Among the books worth rereading right about now is Joseph Heller’s 1979 comic novel Good as Gold—not for it political vision (which is nonexistent), or even for its literary value (which is wanting), but for its fabulous mimicry of the way daft politicians don’t say what they appear to be saying while saying what they really don’t want you to know.
Heller, best known for his manic tribute to utter futility, Catch-22, here introduces us to Bruce Gold, a minor essayist of ambiguous ideas, a reluctant college professor, and an incessant adulterer who is offered (kinda) a Cabinet position in a Gerald Ford–era White House, which will enable him to quit teaching, divorce his wife, and marry the libidinous scion of a wealthy WASP anti-Semite.
An old college friend, Ralph Newsome, now on the White House staff, is keen on getting Gold just such a position after Gold’s fairly laudatory review of the president’s fairly meaningless book, My Year in the White House, wins the chief executive’s gratitude.
But what would Bruce Gold—a self-described liberal pacifist atheist and only sometimes neo-conservative—actually do in Washington? According to Newsome:
“Anything you want, as long as it’s everything we tell you to say and do in support of our policies, whether you agree with them or not. You’ll have complete freedom … This President doesn’t want yes-men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them. You’ll be entirely on your own … We’ll have to move ahead with this as speedily as possible, although we’ll have to go slowly. At the moment, there’s nothing to be done.”
“I’ll need some time anyway,” Gold volunteered obligingly. “I’ll have to prepare for a leave of absence.”
“Of course. But don’t say anything about it yet. We’ll want to build this up into an important public announcement, although we’ll have to be completely secret … [The president] probably wants you here as soon as you can make the necessary arrangements, although he probably doesn’t want you making any yet. That much is definite.”
“Working as what?” asked Gold.
“As anything you want, Bruce. You can have your choice of anything that’s open that we’re willing to let you have. At the moment, there’s nothing.”
“Ralph, you aren’t really telling me anything. Realistically, how far can I go?”
“To the top,” answered Ralph. “You might even start there. Sometimes we have openings at the top and none at the bottom. I think we can bypass spokesman and senior official and start you higher, unless we can’t. You’re much too famous to be used anonymously, although not many people know who you are.”
Given the dubious résumés of the many czars running around Washington these days, not to mention the tergiversations that comprise the current regime’s domestic and foreign policies, I wondered what a Heller-ific mind would do with today’s headlines, assuming the writer’s politics were such that he or she could appreciate what some of us find so amusing (when we’re not fishing for 50s-era DIY bomb shelters on eBay).
REPORTER: Will the White House finally impose a strict deadline on Iran regarding its nuclear-weapons program?
PRESS SECRETARY: The administration is determined to hold Iran to the deadline previously set, which we just moved to December, unless we extend it further, in which case we may hold talks before the new deadline expires, unless we don’t.
REPORTER: Does the administration see sanctions as a viable option?
PRESS SECRETARY: Viability begins after eight months, unless that would curtail our ability to choose to make it later. But that’s beyond my pay grade. However, viability is not the same as possibility. While sanctions are a definite possibility, we have no intention of imposing them in a viable manner, unless the deadline passes and we don’t extend it, at which point we may call for further discussions about the nature of sanctions, unless that proves impossible.
REPORTER: At what point will the president shut down debate about the public option to push through some kind of health-care legislation this year?
PRESS SECRETARY: President Obama will continue to call for a public option until he stops. It’s much more important that we extend health insurance to everyone, unless we can’t, which would be unfortunate, as we believe more federal spending will cut costs while raising expenses, which would serve to eliminate waste that drives costs, which can only be cut if we impose health-care reform, unless we make everyone sick in the process.
REPORTER: Can the president guarantee there will be no rationing of health care under his reforms?
PRESS SECRETARY: Everyone will receive only the care they otherwise would get somewhere else, unless and until their condition proves unsustainable and thereby threatens care for those not yet sick but who may become so in the future. All necessary care will be made available, but only for those who aren’t sick, which is why we call it insurance. Those who enjoy an inordinate amount of illness, like the dying, may be fined, unless they get better, in which case they’re entitled to all the resources at our disposal.
REPORTER: What about the deficit?
PRESS SECRETARY: The deficit is only an issue if everyone insists on talking about money. If we spend more money than we take in, we will simply take in more money than we spend, at which point we will have to spend more in order to ensure we can keep taking in more money. It’s what I believe is called an algorithm, although don’t quote me on that.
REPORTER: Is the president at all concerned about the outbreak of anti-Semitic vandalism in Venezuela, not to mention Hugo Chavez’s “anti-Zionist” rants?
PRESS SECRETARY: The president would most certainly be concerned if he were aware of it. But since he only knows what he believes, and he believes that Mr. Chavez cannot be anti-Semitic, because he’s a socialist, then there’s no reason to believe he is anything if not concerned. After all, socialism came before anti-Semitism, which began with the invasion of Poland in 1939, while socialism began with the Apostles in the book of the Acts, according to those scholars who went to school in Venezuela.
REPORTER: If within the next few years, Iraq evolves into a relatively peaceful and stable democracy, will the president express regret over not supporting regime change?
PRESS SECRETARY: The president has always supported regime change, as long as everything remained the same. Only the status quo in the international community can guarantee that everything will change in the United States, which inevitably has a ripple effect, causing other countries to follow suit, so long as they don’t blame us, which they inevitably do, which is why it’s best to do nothing, unless that proves a political liability, which is why we’re moving quickly to do less.
REPORTER: Is the administration committed to victory in Afghanistan?
PRESS SECRETARY: Only if we’re certain to lose. If we win, then, as George F. Babbitt used to say, “You broke it, you bought it.” In which case, the war began under someone else’s watch, while the president, then a senator, was looking elsewhere. On the off-chance that we prove victorious, then the president is commander in chief and solely responsible, unless someone else is to blame.
REPORTER: What about increasing troop size?
PRESS SECRETARY: Troop size will increase only if it can be guaranteed that we won’t send any more soldiers overseas. Otherwise, increased fighting will inevitably mean more casualties, which can only result in a diminution in the number of personnel, which would undermine the whole point of increasing troop size.
REPORTER: How did you get this job?
PRESS SECRETARY: I was hired.