The Indispensable Mr. Geithner

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 27, 2009

Despite having failed to pay certain portions of his back taxes until his nomination as Treasury Secretary made tax delinquency ever so inconvenient–and despite having failed to pay certain other portions of his back taxes because he was advised that the statute of limitations had run out–Timothy Geithner was confirmed as Treasury Secretary by the United States Senate. The vote was closer than was expected when Geithner was first nominated. Rapturous approval greeted that nomination immediately after it was made, as we were assured by the new administration and its allies that Tim Geithner was one of the few people in the country–if not the only one–who possessed the ability to pull the economy back from the brink of utter and complete catastrophe.

In urging Geithner’s confirmation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered his entirely nonpartisan opinion that “This powerful economic storm demands strong, decisive and wise leadership,” and that “No one is more qualified or prepared for the task than Tim Geither.” Thus, despite the fact that the Treasury Secretary was ridiculously delinquent in paying over $40,000 in back taxes (plus interest), despite the fact that his delinquency stemmed from his inability to master the supposedly complex machinery of TurboTax and his inability to properly read the rules on self-employment taxes that applied in the two years he worked at the International Monetary Fund–all while collecting IMF reimbursement for the taxes he did not pay–despite all of these mistakes that would have landed an ordinary citizen in hot water with the Internal Revenue Service, Tim Geithner finds himself as the latest successor to Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury.

And that, you see, is because Tim Geithner is indispensable. He has been neck-deep in the efforts that have been made since last fall to rescue the American economy and we just cannot pass up on the opportunity to make him the Treasury Secretary as a consequence.

Now, a churlish soul (like me, perhaps) might remind you that the TARP program Geithner helped design and whose implementation Geithner urged has turned out to be something of a disaster; its accounting procedures are opaque, its functions are haphazard at best and its original mission has been drastically altered from purchasing toxic assets and taking them off of the balance sheet of financial institutions, to injecting capital into banks in exchange for stock. Oh, and TARP has encouraged appalling amounts of corruption. But never mind all of that. Tim Geithner is indispensable.

“But,” I hear you cry, “De Gaulle told us that the graveyards are full of indispensable men! Surely, this would imply that there is no such animal!”

Indeed, there is not. But try telling that to the Obama Administration.

Our New Overlords have made the illusion of indispensability part and parcel of their electoral appeal. The fostering of this illusion begins at the top with the 44th President of the United States. Barack Obama was enthusiastically marketed to us as “The One” by none other than the almost-junior Senator from the State of Illinois. Descriptions of the President’s political and leadership abilities–such as they are–reached the mystical with commentators like Chris Matthews famously gushing to the world that a thrill runs down his leg whenever he hears Obama speak and with other purportedly objective journalists giddily confessing that “its hard to remain objective” when it comes to covering Obama. The not-so-hidden subtext of these comments is the suggestion that America could not do without Obama, that the brand of leadership he offered the country was so extraordinary that to forsake it would be almost criminally negligent. This approach was audacious, to be sure (one can think of so many words other than “audacious” to describe this marketing campaign, but let’s put that matter aside for the moment), but credit where it is due; it worked. Barack Obama has come into office as the Indispensable Man-in-Chief, assuming, of course, that a being possessed of the powers the President has can be considered a mere “man.”

But not only must the President be considered indispensable. His people must as well. Indispensability is the armor that shields the appointments of George Mitchell as the special envoy for the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke as the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan from skeptical questions. We are assured that Mitchell and Holbrooke are formidable diplomats and negotiators with deep knowledge of their briefs. And to be sure, the two special envoys did not fall off the diplomatic turnip truck yesterday. But in the rush to ascribe miraculous powers to the personalities of George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, it would appear that pundits and observers have forgotten to ask a key question concerning how the two diplomats will go about their jobs: Apart from their personalities, how will Mitchell and Holbrooke change American grand strategy and the attendant tactics to bring about those most elusive of things; peace between the Arabs and Israelis, stability and reconstruction in Afghanistan, and a close and cooperative relationship between the United States and Pakistan that will help the latter rid itself of terrorist elements, and play a positive and constructive role in international affairs?

Nobody seems to know the answers to these questions. Perhaps that’s because the questions are not asked in the first place. The would-be questioners seem to think that theirs is not to ask “why.” Rather, they believe that theirs is the duty to remind us ever-so-solemnly of the indispensability of the President and his appointees. Evidently, once we get it in our thick skulls that these superior beings have condescended to lead us to a better tomorrow, we will accept that their presence in government is a sine qua non of our very survival and we will commensurately stop asking why we should consider them superior in the first place.

So, welcome to the World of Obama, the World of the Indispensable. It’s a world where strategies, tactics, principles, core beliefs, even compliance with the United States Internal Revenue Code take a back seat to assurances from on high that the people elected and appointed to lead us are exactly the right people at exactly the right time to save us from imminent collapse and catastrophe. We mustn’t doubt, mustn’t dispute, mustn’t question the abilities and worthiness of our newfound leaders. Rather, we must simply rubber stamp their ascension to positions of leadership irrespective of the existence of certain inconvenient facts that would disqualify any other aspirant to public service in any other administration.

Yes, facts might sometimes get in the way of our belief in the indispensability of our newfound leaders. But I’m sure we can learn to ignore the facts.

We have thus far, after all.

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