In Lieu of a Hero

Indiana Jones and Batman, and earlier James Bond and maybe Dirty Harry – we all know our movie heroes. They get the job done and get the girl, usually. The latest Batman had a bit of a problem with that, but at least these guys always get the bad guy, who never really had a chance, even if it seemed so for most of the movie. It’s a matter of sheer male dominance – as with the ordinary looking Bruce Willis or the short and irritating Tom Cruise, or the now old and fusty Sean Connery, who is still the paragon of manly manliness in some odd way. No one knows what to make of Johnny Depp’s fey and foppish Captain Jack Sparrow in those Disney pirate movies – it’s Keith Richards playing Errol Flynn with a bit of Liberace thrown in – but maybe the exception proves the rule. The hero, flawed as he may be, wins the day. The situation may be dire, but the hero makes everything all better, or at least clears out the crap so things just might get better at some later date.

The problem with all this is that Hollywood keeps running out of plausible settings for manly heroism – there’s only so many lost arks or are hidden ancient cities you can go after, and after a while all those megalomaniacs bent on taking over the world, or destroying it, all blend together. No one can keep all those Bond villains straight, and murderous madmen are a dime a dozen. That’s why Hollywood keeps changing things up.

This year we got the heroic airline pilot who saves the plane and all the passengers in an impossible situation, even though he was drunk and should have had his license stripped away – which was a nice twist, and you do need a twist, so, presumably, you could even make a thrilling movie about a manly and heroic Secretary of the Treasury saving the world from economic disaster, although that might be a stretch.

Or it might not be a stretch at all – William Hurt played Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson in the stunning 2011 HBO film Too Big to Fail – showing us the man who saved our economy, and the world’s, as everything fell apart at the end of the Bush administration. In the movie, Hurt is all forcefulness and then guile, and then blunt and brutal honesty and integrity and so on. It’s very manly, all about saving the day by sheer force of will, and the TARP legislation. As a foil, Peter Hermann plays Christopher Cox, the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, as a preening, prissy and somewhat dimwitted coward – the proper contrast – and there’s even a scene where Hurt, as Paulson, dresses down John McCain as a fool who has jumped in without knowing anything and is ruining everything, pretty much ripping him a new asshole. We see who the real man is. Indiana Jones couldn’t have done it any better. Billy Crudup plays Timothy Geithner, then the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as the sidekick who sees what’s happening and is worried sick but who needs the firm hand of the hero to steady him for what must be done – think of Batman and Robin. All in all it’s a rip-roaring tale and by all accounts pretty close to the truth. Ah, those were the days.

Those days are gone. Hank Paulson, having won the day for good and honor and righteousness, rode off into the sunset, and young Timmy Geithner got his job. Obama was taking no chances with that appointment – continuity is everything. It’s just that Geithner, as brilliant and careful as he is, has been kind of boring. Nothing much has changed – new regulations and structural changes are still, after four years, in that preliminary discussion phase that never seems to end, or that no one on Wall Street wants to end, and the economy has not roared back to life. It’s doing okay, or a little better than okay, very slowly. There’s no possibility for a movie here. There’s no hero is sight.

Cue the music – the Fairy Godmother singing I Need a Hero perhaps. Timothy Geithner is leaving the administration, as he said he would after Obama’s first term, and now it gets interesting:

President Obama stood side by side in the East Room of the White House on Thursday with his outgoing Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, and the man he was nominating to replace him, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew.

The men are ordinarily among the least emotive around the White House, yet for 16 minutes on Thursday, as Obama bid farewell to Geithner and formally nominated Lew, there was an unusual spark of emotion.

Obama began with a lengthy soliloquy on Geithner’s value to him and the country. When Geithner reluctantly joined him four years ago, the president said, the financial crisis was burning. But “thanks in large part to his steady hand,” he said, “our economy has been growing again for the past three years.”

A steady hand is a fine thing, but not now:

Turning to Lew, Obama made clear he was picking him as the next Treasury secretary in part because of his knowledge of the mechanics of federal budgets, but also because of his character.

“I value his friendship. I know very few people with greater integrity,” Obama said. “He’s built a reputation as a master of policy who can work with members of both parties and forge principled compromises.”

In short, it’s time to kick ass and get some things done, and that calls for something like a heroic temperament:

“As the son of a Polish immigrant, a man of deep and devout faith,” the president said, “Jack knows that every number on a page, every dollar we budget, every decision we make has to be an expression of who we wish to be as a nation, our values.” …

Lew spoke of his upbringing in Queens using rich oratory to describe his “dreams of making a difference in the world” – something he said he tried to do as a congressional aide and a top official in two administrations.

Change was in the air, and David Graham offers brief notes on who this new guy is:

Before he became chief of staff, Lew directed the Office of Management and Budget, running the numbers for the administration. It was his second tour of duty in that job. He also held it from 1998 to 2001 during the Clinton administration. Prior to returning to his OMB chair, Lew worked for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as deputy secretary for management and resources, a chief operating office-like position he inaugurated. And Obama, who is known for pushing back on aides and asking detailed questions, seems to have an unusual degree of faith in him.

