Inaugural Outsider

Inaugural Outsider

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 17 1997 3:30 AM

Inaugural Outsider

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       Today is Henry Cisneros' last day at work. When I called him at his office, on my way down to Washington for the inaugural festivities, he said he would like to have stayed on as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but that he must leave for financial reasons. Those reasons are pretty simple. In early 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno asked for a special prosecutor to look into whether Cisneros should be prosecuted for lying to the FBI during his security clearance. At issue were payments Cisneros made to Linda Medlar, a woman who was his mistress for a time when he was mayor of San Antonio. Cisneros told the FBI that he was freely paying Medlar as compensation for her difficulties since he abandoned her and went back to his wife in 1989. But he apparently low-balled the amount he was paying--a scandal that broke when Medlar sold tapes she surreptitiously made to Inside Edition. After nearly two years of six lawyers looking into that matter, no charges have been brought. But with his legal bills outpacing his $144,000-a-year salary, Cisneros is broke.
       "There have been afternoons when I was working here and I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' " Cisneros told me, referring to his legal difficulties. "This isn't even adult business. This is playing with rules and labyrinthine processes. We've lost sight of the final results in a massive way. There's such a preoccupation with precise process and rules that you're lucky if you don't make a mistake." But despite being the victim of what might be the most pointless of the many scandals to bedevil the Clinton administration, Cisneros evinces little bitterness about his time in Washington. He will watch the inauguration on Monday, he says, with a feeling of satisfaction. Under his watch, he believes, America's cities have turned the corner. Detroit still may not be a great place to live. But it's becoming a place where people can live.
       Asked to name his chief accomplishment, Cisneros points without hesitation to his work of destruction--the demolition and scheduled demolition of 46,000 units of public housing in high-rise urban projects around the country. His basic objective at HUD has been to get rid of the kind of places that became synonymous with liberal failure and to replace them with livable alternatives: low-density townhouse developments, mixed-income buildings, and dispersal away from the inner-city core of concentrated poverty. From the start, he faced an enormous political challenge. "The suburbs are not excited about integration," Cisneros says. "And many central-city political leaders don't want to see voting blocks dispersed."
       His challenge became all the more immense after the 1994 election, when Republicans flirted with the notion of eliminating HUD entirely. In housing, as in other areas of social policy like welfare, the administration no longer had the luxury of trying to replace failed programs with reformed programs. It faced a starker choice between defending failed programs, and watching them disappear.
       In the case of welfare, Cisneros was reported to have argued in private against Clinton signing the bill passed by Republicans. In the case of his own agency, however, there was little he could do to resist. While they haven't closed HUD, Republicans have made drastic cuts, and succeeded in completely terminating the issuance of new housing vouchers under the Section 8 program. This essentially means that Cisneros can't offer all public-housing tenants an alternative when he tears down their homes. Though he thinks this is bad policy, he has opted to forge ahead with the work of demolition anyway. He thinks the worst high-rise projects--like one he visited in Baltimore, where police told him he risked getting shot if he went inside--are literally worse than nothing.
       Most recently, Cisneros has been resisting the Office of Management and Budget's attempts to pare back HUD as it prepares the administration's 1998 budget plan. Cisneros has given his successor, Andrew Cuomo, a few tips on how to fight for the agency and deal with the president in the future. "You have to constantly listen carefully to the nuance and the direction of his own ideas in order to relate what you're doing to his larger themes," Cisneros says. "Housing isn't the first priority. We have to find a way to relate it to other things--whether it's Reinventing Government, or the economy. Our job is to advance his agenda."
       I asked Cisneros if he had any insight into the almost-pathological hatred many people seem to feel for Clinton. "I don't understand the intensity of it," Cisneros says. "Some of it may be class related. Some may be ideological. And it's amazing how much of the resentment is from his own generation. It may be that our generation isn't sure it's ready for one of us to be president." At the same time, Cisneros thinks the problem relates not just to Clinton, but to a general erosion in civility. "I think it's hard to gain respect when you have been the victim of daily assaults," he says. "I read in our clips the jokes that Leno and Letterman make. They're crude, irreverent, disrespectful. I don't know how Dwight David Eisenhower could have stood up to that nightly barrage. But in the final analysis, respect is earned. Despite all the hearings, the money issues, and all the other stuff, Clinton is going to walk through and serve till the end of the century."
       In a valedictory speech at the National Press Club last week, Cisneros mentioned that there was a homeless man he had seen on the street as he went in and out of HUD headquarters. He had often wondered about him, but never stopped to try to help him. Perhaps before he left, he said, he might see if there was anything he could do.
       Had Cisneros since talked to the man? He had--but the guy hadn't wanted any help. "I said, 'I'm the secretary of housing, and I want to know if I can help you.' He said, 'Get out of here, you're bothering me, you're offending me, you're annoying me.' " Cisneros kept trying, but the homeless man just became more belligerent. Finally, some passersby told Cisneros to give up. "He's been here forever," they said. "You've done all you can do. You've had a good four years. Go back inside."

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.