Chapter 4: All Cheese, All the Time
For an entire news cycle, nothing mattered but “the Pitch Farnum cheese tape.” Not a tornado that swept through a suburb of Norman, Oklahoma, leaving one dead and twenty-seven bewildered; not another outbreak of E. coli on a Mediterranean cruise ship; not the Supreme Court’s rescission of the First, Fourth, Sixth and Eighth amendments and its decision to hear a challenge to the Thirteenth, which abolished slavery. Only a home video of a pet raccoon in top hat and tails came close. Otherwise, it was all cheese, all the time. FOX News, which broke the raccoon story, ran the Farnum cheese tape and the Zapruder film side by side and asked viewers to vote by text on which they enjoyed more.
By lunchtime, you could buy Pitch Farnum CheeseChump T-shirts, caps, pennants, bumper stickers, mugs and cheddar-flavored panties. It proved yet again that in a democracy, nothing so satisfies the electorate as the humiliation of the person they had voted into office.
Pitch Farnum was dead meat. And Viktor Horvath wasn’t smelling so sweet either given that it was his idea to install Farnum, three-time winner of the Congressional Staff
Association’s “Empty Suit Award,” in charge of the Federal Reserve.
What was Horvath thinking? Pitch Farnum? For Fed?
Poor Pitch. He was an undeserving victim of his own good and guileless nature. What Pitch Farnum wanted most in life was to be liked. And almost everyone who knew him liked him. He was so easy to like! He was easygoing, highly accommodating, and he never took offense despite endless opportunities. He was like an insurance commercial: You felt he really did care about you. Unlike an insurance company, he really did care about you.
But no one thought he was remotely fit for the Fed. Any fool could fake his way through two terms in the United States Senate. Many were doing so at that moment. But the United States Federal Reserve? Finance simply wasn’t Pitch’s thing. And no amount of coaching by Acting Treasury Secretary Roger Swing was going to teach him the difference between M1 the money supply and A1 the steak sauce.
Pitch Farnum? For Fed Chairman?
Beyond business as usual! Well beyond!
What was Horvath thinking?
Fed chair was such a powerful position. Presidents answered to the press. Popes answered to plaintiffs’ lawyers. Congress answered to Big Pharma. And Big Insurance.
And Big Energy. And Big Cable. And Big Bank. And Big Church. And Big Gun. And … But the chair of the Federal Reserve answered to no one. He did what he wanted when he wanted and no one could do a thing about it. If the Fed head wanted to raise interest rates, then interest rates would be raised. If she wanted to cut interest rates, then interest rates would be cut. Did he wish to inject money into the economy? Be it so injected. Did she wish for there to be less money in the economy? So let it be removed. Simple as that. She could raise rates at breakfast, lower them at lunch, and raise them again by supper. Only the director of the FBI was more powerful. And even the FBI director’s adjustable-rate mortgage was at the mercy of the Fed’s Open Market Committee. Which the chair chaired.
It was an unelected, unaccountable barrier against the perils of the plebiscite. The Senate might be the saucer that cooled the hot tea of the House. But even the Senate had its fair share of hotheads. Many times, the Fed had proven its value by saving democracy from itself. Each chair stood on the wingtips of the giant who served before. And they were giants: Barrington Croger, Birdmore Squallings, Ditmore Reese, the inscrutable
Whitman Wittman, the scrappy and disarmingly erudite Giovanni Bobanelli Buonnicone. And every president came into office with the same understanding: Don’t fuck with the
Then Viktor Horvath fucked with the Fed by nominating Willburr “Pitch” Farnum.
What was he thinking?
“Ray, I’m thinking it’s time we had a tool at the Fed.”
“But … Pitch Farnum, Mr. President? For Fed?” Not even Ray Jarecki was that cavalier with the national interest.
But Viktor Horvath was. “He’s our man, Ray.”
The responsible press was with Ray. “Surely, the republic could produce a more capable candidate,” The Times opined. “This nomination strikes us as the single most reckless executive appointment of the past two centuries of American democracy. And that is saying much.”
“Do we really wish to entrust global financial stability to a man who insists on being called ‘Pitch’?” asked The Washington Post. “Will he wear a backwards baseball cap to the office?”
“We are delighted by this sound, fitting and altogether felicitous appointment,” said The Wall Street Journal.
Not that The Journal had a point. But for all his misadventures, Pitch Farnum had never truly crossed the line. He was unaware that there was a line, but he instinctively never crossed it. Not once had he knowingly sold his vote, lied to the public or betrayed his beloved wife, Elizabeth “Lady” Farnum. Notwithstanding occasional public appearances to the contrary, he had never even been tempted to commit an indiscretion.
Everyone knew Pitch loved Lady to the bone. To the marrow. And by acclamation theirs was the best marriage in Washington. It was so written. Literally. In her lavish power couple profile in The Post Styles section, Pammy St. Pierre characterized the Farnums as “the happiest s in NW.”
