There’s a famous quote by Hall of Fame baseball manager Casey Stengel that describes what’s going on today in our federal government. As his expansion New York Mets were going through a historically bad season, Casey lamented: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
If Stengel were around today, he might say that not about the Amazin’ Mets but Barack Obama and his Band of Blunderers, whose litany of government screw-ups keeps getting longer and more bizarre. We’re not talking about corruption or misplaced ideologies, though there’s some of both. This is just pure goofball incompetence.
Start by going back a few years to the rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchange website. As soon as it went live, it crashed; it took months to work out the kinks to allow people access to benefits we all eventually will pay for. Aside from the law’s inherent flaws and seat-of-the-pants changes the White House continues to make, the fact the website didn’t work spoke volumes about the people running it. Amazon can sell a zillion items a day and deliver them to your door in no time, but the U.S. federal government couldn’t figure out how to let people fill out a form.
Then came the Veterans Affairs scandal, when it was learned the nation’s ailing military heroes were being denied the proper care they had earned, leading to as many as 40 deaths. It took a congressional investigation and new legislation to address a solution. Americans remain aghast at how we can spend billions to send young men and women to war but can’t care for them when they return.
And just last week, amid worldwide fears over spread of the Ebola virus, a man from Africa was able to fly into Dallas and expose dozens of people, yet officials there waited days before decontaminating an apartment in which he stayed. The Centers for Disease Control, charged with protecting us from such pathogens, has suffered other recent flubs in handling deadly bird flu, smallpox and anthrax viruses, lowering confidence in its ability to keep us safe.
The first two examples of beltway buffoonery cost two Cabinet members their jobs: Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius and VA Director Eric Shinseki.
Last week, Larry and Moe were joined on the sidelines by Curly, otherwise known as Secret Service Director Julia Pierson. She was forced to resign after the agency’s recent failures to provide White House security, the symbolic sword she fell on about the only thing she didn’t miss.
The main incident leading to her ouster came Sept. 19 when an emotionally disturbed veteran scaled the perimeter fence around the White House and sprinted into the executive mansion, running room to room with a knife in hand and agents in pursuit. They finally corralled him after he reached the inner portion of the first floor of the White House, where the president and his family had departed a short while earlier.
Who knows? If the VA had provided proper care, he may not have felt driven to take such action.
During the investigation of the incident, it was learned the Secret Service had failed to screen an armed security guard with a criminal record who rode on an elevator with the president during a Sept. 16 trip to the CDC in Atlanta. Thus, the agencies in the spotlight again overlap.
Pierson took her post in 2012 following another Secret Service scandal in which a dozen agents were found to have procured prostitutes during a trip to Colombia. Earlier this year, three agents were sent home for excessive drinking during a presidential trip to The Netherlands.
It also was learned how she cut back on the Secret Service’s usual protocols and levels of security. Poor morale within the ranks led to high agent turnover and a loss of the department’s swagger and prestige.
Even in its infamous failures —the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and wounding of President Ronald Reagan — the Secret Service’s image was of efficiency and accountability. Now, not so much. In movie terms, it has been exposed as something less than the Ray-Banned, shadowy professionals “In the Line of Fire” as portrayed by Clint Eastwood. Now it’s more like a modern version of the Keystone Cops starring Larry the Cable Guy.
The Secret Service has one key job: Protect the life of the president, his family, other government leaders and visiting dignitaries. It’s not an easy task, but it’s also not complicated. As one commentator put it, failure is unacceptable; one careless moment and it’s Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963. Any assassination attempt is a threat against the security and foundation of our federal government.
This kind of public sector inadequacy takes on different levels, to be sure. It’s one thing to carelessly fritter away tax dollars, or as with the health website, cause massive inconvenience. But the other missteps involve life-threatening consequences and take on a whole different priority.
Many have learned not to expect too much from government. Bloated bureaucracies and red tape have choked its effectiveness and often lead to a sense of resigned frustration from those it aims to serve.
Yet in matters of life and death, the nation needs its veterans to be cared for, deadly diseases to be monitored and isolated, and the Secret Service to keep violent crazies away from its leaders.
As Election Day approaches, all this serves as a reminder that of the many qualities required from those who seek public office, basic competence should stand above political ideology and other criteria. It does no good to elect someone who shares your beliefs if that person isn’t capable of doing the job right.
The people we elect in turn appoint others to key positions. All of them must be able, honest and honorable, if nothing else. If they can’t meet that basic standard, little else they do matters, and our government leaders will continue to resemble the 1962 Mets watching ground balls roll through their legs.