In fact, Graham cites the New York Times here:

When President Obama was locked in painful spending negotiations with House Republicans last spring, his exceedingly meticulous budget director, Jacob J. Lew, went to the Oval Office to propose some complex budget changes. As Mr. Lew delved deeper and deeper into the numbers, Mr. Obama put up his hand, signaling him to stop.

“Jack, it’s fine,” the president said, according to Gene Sperling, Mr. Obama’s economics adviser, who witnessed the exchange. “I trust your values. I trust your judgment on this.”

He knows his numbers, but it’s more than that:

Unlike Geithner, a disciple of Robert Rubin and product of Clinton-era economics, Lew is more closely aligned with class-warrior image that Obama adopted during the election campaign. A staunch liberal, he started his political career canvassing for anti-war hero Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (he was 12); his adviser at Carleton College was Paul Wellstone, later an iconic liberal senator; and one of his first jobs in Washington was working for Democratic lion and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

He’s one of those idealists about what he sees as right and wrong. That may or may not be heroic, but it’s a change, and he’s the right man for a fight:

Despite his acute partisan sensibility, he has long had a reputation for earning the trust of and working well with Republicans. People who have had to sit across the negotiating table describe him as a fierce, hard-nosed opponent, but one who listens and works hard to come to a mutually agreeable position.

Still that might not be enough:

Having been confirmed by the Senate multiple times already, Lew is one of the few candidates who should have a relatively easy run. But he may have depleted at least some of that good will in the last few weeks, when he has served as one of Obama’s top lieutenants in negotiations over the fiscal cliff. The confirmation hearings could be tense, in part because of the divisive issues sure to face the next treasury secretary: A fight over the debt ceiling is already in motion; the sequester is due to occur on March 1, barring Congressional action; and spending and budgetary issues will remain a major focus for the rest of Obama’s presidency. Perhaps some senator will even ask Lew about his position on the $1 trillion coin.

Geithner was carefully boring, but those days are now gone, although those on the left should not get all that excited:

Don’t take his liberalism to mean that Lew is a wild-eyed socialist though. In fact, he’s a former banker. In 2008, he served as chief operating officer of Citigroup Alternative Investments, a division of the Wall Street behemoth. That group was involved in controversial practices like proprietary trading, and was involved in shorting the housing market as the economy lurched toward collapse. Perhaps in keeping with his resume, Lew has rejected the view of many fellow liberals who argue that deregulation of the financial sector contributed to the crash, saying, “I don’t personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don’t believe that deregulation was the proximate cause.” Expect to hear muffled howls of unhappiness from the left, which will be glad to see Geithner go but upset at Lew’s positions.

Muffled howls of unhappiness from the left might be a possibility, but the man is a fighter, and Massimo Calabresi at Time explains that he just might scare Republicans:

When push came to shove in the last-minute negotiations between the White House and Republicans to avoid defaulting on U.S. debt in late July 2011, Jack Lew finally lost his cool. “You don’t have to explain this to him, Gene! No! No! No!” Lew shouted at Obama staffer Gene Sperling, who was in the Senate office of a GOP staffer on the Hill and had Lew on speakerphone. The eruption was so surprising, and so emotional, that the Republican staffer hung up on Lew, according to Bob Woodward’s account in The Price of Politics.

The outburst says something important about Lew, whom President Obama has tapped to replace Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury. Wonky, professional and grounded in decades of staff work in the obscure world of Washington budget politics, Lew has a reputation that is decidedly undramatic. Even partisan Republicans have shown respect for Lew’s grasp of the nation’s finances. “No one was more prepared and more in tune with the numbers than Jack Lew,” House majority leader Eric Cantor told Politico in June 2011.

He knows his numbers, but he’s not a nerd:

Beneath his nerdy exterior, Lew is a passionate progressive on the issue of wealth disparity and programs for the poor. In the original Gramm-Rudman-Hollings “sequestration” talks in the mid-1980s, Lew negotiated the exemptions from automatic budget cuts for Medicaid and other low-income programs. In the 1990s, he again defended Medicaid from the budget ax as President Clinton tacked to the center. And his speakerphone outburst in 2011 was in response to the Republican staffer’s suggestion that Medicaid cuts be added to the revivified sequestration process to avoid debt default.

He seems to want to stick up for the little guy:

This evident passion for what he sees as the moral dimensions in fiscal and economic policy combined with his expertise in the numbers makes him a formidable opponent as Washington heads into more tough negotiations over the budget. And it explains why Republicans are getting ready for an ugly confirmation fight. Alabama GOP Senator Jeff Sessions wrote a draft statement opposing Lew’s appointment that he will release after Obama formally nominates him that says, “Jack Lew must never be secretary of the Treasury,” according to The Hill’s Alex Bolton.

Those are fighting words:

Lew is clearly who Obama wants. After the outburst in 2011, Lew went to the Oval Office to brief the President on the confrontation he’d just had with the GOP staffer, Rohit Kumar. Reports Woodward:

“Mr. President, I just absolutely blew the idea of Medicaid in the sequester out of the water, he said, and provided the details of his explosion, exactly what he had said.”

