It was only when they put the cuffs on her and led her out of the Cincinnati federal office building that she finally realized how much trouble she was in. Her husband, in one of his rare sober moments, had urged her to get a lawyer, and her neighbor, the know-it-all with the snow blower, urged her to leave the country. But she had a touching faith in America, and she felt that sooner or later everyone would understand how a big federal office works — or, actually, doesn't. Instead, there she was doing the perp walk, cameras clicking, reporters shouting questions: "Mitzie, Mitzie," they implored. This is how Mitziegate was born.
Mitziegate was very serious. She had learned that too late. "This is arrogance of power, abuse of power to the nth degree," a congressman named Ryan had said. Worse, the speaker of the House had said that someone was going to be arrested. He didn't specify a crime and he didn't name a person, but he had that scowling look on his face, and even though he was a fellow Buckeye, Mitzie sensed that he was no friend. John Boehner was going to lynch her.
Things were even worse in the press. That nice Ms. Noonan in The Wall Street Journal wrote that this was "the worst Washington scandal since Watergate." That Mr. Will — she used to see him from time to time on television — said something similar. Watergate, Watergate, Watergate. Mitzie had to Google it. She was shocked. My God, it was about a burglary and a coverup. The president had directed it all. Imagine! The president! Mitzie would have killed for a word from the president. She would have killed for any direction at all.
What was wrong with these people in Congress and in the press? Didn't they ever work in a place where you could drown in acronyms and where no one seemed to know what they were doing? Mitzie had a cousin who once had worked for GM, and it was no different. But, really, nothing could compare to the Internal Revenue Service. The tax code was 4 million words long. No one had ever read it.
Mitzie did not know anything about Kafka, but Kafka sure knew her. He had worked at the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. This is how he learned that hell is a vast bureaucracy. Mitzie knew that. She was assigned to Group 7822 of the IRS office. This was part — or maybe not — of the Exempt Organizations division, where no one wanted to work. It had to process 70,000 applications a year. It had to supervise 400,000 nonprofit groups that were either 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(3). If you were one, you didn't want to be the other.
Congress kept changing the rules. The courts made things up. The Tea Party people came out of nowhere. How could all these applications be processed? Who knew what these organizations were really doing? Mitzie needed guidance. But supervisors came and went. Washington was hopeless — and all this talk about sequestration and shortened work weeks. She was overwhelmed, and her daughter had put a ring through her nose.
Then she had an idea. She chose some keywords. Mitzie picked "educating on the Constitution" and "social economic reform movement" and maybe some others — she forgets. Much of this applied to conservative groups, because they were the ones doing most of the applying. But Mitzie snagged some liberal groups, too. The politics of the group didn't matter to her. My God, she was working for a Bush appointee! She just wanted the files off her desk.
But Washington did not understand. No one there had ever worked in a cubicle. No one there had ever read Kafka. They didn't know the difference between a crime and a lost file. They made rules and regulations no one could follow. Mitzie moved her files from one pile to another. At the end of the day — an expression that made her laugh — it was really the end of the day. She had kids. She had to go home. So she did.
But someone had to be arrested. The speaker insisted on it. This was bigger than Watergate. Everyone said so. One day they came for her. They took her building pass. They cuffed her. Let me do my face, she pleaded. They shook their heads no, and she was led out of the building. Look at the bright side, one of the cops whispered to her. Someday someone will refer to a scandal as bigger than Mitziegate. Mitzie smiled. And then she burst into tears.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.