Political Hay

Fingering Armstrong’s Handouts

The Republican lobby in monied Washington badly needs airing.

By 1.11.05

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The great Yeshiva wit of my era was Laizer Yellin, who studied and still lives in Montreal. Yellin has always been a man of girth as well as mirth; once, he was asked why his kid brother is so skinny. He answered without hesitation: "Because he takes after me." I hate to say this, but we are all beginning to wonder about the Republican Party and some of its Beltway faithful. Are they taking after the Democrats?

The proximate cause of these ruminations is the report by USA Today that the Department of Education contracted with conservative talk-show host Armstrong Williams for a quarter of a million dollars to promote the administration's education bill. The article includes a hair-raising quote, ostensibly from the body of the contract, that Williams was "to regularly comment… during the course of his broadcasts." This is an absolutely staggering event, a news commentator being paid by the government to favor a particular political position.

I don't pretend to be a maven in the minutiae of the statutes, but if this ain't technically illegal it sure as blazes ought to be. It may not violate U.S. Code 11a-67, but you don't need your Reporters Club secret decoder ring to know that this tosses the journalistic code right into Fawn Hall's shredder. It may be only payola if you take a free concert ticket to stick George Michael into your song rotation, but it is serious graft when you let George Washington give you a quarter of a million reasons to sing about a bill sitting in the Capitol rotunda.

Not to mention the First Amendment, or what's left of it after McCain-Feingold. What if the administration had tried to strong-arm Armstrong? Everyone from Adnan Khashoggi to Venus DeMilo would be up in arms, and rightly so. So why is it different now that Armstrong put the arm on the administration? I see it as being of equal extremity.

Would that this were isolable. We could single out Williams and some yoyo in Education and read them the riot act. Then we could go on our Apple, send our e-mail list a note about one bad apple, deflect the Clinton comparisons by saying "apples and oranges," and go back to enjoying the fruits of our labors on Inauguration Day. The problem is that there is evidence of more rottenness near the core. Just one month ago we had the distressing case of Jack Abramoff.

OUR ESTEEMED COLLEAGUE Andrew Ferguson, writing in the Dec. 20 edition of the Weekly Standard, documented the results of an extensive congressional investigation into the lobbying activities of Abramoff and a few of his associates. Once a true believer who took a lonely Reaganite stand as a student at Brandeis University, Abramoff seems to have mastered the levers of Federal power and used them to open spigots producing massive fees, many obtained in bad faith.

In one instance, Abramoff billed one Indian tribe for lobbying to get the competing tribe's casino closed; when he succeeded, he then approached the second tribe to hire him to lobby for reopening. (Reminds me of another Yellin joke, about the young fellow who approached the wealthy man to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage because he was not after her money but truly loved her. "Which daughter?" asked the tycoon. "Oh, either one.")

Is this as good as it gets? Do we have to adopt cynicism as our new realism? Perhaps we should sit around the bar of an evening, laughing hollowly over our second bottle of hooch, mumbling about how power corrupts. If large sums of cash belonging to goofy tribes and sleepy taxpayers are sitting in unmarked bills in a satchel with the note "Hold for collection by Rostenkowski," does the still-new Republican majority feel obligated to pick it up? After all, we must maintain continuity in governance.

It's starting to smell like a rodent and the miasma is bad for my asthma. The time has come to stanch the stench. This needs to stop, and stop now. If Republicans want to keep the public trust, they need to clear the air and clean the lobby. We know that these folks started out as good people: Jack and Armstrong, the all-American boys. They came as greenhorns to Washington; then, they could not resist trying to horn in on the green. We need to do a gut check and follow our own credo of respecting the taxpayer's money.

But one thing is for sure. Don't look here for aid and comfort. We who have pitched our tent in the conservative media have consistently forsaken larger paychecks elsewhere. Though far from perfect ourselves and struggling every day for integrity, we are not sitting here to hold the water for abusers of the social contract. No Sidney Blumenthal here, no Lannie Davis. If you want to jump in and grab some of the Democrats' tasty leftovers, knock yourself out, but just remember: you're on your own.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.