The Williard Hotel standard of journalism


While he waited for his generals in chief to get off their blue asses and chase the Confederate armies, Abraham Lincoln had his own battles. Too much of his time as presidency was taken by federal office seekers. For hours they’d hang out in the White House corridors, reminding him that a cousin Harold had contributed to Lincoln’s minority 1860 victory. Secretary of State William Seward handled them too — indeed, every Cabinet officer did.

Fifteen years later, when presidents could still take an evening stroll with a cigar down Pennsylvania Avenue, Ulysses Grant would hang out in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. Although “lobbyist” had been in use since the 1830s — I’ve seen it in Trollope novels written decades later — Grant popularized its use in America. During the Gilded Era, senators like Roscoe Conkling insisted on controlling patronage for their states. It took popular revulsion at the murder of James Garfield to spook Congress into passing (and former on-the-take expert Chester Arthur to sign) the Pendleton Act, which took steps towards creating a non-partisan civil service class immune from political pressure. One way of getting around it for years was appointing a campaign manager to postmaster general, in charge of federal patronage. Think of Jim Farley, the FDR apparatchik whom the president conned into thinking he was going to endorse him for president in 1940.

So about the Clinton Foundation and those meetings. I assume meetings and exchanges of favors, explicit and implicit, happen. If this is corruption, it’s of the venal kind. I’m not fond of Matthew Yglesias, but his essay casts a cold eye on what the AP’s purportedly meticulous reporting, reliant on passive voice constructions and assumptions presented as facts. Here is his bit on Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel laureate named in the story:

I have no particular knowledge of Yunus, Grameen Bank, or the general prospects of microcredit as a philanthropic venture. I can tell you, however, that Yunus not only won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize but has also been honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. In 2008 he was No. 2 on Foreign Policy’s list of the “top 100 global thinkers,” and Ted Turner put him on the board of the UN Foundation. He’s received the World Food Prize, the International Simon Bolivar Prize, and the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord.

In other words, he’s a renowned and beloved figure throughout the West, not some moneybags getting help from the State Department in exchange for cash. On the level of pure politics, of course, this is exactly the problem with the Clinton Foundation. Its existence turns the banal into a potential conflict of interest, and shutting it down is the right call. But the fact remains that this is a fantastically banal anecdote.

I suspect “Clinton Foundation” will join “Benghazi,” “Vince Foster,” and “Whitewater” as a bat signal to conservatives who nod their heads knowingly and Ny-Quil for the rest of us.

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