Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Feb. 3: In an interview Tuesday with NBC’s Brian Williams, President Barack Obama admits that he "screwed up" in defending his appointment of Daschel so vigorously just before he decided to dump him.

"I screwed up," the Associated Press, quotes President Obama as saying. He was referring to his nominations of Tom Daschle for secretary of health and human services and Nancy Killefer for White House chief performance officer. Yesterday the president defenestrated both Daschle and Killefer over tax problems.

There's something mildly refreshing about hearing a president spontaneously admit, "I screwed up." Yet admitting mistakes is less important than making good decisions in the future, and the evidence suggests that Obama has not learned his lesson--or rather that he has overlearned it. Having been careless or indulgent in his initial personnel choices, the president has reacted by going to the opposite extreme.

To judge by the decision to jettison Killefer--who had a tax debt of less than $1,000, which she paid off years ago--Obama has now adopted a zero-tolerance policy, at least with regard to tax irregularities. The man widely lauded for his brilliance and competence is showing all the management skill of a principal in a government high school.

The Killefer Standard raises more questions than it answers:

First, are nominees who have already taken their jobs exempt? National Review's Larry Kudlow argued yesterday that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, whose tax problems are far more serious than Killefer's, should step down. It seems hypocritical for Obama to tout his new ethical rigor yet not apply it to officials who were confirmed last week.

Second, does the Killefer Standard apply in areas other than personal taxes? Hans von Spakovsky reports for The Weekly Standard that Rep. Hilda Solis, the labor secretary-designate, was "involved with a private organization that was lobbying her fellow legislators on a bill that she has cosponsored" and "apparently kept her involvement secret and failed to reveal a clear conflict of interest." The applicable House rule, von Spakovsky writes, "turns on whether Solis was an active participant in the lobbying effort." He makes a strong argument that she was. Even if it is a gray area, it is hard to see how it could meet the Killefer Standard--assuming that standard applies to lobbying and legislative ethics as well as taxes.

Third, does the Killefer Standard apply to Hillary Clinton? If it applies to Geithner and Solis, it ought to mean at the very least a revisitation of the conflict-of-interest questions raised by the secretary of state's husband's acceptance of huge donations from foreign governments. In determining whether Mrs. Clinton keeps her job, the president might also take account of other ethical problems that have dogged her over the years, such as the Whitewater real estate scam, the suspicious cattle-future transactions, and the disappearing Rose Law Firm records.

Fourth, will Obama himself resign? The answer is no, but the question is not altogether facetious. Consider this Associated Press report from March 2007:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama got more than an education when he attended Harvard Law School in the late 1980s. He also got a healthy stack of parking tickets, most of which he never paid.

The Illinois Senator shelled out $375 in January--two weeks before he officially launched his presidential campaign--to finally pay for 15 outstanding parking tickets and their associated late fees. . . .

Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, dismissed the tickets as not relevant.

"He didn't owe that much and what he did owe, he paid," Psaki said on Wednesday. "Many people have parking tickets and late fees. All the parking tickets and late fees were paid in full."

We remember reading about this at the time and agreeing with Psaki that it was a trivial matter. But it is striking how similar it is to Killefer's offense. In fact, the only appreciable difference is one that reflects unfavorably on the president: Unlike Killefer, Obama did not bother to pay his debt until it became an imminent source of political embarrassment.

By the Killefer Standard, Obama is blatantly unqualified to serve in his own White House.

The Sullenberger Standard
So, is there anyone in America who is ethical enough to meet the Killefer Standard? Yes, to judge by this report from KPCC-FM in Pasadena, Calif.:

Chesley Sullenberger has a problem. He borrowed a book from the Danville Library--and it's overdue. To complicate matters, the book was an interlibrary loan from Fresno State.

Sullenberger contacted librarians and asked for an extension on the loan and a waiver on the overdue fine. The reason? The book is in the cargo hold of the US Airways plane that made an emergency landing last month in New York's Hudson River. Sullenberger is the pilot who made that landing. No one was seriously injured.

Fresno State library officials were impressed with Sullenberger's sense of responsibility . . . and waived all fines and fees, even the one for losing the book. The library's going one step further: when the replacement book goes up on the shelf, it will have a special template in front, dedicating it to Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.

Oh, by the way. The topic of that book? Professional ethics.

President Obama could nominate Sullenberger to a cabinet post (or a few), although the result probably would not be good for air safety in America.


The Killefer Standard
Zero tolerance comes to the White House.

* FEBRUARY 4, 2009

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