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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Accounta-nanny

The fate of two public figures over the past few days raises all sorts of questions about accountability and the public service. While involving quite different personalities in quite different circumstances, what they have in common is the contemporary 'benchmark' for integrity: how do you handle your nanny problems?

For those in the UK who do not follow US news (very difficult, since US news seems to be a local matter of considerable interest in the British media), Bush's nominee for head of the Department of Homeland Security, former NYC police commissioner Bernard Kerik, withdrew his candidacy last Friday because, upon review of his personal records, he had 'discovered' that the nanny he had employed was an illegal immigrant and that he might not have paid the appropriate taxes associated with her employment. For Americans, this was a replay of the Zoe Baird-Kimba Wood episode of 1993, when Clinton's first nominees for Attorney General both had to withdraw for failure to report earnings and pay Social Security taxes on the wages of their respective nannies (let alone to check on the status as legal aliens). The stress on this issue was always placed on the fact that the agency in charge of immigration was part of the Department of Justice (it has since been moved to Homeland Security, and so the relevance to Kerik's appointment). But the nanny question has never been far from the surface of American politics in recent years, even for those for whom it did not involve a potential 'conflict of interest'. Diane Feinstein and Arnold Schwarzenegger have been stung by the nanny problem, as was Christine Whitman (former NJ governor and EPA administrator) -- and as recently as September, John Kerry and Teresa Heinz.

For the US crowd (since most of you much less likely to be aware of what goes on in the UK), the key story on this side was yesterday's resignation of Home Secretary David Blunkett over a 'nannygate' issue that was linked to a very public legal battle between Blunkett (often regarded – inappropriately, most feel -- as the UK's John Ashcroft) and his former lover and mother of his child (so he claims in the court case). (By the way, she's an American -- wouldn't you know we'd be involved somehow...). It seems that Blunkett's office had shown favor to this particular nanny's application for extending her stay in the UK (after all, she was taking care of his child!) -- or at least a few ambiguous comments in an email indicated that this might have been the case, although Blunkett claims that it was not intended as such; but he admits that it is the appearance that counts, not the reality. Got all that so far?

These two cases have all sorts of interesting parallel dimensions to them, not the least being that the two people involved (Kerik and Blunkett) come from quite interesting backgrounds, overcoming (in their different ways) some considerable social and physical handicaps. Kerik's biography reads like a made-for-TV drama of a hard-edged cop who came up the hard way; Blunkett, blind from birth, provides an amazing story as well (childhood marred by tragedy and loneliness; political life as a leftist radical; emergence as ‘authoritarian’ anti-terrorism minister). Had Kerik been approved and assumed the office, and had Blunkett not run into the nanny problem, it would have been interesting to see how these two got along in meetings (their agency remits overlapped).

But alas, this will not happen. Kerik will probably go obscurely into the private security business again with his former boss, Rudolph Guiliani. There seems to be 'other' issues lurking in his past that will make any future public role impossible, and might result in some legal actions. In contrast, Blunkett will stay in the political background for awhile (he retains his seat in Parliament as far as I know), but is surely set to reemerged into the limelight in time (as have others in Labour -- some with much greater stigmas).

The accountability-relevant point emerging from both cases is that issues of 'integrity' still play a critical role in the political arena in both countries. I agree with those who regard the specifics of both cases to be trivial in a material sense. In Kerik's case, there is the sense that he has lived a life and had a career involving much more questionable events, and so this minor problem was merely the tip of an iceberg that was heading straight for him.
In Blunkett's case, however, there is the sense that this relatively minor faux pas in judgment is one of the very few blemishes in a career that is marked by considerable integrity. (In fact, Blunkett held off the inevitable resignation for three weeks by stressing and relying on his record for personal integrity -- a claim honored by even the most vocal critics in the opposition). But it turns out that it was the issue of 'integrity -- or at least the appearance of it -- that was pivotal in both cases.

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