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Deep in the Weeds with Big Government
An excerpt from Jim Geraghty’s timely mock history, The Weed Agency

Detail of cover illustration for The Weed Agency

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NRO’s own Jim Geraghty has written a spoof of government gone wild, released yesterday. Some say he time-traveled and has returned with heretofore unpublished reportage. You decide.

March 1993

U.S. National Debt: $4.2 trillion

Budget, USDA Agency of Invasive Species: $72.6 million

Al Gore met with reporters in a conference room in the Old Executive Office building shortly before his meeting with the management of the Agency of Invasive Species. He showed the press an ashtray. More precisely, it was a standard, regulation, federal-government “ash receiver, tobacco, desk type,” and Gore had ten pages of regulations to prove it.

He pointed to the federal specifications for testing the safety of the ashtray: Place the ashtray on a plank, and hit it with a steel punch “point ground to a 60 percent included angle” and a hammer. “The specimen should break into a small number of irregularly shaped pieces, no greater than 35.”

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Gore explained that stories of endless red tape undermined Americans’ faith in government, and that he would spearhead an effort to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse. Once he had restored Americans’ faith in the competence and judgment of those who govern them, they would then embrace a muscular, activist role for government in areas like health care.

***

“Wait a minute . . . ” Wilkins said, looking around the conference room within the Old Executive Office Building. “I’ve been in this room before.”

Woodrow Wilson’s portrait had replaced that of Calvin Coolidge, and Jack Kennedy had replaced Dwight Eisenhower. Jack Wilkins and Adam Humphrey, the two top men at the USDA’s Agency of Invasive Species, were awaiting the arrival of the vice president and his team, a meeting that represented their last shot at removing themselves from the REGO (Reinventing Government) chopping block.

With only a slight whirring of his mechanical joints and the hum of the powerful computer within his cranium almost entirely inaudible, Vice President Al Gore entered and activated “Reinventing Government Explanatory Monologue 46-C.” He concluded:

“And that. My friends. Is why we. Are strongly considering. Reassigning the duties. Of this agency. To the Bureau of Agricultural. Resource Management. Rest assured. All efforts will be made. To minimize disruption. And you and your team. Will be given. Priority reassignment. In new roles. And duties. In other offices.”

After an awkward silence, Humphrey began his defense. “Mr. Vice President, before you and your esteemed staff come to any final conclusions, I would like to read an assessment from a particularly wise voice on these matters.”

Humphrey reached into his briefcase and removed a copy of Earth in the Balance.

“First edition, Mr. Vice President,” Humphrey beamed. “With your permission, sir, I’d like to read aloud one passage that I found particularly relevant to this discussion.”

Gore nodded, and the head-movement mechanisms within his neck were almost entirely inaudible.

“Page ninety-six: ‘As the climate pattern begins to change, so too do the movements of the wind and rain, the floods and droughts the grasslands and the deserts.’” He paused. “‘The insects and the weeds, the feasts and famines, the seasons of peace and war.’”

One of Gore’s aides couldn’t stifle an awkward chuckle. Humphrey ignored him, and continued his eye contact with the vice president’s optical sensors.

“Mr. Vice President, as you know, environmental research is drastically underfunded considering its importance not merely to the country but to the very survival of our species itself. The fine workers of the Environmental Protection Agency no doubt do their very best, but their attention to the particular threat of climate change–driven invasive species infestations is spotty, and I’m being kind. As a man of science, you understand how much vital work is dismissed and mocked by an ill-informed public. As a federal agency dealing with the threat to our agriculture, economy, and public health from weeds, you can imagine how many Little Shop of Horrors jokes we’ve endured over the years. We are perpetually ridiculed, ignored, derided, and dismissed as a waste. But you know better, sir. You know the importance of our mission, and how vital it will prove in the coming years of global warming. Unfortunately, I do not exaggerate when I say that if you will not stand up for us, no one will.”

Humphrey and his staff had prepared their traditional evocative visual aids. Gore stared down at the maps before him, projecting green waves of thorny tropical vines snarling the upper Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. One caricature depicted vines coiling around the St. Louis Arch, and helpfully pointed out that Missouri had eleven electoral votes in the upcoming presidential election.

“A changing climate is a weed’s best friend, Mr. Vice President,” Humphrey warned gravely. “That is the unpleasant, but unavoidable fact. You could call it an . . . inconvenient truth.”

Somewhere within the central processing unit of Gore’s cerebral cortex, the phrase stuck.

***

When Gore’s “Reinventing Government” report debuted, the Agency of Invasive Species was surprisingly unmentioned. And the following year’s budget proposal from the president urged an additional $15 million in AIS funding.

***

The concept of a popular culture stuck on “repeat” had been the staple of cranky commentators for years, but for a short time in the early 1990s, Americans suddenly decided that the 1930s were cool again.

