Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Personal Aside: Daschle’s Loss Underscores that You Can’t Sell Out Your Church, Your Wife and 3 Kids, Become an Influence Peddler and Hope to End Up a Serious Policy Maker Too.


On the Make.

I first met Tom Daschle many years ago…in 1980… when he was a choir-boy-looking second-term House member from South Dakota: as a matter of fact, the ONLY House member since he ran at large and squeaked out a tough victory with exactly 110 votes votes over his opponent.

In those days you could hire a congressman to make a speech…and since Tom was on House Ag, he agreed to fill in Quaker executives for $1,000 plus travel (the usual rate in those legal honoraria days). His plane was late at O’Hare and I told him we didn’t have enough time to take a cab which would get snarled up on the Kennedy.

“Then—then what are we going to do?” he asked anxiously. He was a neat looking country boy, seemingly eager to please. I said we’d take the new “L” from O’Hare which stopped right at the Merchandise Mart. Sure enough, 20 minutes later we got off and bounded into the M & M club where our guys were waiting. “Wow,” said Daschle, then in his 30s, “that sure was fun. Never saw a train go so fast. What do you call it?”

The “L.”

“Short for what?”

Yes, he was like that. A Catholic from Aberdeen, S. D. with German roots although his people came from Russia. The oldest of four boys.

Yes, he was like that. His speech was good, fact filled and our ag economists were busily taking notes. Not a hint of partisanship.

“You see, I checked you guys out,” he said as we rode back to O’Hare on the “L.”

“Your boss was or is the Republican national committeeman and you’ve been around the track in Minnesota as well as Illinois.”

We chatted about Reagan who had just been elected; Daschle was suitably impressed. We talked about abortion since he and I shared Catholicism. Daschle didn’t think that would be a problem for him—he’d vote with the Church. Well, that was then.

I suspected it then but Tom Daschle was on the make. On the make for a new wife, for one thing: the next year, despite having three kids and a nice countrified wife, he divorced and married a looker lobbyist who was a beginning corporate rep with the airline industry.

And, following that, he began to go Hollywood. He started to vote pro-abortion and developed a smug way of defending it to his bishop—saying at first that he was pro-life but in our pluralistic system he couldn’t do better than vote for what he felt was the public interest. The bishop didn’t like that—but then, rather than now, bishops were namby-pamby on the issue and Daschle got along…receiving Communion even though he was divorced and remarried. Throughout the early `80s he was even more on the make—taking ever more left-wing positions. Once we grabbed lunch when I was in Washington and working against a farm bill he was advocating.

You know what happened to old George, I said, meaning McGovern. McGovern a minister’s son, started as a kind of rural populist in South Dakota and went Hollywood—leading the Democratic ticket to defeat in 1972 against Richard Nixon and later losing his Senate seat because he was skewed too left for his state.

“Didn’t do it right,” Daschle mused. “Got way, way out front, beyond his state. Spent a lot of time in New York and didn’t get home all that much.”

He indicated that this would never happen to him.

Well, what happened was not that Tom Daschle stayed away from South Dakota geographically---but that he moved away from it emotionally. He got elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986. He had a touch with the Democratic in-crowd, being named to the prestigious Finance committee right away. Then he was adopted by the smoothest article to serve in that body since Idaho’s Frank Church: George Mitchell. Mitchell, the Senator from Maine, had been a district judge and the way he looked at the TV cameras when he spoke was rather like an ultra-fair-minded professor. When you heard George Mitchell expound from a standard Democratic talking-points card, you got the impression that he was straining…straining so very-very hard…to be fair. Yet at the end, he embraced all the details of his talking points. That flair got him to be Senate Democratic Leader. And once he did, he decided he wanted to have a well-scrubbed country boy with a ruddy outdoorsman’s face to be his assistant. Daschle.

That’s when Daschle started going Hollywood. When Mitchell was out of town or otherwise engaged, Tom would swallow the same talking points, but put on his homely rural Aberdeen, South Dakota face…wreathed with smiles…as he stuck it to the Republicans. By then his old plain pipe rack suits disappeared. His comely missus, Linda Hall, was hitting the big time as a lobbyist, due to her relationship with him: and she was representing Boeing, Lockheed Martin and American Airlines. They were living well. As assistant Senate Democratic leader Tom had a car and driver taxpayers’ expense. The two were quite a pair…Linda with her entourage, Tom with his. Of course they vowed never to communicate about either Linda’s clients or Tom’s work—but no one in Washington ever did buy that idea from anyone else, much less Tom and Linda.

