is a portrait in Gandhian self-denial compared to many who have glided from a presidential limousine to a personal one. Little more than a year after he left the Reagan White House, lobbyist Michael Deaver posed for an infamous 1986 Time magazine cover
showing him talking on an early car phone from the back seat of a limo as the headline ominously asked: "Who's This Man Calling? Influence Peddling in Washington." While Deaver was an imagemaker, not an attorney, he was following the buck-raking tradition of lawyer-fixers like Tommy Corcoran (FDR) and Clark Clifford (Truman), who learned government from the inside and then greased the levers of power for grateful corporate clients.
Unlike lobbying (on which Obama deserves credit for taking a hard line), Gibbs will be hurting no one if in three months, say, he gets paid $30,000 for telling some harmless anecdotes about the president and the press corps to the annual convention of the Cat Food Producers of America. But there remains something slightly unseemly about cashing in like this while the president who has made your career is still in the Oval Office. The problem is that as long as Gibbs, Obama and the entire political-insider culture of Washington believe that working in the White House for $172,000 is a form of martyrdom, then the only restraint after leaving government will be the fine print in the ethics laws.
There was an era (personified by the likes of Truman and Sam Rayburn in the 1950s) when a high-level career in public service and an upper-middle-class income seemed reward enough. These bygone values endure among many in the military and the federal judiciary -- not to mention among the underpaid denizens of the White House briefing room. But too often power players in Washington believe that if they see the president every day, appear on television and have a permanent seat on Air Force One, they are entitled to get rich as soon as they leave government.
When it comes to personal money, there is a sense in Washington that what happens within the Beltway stays within the Beltway. But voters are not dumb, even if more than 90 percent of them survive on less than $172,000 a year. What happens in government is not the only trigger for populist outrage. For it is equally easy to become enraged by career arcs after government.