My Grudge

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) has been in the epicenter of the last-ditch debt ceiling negotiations, and will probably deserve significant credit if the nation’s looming, self-created crisis is averted, if only temporarily. I’m going to have a hard time applauding, however, and not just because I think the entire incident has proven that America’s leadership void in all branches of government is terrifying. I can’t stand Mitch McConnell. I can’t stand to look at him, listen to him or read about him, and for the most unfair of reasons. I have a deep personal grudge against his wife, and its aura is wide and strong enough to engulf the Senator as well.

Back in 1987, McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, was a Reagan appointee in the Transportation Department, and I was out of work. Recalling that I had done a lot of work in transportation policy analysis, my former boss of two jobs back, (who is the current President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), graciously offered to make some calls on my behalf, and set me up to meet with Chao, a friend of his. The meeting that resulted remains the most humiliating and infuriating business-related experience of my life.

Chao treated me like a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman with body odor. She constantly looked at her watch, and didn’t listen to my attempts to enlighten her about my abilities or what I had to offer employers, interrupting me even when I was responding to her perfunctory questions. She barely looked me in the eye, and was arrogant and distant to the point of rudeness. Finally, she cut the meeting short by announcing that she had another appointment elsewhere, after less than ten minutes, saying that she really didn’t have a job for me. I attempted to remind her that this wasn’t the point of the encounter; that I had been told by her supposed friend and associate that she would be willing to suggest other useful contacts and advice, but Chao was already hustling me out the door. It is accurate to say that nobody else has made me feel so insignificant and useless, and that no one has ever been so cold and unkind to me in a professional setting.

After I had cooled down, I wrote Chao a letter telling her this, pronouncing my disappointment at her unprofessional and callous conduct, which I felt was as much of an insult to my former boss as it was to me. (He thought so, too.) I got a vague, intern-drafted response, with a non-apology apology (“I am sorry if you were offended…”).


I have tried to get past my anger and hurt over that episode, which was, after all, more than 20 years ago. I have discovered that Chao’s behavior was not, sadly, the aberration in the Washington, D.C. halls of power that I thought it was, though it remains my only direct experience with such self-important disrespect. I can’t get over it. I detest the woman. I detest the woman, I detest any man who would marry her, person that would befriend her, and any employer who would hire her. (She was the outgoing Secretary of Labor when Obama took office.)

I know this is a bias, and that it is unfair and wrong, but the feelings are strong, and come from deep in my heart, not from my head. Among the grudges I hold against Elaine Chao is that my brief, unpleasant contact with her left me with this hateful, overblown bias that I can’t shake, even though I know that I should. I am disappointed with myself that I haven’t healed, that I am not more logical and resilient. What is Elaine Chao to me, after all, but another generic political hack who has played the Washington game, and acquired an inflated opinion of her own prowess? Why should her failure to display a shred of interest or offer a pittance of advice to a young, out-of-work lawyer and policy analyst still bother me now to the point that it makes it difficult for me to assess the work of her husband?

It shouldn’t, but it does. This is my failing now. I can’t blame Elaine Chao for it. For once, a hyperbole in an angry letter turned out to be true. I wrote her in 1987 that I would never forget or forgive her treatment of me when I was at a low point and needed encouragement and kindness.

Unfortunately—for me— I never have.

5 thoughts on “My Grudge

  1. I will never understand why the arrogance and attitude against their employers, US, the hard working tax payer. Without us they would not have a job or an income. Too much power, we must take it back!

  2. It’s not difficult for me to understand why you would still remember the incident and still have strong feelings about it. During your discussion you were likely using aspects of yourself that you are most proud of, including your intelligence and manners, and to have someone dismiss you – with the grace of a drunken baboon, no less – especially someone holding public office, it must have been very upsetting. Some things are easier to let go than others. To your credit, at least you are aware of your feelings and how they affect your thoughts of Chao’s husband.

  3. “It doesn’t cost a nickel to be nice to people, It’s something you can give away for free and it means more than a million dollars.” Sparky Anderson.

    I saw him say that in a TV interview when I was young and it stuck with me ever since.

  4. The Dilbert Principle seems year after year to be more prophetic. When I first read it, it did seem to mirror a disturbing trend in American management. As the years have passed, I have begun to think that it really spoke to the future where the Dilbert Principle would apply everywhere.
    What does this have to do with your situation? People who are qualified and confident in their abilities don’t tend to act like Elaine Chao. When you meet someone who is terrible to their subordinates, terrible to their coworkers, and terrible to everyone they come into contact with, they probably are incompetent, too. As we elect and promote the unqualified, we will get more and more incivility and rudeness.

    When I was interviewing for graduate schools, I went to a school with a Nobel Prize winner. When they asked me who I wanted to talk with one-on-one during my visit, I put him down (with a little trepidation). He was the nicest person I met the whole visit, the least qualified professor was the worst. In the years since, I have had the opportunity to speak to several other Nobel Prize winners and numerous people of similar stature. Not one was ever rude or ignored little old nobody me. I have met a few true geniuses who were demanding, very rigid, and had tempers, but they were not all-around mean and arrogant that you describe above. They know they are important, they don’t need to push people around to convince themselves and others.

    Sorry you had a bad experience. Just remember, she could have been replaced with a signature-stamp machine, and the country probably would have been better off for it. I don’t know if that will make you smile or infuriate you more, but there you have it.

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