Lopez: One of your characters says: “You notice no one ever says, ‘Close enough for private-sector work.’” How is that not just hating on government workers?
Geraghty: That’s my bureaucratic mastermind Humphrey explaining why he’s fine with the status quo; he doesn’t think his staffers could do much better than they already are: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Some of the harshest critics of government workers are other government workers. They see the incompetence and irresponsibility of their coworkers and grind their teeth. Part of this represents how difficult it is to fire someone in the federal government. But another big reason that the “culture of complacency” can thrive is because the federal government has no competition. Very few of the U.S. government’s “customers” — i.e., all of us — are willing to move elsewhere when we feel we’re not getting our money’s worth. Businesses compete with other businesses, and if you think your state government is too awful to bear anymore, you can move somewhere else. But most Americans won’t move to another country.
Lopez: Is there a between-the-lines analysis of the Reagan administration in there that might surprise people?
Geraghty: Sure — I’m a Reagan fan as much as the next guy; when you grow up with Ronald Reagan as your president, you expect that all presidents will be that good, and you end up sorely disappointed. Reagan’s presidency was a great success in many areas, but it did not do a particularly good job of controlling spending. And while without doubt he brilliantly articulated the arguments in favor of limited government, it’s not clear that Reagan’s arguments stuck with the public for very long or really shaped their thinking on government. His successor famously raised taxes, and within four years one chunk of the public was voting for Bill Clinton and another was voting for Ross Perot.
Lopez: What are your words to Newt Gingrich in case he reads the book?
Geraghty: I don’t think the portrayal of Newt is that negative. He’s always had two sides to him, the indisputably conservative, let’s-cut-government side and then the optimistic, science-and-technology-obsessed futurist side. If you look back to what Newt was saying then — and now — he believes that government can work better if it embraces technology and change and prioritizes being more flexible and responsive to the public’s needs. I thought it would be pretty natural that government bureaucrats on the chopping block would appeal to that aspect of Newt’s worldview.
I thought it was kind of fitting and flattering that my tech-geek protagonist Ava and Newt hit it off so well.
Lopez: And Al Gore?
Geraghty: That is perhaps the most Naked Gun or Mad magazine–style moment in the book, where I have something impossibly ridiculous going on, and everyone in the scene behaves as if it’s perfectly normal.
But aside from portraying Gore’s odd behavior, mannerisms, and speech patterns, that scene and a lot of the early ones are showcasing my “master bureaucrat” character, Adam Humphrey, and his skills as an accountability escape artist. The White House, congressmen, the inspector general — people keep coming up with new efforts to reduce this agency’s budget or eliminate it entirely, and he keeps finding new ways to outmaneuver them. Humphrey’s our villain, but I think and hope he’s an affable, strangely likeable one. He’s built his little kingdom, and he protects himself and his people by out-thinking everyone who comes along to threaten it. He would really thrive in the world of Game of Thrones.
Lopez: You’ve been writing about politics now for some two decades. (Don’t worry, I’m old, too. I remember visiting you in the States News Service office!) What’s always the same? What gets old quick each time you see it? What surprises you?
Geraghty: I’m sick of “blue-ribbon bipartisan commissions” and spend a chapter or two mocking that Bush-era trend. That’s just elected lawmakers outsourcing their jobs to their elderly predecessors.
I guess I’m surprised that more places that are just flat-out failing — the industrial, increasingly empty cities of the upper Midwest and Northeast — aren’t willing to try new, more rightward approaches. It took the absolute low point of post-Katrina life to get Louisianans to take a chance on that fast-talking, skinny Indian guy, Bobby Jindal, and four years later, the state’s enjoying a renaissance. I’m surprised more states aren’t trying to emulate the policies that have, at least in part, fueled the huge job growth in Texas.