Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is also the founder of the Real News Project, a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you hear the one about the president’s top domestic policy adviser? Tired of helping the president pick the pockets of the poor and middle class on behalf of the rich, he found a more profitable target. Or Target, actually.
Last week, Claude Allen was arrested and charged with a scheme to rip off Target and other stores by "returning" more than $5,000 worth of merchandise he had allegedly never paid for in the first place. According to police, Allen would buy an item and put it in his car, then return and bring an identical item from the store shelves for a refund based on the original receipt.
Apparently, the White House had an inkling what was coming. Back on Feb 9, it announced that Allen was resigning in order to “spend more time with his family”—a bromide that any savvy observer should know masks something more serious. In a statement, Bush declared: "Claude Allen has been a trusted advisor since 2001 ... Claude is a good and compassionate man, and he has my deep respect and my gratitude. "
Behind this sad incident lurk two interrelated calamities of the Bush years: the continuing placement of the dubiously-qualified in high positions, and the use of people of color as window dressing for policies that harm communities of color.
Before Allen’s unique shopping habits were revealed, it was already becoming apparent that departments and agencies throughout the administration were jammed with incompetents and unfortunates who, based on relevant experience or temperament or values, shouldn’t be there at all (see “Appointees Guarding the Henhouse ").
One colleague previously hauled off to face justice is David Safavian, the head of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy—a former lobbyist and Hill staffer with scant experience in issuing federal contracts prior to his hiring by the Bush Administration, who was arrested in connection with the sprawling lobbying corruption scandal. Both Safavian and Allen will be on the docket in April.
In distancing the administration from Allen, unnamed White House sources insisted to reporters that, notwithstanding his title, it was never Allen who made domestic policy decisions; he was a merely ceremonial nobody. No, they said, it was former direct mail king Karl Rove—a man who believes that ‘policy’ and ‘politics’ are synonymous—who made all the policy decisions, while the ceremonial black guy actually just pushed paper. And that’s their spin, for goodness’ sake.
I’m apparently not alone in thinking that the brain center itself is looking especially grim these days. Of late, leading Republicans have begun advising Bush to get some "experienced" people into the White House—raising doubts even about Chief of Staff Andrew Card. And he’s probably the most qualified of the lot. Of course, experience can go hand in hand with chicanery: Dick Cheney’s former Chief of Staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, qualified through long years of public—or at least party—service, has been arrested and charged with a serious crime: obstructing the investigation in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.
The process of distancing Allen from the administration is striking because, although nobody ever heard of him, he was the top-ranking African-American on the White House staff, and constantly at Bush's side both at White House events and on trips around the country. Claude Allen was like that one black in a suit stuck in every corporate group photo to represent a non-existent diversity. Doubt that? Even after Allen first told the White House about his little pick-up problem, he still was Laura Bush’s guest in her box at the State of the Union address. Why? Was he Laura’s good friend?
Sometimes, as with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the “nobody” routine means the exact opposite—that the miscreant was actually a major player. But Claude Allen was just an empty suit, a black pawn drafted to provide Bush with cover for all manner of regressive acts—starting with cutbacks to essential services, passing through tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and culminating in efforts to open minority scholarship programs to whites.
The Claude Allen story also is important in giving the lie once again to the GOP’s claim of moral superiority. In an interview before he got in hot water, Allen explained why, having been raised a Democrat, he had switched parties. "I realized after the fact that I agree more with the Republican Party platform, that it talked about independence, that it talked about individual responsibility, individual rights, it talked about the ability to guarantee opportunities, not outcomes," he said.
That interview, fittingly, was conducted by Armstrong Williams—another African American who was well-rewarded for backing an administration that has done everything possible to make life more difficult for others of their race. "It is a small circle of conservatives, especially when you are black," Williams would tell The New York Times. And what a circle: Williams was widely shellacked after it was disclosed that he’s been paid handsomely by the Bush administration to swoon over it in his newspaper columns.
And Allen presumed to speak of “individual responsibility.” Perhaps the Target situation would make a convenient point to bury that term forever, since it is hardly ever honestly employed, anyway.
Routinely described as born-again and a “devoted father,” Allen liked to talk about how his religious upbringing was a key factor in his steady march from a poor home to the pinnacle. Along the way, he befriended or worked for such advocates of color-blindness as the former senator Jesse Helms—one of the last of a generation recalling the days of segregation with fondness—and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, known for biting the affirmative-action hand that gave him a leg up. Allen lunched often with Thomas, who apparently lectured him on propriety. "He would always say to make sure I conducted myself appropriately," Allen told an interviewer.
Now that Allen has failed the "appropriateness" test, the administration has quickly washed its hands of him—with the general acquiescence of the press and the punditocracy, a woefully common scenario these past five years.
But, a few facts: Allen was on the highest White House pay scale, earning $161,000 a year, and had bought a $958,300 house the same month he allegedly began stealing. According to Newsweek, he was considered by fellow staffers to be “a bit stuffy and holier-than-thou.” Allen, who had clerked for a federal judge, went on to serve as the Health and Human Services secretary for Virginia, where according to the Los Angeles Times, he gained conservative credentials by denying a low-income rape victim Medicaid funds for an abortion.
Such a record apparently endeared him to the incoming Bush team, and in 2001, he was appointed to the No. 2 post at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There he promoted abstinence-only AIDS-prevention programs. By 2003, despite slim legal credentials, Bush proposed Allen for a seat on the federal appeals court, though Democrats blocked his nomination. Apparently, Allen had once remarked that an opponent of his boss, Jesse Helms, was connected to “queers.” Explaining himself at his confirmation hearings, he told senators that by “queers” he meant people who were "odd, out of the ordinary." In 2005, he was brought to the White House.
Claude Allen returned lots of items to Target because, ostensibly, they weren’t up to snuff. He was actually perfectly happy with the items he is said to have improperly procured. The rest of us are left thinking about how to return to sender something bigger, something many of us never ordered in the first place, and which has turned into the worst kind of damaged goods: an entire administration rotten to the core.