The first rule of bureaucratic behavior

Watching the current situation in the White House with whistleblowing and testimony under subpoena, I am distastefully reminded of the infighting that goes on in many bureaucracies. As a professor of history at a public university, I had my own experience with this kind of twaddle during my career, albeit not necessarily criminal or destructive of American foreign policy.

Still, it helped me learn the first rule of bureaucratic behavior.

Unpaid internships in rather remote places

Years ago and in a state of mind far away, I received a letter from someone in a certain federal agency asking if I knew of any graduate students who would be interested in a summer internship in any of several rather remote places.

There were few details in the epistle, and before I committed to pimping for Uncle Sugar, I wanted more information. A couple of queries revealed that the summer internships not only paid $0, but also that no intern would be given food or housing. Those necessities would be the sole responsibility of the intern.

Well, now! What a deal! Come work for us for free. Can’t beat that, kiddo.

The situation seemed to warrant some sort of response. I wrote a letter to the federal agency soliciting interns. I vented my spleen, I reckon. And in no uncertain terms. You cheapskates have your nerve. Tightwads. Pinch pennies. Stingy bureaucrats foisting the equivalent of slave labor. Etc, etc.

Perhaps the internship would have occupied only four or five hours a day, leaving plenty of time for the poor graduate student to find a part-time job and thus provide some cash for rent and a couple of bags of noodles.

Yes, indeed, I really let ’em have it up there in Foggy Bottom.

‘What is sufficient punishment?’

In due time, trouble befell me. The agency head wrote to the president of my university. The president expressed his displeasure to the provost, who passed it along to the dean. The dean phoned the chairperson of my department, and I was summarily called on the carpet.

“I’m supposed to discipline you,” the chairperson said.

Clearly, he was not pleased, either with me or the manner in which the chore of wrist-slapping had been dumped upon him by higher-ups in the administration.

“What do you think I ought to do to you? What is sufficient punishment? Give me a suggestion.”

“Well,” I said. “If I were you, I’d have me draft a letter of apology to the feds for your signature.”

I certainly wouldn’t have fallen for a remedy so obviously flawed, but, lo’ and behold, he did. And so I wrote a magnificent letter of (I blush) contrition, apology, and utter facetiousness. I shall paraphrase the good parts:

We here at the university have the utmost respect for your agency, which has done so much for our country and our culture. Therefore, I must humbly ask that you forgive the recent undisciplined outburst in response to your request for unpaid and otherwise untended interns thoughtlessly sent by assistant professor William Savage. Professor Savage is a brilliant young scholar and a considerable asset to our department. He has published extensively and is an outstanding teacher, enormously popular among students. His annual evaluations have been nothing short of superb. The problem is that he has trouble controlling his emotions when confronted with what he perceives as injustice toward people trying to better themselves. Rest assured that steps have been taken to ensure that nothing like this will ever happen again.

The first rule of bureaucratic behavior

I thought that the chairperson might at least read this masterpiece before telling me to be serious and write it again, but when I handed him the letter, he signed it, handed it back and said to give it to the departmental secretary to mail — the same secretary who had very nearly chuckled herself silly while typing it in the first place.

Nothing ever came of any of it. I had been disciplined, and the chairperson had done his duty. No graduate students agreed to become unpaid interns.

The chairperson and I did, however, have our understanding of university hierarchies confirmed. The first rule of bureaucratic behavior is: Kiss up and shit down.

It applies every time.