Beware of good friends bearing gifts

Are we all suckers?

Like most Americans, we grumble at the size of our tax bills, but we pay them. Now, it turns out, some of Barack Obama’s pals don’t feel that same obligation.

Tom Daschle lost his chance to be secretary of Health and Human Services after failing to pay more than $140,000 in back taxes. Nancy Killefer, the president’s pick to oversee government efficiency, also stumbled over a tax problem. And 34 senators voted against Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner because he neglected to pay his full bill to Uncle Sam.

These cases raise some obvious questions: Is that all? Who else in Washington didn’t pay taxes and didn’t get caught? Why should the thin cats pony up when those fat cats don’t? (And what about Bernie Madoff? And those Wall Street hotshots who floated away on golden parachutes as their companies were crashing?)

Look, we know that honest mistakes can happen. We also know that government bureaucracies can be extremely frustrating. Years ago, we were badgered by the state of California to cough up annual income taxes long after we had moved away.

It might even be true that Daschle’s mistakes were “completely inadvertent,” as he claimed. He failed to pay income taxes on a car and driver worth $255,000 over three years because he thought the perk was a “gift from a good friend.”



What that statement reveals is a sense of entitlement, even arrogance. I’m rich, I’m famous, and people give me valuable presents all the time. God forbid I should drive my own car, or pay for my own chauffeur, or bother with taxes on a “gift” that is worth more than the annual income of most American families. (For those keeping score at home, the median household income in 2007 was $50,740, while Daschle’s fancy ride was worth $85,000 that year.)

This is not a partisan issue, or a purely Democratic problem. Plenty of Republicans leaving the Bush White House are now doing exactly what Daschle did after he was defeated for re-election to the Senate in 2004 -- cashing in on their connections, selling their expertise, and getting rich in the process.

But the Daschle case is disappointing. We first met him when he came to Washington as a freshman representative from South Dakota in 1979, perhaps the least consequential member of the entire Congress. When he left 26 years later, he was one of the most powerful and respected figures on Capitol Hill.

Then money apparently turned his head. As the New York Times reported, over the next four years, he “was able to make $5 million and live a lavish lifestyle.” How did he reach the point where luxurious “gifts” from “good friends” seemed like his right, his due? And that taxes were what those farmers and millworkers back in South Dakota paid. Not him. As Obama rightly said, Daschle’s story sent the “wrong signal” to “ordinary people ... out there paying taxes every day.”

There’s another way to look at this episode, however. Daschle was an excellent choice to head the president’s healthcare-reform effort. He knows the players on the Hill and in the private sector and genuinely understands the key issues. His departure is a real loss, and Obama has to bear some of the blame here.

During the campaign, the Democratic nominee deliberately demonized the “entire culture” of Washington. He denounced a system dominated by “an army of Washington lobbyists who have turned our government into a government only they can afford to play.” He said those things to win votes and exploit anti-establishment sentiments around the country. He also knew better.

He knew that “Washington lobbyists” like Tom Daschle are often the most knowledgeable and effective people in town. And he knew he would need them in his administration. (And let’s not quibble with words. Daschle was not an officially registered “lobbyist,” but he didn’t make $5 million playing the piano.)

In fact, after the election, Obama admitted that his virulently anti-Washington campaign talk was overblown. “I was never of the belief,” he told the Washington Post, “that the way you bring about change is not to hire anybody who knows how things work.” Quite the opposite, he was looking for “good mechanics who know how to run the system.”

Daschle made a stupid mistake. But he was a top-notch mechanic, and he might have survived if Obama had been more candid with the voters about the Washington insiders he intended to hire.

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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