The best government-relations guy ever was immortalized by Shakespeare in Othello.
Iago famously doesn't speak at the end of the play. And why not? Well, first, he doesn't believe Othello could have been so stupid, and he has no rational explanation for the Moor's actions. And, second, he was conforming to the code of all officers in governmental relations: It's OK to be seen; just don't be heard (except in a whisper).
As a government-relations officer of a large, public university in the Midwest, my two heroes are Iago and Machiavelli. (You can add Kissinger and Rove to that list, but I won't admit to liking either of them.) Yes, those of us in government relations are all soulless -- unless, of course, we secure a $3-million Congressional earmark for your pet research project because we (meaning me, since we always work alone) are willing to make numerous trips to Washington on your behalf. If we do that, we're dedicated public servants.
University government-relations officers evolve from three places. (No, I don't mean bogs, swamps, or Texas. I'm sorry if I've offended anyone fighting to preserve bogs and swamps. I'm certain if you have any wetlands next to your campus, you are attempting to get an earmark to preserve them; it's a no-brainer.)
In reality, government-relations officers are: (1) former politicians who were term-limited; (2) absurdly young political-science majors who were former presidents of their student senate and are now willing to work for $22,000 a year, plus mileage; and (3) over-the-hill administrators who have hung around so long that no one at the university is quite sure what they do.
I am one of those three. And in the coming months, I am going to be writing a set of columns about the ins and outs of life in government relations on a university campus. I would like to set the stage here by revealing a few truths about our profession.
Besides the aforementioned fact that a government-relations officer should be seen and not heard, our other predominant traits include:
The stamina to travel frequently without family, friends, or an adequate expense account.
The patience to repeatedly attempt to explain certain realities of academic life to state legislators, such as why tenure is a good and proper thing.
The willingness to enjoy two cocktails while at the same time seriously explaining to the head of the state's Department of Natural Resources why a multimillion-dollar grant to place huge windmills in the middle of a Great Lake will actually be good for America despite the regretful demise of numerous Canada geese who are too dumb to fly around the football-field-length blades.
The capacity to take middle-of-the-night phone calls from a member of the city council because a local resident has just complained about a party in a neighborhood house where 12 students have taken up domicile but only three are paying rent.
No college or university in America can survive without at least one person on the payroll who thinks about nothing but politics. Usually, that person's title or job description will not show up in the latest version of the institution's strategic plan.
And how could it? Would the following job description be approved by the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees?
Big Midwestern University has determined the need to establish an Office of Governmental Relations that will receive a good chunk of University resources in order to influence elected politicians and government appointees by legal and ethical means only so that the university will receive gobs of extra federal, state, and local funding. Success in this effort will allow said University to mysteriously rise in prestige and influence in national-magazine university rankings that no one in the University admits to paying any attention to whatsoever.
No, you would never see a statement like that in the campus strategic plan, although it would be a more honest statement than many others in the plan.
Nevertheless, universities have to have someone who knows and talks to appointed and elected public officials. Sure, that's part of the president's job. But even though I consider it the most important task a university president will face, he or she does have other pesky responsibilities.
And presidents need a buffer. Most university presidents become really, really annoyed when a legislator calls because the daughter of one of his constituents failed an algebra exam when she is positive she got at least some of the answers right. Legislators actually don't like to call college presidents with that type of complaint. They know they risk irritating the president and embarrassing themselves. But they don't mind calling moi because I will be as obsequious as an 18th-century French court fop (that's before the revolution).
Besides, the legislator knows that I actually won't do much of anything about the silly complaint, which is what the legislator desires. The lawmaker just wants the issue to go away, and I will do that for him. Maybe I'll write a courteous letter to the troubled parents talking about the integrity of the university and the fact that at Big Midwestern University, we don't mess with faculty grading procedures, and how the girl's parents should be proud of her university's high standards.
A president, however, might make a fuss and call for an investigation and embarrass the student, who has no doubt moved on (or out).
The fact is that a government-relations officer is a necessary evil at a university, sort of like a men's wrestling program or a university press. The institution just wouldn't be complete without one.
And that's why poor, delusional Othello kept Iago around. It's just that Othello shouldn't have believed everything Iago said.