“Pitch Farnum is that most extraordinary of men—the one whom other men root for when he gets into the kind of frat-boy fracas they wished they could get into,” Pammy wrote. “Oh to be silly, feckless and fun and to get away with it! He’s the good bad boy.
To forgive Pitch Farnum is to feel good about oneself.”
Lady certainly never blamed Pitch for the trouble that always found him. “How could I?” Pammy quoted her. “I might as well blame a little boy for not putting away his toys.” Pammy made that quote up, but Lady didn’t complain.
But oh, he could be trying. Very often on video. With girls involved. Like the time before Pitch and Lady officially met. Farnum, the junior senator from New Jersey, had been glad-handing undergraduates on the campus of Garden State State College. It was a warm October afternoon along fraternity row, and the Sigma Pi’s were out on the porch enjoying the sun and beer when Pitch, in shirtsleeves and trailed by a campus news crew, stopped by to stump.
“Yo fellas!” he called out, one hand on his hip and the other in high salute.
“Pitch Farnum, man!” “Yo, Senate man!” “Duuuuude!”
“Who wants to register to vote?” Pitch asked.
“Fuckin’ eh!” “Yeah! Fuckin’ vote, man! I’ll fuckin’ vote for you, P.F!” “Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh!”
Pitch was smiling. His aide Holly Fanning wasn’t. Holly suggested/insisted they move on. But before she could pull Pitch from the gathering peril, an unopened can of beer flew toward him from the porch. Holly experienced it as a cinematic moment: the can tumbled through the air in a slow-motion arc, backlit by the golden halo of an autumn sun. Sound stopped for a timeless moment, followed by the sudden slap of the beer can against Pitch’s palms and the familiar crack of a pull top, followed by raucous cheers as Pitch slugged the beer back in a gulp, forgetting that he wasn’t a drinker and would become drunk on contact and unaware that the news crew was rolling video the whole time.
A co-ed, drunk, laughing, bare naked and swinging her bra overhead, bounded out the front door of the frat house and made a lusty beeline for the good-looking older dude out front. She lassoed Pitch with the bra and pulled him in for a beery smooch and sloppy hip grind.
Technically, Pitch hadn’t done anything wrong other than enjoy himself at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong girl in front of the wrong video crew.
“All I did was drink a beer,” he later protested, hurt and confused at being pilloried. “What politician doesn’t drink beer with voters? That beer was brewed by a local company. What did I do wrong? She came up to me before I could even react.”
He had a point. Slow-motion and stop-action reviews of the video showed no hip movement on Pitch’s part. But it hardly mattered.
At first, Lady Farnum—she was Lady Gramm at the time, widow of the late-
Senator Graham Gramm of Tennessee—didn’t give Pitch Farnum’s public impalement more than a chortle when she saw it on CNN that evening. Lady’s husband had died in office, and Lady was appointed to finish his term. She had seen Farnum on the Senate floor and in committee rooms, but they had never interacted. To Lady, he was mostly just another suit in the Senate crowd. Watching the beer tape on CNN that evening, she was mostly disappointed that she forgot the raisins for her postprandial bowl of yogurt and muesli. She didn’t feel like getting up and going back to the kitchen, and Wepner, her boxer, didn’t have thumbs. So she sat and watched the story.
Lady disliked the reporter narrating the piece, Jay Buckman. She shared a widely held view of him as a has-been who never had been and never would be. Buckman’s specialty was expressing amused contempt for the people on whom he made his living. He was playing the frat-house clip and highlighting individual frames like a football commentator using a telestrator to examine every step of a play.
“Now here comes the girl,” Jay said, drawing a circle around the naked co-ed on the telestrator and marking out her path to Pitch. “Watch Farnum’s eyes literally pop out of his head when he gets a load of her.”
“ ‘Literally pop out of his head,’ ” Lady mimicked. She made a mental note to examine Pitch Farnum’s eye sockets the next time she saw him to determine if his eyes
had literally popped out of his head.
“Farnum may not be the moving party here,” Jay Buckman said. “But he ain’t
opposing the motion either. Check it out.”
“Oh, my,” Lady said, a spoonful of yogurt and muesli sans raisins poised halfway between bowl and mouth. She allowed herself a laugh. She couldn’t help it. True, the man’s life was unraveling on national television for the sake of local sport. But it was amusing. And it made you glad you weren’t in that kind of trouble.
“Oh that’s just brilliant,” Jay exulted. “Let’s run that one again, Freddy.”
Three weeks later, Pitch was reelected on the strength of the college vote, and Jay Buckman was denounced in The Columbia Journalism Review for bringing discredit to political reporting. Jay couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it even more a few years
later when President Viktor Horvath nominated Farnum for the Fed.
Farnum? For the Fed?
What was he thinking? It’s gonna be great!