It was the subject of a New York Times article which might have seemed like small potatoes to the layman, but it was a moment of great significance in the eyes of Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.
The Times recently chronicled how Barack Obama had personally called Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) during 2013’s government shutdown. On that call, Reid got an earful from the president who complained that someone on his staff was leaking information to the press. That agitated an aide who was surreptitiously listening in on this telephone call to the point that he took it upon himself to pipe up and correct the impression of the President of the United States.
Noonan found this whole episode indicative of a culture in Washington that no longer places a premium on standards of conduct.
“Presidents don’t call senators to complain that someone in their office got them mad,” Noonan observed. “Senators don’t have staffers surreptitiously listen in on phone calls from the president of the United States.”
“Staffers to senators don’t jump in on phone calls to argue with a president of the United States,” she continued. “Staffers or senators who did do such things would not talk about it, would not put it into the air on Capitol Hill so that a reporter could pick it up and tell the story.”
“Standards of behavior even on relatively little things appear to have fallen so far in Washington that you get the impression the people in this story never knew there were standards in the first place,” Noonan lamented. “They come across like people who don’t know the rudiments, who have no sense of the courtesies and dignity of their respective positions.”
The lack of decorum, or even modest respect for the offices of high power and the people who occupy them, saturated another Times report on the president’s decision to accept the resignation of Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel.
The Times observed that Hagel had been, to apply an apt metaphor, a good soldier for the president. He pursued the mission of shirking the Pentagon’s budget without issuing the complaints his predecessors had, and dove into the work of extricating thousands of Americans soldiers from the battlefields of Afghanistan. Unmentioned in this piece were the occasions in which Hagel was tasked to clean up after the president like, for example, when Obama stepped on a rhetorical landmine by suggesting American policy toward ISIS was to “shrink” it and make it “manageable.” He was not perfect, but Hagel’s acumen likely shielded his boss from a significant amount of criticism over the course of his tenure.
Having outlived his usefulness to this White House, though, Hagel can apparently be unceremoniously discarded in virtually the same way one would an overripe kumquat. Speaking to The Times on the condition of anonymity, an administration official revealed that Obama believed that it had no choice but to jettison a Cabinet official in the wake of the 2014 midterms, “so he went for the low-hanging fruit.”
“Aides said Mr. Obama made the decision to remove his defense secretary on Friday after weeks of rising tensions over a variety of issues, including what administration officials said were Mr. Hagel’s delays in transferring detainees from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay and a dispute with Susan E. Rice, the national security advisor, over Syria policy,” The Times report added.
If you believe that Hagel was removed from office – not resigned, mind you, as the Pentagon stressed in an effort to preserve a fragment of the secretary’s dignity – because he did not transfer Guantanamo detainees quickly enough when the president broke the law this summer because the released a group of prisoners with too much alacrity, you may also be in the market for a bridge. What rings truer is that Hagel clashed with Rice, a figure The Times revealed Obama is “too close” with.
The Times all but confirms that it was more the latter condition which forced his ouster. “[I]n the end,” Mr. Hagel’s passivity and lack of support in Mr. Obama’s inner circle proved too much for an administration that found itself back on a war footing.”
Whatever the cause of Hagel’s dismissal, his reputation being besmirched by discourteous White House staffers has added insult to undue injury. “All White Houses have some obnoxious staffers, but Obama WH staffers are the worst,” The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol wrote. “Punks.”
As Peggy Noonan might suggest, ungraciousness and disrespect in Washington are expanding to epidemic proportions.