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.”
But that was it. Abedin never so much as deigned to answer reporters’ questions about the curiously blurred lines between her high-level government work in what was purported to be a sensitive job and “her role as a Clinton family insider,” as the Times delicately put it. Such sweetheart arrangements, which would have been considered highly scandalous a couple decades ago, now seem to be just part of Washington’s normal routine of business.
Indeed, Abedin certainly didn’t seem to suffer any embarrassment over the matter. The Washington Post reports that she recently irritated some of her colleagues and associates by hitting them up for contributions to Weiner’s mayoralty campaign. But they bit their lips and ponied up. As one anonymous bystander told the Post, “The chatter was, if you wanted to stay in Hillary’s good graces, you answer the call from Huma.”
Buried further down in that Post story was a revealing quote from an Abedin email to Clinton supporters, whom she identified as “our friends who care as much about this city as we do,” and whom she beseeched “to help as much as you can, however you can.”
So that’s it. It’s all about how much they love New York City. Without getting into psychoanalytical journalism here, it seems fair to say that the only kind of person who would seek public office after such a humiliation as that which Weiner suffered would be the kind whose whole identity is wrapped up in being in the public spotlight. There are politicians in Washington who feel like they’re shriveling up into little crumpled remnants of their former selves if they can’t have the public adulation that comes with political office. It would be good if voters could identify such people and send them promptly into shrivel mode.
But when people expose themselves to public embarrassment as Weiner did, they and their spouses should have the decency to remove themselves from the airwaves and the Twitter flow and head off to contemplate their lives for a respectable period of time. They may want to ponder an episode from Will Durant’s multivolume Story of Civilization. It’s about a young courtier at the Court of Elizabeth I, who once presented himself to the queen with elaborate obeisance and, in doing so, inadvertently broke wind. So consumed with embarrassment was the poor fellow that he promptly booked passage for the New World, where he nursed his embarrassment for three years before concluding he had expiated it sufficiently to return to England and show his face once again at court.
He presents a nice object example for the likes of Anthony Weiner and his wife. In their effort to keep open their prospects of someday becoming a hot Washington power couple, they have turned themselves into Washington’s latest horror couple.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.