Federal Times Blogs

Defense employee raps in Pizza Hut Super Bowl ad

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Keep an eye on the Super Bowl ads this Sunday, feds, because you might see one of your own. The Washington Post reports that David Johnson, a switchboard operator at the Defense Department, will be rapping about the joys of Pizza Hut pies in the company’s 30-second spot.

Johnson won Pizza Hut’s Top This! contest with a rap he wrote. Pizza Hut then flew him first-class to Santa Monica to record it over a track built from samples of the company’s old “makin’ it great!” jingle. I think my favorite line is, “It’s not about the Benjamins/Just ten George Washingtons” — which one do you like?

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And here’s a short “making of” video showing Johnson recording in the studio and on the soundstage filming the ad.

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Friday Fun: Arts group plans monument to VA’s Harvey Pekar

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"American Splendor" writer and retired fed Harvey Pekar

Most public servants with monuments dedicated to them tend to be presidents, generals, or other great leaders. But Kickstarter, an online organization that raises money for independent and off-kilter art projects, is trying to raise money to honor an unlikely hero: the late comic book writer and Veterans Affairs Department file clerk Harvey Pekar.

The sarcastic and irritable Pekar chronicled his misadventures at the Cleveland VA in his long-running autobiographical series American Splendor until he died July 12, 2010. Oscar-winning actor Paul Giamatti played him in a 2003 adaptation of his comic.

Kickstarter wants to raise $30,000 to fund the Pekar monument at the Cleveland Heights Public Library where the writer sometimes liked to work. It would be a desk at which members of the public could sit and work on their own comics, and a bronze sculpture of Pekar stepping out of a comic book page.

So far, donors have pledged more than $6,000, and the project has until Dec. 5 to raise the remaining amount. Kickstarter is promising perks for the die-hard fans who donate thousands of dollars, such as a “near-complete” collection of Pekar’s comics, clothes worn by Pekar or Giamatti in the American Splendor movie, or a phone call from his widow.

If it works, this wouldn’t be the first unusual statue Kickstarter funded. Earlier this year, the organization raised more than enough to erect a Robocop statue in Detroit.

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Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny dies

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President Obama shakes Kameny's hand after signing a memorandum to extend some benefits to federal employees' same-sex domestic partners on June 17, 2009 (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Frank Kameny, a gay federal employee who successfully fought to overturn the government’s ban on homosexuality in its workforce, died yesterday at his home in Washington. He was 86.

Kameny was fired from his job as an Army astronomer in 1957, and subsequently launched a campaign of lawsuits and marches that would eventually go to the Supreme Court and end the government’s persecution of gay employees. Kameny and other activists forced the government in 1975 to strip language about “immoral conduct” and “sexual perversion” — language that was used to bar gays and lesbians from federal employment — from suitability rules. And in 1995, President Clinton signed an executive order that ended the ban on security clearances for gay people.

Federal GLOBE, an organization that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender federal employee, issued a statement last night that called him, “a hero,” “our inspiration and … our father.” And Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, who is also gay, said that Kameny was “known for being feisty and combative, but he was also big-hearted.” Berry said:

He helped make it possible for countless of patriotic Americans to hold security clearances and high government positions, including me. [...] He honored me personally by attending my swearing-in, and showed his ability to forgive by accepting my official apology on behalf of the government for the sad and discredited termination of his federal employment by the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the predecessor of the agency I now head.  We presented and he accepted OPM’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award, given to those who are courageous in defense of our nation’s Merit Principles.   I am grateful for his life, his service to his nation in WWII, and his passion and persistence in helping build a more perfect union.  He was a great man, and I will sorely miss him.

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Walt Whitman, federal employee

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"I refer to the average clerks, the obscure crowd, who, after all, run the government. They are on the square."

The National Archives on Tuesday announced that a scholar has discovered almost 3,000 documents in its files that were written by legendary poet Walt Whitman during his service as a federal employee.

Kenneth Price said he stumbled on the papers when combing through old files from the Office of the Attorney General, one of three offices in which Whitman worked during and after the Civil War. “They passed through his mind, they passed through his fingertips,” Price said.

Among the documents Whitman wrote were discharge orders from President Andrew Johnson, documents relating to treason and war crimes charges, and orders from the acting attorney general to investigate and prosecute the then-fledgling Ku Klux Klan.

And the Washington Post, which broke the news of the discovery, highlights Whitman’s views of his fellow civil servants:

“Honesty is the prevailing atmosphere,” Whitman, in previously discovered documents, said of his colleagues in the bureaucracy.

“I do not refer to swell officials, the men who wear the decorations, get fat salaries,” he said. “I refer to the average clerks, the obscure crowd, who, after all, run the government. They are on the square.”

Price said his efforts to post all Whitman writings online have been helped by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. He expects future Whitman scholars will study these newly-discovered documents for clues into his mindframe and development.

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Libya sanctions: Three days to freeze $32 billion

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"They took WHAT?" (Photo by Mahmud Turkia/Getty Images)

The Washington Post just posted a great story looking inside the Treasury Department’s mad dash to freeze $32 billion in assets held by Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Treasury employees worked nearly nonstop to quickly target Libyan assets in 72 hours — a process that would have taken weeks or months in previous years.

Several things were on Treasury’s side: Valuable lessons learned from previous economic sanctions, the discovery that the $100 million in assets they believed Gaddafi held was actually 300 times greater, and the rise of electronic banking networks that made it easier to track and crack down on the funds.

But Treasury also had dedicated public servants who seized their chance to make history, as this quote from Office of Foreign Asset Control Director Adam Szubin shows:

Szubin said the effort was “incredibly intense, but in the best way.”

