Authors: Jim Geraghty
Wilkins stifled a whimper. Humphrey stared back, coolly, and quietly drummed his fingers upon the conference room table.
“Very well, Mr. Bader. I just hope that if, indeed, the rumors are true, that the White House’s upcoming budget proposal includes a plan to zero out this agency, that you account for our ongoing response to the Soviet-directed Halogeton infestation in the Western states, and see that it is not interrupted.”
“You did get our latest updates on Moscow’s continuing efforts to trigger an agricultural crisis, yes?”
“Ah, that darn White House mail room. It seems your skepticism of the efficiencies of government has proven well-founded once again. Don’t worry, I have a copy of our most recent updates here.”
Bader furrowed his brow as Humphrey reached into his leather bag and dropped a stack of four binders, each three inches thick, onto the table, one by one. The covers were bright red and labeled:
RESPONSE TO SOVIET HALOGETON INFESTATION
“As you no doubt know, Halogeton is a particularly nasty weed, deadly to livestock if consumed,” Humphrey began, putting on his glasses and flipping through the report. Magnified ten thousand times, the plant appeared thorny, thick, and crooked, Godzilla in vegetative form.
“We have indeed traced its origin to the Soviet Union and China. A mere twenty-four ounces of Halogeton will kill a sheep within hours. One rancher in Idaho lost twelve thousand animals in one day.”
Bader looked over his shoulder at his first aide, who offered a confused shrug. The other looked bug-eyed and mortified at his confusion.
“It is difficult to burn, requires little water to survive, and as a Republican congressman from Idaho accurately assessed, ‘It would be a very fine thing to sabotage your enemy with.’ The fact that the weed came from Soviet agents has been widely reported in the agricultural journals in the Western states, despite our efforts to keep a tight lid on this, lest the menace provoke a panic …”
Wilkins tried to suppress any facial expression, utterly bewildered by everything Humphrey was saying. He had been Humphrey’s right-hand man for two years and had only the vaguest recollection of Halogeton. As Bader looked through the red-covered reports, he saw a wide variety of densely typed pages and maps with a hammer-and-sickle arriving in the Northwest and arrows spreading down through the Rockies. Bader left the report open to a grainy, black-and-white photo of Stalin laughing.
Humphrey flipped open to an artist’s depiction of a herd of wild mustangs, all dying in the sun. A cowboy who could be easily mistaken for the Marlboro Man was holding his hat over his heart, a single tear running down his cheek. In the corner of the illustration, the crooked lines of the perhaps excessively anthropomorphized weed seemed to be almost smiling.
“The weed is particularly dangerous to horses. I’m sure the president knows this, being a rancher and all … I need not remind you that we share the president’s distinctive appreciation for the Equine-American Community. The manifestation is
currently most prevalent in the Mountain states, but is inching its way to California—I fear an interruption in funding would lead to odious crimson and yellow Halogeton sprigs cropping up all over the Golden State … and while it is far from my role to set national policy, speaking personally I for one would find that an unacceptable risk to Little Man.”
Bader had a hard time tearing his eyes away from the vivid apocalyptic depiction of the stallion massacre, and it took a moment for him to catch up to Humphrey’s flourish to drive the point home.
“Little Man? Wait, you mean—”
Humphrey revealed his first well-rehearsed flickers of irritation and impatience. “President Reagan’s
, Mr. Bader. His black colt bred from Baby, the gray thoroughbred stallion he received during his Hollywood years. Currently resides at the president’s ranch. You do know the man you work for, don’t you, Mr. Bader? I was informed you are the president’s right hand? That profile in
called you ‘
Reagan’s bloody right hand
Bader and his unspeaking aides seemed to communicate entirely through glances.
First glance, from Bader:
Why am I just learning of this now?
Second glance, from the aides:
What are you looking at us for? We’re just learning of this now!
Third glance, from Bader:
What are you paid for?
Fourth glance, from the aides:
Don’t blame us, he said it was the White House mail room!
If the glances and glares of disapproval and recrimination grew any more intense, eyeballs would start popping out of their sockets.
Finally, Bader sighed.
“I’ll level with you, Humphrey, AIS was top of my list for cuts, but in light of this, I’m going to have to reevaluate our recommendation about your agency,” Bader said, rubbing his forehead. “This is big.
“God, Moscow’s been trying to choke us off, right under our noses …” Bader took one last flip through the book, then looked up at Humphrey. “I can’t promise anything, but I think we’re going to have to see if we can get you guys some of the DOD funding we’ll be pushing on the Hill.”
Wilkins noticed that Humphrey reacted with a much bigger grin than the smile in his wedding photo on his desk.
Wilkins waited until they were in the cab before letting out any reaction to the meeting’s unexpected turn of events, then burst forth with an explosion of giddy laughter. Humphrey merely beamed, looking out the window.
“How the hell did you do that?!” Wilkins yipped excitedly. “Bader never wants to spend more money! I nearly peed myself when he said he would make the pitch to Weinberger on the way out. How did you find all of that stuff on the Soviets? I mean, it’s unbelievable!” As soon as Wilkins finished the final word, he had a sudden, horrific realization. “I mean, really unbelievable … Really, really,
unbelievable. I mean, as in, I’m starting to think that everything you said is something that cannot be believed.”
