It will come as no surprise to anyone when I say that Washington is in full scandal mode these days.
I attended a Washington dinner this past week — one of those fancy affairs in a fancy room with fancy speakers, fancy food, and funds raised. There may be a dozen such events a night in this city.
On one side of me sat a former aide to senior officials. His first question after we shared our backgrounds was, so what do you think about AP, the IRS and Benghazi? The query might as well have been, what did the president know and when did he know it? That was Senator Howard Baker’s question during the Watergate hearings and the essential Washington-in-scandal-mode inquiry every since.
My answer – one you increasingly hear among Washington hands of all stripes — is that Mr. Obama probably didn’t know about Eric Holder’s spying on the Associate Press (a break-in without a break-in). Nor about IRS targeting of conservatives – though senior White House aides, including David Axelrod, may be another matter. And Benghazi revealed a White House totally bereft of contingency plans and a president frozen in place when faced with facts foreign to his preconceptions. But in the pair of domestic scandals, even if the president didn’t know the details, yes, he was, in a moral rather than legal way, responsible.
What I meant by that – and I have also found universal agreement on this one among people who have worked Washington for a while – is that it is amazing how much the tone of any administration is set from the top. These scandals echo Mr. Obama’s tone.
To see what I mean, consider this lesson of history. Ronald Reagan is remembered for his geniality and his stories. But what he conveyed through his personality and his manner was both humility and a bigger-than-the-moment perspective on the obsessions of the day. He could lean back. He could laugh. And he could remind everyone that the Constitution, the nation and the American people were bigger and nobler that anyone here – and that we should rise to their standard.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen a reflection of President Obama’s very different attitudes in the Congressional testimony of former IRS chief Steven Miller, the public explanations of Attorney General Eric Holder and the White House pressroom fumblings of press secretary Jay Carney.
For again and again these last five years, the president has conveyed distain for the other branches of government (dressing down the Supreme Court in a State of the Union address, for example) and for the Constitution (recession appointments when there was no recess or announcing that, if Congress won’t act on some policy proposal, he would, a whiff of government by decree).
So what happened when his IRS former commissioner was summoned to Capitol Hill? He felt it was acceptable to convey contempt for his congressional questioners – as had Mr. Holder on previous occasions, and as has Mr. Carney toward the White House press corps in his incredible parallel universe answers to their questions about the scandals.
Here is one last example of what I am talking about.
It turned out that sitting on the other side of me at that recent dinner was a White House aide. Not someone anyone outside of this person’s area of highly technical responsibility would know of. I certainly didn’t. He was impressively intelligent, on top of his portfolio and socially very smooth. But as he discussed administration policy in his field of expertise, that familiar attitude started coming through: We are doing all that can be done; now it is time for others to match our excellence… and we have redefined this field so all your old categories are irrelevant. I could have been listening to the president talking about any of a number of issues.
Among many other things, presidential leadership is about understanding the standards you are setting for your administration. As I say, I do not believe that this president’s culpability in the AP and IRS affairs is legal in nature. It is not that he gave orders to do wrong, but that, from the day he entered office, he conveyed attitudes we are now seeing reflected in his team. These attitudes led them – and him – to this moment. That is the true presidential involvement in the scandals that so obsess Washington today.