Stuck in the Middle with the Circumlocution Office

Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit is not among his finest novels—those would be Dombey and Son and Bleak Housebut it deserves its place in the literary pantheon not only for its depiction of life in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison (something with which Dickens had personal experience) but for its invention of the Circumlocution Office. Fittingly, Dickens calls this chapter, “Containing the whole Science of Government.” It’s the ultimate revenge of the bureaucrats on the masses of suffering humanity who pay their inflated salaries and expect something in return:

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Through this delicate perception, through the tact with which it invariably seized it, and through the genius with which it always acted on it, the Circumlocution Office had risen to overtop all the public departments; and the public condition had risen to be—what it was.

Another word for such an entity is, of course, a racket, a criminal or quasi-criminal enterprise designed to enrich the barnacles while at the same time absolving them of all responsibility, including having to work for a living. In America, we call it the federal government.

Consider the recent reaction to president Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those of us over the age of 25 have been hearing, and in part voting, on this aspiration of U.S. foreign policy for decades—and yet it never seemed to get done. Ditto the “peace process,” the war on poverty, a simplified and fairer tax system, honest elections, a balanced budget, the war on drugs and, latterly, the war on terror. Promises, promises, but always How Not to Do It.

That Trump finally did something is to his eternal credit. Naturally, the Democrats who have been mouthing the same policy goal forever, as long as there was no chance of its actually happening, immediately objected—just as they and their allies among the Republicans doubtless would, were there ever to be a definitive end to the various “wars,” including especially the War on Washington, of which the Trump election last year was the first significant opening salvo.

For elections come and go, but somehow the Circumlocution Office remains serenely ensconced on Capitol Hill, collecting record tax revenues, running up record deficits and, more important, record debt; and offering ever more generous services while delivering the Post Office and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Their real goal is to drive up real estate prices in Virginia and Maryland, to support hundreds of expensive restaurants, to care for and feed fleets of lobbyists who also care for and feed them, and—always—to survive. Even the names of the laws they pass are circumlocutory: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act being primus inter pares—although no doubt it will be topped in due course.

At last count, more than half a million elected officials “serve” at all levels across the country. Enormous sums of money are raised, generated, and spent in pursuit of many of these offices—funds that have no other reason to exist than to buy influence. Not that there’s anything wrong with this: from Caesar’s time to the present, humanity has organized itself into a hierarchy—sorry, ladies, a patriarchy—whose leaders control the spigots of life and death, and whose flattery by means fair and foul is thus essential to the smooth workings of the system. ‘Twas ever thus, and ‘twill ever be thus, no matter how furiously the Goo-goos rage, or how many new civil-service jobs are created in a vain attempt to take politics out of politics.

No matter how imperfect, the attempt to avoid a kind of Persian Empire satrapy or Arabic caliphate was and remains noble, and presidential attempts to cut the Gordian Knot have always been opposed in the name of dictatorship-avoidance. And yet, there comes a time when decisive action is called for. History does not “progress” (I argue that it doesn’t “progress” at all) by bureaucratic fiat or committee meetings; rather, it is suddenly and dramatically upended, for better or worse, by the actions of a few, most often in response to the sclerotic kluge of the Circumlocution Office and its minions.

It’s called, in less sanguinary terms, leadership, and over the past year, President Trump has been trying to provide just that despite relentless opposition from the Circumlocution Office and its media mouthpieces, none of whom wishes to see his apple-cart upset. Bureaucrats enjoy their salaries and perks; the barnacles of the press enjoy their access and reflected glory, plus their salaries and perks, and therefore will endure almost any humiliation to maintain them. Were the president—any president—to order an end to Islamic attacks on the West via drastic military action or reverse the “immigration” crisis by emulating Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” (even the name is offensive now, not to mention the objective), the howls would be deafening. Similarly, were Congress to exercise its plain authority under Article III of the Constitution (yes, Article III) and reform or abolish the entire federal judiciary except for the Supreme Court, we’d never hear the end of it.

And so the public condition has risen to be . . . what it is.

“Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,” declaims Antony over the freshly slain body of Caesar, speaking for the people of Rome, and we know just how he feels.

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About Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules (Photo credit: Peter Duke Photo)