Sunday, June 17, 2007

Chapter 5: My Interview with the Vice President

Tribute to Dad: Chapter 5 of his journal. All I've posted starts here and is tagged here . It will be updated as I have time.

Upon returning from summer vacation to the fourth grade in Fishkill, N.Y. in 1948, the class was directed to write a description of the most significant event of their summer holidays. Since I had done very little of significance except weed my father's garden, mow the lawn, play a little baseball and hang out, I decided to create a visit to the White House, and a glimpse of and a few words from President Truman. My paper earned me an "A"; but later backfired on me when my teacher praised my mother at the next PTA meeting for taking her child on a trip to the nation's capital.

Mom kept mum; but scolded me later.

In 1981, however, I didn't have to be so creative. As part of a foreign policy seminar at the Federal Executive Institute, a small group of us spent several days in interviews and discussions with the foreign policy moguls of the government, including the staff Director of the National Security Council, the Deputy Director of the CIA, two senior career U.S. Ambassadors, the British Ambassador, and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Because one of his Secret Service agents was one of our group, we were also able to schedule an interview with Vice President Bush.

I am pleased to report to you that with one exception, the people we interviewed were extremely capable, bright, experienced, hard working and knowledgeable. It is the exception that I want to tell you about.

Apparently, Vice Presidents have a lot of time on their hands; because Mr. Bush scheduled us for an hour. We were determined to make the most of this time, so the group got together ahead of time and formulated a list of foreign policy questions that we thought would be timely and of interest; and that the V.P. would be in a position to answer. The list was also designed to use all the available time. Poland's Marshal Jeruzowski had just declared the Solidarity trade union to be illegal, and El Salvador and Nicaragua were hot topics at the time.

Before we could get to our questions, however, the V.P. launched into a twenty minute diatribe against the inefficiencies and sheer laziness of Federal workers. It seems that as part of a renovation of his office in the Old Executive Office building, the Empire chandelier had been removed for cleaning and restoration by the General Services Administration, who maintains Federal buildings. GSA had given the chandelier task to the Smithsonian. The chandelier had been gone for six weeks, and a bare bulb hung in its place. This was clearly a prime example of the poor general attitude and work habits of Federal employees, according to the V.P. It never occurred to him that some restoration expert at the Smithsonian was probably spending full time trying to locate original period parts for the thing, or that they had better things to do than that.

The V.P. was seriously cutting into our interview time; but our group was very pleasant and well behaved, although the lecture was as welcome to a group of career civil servants as an impacted wisdom tooth. I later speculated that he mistakenly thought we were all political appointees from his party.

In any event, we were finally able to begin asking our questions. The specifics of each question did not bind the V.P. If he didn't like a question, or couldn't answer it, he simply changed the subject and answered a question which he had asked himself.

When asked about Central America, he spent a long time telling us what an expert he was on Central American affairs, because his daughter-in-law was a Mexican American. When asked about the apparent difference in Administration attitudes towards trade unions in this country, and the Solidarity trade union in Poland, we were treated to a description of the number of Polish Americans who lived in various U.S. cities, and how many of them were members of trade unions too. Each question launched the man into a series of loosely related anecdotes, all of them failing to answer the question; but all ending up reassuring the group that he was very well versed on the specific topic, and the Administration was taking the correct but undefined path.

I think it was Tip O'Neill who said that Mr. Bush was "born on third base, and thinks he hit a home run." When our hour was up, we quietly filed out of his office dazed and bewildered. The anticipated high point of our week in Washington had been converted to the low point. I consoled myself only in the knowledge that the Republic has survived in spite of Vice Presidents.

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