Friday, February 13, 2009

The Friday Laugh

The Fixer

Right now, folks throughout the country are viewing on television the massive political machinery of Washington, D.C. and by that, I mean the press conferences in the high-ceilings of the Capitol, the panicked meetings in the Treasury Department’s “Cash Room” (classic name, classic place), the hasty comments from important people in hallways. Members and Cabinet officials speak earnestly, tearing off to crucial appointments amidst all this tumult and uncertainty. And always, there in the corner or trailing behind the pack of notables, are the harried staffers -- they’re holding folders and charts, looking serious, grimacing, wound tight as a drum.

Folks, these are the real players in Washington. These are the people with the most important job in Officialdom: Making the trains run on time. I know. Because I’ve been fortunate enough to be one of them. In fact, it’s the one skill I’ve developed in my long political lifetime – aide-de-camp, special assistant, bagman, guy in a dark suit, white shirt, and rep tie. There’s a name for it – they called me The Fixer, and here’s how it worked:

Imagine a drab office in a drab federal building. The chief of staff to a senior Cabinet official looks at me and says simply: “We need him back in the building at 1.”

“Will do,” is my terse response.

I’m accompanying my boss to a meeting with a group of non-profit folks – each individual imbued with some ideals, genuine smarts, political skills, and whole lot of gabbiness. My mission: keep him on time, away from the gabbmeisters, and steer him through the labyrinth hotel hallways to the front door and into the car and back to the bureaucratic mother ship.

Sound and look familiar? I’m that guy who is trailing after powerful and prominent people -- always with Him or Her wherever He or She might be, ensuring that they have the correct speech, the special award to be presented, the phonetic spelling of “Adznanyvir Schlappaduchesski” on a note card, checking to ensure the principal doesn’t get lost or stolen and gets what they want, no matter how outrageous. Today you’re seeing these guys all the time on television – behind the Important Person is that brainiac geek who carries around bulging binders and knows the details of Section IV, subparagraph 2 of the Hopelessly Complex Legislative Act of 2005.

Tallinn, Estonia: It’s near midnight in a bleak, barely functioning ex-Soviet state. “Hmmmm,” says my boss, a regal Deputy Secretary of State in charge of foreign aid, “I think it would be simply grand to honor Prime Minister Grmylbk’s wife with a bouquet of 100 splendid flowers to symbolize the next 100 years of harmony between Estonia and America." I don’t even blink but reply, “Gotcha. On it.”

Next thing you know, I’m hustling off into the shadows of a deserted street after whispered conversations with a greasy concierge and a cop, brand new US dollars are flashed, there’s a cab ride halfway to Latvia, a greenhouse run by a World War II German generator, a screaming ride back to town, and I’m in the hotel lobby with two huge bunches of fresh flowers at 7:30 a.m.. “Here you go, sir.” “I thank you for your prodigious efforts.”

This skill was honed at an early age. I distinctly recall an incident when I was 7-years-old; my father, a gracious guy, was being given the hard sell by some earnest furniture salesman. The guy was talking bonus this, half-price that. My father looked pained as he listened to the shtick. I instinctively knew what to do: I grabbed my dad’s hand and urgently said, “Dad, can you take me to the bathroom? I really gotta go bad.” The salesman shot me a dirty look, my dad smiled with relief, and I realized a career was born.

House Floor, U.S. Capitol: The Member stands there clutching colored graph paper and rolled up survey maps, talking to my boss. “Chairman, I really need this project …local mayor’s banging on me…only 13 million bucks….improve a lot of lives…economic development…reelection..” “Sure, Joe. Give the info to Jeff here and he can follow up with your people.” The Fixer swings into action. “I’ll take that,” I say matter-of-factly, grabbing the paraphernalia out of the startled Member’s hands. “Now let me get with the Army Corps hydro team and run the numbers on the levee option,” I add as the two men smile and drift away.

It’s not that these men and women can’t fend for themselves – they can. It’s just that the demands on them are such that it’s better to save the important stuff for guys like me. I call it the Hierarchy of Needs: these folks are high on the hierarchy and the Fixer takes care of their needs, or something like that.

Downtown Washington, prestigious think tank: A speech given by my boss on the weighty subject of health care, the dire situation facing the country, the financial sacrifice, generations fighting one another for resources, poor people, sick kids, the whole ball of wax. Afterwards, my boss strides out, serious reporters from major national publications gather round for additional Wisdom and the air hangs heavy with Meaning. Before anyone can get a word out, some elderly guy in shorts, t-shirt and a ball cap darts in and says, “Hey there, fella. I hear you run that big agency. See, I’m having trouble getting someone there to pay for this chiropractor for my back pain and I bet you could call your boys in billing and—"

I know how to handle this guy. See, the Fixer has to come through in any situation, no matter if it’s Estonia or the Capitol or K Street. There are countless challenging circumstances and one must adapt with instinct and poise.

I step up to the senior and say, “Sir, let me help you with that” and try to outflank him from the reporters and my boss. He protests, “What do you know about it, son? You’re not on Medicare.” “But I will be someday,” says the Fixer cheerfully, taking the man’s shoulder and arm and gently steering him away from the crowd.

Submitted by ASO member: Jeff Nelligan

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