An exhaustion with a few years of slacker grunge gave way to an embrace of swank. At the same time that cigarette smoking became socially comparable to ritual murder, the nation — and the capital — suddenly embraced cigar bars. Double-breasted suits and fedoras returned; all at once, the movers and shakers looked like they were running with Al Capone.

Whiskey and martinis flowed. Pints of thick stout poured. Clubs and bars played neo-swing and lounge music. It was, for many Washingtonians, the split-second they were cool.

The epicenter of this temporal inversion was Ozio, a club at 1835 K Street, touting itself as the city’s “premier martini and cigar lounge” offering two pleasures that had not too long ago seemed so dated as to be socially backward.

“All this place needs is firearms,” chuckled one off-duty ATF agent.

Modeled after the Paris Métro of the 1930s, Ozio was a subterranean, dimly lit, art nouveau temple of the era’s forbidden, or at least naughtier, pleasures. Every young thing inside was experimenting with hard liquor or cigars, what one had scoffed at as “the drug of the 1990s,” or at least a genuinely socially daring habit for an “I didn’t inhale” era. (Of particular note to Washingtonians employed in the public sector, hard liquor and tobacco caused no complications in obtaining or renewing a security clearance.) The descriptions of the cigars rivaled those of the most ambitious sommelier: “Heavy, with a hint of Portobello mushroom and an overtone of a decaf latte.”* “Busy, yet never precocious.” “A touch of irony in its Freudian allusions, but satisfying with a deep, nutty flavor that somehow distinctly evokes prerevolutionary Havana.”

One of Washington’s tallest pundits-in-training encountered an attractive young lady smoking a cheroot and asked her, “Do you really like that thing?”

“I guess. Hmm . . . not really,” she chuckled as she blew smoke in his face.

He coughed. “Why are you smoking it then?”

She replied with a you-just-don’t-get-it smirk and left him alone in the clouds.

Celebrating one year of working at the agency, Lisa, Jamie, and Ava drank away their sorrows with selections from the martini menu. They weren’t really full of sorrow; they mostly felt irritation that life in Washington was nowhere near as exciting as the movies made it appear. Hollywood had suddenly started celebrating political heroes in a plethora of comedies: Bob Roberts, Dave, The Distinguished Gentleman. Michael Douglas was supposedly making a romantic comedy about a young, crusading Democratic president. But real life was, alas, boring and full of tedious, frustrating setbacks.

“It’s because we’re entry level,” Jamie asserted. “If we were a few more rungs higher on the ladder, we wouldn’t be dealing with all this.”

Lisa examined the cigar some guy had offered her. “I think every computer in the building is, like, three years out of date.”

Ava lit her cigar up effortlessly. “Try four,” she snipped. “Everybody might as well be using abacuses. Actually, that would be easier, because there wouldn’t be any old infrastructure to work around.” She puffed on the cigar a bit, and concluded the image of a cigar was more to her liking than the actual taste. “I’m not even sure where to start, because from what I’ve seen, by the time anyone responds to my recommendations of what kind of equipment we need, it’s obsolete by the time the purchase is actually approved.” She savored a long sip of her martini, a “Montreal Madam” — Absolut Kurant, Grand Marnier, and a splash of cranberry juice.

“Just a few more rungs on the GS ladder, we’ll have more authority and be able to do things the way they were meant to be,” Jamie insisted, motioning to their waiter for a second Stockholm 75.

“I . . . should be director of communications,” Lisa said, feeling the first wave of giddiness and tipsiness from her Negroni. “My boss is a translucent yes-man to Humphrey.”

Lisa found work at the agency particularly frustrating. A quintessential type-A personality, she had, through hard work and determination, always been able to get what she wanted before this. Within the agency’s Department of Communications, she had quickly deluged her boss with perfectly proofread memos with ideas she deemed ingenious and irrefutably exciting. The first four generated increasingly terse rejections. The fifth generated a meeting with Humphrey.

“I’m in a communications office. I thought the point of this job was to communicate,” she said, quietly pleased with the direct simplicity of her plea.

“Communication is a dangerous weapon, my dear, only to be unsheathed carefully and when needed,” Humphrey said.

“I’m not gonna quit,” Lisa said, extinguishing her cigar into one of the club’s deep ashtrays. “I can persuade these old dogs. The world’s changing. The Internet. These guys don’t even realize how much they’re hurting themselves. The whole reason Americans distrust government is because of a lack of communication, and that if agencies just opened up and communicated better, Americans wouldn’t be so reflexively right-wing and anti-government.”

They concluded, with a mix of hope and certainty, that everything would change when they were promoted and out of these low-level positions. And then they danced.

They had hoped that the guys in the club would join them, but most of the men were content to drink, smoke, and watch them dance instead.

*Editor’s note: This quote is from the Washington Post story “On Top of Old Stogie,” February 16, 1996.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.



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