This is the story of Michael Waldman, our former colleague, writer, advocate and corporate critic during the latter Reagan and Bush years in Washington, D.C. To see him go after the Savings and Loan crooks, the corporate power brokers and the corporate-indentured White House was a delight. He was factual, concise and seemingly sincere. I recall an article that we co-authored in the New Republic (June 3, 1991) tearing into the big business’ international trade agreement proposals for their secret, dictatorial procedures, their harm to our democracy and, our consumer and environmental health and safety.
We were particularly critical of the autocratic, antidemocratic “fast track” procedures to get these agreements with Mexico, Canada, and soon with the revised 116 nation GATT trade agreement, through Congress without allowing amendments and under severe time restrictions.
Waldman and I pointed to “President Bush and his business allies” drive to extend the “fast track” law. “Not surprising,” we wrote, “while the White House has played hardball, congressional Democrats have played whiffleball.”
In the past few weeks, Clinton has taken Bush’s place and played porkball, infecting our democratic processes with trichinosis. Michael Waldman was by his side, proudly heelclicking long days for his boss and, indirectly for the megacorporate powers against the very interests of workers, consumer and democracy that he represented before his personal mutation.
Smitten by the desire to be near power in a new White House and full of idealism that this is where change can be made, Waldman signed onto the Clinton campaign with his Columbia University classmate and rising Clinton aide, George Stephanopoulos. You have to hold on to your stomach during such campaigns, but you can always say — “wait until we are elected.”
Clinton, elected by about a quarter of eligible voters, brought Waldman, who had proven that he can close the door on his past and be a good soldier, into the White House. His major assignment was to prepare and start the negotiations with Congress for a campaign finance reform bill.
He argued and lost on a number of items in the draft legislation, but he met the tests of loyalty. He kept his distance from many of his past associates, lest any close contact be interpreted as diluting his undivided loyalty.
Then came the big test! He was asked to be director of communications in the White House War Room on behalf of the North American Free Trade Agreement — just the subject matter he had so repeatedly excoriated and rejected. Word is that he didn’t want the job, showing his White House superiors his previous writings against both these agreements and the “fast track” that Clinton relished. He said the media and others could use these articles against him and the effort. What, no machismo, his superiors, in effect, argued, sensing that Waldman had to prove his loyalty over his conscience if he was truly going to be part of the inner circle.
Waldman caved; he crossed the Rubicon without his conscience into a region, now without discernible limits, where he can continue to push positions that he personally abhors by saying that he was just taking orders, that he is just working there.
There is, obviously, a willingness to compromise what one believes for anyone going to work in the White House or any government agency. It is a condition of employment. But as the civil service code of ethics teaches, among other established international codes for political and military personnel, there are limits which both one’s superiors should respect and which each individual should conscientiously observe.
Waldman’s superiors pushed him beyond decency. But he also allowed himself to be pushed. Had he said no, given his previous written standards, it is doubtful that he would have lost his job. He just wouldn’t have passed the machismo loyalty test.
The day after the NAFTA vote in the House of Representatives, I was being interviewed on a national radio talk show. Many listeners had keenly followed the NAFTA debate. The subject of all those private letter pork deals in return for pro-NAFTA votes that Clinton and his deputies signed came up. I gave listeners Michael Waldman’s phone number (202-456-6785) in the White House War Room to call for copies of these letters. Waldman promptly demurred and cynically referred their calls to us.
Sorry, Mike, I somehow had that residual feeling that you believed in freedom of information and the right of the people to know.