“It was the right thing to do,” the president said.

Lew and Kumar soon resumed their conversation. Lew would not give on Medicaid, and Kumar finally dropped the idea.

You fight for what’s right – that’s what heroes do – and sometimes you win – and as Matthew Yglesias notes, you don’t accept bullshit:

As Jack Lew moves over to the Treasury Department, I think it’s important to revisit a point that was made but not understood in a lot of reporting on the 2011 debt ceiling battle. At this point, Lew was OMB chief and Bill Daley was chief of staff. Lew’s reputation, at the time, was as a committed progressive who Republicans liked and thought they could do business with because he’s also a pretty hard-boiled numbers guy.

They underestimated him:

It emerged over the course of the negotiations that John Boehner and other Republicans kept trying to kick Lew out of the room to make a deal. That’s because what Boehner wanted to do was make a deal in which spending cuts would be balanced by flim-flam, and Lew kept saying that the flim-flam didn’t work mathematically. To put a balanced package together, Lew insisted that you needed to have real revenue-increasing tax hikes not just “tax reform” and hand-waving. This kept spoiling the party, so Boehner wanted to make deals with Daley – with the political fixer rather than the budget guy. But ultimately you couldn’t get a deal done, because you can’t just smuggle a deal past the OMB.

As for that magic hand-waving, Boehner was arguing that some sizable chunk of any new revenue needed to fix the economy, or all of it really, would come to the government as a result of all the fantastic economic growth spurred by new and very much lower tax rates, and perhaps from better compliance, since any new tax code would be less confusing. The idea was that raising revenue did not require raising taxes – it never does. In fact, raising revenue would enable you to lower taxes, or something.

Lew seems to have said that seemed to be nonsense, so, John, prove it – show me the numbers. That’s why Boehner wanted Lew gone from the room. Lew was pointing out that this Republican notion that you get more tax revenue by lowering tax rates, and taking in less revenue, has never worked in real life, and even if it kind of worked even a little, there’d be no way to quantify just why and how much it worked. Lew said let’s deal with the real world. Boehner was stuck, and embarrassed.

Yglesias puts it this way:

This whole dynamic seems to have poisoned the well to some extent, but in practical terms it was constructive. By the time of the most recent negotiation, Daley was gone and Lew was more powerful than ever as chief of staff. And while Republicans didn’t come to love Lew, we actually had a proper negotiation this time where it was understood from the get-go that a tax increase is a tax increase and flim-flam is flim-flam. There was no more “lets waste weeks of everyone’s time with hand-wavy tax reform proposals that don’t add up.” That’s frustrating if you think a little flim-flam would help massage intra-caucus politics, but much better otherwise.

It was high time for some heroics, depending on your point of view. Everyone sees things differently. The Hill did offer this on Senator Jeff Sessions’ reaction to the nomination of Jack Lew:

The top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee will oppose Jack Lew’s nomination to be Treasury secretary.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has prepared a statement saying “Jack Lew must never be Secretary of Treasury.”

He is not saying yet whether he will filibuster the nomination, however, which sources say President Obama will announce Thursday.

Ed Kilgore is moderately amazed:

If you support the option of filibustering Cabinet appointments (which Sessions does), and you say someone should “never” be confirmed, and you use such categorical language about someone’s unfitness for an office, then what are you waiting for – a direct sign from God?

This is a different view of heroics:

More basically, today’s conservatives are in the bad habit of using absolute language all the time that destroys their ability to modulate their incessant rage. Sessions is apparently furious at Lew because he claimed during Senate testimony that Obama’s FY 2012 budget was consistent with a course of eventually reducing deficits and debt. From Sessions’ point of view, that was bad, really bad. But what if Obama sent someone’s name up that was worse, far worse? What language would Sessions deploy had Obama nominated Paul Krugman, whom I imagine Jeff Sessions considers evil incarnate?

Bluster and outrage are not heroic. Everyone’s seen the movies. Bluster and outrage are what the evil bad guys display, leading to their downfall. Cool competence wins the day, or as Kilgore puts it:

Rhetoric is just rhetoric, I realize, but at some point congressional Republicans need to realize that this kind of crap is one reason for the impression a majority of Americans have that they are unreasonable, and why their own “base” is perpetually frustrated and disappointed. When you act as though you’d just as soon quit your cushy Senate seat as allow Jack Lew to become Treasury Secretary (which he almost certainly will become), then you move right on to the next hate-fest without a pause, don’t you lose some credibility, or even self-respect?

That’s the way it works in the movies. The evil genius laughs maniacally, all full of bluster, but the cool and competent hero gets the last laugh, and then he only smiles slyly. Credibility and self-respect do not require bluster.

Actually there may be a movie here, the way things are going – but then we already had one pretty good movie about a manly and heroic Secretary of the Treasury saving the world from economic disaster. We don’t need another. Hollywood will have to come up with something else – Indiana Jones’ grandson versus the zombie surfers or something.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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