"All those men have their price."--Sir Robert Walpole
Recently, in exchange for a $50,000 contribution to the summer jobs program, a grateful Marion Barry declared May 6 as "His Excellency Doctor Sheik Mohammad S.A. al-Fassi Day."
The gushy proclaimation from Hizzoner praised al-Fassi for his "substantial contributions toward increasing understanding and goodwill among all nations" and stated that the "leadership role" set by the good sheik somehow "exemplifies the hope, promise and fulfillment of all people."
Judging from this exaggerated language, you'd think we were talking about a real humanitarian like Albert Schweitzer or George Jessel, not a young man best known for painting the genitalia on nude statues surrounding his mansion in Beverly Hills. But when you have a reported net worth of $6 billion such peccadillos tend to be ignored on ceremonial occasions.
Of course, it's better that the sheik should have spent $50,000 on summer jobs than on Cartier watches. But the 6-billion-dollar man's generosity doesn't excuse the unctuous festivities down at the District Building. With Sheik Fassi Day, Mayor Barry has established an alarming precedent. Henceforth, anyone who is not a war criminal or convicted felon can get his name on the District's calendar merely by writing a check to the mayor's favorite charity.
I'm half-tempted to donate a quarter -- or even 30 cents -- to the summer jobs program and demand in exchange that the mayor declare tomorrow "His Excellency Walter Elliot Shapiro Day." I'll modestly forego the obligatory proclamation detailing my "substantial contributions toward increasing understanding and goodwill among all nations." We can also skip the keys to the city routine unless I get a dead-bolt lock to go with them. But maybe, instead, we could celebrate the Sabbath early by giving the municipal tow trucks a much needed day of rest.
Fair is fair -- 30 cents means about as much to me as $50,000 does to the sheik. Think I'm exaggerating? At the rate of $50,000 a day, it would take more than 328 years of nonstop ceremonies, press conferences and proclamations at the District Building to exhaust Fassi's fortune. That is, of course, assuming that the sheik's ex-wife doesn't win her $3 billion divorce suit.
Of course, it was the size of the gift -- not the proportion of the sheik's assets -- that prompted Mayor Barry to make May 6 an ersatz holiday. This too has its troubling aspects. Awash with petrodollars, the sheik is not known as a hard bargainer. If he had displayed the negotiating skills of a rug merchant, Fassi could probably have bought all 24 hours for as little as $20,000 or $30,000. But by arbitrarily offering $50,000, Fassi has jacked up the price of municipal charity as surely as George Steinbrenner has ruined baseball.
Now that $50,000 is the going rate for a saint's day, the mayor has priced most year- round residents of the District out of the market. It's almost as bad as the water bills. After federal and D.C. taxes, there aren't too many Washingtonians left who can view $50,000 as pocket change. But if the mayor is really serious about auctioning off the municipal calendar in order to fight the recession single-handed, then let's do it up right.
Put the arm on the law firms and public relations hustlers who have made Washington the Mecca of the American Express Gold Card set. For $50,000 worth of billable hours, Tuesday can be Covington & Burling Day. PR whiz Robert Gray can buy Thursday for a like amount and everyone in the District will have to wear black tie in his honor.
In case the mayor hasn't noticed, time is divided into units smaller than a day. Things at the District Building don't always have to move as slowly as the British fleet. At Fassi rates, you should be able to buy a proclamation suitable for framing, a set of gilt keys and an hour of Hizzoner's rhetoric for as little as $2,083.33.
But we shouldn't forget the little guy, especially in an election year. The obvious solution is the District Minute, like the old Bicentennial Minutes. For a charitable contribution of $34.72 -- less than the cost of a vanity license plate -- you too can be a Minute Man (excuse me, Minute Person) and savor for 60 unforgettable seconds every honor our fair city has to offer.
So what if the nonstop ceremonies at the District Building will take on all the spontaneity of a Las Vegas wedding? Blame the wretched excess on Marion Barry. After all, we wouldn't be in this mess if the mayor had followed the etiquette books and just thanked our friend the sheik with a hand-written bread-and-butter note.