HOW CAN YOU not enjoy Robert Reich, the US secretary of labor? Sure, he's a wacky-lefty Friend of Bill with screwy economic ideas, but at least he's a self-deprecatingly humorous wacky-lefty Friend of Bill with screwy economic ideas. Amid all the to-ing and fro-ing over the budget in Washington last week, Reich -- who at 58 inches stands head and shoulders below everyone else in the Cabinet -- threw down a gauntlet:
"I challenge Newt Gingrich to come up with a smaller or more efficient Labor secretary." Bada-BING.
At least one Clintonista isn't so ego-swollen he can't crack a joke at his own expense. If only a few more of them were like Reich. It would make this tiresome administration a lot easier to take.
Granted, every administration has its share of scoundrels and bores. George Bush wasn't exactly the captain of a presidential All-Star team, and I seem to recall one or two ethical glitches during the Reagan administration. But to match the dreary, depressing, ethically challenged bunch in power today, you'd have to go back at least to Nixon's day. Maybe Harding's.
Take Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary. (Please.) Apparently distraught because her name isn't on every American's lips, O'Leary has been throwing more than $260 per day for the past two years to one Audrey Hoffer, a "media consultant." (That is in addition to O'Leary's in-house press secretary, her director of public affairs, and her 16 media specialists.) Hoffer devised a plan to make O'Leary a "household name" while boosting her status within the administration.
That was last week's O'Leary revelation. The week before it turned out she had hired another firm (at $46,500) to keep tabs on the press. Journalists and news organizations were scrutinized for pro- or anti-O'Leary leanings, then ranked by how friendly their coverage was. According to O'Leary's press secretary (not to be confused with her media consultant, director of public affairs, etc.), a low friendliness ranking meant "we needed to work on this person a little."
Meanwhile, O'Leary -- who makes a habit of flying first class and staying at exclusive hotels -- spends as much as 90 percent more on travel than other Cabinet secretaries do. According to the Los Angeles Times, "O'Leary billed the government for expenses that exceeded the maximum . . . rate on 61 of 71 occasions when she stayed at a hotel in the United States."
Unlike Reich, this dismal woman couldn't poke fun at herself if she used an awl. And she is far from the only tainted member of the Cabinet That Looks Like America.
+ Ron Brown, the commerce secretary, has honed sleaze to an art. He shilled for Haiti's Duvalier dictatorship. He took a $1 million farewell gift from Patton, Boggs & Blow, a D.C. law firm with many clients who crave the goodwill of the Commerce Department. He pocketed $500,000 from the sale of a company in which he'd invested no money and that was run by a pal who had defaulted on government loans. He parlayed his investment in a Maryland slum -- described as "unfit for human habitation" -- into a $175,000 tax write-off. Eventually a special prosecutor had to be appointed.
+ Henry Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development, apparently lied to the FBI about cash payments he made to his former mistress. Eventually a special prosecutor had to be appointed.
+ Mike Espy, the former secretary of agriculture, was forced to resign after accepting illegal gifts from corporations his department regulates. Among other goodies, he took plane trips, basketball and football tickets and a scholarship for his girlfriend. Eventually a special prosecutor had to be appointed.
Also under investigation and/or forced to resign: Graham Allison, assistant defense secretary; Roger Altman, deputy treasury secretary; Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders; Jean Hanson, Treasury Department general counsel; Webster Hubbell, associate attorney general; William Kennedy, associate White House counsel; Bruce Lindsey, deputy White House counsel; Bernard Nussbaum, White House counsel; Federico Pena, transportation secretary; Joshua Steiner, Treasury Department chief of staff; and David Watkins, White House director of administration.
And those are just the better-known cases. All told, researcher Robert Potts identifies some 70 Clinton aides and associates under an ethical cloud. In his regularly updated "Schroeder's List," he supplies summaries for all of them, along with citations for further research. (Four bucks a copy from Robert Potts Research, Box 16429, Alexandria, VA 22302). "Schroeder's List," by the way, is named for US Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat, who often decried executive branch misdeeds during the Reagan-Bush years but has been oddly silent on the topic since January 1993.
"In his first official act as president," bragged a White House press release one day after Clinton's inauguration, the president "signed an executive order establishing the most stringent ethical requirements of any administration ever." Boy, was that a long time ago.