Then George Mitchell quit and Tom Daschle became Senate majority leader—with a more officious car and snooty driver. Linda went to work as the acting head of FAA under Bill Clinton, an investment that cost them money…but which in the long run added to her stature and earning power when she returned as a lobbyist. Oh I’ll tell you those days were golden: Tom on TV blasting the Republicans, Linda generally doing the corporate semi-Republican business on the Hill. He was majority leader, then minority leader after George W. Bush got picked as president by the Supreme Court in 2000. Then Jim Jeffords a very tacit liberal Republican from Vermont switched his affiliation and Daschle became majority leader again. Oh those were heady days.

Tom Daschle was easily the most identifiable member of the U. S. Senate when in 2003 he got tagged by the newly-named conservative Catholic bishop of South Dakota, Robert Carlson. The Senate was considering a vote on partial birth abortion and Carlson wrote Daschle to get his thinking. Up to then, Daschle had been skittish on the issue…voting pro-choice now and pro-life then. NARAL gave him a 50% rating. But a 50% rating on abortion is not satisfactory for one who wants to be a Democratic presidential candidate as Daschle wanted to be. And Daschle wanted to be the Democratic nominee in 2004. That was the year he was supposed to run for reelection but he was thinking about taking a long-shot…nailing down the nomination early enough so that he would skip Senate reelection. He figured this way: time was rolling on and he’d either take a run at president and make it—or, he’d leave the Senate and make some money…at least make enough money to tie his lobbyist wife.

So Daschle answered Bishop Carlson in a very preemptory way—not the way a South Dakota Catholic ought to do it…but then he was a national figure, wasn’t he? Bishop Carlson was very pointed in his letter to Daschle, saying that if he voted for partial-birth abortion he’d have trouble with the Church. Well he was in trouble with the Church because of his marriage anyhow—but the Carlson letter got him riled.

He answered Carlson by using his favorite theme. Whenever you attacked Daschle you were not honest but a tool of the far-right. So Daschle said the bishop was “more identified with the radical right than with thoughtful religious leadership.” That wasn’t be smart for a South Dakota senator to say which seemed to make it all the more imperative that Daschle put all his chips on getting the presidential nomination and kissing South Dakota goodbye.

Well, things didn’t work out that way. For one thing, the Democratic party was falling in love with an anti-Iraq war firebrand, the former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean. Dean could make a fiery speech; Daschle was more of a slow-talker, easy-going. Then others joined the fray and since Daschle was tied up in the Senate, he missed out as the news focus went from retired general Wesley Clark, a 4-star apparent wonder-boy…to John Edwards, the cracker-talking liberal one-termer from North Carolina…to John Kerry, a gigolo who married rich women and who finally married one of the richest—the heir to the Heinz catsup fortune. Tied up in the Senate, Daschle decided he couldn’t cut it this year (2004) for the presidency, but then he was only 57. He figured Kerry would get the nomination and blow the election just as Gore did. So Daschle would make one more run for the Senate in South Dakota…and wait it out to 2008 when Bush would be gone and the time would be ripe for a Democratic president.

Except when he went back to South Dakota, Tom Daschle found…to his horror…that he was being perceived as another George McGovern—and more than that. McGovern had always been pro-choice. Daschle started out pro-life and switched, voting for partial birth abortion. But his letter to Bishop Carlson and his choice of words riled up not just the Catholics of South Dakota but a number of Protestants who resented Daschle calling the bishop a far-right zealot just because he was pro-life.

To make matters worse, South Dakota’s Republicans named a bland, conservative nominee a devout evangelical Norwegian married to another devout evangelical Norwegian. Abortion was an issue, of course, but not the main one. Thune pictured Daschle the way he became—anti-war in the same radical mood that George McGovern showed (except that McGovern had been a World War II hero)…that Daschle was chief obstructionist, killing nominees to the Supreme Court, that he, in fact, didn’t stand for anything South Dakotans really believed. He was a careerist.

