Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Favor File

If you haven’t discovered BookTV you should look for it on your cable lineup, or check out their website, BookTV, to see if they air in your area. They have speakers, interviews… Good stuff.

There is a catch, in that a surprising number of really good authors are really bad speakers. Some are so bad that I have to switch channels. There are many more good ones, though, and I have become a fan.

Last weekend I watched a bookstore speech by Vincent Bzdek on his book Woman of the House: The Rise of Nancy Pelosi. That is, I watched as much as I could stand, as he is one of those really bad speakers. I have serious doubts about his quality as an author, too, as he read excerpts from his book and they were well short of dazzling.

There was some content which he described that I thought reflected on the state of politics in our nation, and did not reflect creditably on what our political system has turned into.

I am certainly a liberal, or at least a progressive, and I champion the case for the rise of women to positions of authority and power in business and in government. But I am not a Democrat, and I have never been a big fan of Nancy Pelosi. Certainly very little she has done as Speaker of the House has seemed noteworthy to me, other than her statement, “The president is wrong, and he knows it.” There was a charming twinkle in her eye when she said that, and I admire any politician who has the courage to call this president a liar.

Bzdek went into raptures over the fact that Pelosi raised five children. He seemed tremendously impressed by this issue as did, apparently, Pelosi herself. He quotes her as saying that raising five children is perfect qualification for being Speaker of the House. He spoke at quite some length on this issue.

He didn’t say, but apparently he himself has no children.

I found myself wondering wtf? Women have been raising children for hundreds of centuries, and they’ve done it in settings much more harsh than a San Francisco mansion and without the support of a multi-millionaire husband. There seemed to be a certain, shall we say, lack of proportion about this part of the discussion.

As an aside, I had a neighbor who raised eight children. The kids were great; they were well fed, well clothed, and doing well in school. The mother was an idiot who couldn’t keep gas in her car and occasionally sent the kids to school on Saturday by mistake. By Pelosi’s rule, we probably should elect her president.

Bzdek was quite eager to describe how Pelosi got into politics. She had not been political while performing the Herculean task of raising children, but the last one was in high school and that superb feat was now all but complete. The sitting Representative of the House was dying, and she picked Pelosi to succeed her in that House seat, as “she wanted Nancy to succeed her and she knew that Nancy could not refuse.” So she called Pelosi to her deathbed and told her to take over the position, and of course Pelosi agreed. And that’s how Pelosi became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Did you notice something missing from that narrative? Ah, an election.

Nancy Pelosi did have to stand for election to the House, but districts in California, as in any state, are so gerrymandered that elections are a mere formality. The party for whom that district has been drawn up selects whom they want in the position, they pour money into that person’s campaign, and that person is in that office. Voting machines make that even easier, as the political machine can make the voting machine show pretty much any vote totals it wants.

Often, as in the Pelosi story, the person holds the office for life and then, on their death bed, chooses their successor.

We no longer even do this in secret. It’s right out in the open. We write books about it and consider it quite wonderful and admirable. We cite it to bring attention to how terrific the appointee is, that the dying politician wanted her to succeed to the office.

The other thing that hugely impressed Bzdek was what he called the “favor file” and Pelosi’s ability to work it. He described how when her father was in politics she spent twelve hours daily writing down a list of everyone they did favors for and then calling them back later for return favors. He said that she had carried this ability forward and that no one in the House was better at “working the favor file” than Nancy Pelosi.

So we have, as Speaker of the House, not the person who has shown the greatest qualities of leadership, not the best person at building consensus, not the person of the highest moral standards, but the person who is most adept at “working the system” of cronyism and corruption.

And, to repeat, we no longer even do this in secret. It’s right out in the open. We write books about it and consider it quite wonderful and admirable.

Government conducted by “working the favor file.”

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