Has Vetting Become Harassment?

The subject is high-level government employment, and I'm going to ask each one of you to pretend for a moment that you are a prospective nominee for a big-time job. You will need to be cleared by the political and security apparatus of the executive branch first and, after that, confirmed by the United States Senate. Nothing wrong with that. You've led a pretty exemplary, undramatic life; you're a good citizen: you have no felonies on your record, no public scandals, nothing worse than a few parking tickets that you can think of--right?

Keep thinking. Go all the way back through the decades of your early adulthood and come back again to now. Anything at all there in any realm of your life whatever that you might wish you hadn't done or that You are just a little bit ashamed of or that would be awfully painful and embarrassing to you (or others) to have to talk about on national television now? Any family members or close friends whose ethical conduct you'd just as soon not have to answer for? Anybody anywhere-in-law, ex, spurned or hostile family member, aggrieved co-worker, etc.--whose version of some part of your life would be altogether different from your version and extremely unfavorable? If you can answer no to all of the above you have probably beat odds longer than those required to win the Powerball lottery, and I hope you will forgive me for saving you must also have led a pretty dull life.

My point is that in the time I have been in Washington the vetting and, in some respects, harassing and humiliating of people about to enter public service have become increasingly detailed, comprehensive and intrusive, often unfair and equally often irrelevant to their suitability for the job. I was struck, in this connection, by a statement attributed to Pat Nixon in one of her obituaries last week. It concerned her husband's notorious "Checkers" speech, in which. to save his political skin, he lugubriously recounted the modesty of their means and the piety and humbleness of their lifestyle. While to some of us it had always been an example of devilishly clever and cynical heartstring tugging, to her it had been a hurtful invasion of privacy. Did they really have to tell the whole world "how little we have and bow much we owe"?

I have two observations about this lament. One is that it very usefully catches us up short and reminds us that there are live human beings, with the ordinary complement of sensitivity and pride. behind these raging issues that have the rest of us obliviously heaving crockery at one another. The other is that this intrusion concerning income, savings and debt seems child's play these days, an absolute minimum of what we now demand in the way of disclosure by our public people. I do not know all the ins and outs of the ever-growing questionnaires that persons up for different jobs must fill or the inter-views to which they must submit. But a friend whose husband was being vetted for an ambassadorship a few years back told me that spouses, as well as nominees themselves, were routinely subjected to these sweeping interrogations and that the people clearing her husband had (1) asked her if she had ever received psychiatric treatment and (2) on hearing of commonplace family counseling of some sort, requested permission to interview her therapist. We are not talking Judith Anderson as mad Medea here, caterwauling up and down the stage and killing her babies; we are talking ordinary persons, ordinary life, ordinary routine, everyone you know, maybe you.

Then there is the financial disclosure which in the past decade has become much more comprehensive, requiring enormous records searches and disclosures, private and costly accountants and lawyers frequently being needed to prepare a nominee for his various interrogations. There is material people (and their husbands or wives) do not especially wish to share with others, such as business competitors or, often, relatives, concerning their financial affairs. Where information sought, mostly on private lives, is meant to be held confidential, we all know that it is always in danger of being leaked. And there is not much reassurance to be taken from the fact that so much of one's previously considered private information reposes on government computers somewhere.

Finally there is everything you ever wrote, said, did as politician or practitioner of your business or profession, or were associated with in the way of clubs, companions, movements and so forth-for your whole life, and never mind whether you even think that anymore. A hostile political interrogator in Congress, or any group seeking reprisal for some act of yours or your party, can, with skill. make you look ridiculous, stupid or sinister. In response those who try to wheedle, cajole, answer and explain may lose all dignity and personal authority A few, at some stage along the way, will also be lifted high by the administration and touted as appointees to office, only to be summarily dropped and made to look like losers for no particular reason.

I have so far left out a couple of key points. The first, which should be self-evident, is that prospective jobholders do need scrutiny and interrogation. The trouble is that the enterprise, both bureaucratic and congressional, has gotten out of control and lost its mind. The other is the crucial role of the press. We have had a great deal to do with the deformation of the procedures of clearance and confirmation. We are the ones who trumpet the snippets of information, the out-of-context charges and the rest. And there is a kind of bias among us against going bail for these prospective government officials, the theory being: Hell, they want the job, they can pay the price...I'm not going to waste any tears on them ... and besides there might well be something fishy here. so why not look at everything?

I understand the impulse, but I think it leads us astray and keeps us from pursuing an important story. I'd like to read a good and thorough account of how this vetting and clearing and confirming goes forward. My guess is that so far as expenditure of government time and money go, as well as the leveling of unfair charges and the tromping into the most private concerns of would-be public servants, we are in much of this process observing a classic case of the dread big three: waste. fraud and abuse.