Thune won by a narrow margin—51% to 49%--but it was enough to send Tom Daschle to the showers. So he turned to what he really wanted to do second only to being president—and that was to make a lot of money. Now, he wasn’t a lawyer which would have been helpful and he really didn’t want to be a registered lobbyist because there was something smelly about the trade. So he decided to accept an offer from one of the major hirelings who had left the Senate, a man who knew the cost of everything and the value of very little—good old Bob Dole whose favorite word was “whatever.”

So without being a registered lobbyist so as to keep his skirts clean, Tom Daschle decided to use his name as an influence peddler…giving “advice” and “counsel” to his big money employers like Alston & Bird. He decided to have it both ways and wrote a book advocating the further encompassing of health care under the aegis of the federal government. But at the same time, he used the book and his name to peddle influence for the health care industry: a major step of duplicitous strategy that gave him the reputation of being the fanciest, smoothest stepper and fixer-upper on K street. And of course he got a car with driver again, made millions each year—raking in dough from United Health Care, Inter-Media where he earned millions, raking in dough from speeches with honoraria in the tens of thousands. All the while his Linda was hauling it in.

But Tom Daschle missed the bright lights. He wanted it all. So he wisely hooked on to Barack Obama early and became one of his leading lights. Sure enough, Obama told him he needed Daschle for two major policy jobs—one as secretary of health and human welfare and the other in the White House as health czar. He had it all papered. The Senate, his old body, would confirm him. All the while wife Linda could continue earning big dough and he’d have to scrape by on the $150,000 plus as a cabinet secretary—but he’d have a car with driver, a full plate of activity and…something he missed dreadfully…he’d be hot enough to get back on “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and be a celebrity once again in Georgetown.

One minor matter. He owned $128,000 in taxes primarily for personal use of a car and driver provided by the personal equity firm for which he consulted…headed by a good pal who was his old fund-raiser. He had thought about that debt a lot during 2007 but put it off…taxes can be such a pain. Then when it looked like Obama would win, he asked his accountant to check to see how much he owed. He owed a lot. But Tom Daschle put it off. Maybe Obama would lose. After all, he was still four points under John McCain. Tom wasn’t concerned enough to actually pay his taxes—waiting to see how the election would go. If Obama won, he’d hurry up and pay his taxes. Well, Obama won. Tom got to work but before he could act on it, the Obama team…which sorely wanted him. All the while, Tom’s accountant flagged to his attention the fact that he owed more than $255,000 over three years as income. He still waited—to see if he’d be named secretary. Once he was, he applied the old U. S. Senate magic oil and manfully told the Obama people what he owed and that he would make it good.

But others came before him with similar problems. Tim Geithner the treasury secretary designate got a lot of heat for his being in arrears. Tom Daschle winced, realizing he may have waited too long to pay his taxes to be sure he’d have the job before he wrote the check. He waited too long. Another Obama appointee, a woman who was supposed to be the White House efficiency czar had a lean on her D. C. house stemming from failure to pay her hired help’s benefits.

Tom Daschle started out to win confirmation in the Senate with his old little choir boy humility. Oh God, he had made a mistake—a clerical error. He was sure to override the thing until yesterday AM. That’s when the august “New York Times” editorial came out and to Tom Daschle’s stunning surprise, recommended he withdraw.

When after all the commotion about non-payment of taxes, the “New York Times” ruled him unsatisfactory, Obama had no choice but to throw Tom Daschle, humble Tom Daschle of Aberdeen, South Dakota, under the bus. So yesterday he withdrew. He’s going to have to make do with a car and driver paid by his lobbying friends. And never, never, ever be invited to be on “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation” again.

That’s why late yesterday afternoon, when explaining it to his friends, Tom Daschle wept. Maybe he wasn’t weeping because he lost the cabinet job. Maybe because of the whole shooting match…selling out his first wife, getting a divorce and splitting from his three kids…marrying a beauteous lobbyist…selling out his Church…

Maybe that’s why he wept. You think?

Naw. That’ll come later. He’s only 62. That’ll come about ten years from now when he’s, maybe, sick and infirmed…and starts thinking about his early Catholic training and his immortal soul. That’ll come later.

He’s crying now because there’ll be no “Meet the Press.”

1 comment:

  1. Riveting read--simply genius insight!

    Thank you so much!

    M.J. Bernard