Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Honorary Degree, a Template For Patronage

If you’ve been good to Harvard or Yale or Podunk U by contributing to the Building Fund, you too may be deserving of an honorary degree.  A speech can sometimes do it, but you have to be pretty far up the food chain.  Paying for a building almost always works.


Doctor of Literature sound good to you? No problem, that particular title can be found on a sliding-scale representing the cost-benefit ratio.  No one is likely to start addressing you by the title “Dr.,” but the honor is framed to hang ostentatiously on your library wall and makes a dandy reference in “Who’s Who.”  Inescapably, it will appear in that ultimate tribute, your obituary.


I think we ought to celebrate that back-scratching relationship, time-tested and proven of mutual value in the hallowed halls of academia. We learn, once again, from the teachers.  The honorary title, a template for patronage in modern government.


As every incoming administration knows, there are ambassadorships to be filled, delegations to be headed, agencies to be directed, boards to be filled, commissions and committees to be steered, shoes to be shined and apples polished.  All by appointment.  A virtual cornucopia of legacy-hiring, patronage lists to make the eyes of the numberless and mostly unknown political suck-ups fairly shine.


Talented people don’t aspire to these positions (with the possible exception of Ambassador to England or France).  Talented people are already busy with whatever their talent has led them to do.  They may gladly drop a couple hundred thou in the Republican or Democratic tin cup, but they’re looking for business access, not a job.  No title, thanks, just answer the phone when I call.


These appointive positions every administration has drop in their lap the day after the votes have been counted are more likely to be filled by Arabian horse enthusiasts than captains of industry or specialists in terrorism.  Captains, after all, are already captaining, specialists putting in a full day specializing on their own behalf.


The patronage army must be fed and clothed and given marching orders.  More importantly, they must be kept from the levers of power and I have a scheme.


What is critically needed is an office in each of these embassies, agencies, boards and commissions that reflects the honor being done on behalf of the occupant.  Merely an office. Deep carpeting, heavy drapery across windows that view, if not the Capitol Dome, at the very least a leafy street-scene.  Highly polished mahogany, luxurious leather chairs and sofas, flags (perhaps even a personal flag, much like a coat of arms), a private bath by all means.


A wall.  A place on that wall for the obligatory picture of the occupant, making direct and unwavering eye-contact with the camera, the President’s arm thrown casually across his shoulder.  Golf clubs or shotguns are optional in the photo, depending upon one's sense of humor.  A private secretary is mandatory. He or she must be a sort of concierge to arrange lunch dates, rounds of golf, dinner invitations and the pressing correspondence attendant to these functions.


Actual interaction with the embassy, agency, board or committee is discouraged, if not outright forbidden.  Actual residence in Washington or the country of assignment is optional.  The flowers will be fresh, as will be the coffee, so long as the appointee's private secretary is given notice of ‘intent to occupy’ whenever our hero or heroine decides to pay a visit.


The actual person running the embassy, agency, board, commission or committee will be given a subordinate title, but absolute authority.  Thus we are not likely to be embarrassed by ambassadors who can’t speak the native language, blundering into whatever the diplomatic business of the moment might be. 


One can almost hear the massive sigh of relief on both sides of many oceans.


It’s an elegant solution, far cheaper than the costly errors that abound when these well-meaning bumblers are actually given authority.  An idea whose time has come. You there, you forests of patronage trees, step up and bow slightly from the waist.  The medal of office is about to be placed, with just the fleeting hint of a smile on the presidential lips, around your financially supportive necks.


Now sit back, relax and, for goodness sake, don't touch the red phone.
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