I am not a dunce, said the senator

Al Kamen
Columnist April 17, 2013

In our roundup Tuesday of some of the most embarrassing news conferences held by members of Congress, a list inspired by Rep. Steve Cohen’s recent oddball event in which he explained why he had deleted a tweet to pop icon Cyndi Lauper, it seems we missed the granddaddy of them all.

Our apologies.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Back in 1974, an upstart magazine called New Times published a cover story identifying the 10 dumbest members of Congress. The scathing story, written by the magazine’s Washington correspondent, Nina Totenberg, bestowed upon Sen. William Scott (R-Va.) the dubious distinction of being the very dumbest.

Totenberg’s story was blistering.

And how did the esteemed gentleman from Virginia respond? Why, he decided to address the Fourth Estate, of course, holding a small news conference in his office to deny the report. “Obviously not true,” he told the journalists (you can see an image of the full story as it ran in the Washington Post at wapo.st/dumbpressconference).


William Scott article in The Washington Post, May 24, 1974. (TWP)

Scott also said he planned to sue the magazine for libel, but he later had second thoughts because he feared he would lose, thus proving that he was, in fact, Congress’s dimmest bulb. The event was made all the funnier by the fact that the news conference seemed only to elevate the original magazine story to national attention — and to provide a punch line for the decades.

A hat tip to the Loop fans with excellent memories who wrote to us recollecting the vintage Scott spectacle.

And an even bigger thanks to Cohen. When we’re tempted to trot out the old lament that “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” he reminds us that they, in fact, do.

Room at the top

Seems fitting that the head of the Commerce Department is an acting secretary whose last name is Blank.

Turns out, there are a lot of senior leadership positions going empty at Commerce. And while they’re at it, perhaps the folks there could order a few extra “Help Wanted” signs for their friends over at the State Department, where there’s also a slew of vacant top spots.

First, at Commerce, Rebecca Blank has been “acting” since John Bryson resigned as secretary in June. She’s planning to leave in May, and it’s expected that President Obama will name hotel scion Penny Pritzker to the job, though extensive vetting of her far-flung financial portfolio may be holding up the announcement.

And now other vacancies are drawing criticism. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), wrote to Blank urging her to press the White House to fill empty posts, including census director, the heads of the Patent and Trademark Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — all of which fall under the Commerce Department — as well as the department’s chief financial officer. “While I have confidence in the staff temporarily filling these positions, I urge you to prompt the White House to expeditiously appoint persons to these important positions,” Frank wrote.

Frank says he’s worried that the vacant spots will hamper the agencies’ mission. “You ever see the movie ‘Home Alone’?” Frank asked us. “That’s what it’s like over there.”

And at State, the list of unfilled top jobs may be even longer.

Elliott Abrams, who was a State official under President Ronald Reagan and a special assistant to President George W. Bush, wrote a blistering blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations about the vacant jobs, which include about half a dozen assistant-secretary roles.

Abrams’s conclusion is that instead of trotting the globe as he has been, Secretary of State John Kerry should spend more time at Foggy Bottom managing his department (despite the big kudos heaped on past secretaries of state, including Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, for racking up the frequent-flier miles).

There’s more concern from the Hill, too, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce on Wednesday seeking answers from Kerry about what might be causing the holdup. Kerry, appearing as a witness before the panel, faulted the White House’s vetting process. “I’m still waiting for the vetting to move,” he said, on people he selected months ago.

Our understanding is that some of the nominations will be coming down the pike in a matter of weeks.

So it looks like those cold seats may warm up soon — particularly now that there’s heat coming from lawmakers.

McDonough, unplugged

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was hit last week with two lengthy, insidery — and quite favorable — reviews of his tenure after 10 weeks on the job.

The pieces, by Buzzfeed and Bloomberg, conclude he’s a driven, indefatigable and no-nonsense head of White House operations.

Each notes his tight rein on senior staff meetings and on the occasionally overly talkative people who attend them. McDonough was “known for his preoccupation with proper, formal process,” at the National Security Council, Buzzfeed wrote, and he’s “imported from [there] a ban on BlackBerrys and other smartphones at staff meetings.”

“He doesn’t allow BlackBerrys in his office,” Bloomberg tells us. “Everyone entering must park their communication devices in the cabinet outside the door, the same rule as in the Situation Room, where security was paramount.”

And it still is. We hear the top reason McDonough bans phones owes more to worries over cybersecurity than efficiency. The goal is not having people in, say, Beijing become part of the conversation.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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