Before we get to the dancing penises at the National Institutes of Health, let's begin our discussion with the Secret Service agents' dalliance with prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia.
"We're representing the people of the United States," President Obama said Sunday when asked about the agents and military personnel who, after a night of heavy drinking, reportedly procured prostitutes at a strip club called the Pley Club. "And when we travel to another country, I expect us to observe the highest standards."
But the president has it exactly backward. It is precisely when federal workers go abroad that they should hold themselves to the lowest standards. We are, after all, the land of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Snooki.
Debauchery is an American specialty. The president should be promoting the export of our culture.
I realize that some party poopers will not share my delight that Secret Service has become a double entendre. But at the very least, this scandal, like the General Services Administration's spending spree in Las Vegas, should serve to refute claims that the federal workforce is out of touch with everyday Americans. As it turns out, some federal workers reflect our culture all too well.
Maybe we should stop blaming the feds for being like the rest of us — it's hardly surprising that bad actors and buffoons find their way into the public sector as well as the private — and think of the other lessons we can draw from the scandal, such as possible recruitment tools.
Work for the government and get a complimentary upgrade to a hot-tub suite? Join the Secret Service and be a playuh at the Pley Club? Surely the GSA, a sleepy backwater of the government responsible for property, would raise its profile if it changed its name to the Garish Soiree Administration or the Grandiose Shindig Agency.
At some level, Americans embrace the notion that their officials act like them. Also in Colombia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a dozen female aides went after midnight to a nightclub, where cameras caught the nation's top diplomat swigging a beer — from the bottle! — and dancing. The wet blankets at Britain's Telegraph newspaper asked whether Clinton is "becoming an embarrassment."
Americans clearly don't think so. Photos of the episode have gone viral, the reviews in the U.S. press have been good, and the nightclub story has added to buzz about Clinton's 2016 prospects.
The reviews were less favorable for the GSA's boozy outing in Vegas, where federal workers treated themselves to a clown show, a mind reader, souvenir medallions, and $19-a-head "artisanal cheese." Denouncing the GSA at a congressional hearing last week, Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), stuck between lavish and outlandish in describing the excess, accused the GSA of having an "outlavish" convention.
Mica complained that Jeffrey Neely, the GSA official responsible for the soiree, didn't show up for the hearing. "I guess the only way we'll get to see him is on a video in the hot tub," the congressman grumbled.
Nobody's excusing Neely, and there's no evidence that $75,000 bicycle-building exercises are standard at government conferences, but lawmakers might pause the outrage long enough to think about how they have contributed to the culture that made Neely.
These are grim times for federal workers, with pay freezes and the prospect of massive cutbacks at year's end. No wonder a few people would wonder, as Neely wrote in an e-mail, "Why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can? Ain't going to last forever."
Apparently, Neely isn't the only one who thinks this way. While I sat at one of the House hearings on the GSA last week, a woman from the Traditional Values Coalition distributed press releases with an alarming revelation:
"The $800,000 of waste ... on a Las Vegas conference pales in comparison to the funding of government porn, dancing penises, gay circuit parties, the study of 14-year-old prostitutes in China, collecting and reading the sex diaries of teenage boys. ... What National Institutes of Health is spending money on would make a Vegas showgirl blush."
It made me blush to think what sort of NIH parties involve dancing genitals. I called Andrea Lafferty, the conservative group's president, to inquire.
"We will be releasing it shortly," she said, with "some pictures."
Next, I called the NIH to ask about the dancing private parts.
"Sorry, but we just can't figure out what TVC is referencing," spokeswoman Renate Myles responded.
Could it be a cover-up? Come to think of it, maybe that's not a bad thing.
Dana Milbank writes for the Washington Post.