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Small Bit of Good News Not Enough to Offset Johnson’s Exit

Last week, the House — shockingly —voted for something unanimously. Even more shocking, it was not just a token, like National Write-In-a-Disease Month. It was a substantive bill to boost federal funding to combat pediatric cancer, and it passed with dispatch because its sponsor, Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), suffered an unspeakable tragedy with the loss of a young child nine years ago.

[IMGCAP(1)]Pryce is retiring from Congress, one among many serious losses for the House, but a special loss. For eight terms, Pryce has been a special lawmaker, one who has tried to make the institution work and to solve problems. Her talents were recognized early on by her party, which moved her up into the leadership hierarchy — but then took the ladder away when it became clear that she was not going to be a party automaton, or fit the basic bedrock conservative profile necessary to move further up.

Big mistake — the party might still be in the majority if it had made Pryce, and not former Rep. Tom DeLay (Texas), the personification of what House Republicans stand for. Pryce’s bill still needs to get through the Senate, no sure thing no matter what its pedigree. I hope, for the sake of sick kids and a class act in Congress, that the Senate moves with dispatch.

It was good to have at least one heart-warming story last week, because we also learned about the political demise of Jim Johnson. The now former vice presidential vetter for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) became the unlikely target of the week among presidential campaign and national press corps politics — unlikely in part because he, like his Republican counterpart A.B. Culvahouse, was chosen for his discretion and willingness to stay out of the limelight.

Before he stepped down, Johnson was excoriated on an hourly basis by Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain’s political operatives for alleged sweetheart mortgage deals, as reported in the Wall Street Journal (which intimated wrongdoing, but could prove neither illegality nor impropriety on Johnson’s part). The Obama campaign struck back by hitting Culvahouse, a veteran Washington lawyer, as a big-time lobbyist who carried water for the Reagan administration in the Iran-Contra affair.

Like many in Washington, I know and am friendly with both Johnson and Culvahouse. I readily acknowledge that both are quintessential Washington insiders — indeed, insiders’ insiders. The former did run Fannie Mae in the years before its major problems exploded on the national stage, and made a great deal of money in the process. The latter has made a great deal of money as a senior partner at O’Melveny & Myers, a big-time law firm that does a lot of lobbying for major interests. I also acknowledge that their patrons in this race have run campaigns challenging a lot of what Johnson and Culvahouse have done, with Obama proclaiming that he will change the fundamental way Washington does business and McCain having purged his campaign staff of a slew of active lobbyists.

Hypocrisy is fair game. But this game has gotten out of hand and threatens the ability of either candidate to actually govern in 2009. Whatever their insensitivities or failings, Johnson and Culvahouse come out of a long and venerable tradition, smart and competent individuals who know how Washington works, know the players, are interested in solving problems, and can operate with total discretion. Both worked in the White House, Johnson as a top staffer to Vice President Walter Mondale and Culvahouse as White House counsel under Ronald Reagan.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to change the fundamentals in Washington, which has changed fundamentally for the worse over the nearly 40 years I have been watching it from up close. The money — from the trillions the federal government spends, including huge sums on contracts and earmarks that are ripe for the taking, to the driving need for campaign funds that tempt politicians to shake down lobbyists and fat cats, to the often incestuous and money-tainted relationships between pollsters, consultants, lobbyists and policymakers — drives way too much of the Washington way of life. Reducing those links — while understanding that they will never disappear and that lobbying is a constitutionally protected right for a reason — would be a good thing.

But understanding how to govern in a complicated town driven by politics, which is part of the DNA of the American political system, is also a good thing — and a necessary condition if a president is to be successful. It is not made easier by a process now so driven by “gotcha” politics that secondary and tertiary advisers to candidates are targets of big-game hunters in the campaigns and the press.

Of course, others can serve the same role that Johnson had been tabbed to play in the Obama campaign. But his command of the ins and outs of the process, the qualities needed to serve as vice president, the questions to ask of potential candidates and of their peers, and his ability to do so in a leak-proof and fair-minded fashion, are hard to come by. The same qualities, of course, are possessed by Culvahouse, who will now no doubt be subject to his own rough time of scrutiny and attack.

Does it really serve anybody’s interest to force such people to withdraw from these roles — and to induce many other top political talents to opt out of any public service with the “There but for the grace of God go I” rationale? It will be tough enough to govern in our polarized and contentious environment without drastically depleting the pool of experienced governing talent who actually know how to make the system work.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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