Rationalization #11, The King’s Pass or The Star Syndrome, is more than a rationalization. For America’s celebrities, star performers and elite athletes, the super-wealthy and the politically powerful, it is a way of life. From the description on the Rationalizations List: “Celebrities and powerful public figures come to depend on it. Their achievements, in their own minds and those of their supporters and fans, have earned them a more lenient ethical standard. This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected whenever it raises its slimy head.”
Most of the time, however, the King’s Pass is not rejected, and as long as the miscreant involved hasn’t dared to wind up on the wrong side of a political divide, his or her fellow “kings” will make the biggest stink since the skunk factory exploded when one of the elite club is forced to tow the lines drawn for their inferiors.
Two weeks ago, Carolyn Baumann was forced to resign as the director of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan after a government investigation found that she had engaged in conduct connected to her wedding that made inappropriate use of her position for personal benefit. The Smithsonian’s inspector general had looked into irregularities regarding the procurement of her wedding dress and the wedding space after a complaint was made by a museum staff member, and didn’t like what he found.
The inspector general determined that the director had bought a wedding dress from a Brooklyn designer for $750, though the designer’s website advertised gowns starting at $3,000. The designer insisted that the dress she made was not a “gown” and that she had not given Baumann a discount, but the designer later received a free ticket to a Cooper Hewitt museum gala worth $1,700. Then, for the wedding ceremony. Baumann obtained free use of a Hamptons property affiliated with another nonprofit, and later allowed that same nonprofit to use a Cooper Hewitt meeting room without charge. This appeared to be an instance of using the museum’s assets to barter for her own benefit.
The Smithsonian’s conflict of interest policy forbids employees from engaging “in private or personal activities that might conflict, or appear to conflict, with Smithsonian interests, such as using Smithsonian employment for private gain” or “giving preferential treatment to any person or company for any reason.” In sum, the episodes described in the report—there is speculation that there may have been other issues as well—suggested the appearance of impropriety at very least, and at worse, an arrogant and corrupt use of the director’s position for personal benefit.
The defenses offered by Caroline Baumann and her defenders certainly jangled my ethics alarms. The gown wasn’t technically a gown? The free gala ticket was brushed off as something that was a routine practice; you know, “Everybody Does it.” The apparent trade of venues was pooh-poohed as well. “How can it be inappropriate for a nonprofit to use a conference room for a board meeting?” said Matko Tomicic, another non-profit executive director, intentionally missing the point.
Judy Francis Zankel, a prominent philanthropist who serves as the secretary of the Cooper Hewitt board, wrote in an indignant email to the Smithsonian’s secretary and top official. “I have been working with her long enough to know without a doubt that she has been unfairly accused and unjustly judged.” Ah! The old “someone like her who is admired by someone like me would never do something like that!” response.
For her part, Baumann called the report a “sham.” She accused the investigator of using “derogatory, sexist language” and said that he “was overtly discriminatory to me and to others.” When in doubt, play whatever victim card is as hand. In this case, it’s the gender card.
But one of the High and Mighty being forced to abide by the Little People rules has ignited the fury of the museum’s board. Six trustees, among them the prominent designer David Rockwell, have resigned from the Cooper Hewitt board to protest Baumann’s removal. Judy Francis Zankel resigned as secretary of the board after Baumann’s compelled exit was announced, and notified the Smithsonian that she was cutting the Design Museum out of her will, to the tune of $5 million. In her email, she called the treatment of Baumann “unconscionable and disgraceful,” and the investigation that led to hers ouster “biased.” She also announced that she would no longer be leaving the museum her collection of decorative objects.
You see, the reason the King’s Pass is so resistant to ethical standards is that kings, queens and their friends, unlike the Little People, have the wherewithal to punish those who insist that they shouldn’t misuse their celebrity and and power.