“Of course not, Mr. Wilkins, breathe easy,” Humphrey chuckled. “Everything within the report is accurate …
. Some of the sourcing is from the 1950s, when concerns and suspicions about Soviet activity on American soil were … perhaps excessive.”
“Oh, the ‘Soviet Killer Weed’ headline was from 1950, the public range estimates were from 1951, around then … the Republican congressman’s comment was from 1952, I believe.”
Wilkins winced. “Adam, has anyone turned up any evidence of this vast Russian plot in, say, the past thirty years?”
of the report are accurate; Halogeton is a menace, our job is to fight it. It is widely believed to be the work of the Soviets, and increasing our budget would only serve the best interest of the American people.”
“So you just bet our jobs and our pensions on the White House believing a reheated pile of Red Scare propaganda?”
“People have always attributed vegetative and insect pests to the sinister work of their enemies. In past cultures, it was attributed to omens and curses and spells and other magic. Today we fear what comes out of the laboratory. In decades past, Dakotans called the tumbleweed ‘the Russian weed.’ Long Island fishermen in the 1950s called a newly arrived seaweed ‘Sputnik Weed,’ believing that Soviet spacecraft had spread it.”
“How do you know all this stuff?” Wilkins asked.
“A healthy agency does not require relevance to the national agenda so much as the
of relevance to the national agenda,” Humphrey explained. “It is perhaps the second-most important tool in ensuring continued funding.”
“And the most important?”
“A friend on the Appropriations Committee.”
The cab took them to Capitol Hill, where Humphrey had his second important meeting of the day, to meet a long-serving congressman from the Bluegrass State.
WASHINGTON—Last month a national newsweekly called Rep. Vernon Hargis, D-Ky., “the most important man in Washington you’ve never heard of.” The profile offered a glowing spin to what is an increasingly common practice in Congress: egregiously corrupt horse-trading of votes for expensive projects called ‘earmarks.’
Kentucky’s Seventh Congressional District represents a cluster of the state’s poorest counties, a stretch of Appalachia along the West Virginia border. In 1956, the district elected Hargis, a local lawyer who had seen hell in Korea and rarely hesitates to remind anyone of it. (He invokes his “dodging the bullets of hordes of d—ned Chinamen” stories reflexively whenever anyone dares bring up what he once euphemistically called his “purely recreational” attendance at a Ku Klux Klan cross burning in his youth.)
Early in his congressional career, Hargis saw the power of the purse and committed himself, with a ruthlessness his peers label “obsessive,” to getting a seat on the Appropriations Committee. In his second term he was selected to join the powerful panel that controlled spending and immediately became one of the House’s consummate dealmakers. Determined to never leave his perch, he has proven willing to add just about anything to an appropriations bill, provided the favor was returned.
As a result, Kentucky’s Seventh Congressional District, which consists mostly of small towns tucked among the Appalachian mountains, now hosts regional offices (and jobs) of:
• The U.S. Department of Commerce
• The U.S. Department of Interior
• The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
• The U.S. Department of Labor
• The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
• The U.S. Small Business Administration
• Two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facilities, including an aquarium and marine life facility
• The U.S. Census Bureau
• The Environmental Protection Agency
• The Department of Agriculture’s Agency of Invasive Species (two, in fact)
In addition, the district also houses:
• a NORAD tracking facility
• a research center for NASA
• a Department of Defense heliport
• a Department of Transportation vehicle safety research center
• a Department of Energy Cold Fusion Research Laboratory
• a federally funded aerospace technology center, freeway, federal courthouse, an industrial park, an education research institute, several historical parks, rural health centers, four dams, an exceptionally well-funded branch of the state university and several community colleges, and a gold-plated medical center (with remarkably few patients)
Almost all of these, of course, are named after Hargis. None of the spokesmen for any of these departments or agencies would give an explanation, on the record, of why this rural Kentucky district was chosen for their branch offices.
One agency spokesman, requesting anonymity, explained simply, “He’s on the Appropriations Committee, what can we do?”
For weeks, Hargis refused several requests for comment on these district projects; finally, his office issued a written statement that “Congressman Hargis is proud of his service for the people of his district, and will never forget that his job is to serve the simple people who built this country, who fought and bled and died for this country.”
Reached in the halls of Congress, Hargis sped away after dismissing the inquiry as “a city slicker reporter in fancy shoes.”
Criticism of Hargis’s free-spending ways is unlikely to matter; decades of increasingly-precise redistricting have given Hargis an airtight political lock on his district. Kentucky Republicans haven’t even run a candidate against Hargis since 1972, when one Floyd Robbs, a town councilman from Turner’s Grove, garnered 20 percent of the vote. One official with the state GOP noted that in the gushing river of federal funds that flowed from Washington to the district in the past eight years, not one cent has ever gone to the county that includes Turner’s Grove.
“The congressman has a long memory,” the party member lamented.