“This is what we’re here to do, is for moments like this when there is a crisis. I don’t know what more you could ask as a career civil servant than the White House turning to you and saying, ‘We need you. We need you to move incredibly fast. How quickly can you deliver?’ ”

These are the kind of stories that can make it easier for agencies to recruit new employees. After all, you can’t do that in the private sector.

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The last Negro League player at the Postal Service

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Negro League BB low resThe U.S. Postal Service today will release stamps honoring the Negro Leagues, and to mark the occasion, Ed O’Keefe at the Washington Post takes a look at the agency’s only remaining employee who played for the all-black baseball teams.

Cleophus Brown, 76, was a southpaw pitcher with a 100 mile-per-hour fastball for the Birmingham Black Barons and Louisville Clippers. Today, he drives a mail truck for the Postal Service in Birmingham and told O’Keefe he has no plans to retire. Brown said he usually doesn’t collect stamps, but he plans to get copies of the two stamps being released today.

One stamp depicts Andrew “Rube” Foster, who founded the first of several Negro Leagues in 1920, when segregation barred many talented black ballplayers from the game. The other shows anonymous black players and an umpire calling a play at the plate.

The Postal Service has previously released stamps honoring other Negro League players such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson.

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Cult comic writer, VA clerk Harvey Pekar dead at 70

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"American Splendor" writer and retired fed Harvey Pekar

"American Splendor" writer and retired fed Harvey Pekar; photo by Davidkphoto via Wikipedia

Harvey Pekar, the sarcastic and irritable writer who chronicled his life and experiences as a Veterans Affairs Department file clerk in the underground comic book American Splendor, was found dead this morning at age 70.

Pekar’s darkly humorous comic was about as far from standard superhero fare as could be. Besides his misadventures at the Cleveland VA, he wrote about his everyday troubles and anxieties, battles with cancer, family life, and love of jazz. But although his collaborations with artists such as Robert Crumb brought him fame (and several notorious appearances on David Letterman’s show), Pekar had to keep working at the VA to earn his salary and pension until he retired in 2001. As the comics blog The Beat wryly notes, “indie comics was not a cash cow.”

In 2003, actor Paul Giamatti played Pekar in an Oscar-nominated film adaptation of his comic. Videos of Pekar’s verbal duels with Letterman are after the jump.

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NASA “pad fuehrer” Guenter Wendt dead at 85

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Guenter Wendt/NASA

Guenter Wendt, a NASA contractor who was in charge of launch pad activity during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, passed away today at 85.

The German-born Wendt ruled his launch pads with an iron fist — so much so that astronauts affectionately dubbed him the “pad fuehrer.”

“It’s easy to get along with Guenter,” astronaut Pete Conrad once said. “All you have to do is agree with him.”

But deep down, astronauts such as Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper appreciated his attention to detail and his dogged enforcement of the rules designed to keep them alive. As Wendt said in his 2001 memoir:

If you came up to the spacecraft, you didn’t touch it without my permission. During emergencies, I wouldn’t have time to form a committee. I had to make sure I had the authority to make the decision whenever anything became critical. Simply put, in an emergency the buck stopped with me.

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Robert McNamara, former Defense Secretary, dead at 93

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Robert McNamara, the controversial former Defense Secretary who spent his twilight years apologizing for escalating the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, died early this morning in Washington. He was 93 years old.

McNamara was a top manager at the Ford Motor Co. and had just taken over the company in 1960 when President John F. Kennedy tapped him to run the Pentagon. According to the Washington Post, McNamara used his considerable management skills to tame the military’s massive bureaucracy:

At the Pentagon, McNamara quickly put his own stamp on the sprawling military bureaucracy in what amounted to a management revolution. He centralized control, broke down the traditional fiefdoms of the individual services, and imposed multi-purpose, multi-service weapons on the brass.

According to an account published in The Washington Post at the time, “he shook all five floors of the Pentagon in his search for the tools he needed to get a firm grip on the biggest military establishment in the world . . . McNamara brought in computers to help with the spade work, hired systems analysts to comb through the technical points and then list the pros and cons for the generalists, reassessed the war plans, regrouped weapons into programs.”

McNamara greatly expanded the United States’ nuclear arsenal and helped Kennedy manage the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But McNamara’s skills weren’t enough to secure victory in Vietnam, and the conflict cost 58,000 American lives and, in many ways, tore the United States apart.

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FBI's Mark Felt, AKA Deep Throat, dead at 95

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Mark Felt, the former associate director of the FBI who helped break the Watergate scandal, died yesterday at 95.

Felt, who for decades hid his role in the scandal and was known only as Deep Throat, was the consummate whistleblower. As a career agent and the number two man at the FBI, Felt had firsthand knowledge of how the Nixon administration tried to sabotage the Bureau’s investigation into the Watergate burglary. He used that information to guide Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they dug into the scandal.

Felt’s “Deep Throat” moniker, which was given to him by a Post editor, has since become a slang phrase for any well-placed source, especially one in the government.

Side note: Watergate aficionados can visit the parking space where Woodward and Felt held their late-night meetings in the bottom level of the parking garage at 1401 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, Va.

In July, I met with Brad Bunn, the program executive officer in charge of the Pentagon’s National Security Personnel System, in his office at that location. As our interview began, Bunn told me about the garage’s historical importance. I then suggested that Bunn and I put on trenchcoats and continue the interview downstairs.

Bunn nixed my idea. “It’s way too hot for trenchcoats,” he said.

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