Author James Michener famously said of Hawaii’s nineteenth century New England missionaries that they went to the islands to do good and ended up doing very, very well. Washington commentator Mark Shields has likened those missionaries to many people who come to Washington—all starry-eyed with idealism upon their arrival but later fixated on the ongoing Beltway stampede for a share of the largess bestowed upon the city’s insiders as they combine government service with often-grubby private pursuits.
Which calls to mind Huma Abedin, wife of the disgraced former congressman, Anthony Weiner, and a darling of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is much in the news these days as the defiant defender of her husband, who hungers for a return to public life as the next mayor of New York and who must somehow get past his penchant for sending lewd photos of himself to women with whom he strikes up Internet liaisons. Watching the wife step forward in such a cringe-inducing way, one gets the feeling that her aim is to get the spotlight onto herself so it won’t shine so brightly on her husband’s crotch.
But there’s another question about Huma Abedin—and her husband—that goes beyond the sad spectacle of Weiner’s starvation for public approval and his wife’s strange willingness to abet his misplaced ambition. Abedin should be a bit embarrassed herself over a remarkable sweetheart deal she got from her friends—in and out of government—after her maternity leave from her high-level State Department job with its impressive title: deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Clinton.
It worked like this: instead of being a full-time government employee, she now was a special government employee—“essentially a consultant,” as the New York Times described it. She was allowed to work from home—her New York home—rather than report to State headquarters in Washington. But she retained her high-blown title, along with a salary of $135,000 a year—for unspecified duties. All the while, she undertook outside consulting responsibilities with the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation, as well as with a strategic-consulting firm run by former Bill Clinton adviser Doug Band. She also had an outside job arrangement with Mrs. Clinton, helping in the secretary’s transition out of her cabinet position.
It isn’t clear to what extent these outside arrangements augmented her $135,000 government salary, but Anthony Weiner revealed in a disclosure statement, required by his mayoral candidacy, that the couple earned $490,000 in 2012, during the time of Abedin’s special arrangement at State and when her husband toiled as some kind of consultant himself.
Nice work if you can get it. But most people can’t get it. It takes special arrangements fashioned by high government officials and their pals and former associates who now toil in the private sector seeking specific governmental actions in behalf of well-heeled clients. Most American women who work in the real world and wish to stay home with their newborns must take a hit on pay. But if you work for the federal government and are a favorite of some powerful figure, you can have it all—the leave plus the pay plus fat outside consulting arrangements.
This emits a mild odor, but hardly anyone in Washington seems to think it represents anything about the place that is even slightly amiss. The Times did quote one leader of an ethics watchdog group, Melanie Sloane, as expressing some perplexity over the arrangement. “If she was being held out as a deputy chief of staff,” said Sloane, “it would be highly unusual for her to be a part-time employee or a consultant. Being a deputy chief of staff at the State Department is generally considered more than a full-time job.”