Like many Americans whose steady, reliable job has suddenly disappeared, Thomas Daschle cobbled together a bunch of gigs when he was laid off in 2004 by the people of South Dakota after more than two decades of representing them in Congress.
There was the day job at the law firm Alston & Bird that must have been blessedly free of the kind of dull legal minutiae that make up many a billable hour, since Daschle is not a lawyer. That paid $2.1 million over the past two years. The consulting position at InterMedia Advisors, a private equity firm, paid him $1 million a year. A senior partner there told The Post that Daschle did "a lot of helpful work," which he declined to enumerate. A stream of speeches to businesses that had business with the government earned Daschle $500,000 during the past two years. There were directorships on several boards -- BP Corp. alone paid him $250,000. As practitioners of Bokononism, the religion created by Kurt Vonnegut in the book "Cat's Cradle," like to say when contemplating the complicated machinery of life: "Busy, busy, busy."
So busy must Daschle have been dashing from one job to another -- understandable to anyone who has to moonlight after the day shift ends -- it must have merely seemed like a sensible efficiency to say yes when the founder of InterMedia put a Cadillac and a driver at his disposal. It's easy to understand how natural such a gift must have seemed. At a farewell party in his honor after he left the Senate, The Post reports, Daschle told a joke about how on the way to the party both he and his wife got into the car and sat and sat until she said to him, "If this car is going to get us there, you better get in the driver's seat." Of the InterMedia-funded car and driver, Daschle's spokeswoman told The Post that Daschle "naively" believed "it was nothing more than a generous offer from a friend."
When someone earns more per week than the U.S. median yearly household income, we naively assume that person has more sophistication about money than the rest of us. But maybe the IRS, in an effort to find scofflaws, should have every American nominated to a Cabinet post, given the salutary effect it seems to have on one's memory of taxes unpaid -- witness the taxable-income confession of our new Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner.
Now Daschle, nominee to be secretary of health and human services, will go through the "mistakes were made" ritual -- in addition to belatedly recognizing that maybe he should have declared the limousine service, there was also some unreported consulting income and some irregularities with his charitable deductions. We will all end up finding out more than will ever be useful to us about the tax implications of gifts of luxury cars and chauffeurs. And the really interesting question that arises from all this -- What in the world did Tom Daschle do to earn all that money? -- will probably be left unanswered.
His spokeswoman says that for InterMedia, Daschle did "extensive work . . . raising funds." Did he spend hours shaking money out of the people in his BlackBerry like some highly paid telemarketer? The Alston & Bird Web site says that he focused "on advising the firm's clients on issues related to all aspects of public policy." Did that mean slogging through endless meetings explaining the intricacies of how to bend the legislative process to the clients' will? Did he make the right calls to get this done? Or was most of his value to these firms the simpler fact that on their payroll was Tom Daschle -- once one of the most powerful people in Washington, and with everything breaking the Democrats' way, likely to be so again?
"He's the gold standard for integrity in government," said a former aide to Daschle, Andrea LaRue, herself now a lobbyist. In recent months, as the economy has melted down, we have all learned about the art of monetization -- of turning things such as bad home equity loans into arcane derivatives and how there's lots of money to be made out of monetization (until sometimes the money disappears). Even if we don't know what Daschle did to earn all his money, we do know that when you monetize the job of Senate majority leader, as Daschle's financial disclosure forms reveal, you come up with almost $5.3 million in two years. Gold standard, indeed.
Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer to Slate.com. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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