Above the Fold: Waiting in the Lobby

The Obama administration needs to rethink its blanket "no lobbyists" policy

Although FCP doesn’t agree with everything the Obama administration has done, especially in its defense of state secrets, never has a senior member of that administration said something that strikes us as outright ridiculous.

That record of reasonableness was shattered this morning by the comments of two top Obama aides in an excellent, page-one The New York Times story by White House correspondent Peter Baker.

White House officials were explaining to Baker why they’ve refused to modify the White House ban on hiring lobbyists for the new administration, even when those lobbyists have been advocates “on behalf of genocide victims rather than military contractors, investment firms or pharmaceutical companies,” as Baker put it.

The advocate in question, in this case, is Tom Malinowski, who registered as a lobbyist when he became the Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. Besides having all the right positions on all the most important human rights issues, Malinowski also happens to be a brilliant, sophisticated, and exceptionally capable Washington hand. He was a big asset in Senator Pat Moynihan’s office, and later in Bill Clinton’s State Department and on his National Security Council—all places where he served with great distinction.

In short, Malinowski is exactly the kind of person Obama should be appointing to the senior positions in his administration. Even David Axelrod seemed to acknowledge that: “It’s painful,” he told Baker, explaining why Malinowski, in the end, wasn’t hired to serve in the White House. “There are a lot of good people out there who are philosophically simpatico with us and are very skilled and would be very valuable to us.”

But, then. Asked an obvious question—why a blanket exception shouldn’t be made for lobbyists from nonprofit groups—Rahm Emanuel explained, “You can’t have a value judgment.”

You can’t have a value judgment?? Isn’t making value judgments exactly what a sophisticated, non-ideological administration should be all about? And hasn’t Obama’s capacity to admit mistakes been one of his most admirable qualities, ever since his campaign for the presidency began?

Axelrod and Emanuel just don’t get it. “You can’t have carve-outs for lobbyists you like and exclude those that you don’t,” Axelrod told Baker. “It would be very hard for people to understand that distinction.”

There are two enormous problems with that statement: 1) It’s flatly false. People certainly would understand such an exception for human rights lobbyists, and 2) As the Times pointed out, Obama has already violated his own rules—three times—including once for William Lynn, a card-carrying member of the military-industrial complex; a former, yes, lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon; and apparently the only American across the land qualified to become Deputy Secretary of Defense.

You can’t have a value judgment, indeed. FCP fervently hopes that these absurd statements from the White House will generate enough outrage to get the president to change his mind about this subject.

Footnote: The Times story reports that the job Malinowski was slated for was “Human Rights Chief.” If, by that, Peter Baker means Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, the good news here is that Hillary Clinton has chosen for the position the only other person who is as qualified for it as Malinowski is.

That would be Michael Posner, a founder and longtime president of Human Rights First, and someone who has been as courageous and energetic in the fight against American torture as anyone. Clinton’s plan to nominate Posner was reported by Bloomberg News on February 25, by The Washington Post on February 26, and by Full Court Press on March 13, but the ever-energetic Washington Bureau of The New York Times doesn’t seem to have gotten around to it yet.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.