Some of the best people believe that Billy Tauzin performs the antithesis of public service, and when they learned that he'd spoken, by invitation, at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service on May 19, they were roundly displeased.
Tauzin is the former congressman who successfully handled federal legislation protecting drug companies from competition that would have lowered drug prices, and then took a $2 million job as the official spokesman and chief lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. After he spoke at the Clinton School, a local editorial page (this one, actually) shouted that “The University of Arkansas should apologize for giving this creep a forum …”
No apology has been issued. Indeed, the dean of the Clinton School, Skip Rutherford, is defiantly unapologetic: “We're not taking sides. We're giving our students an opportunity to dialogue with people from all walks of life. That's what a school should be doing. We're going to continue doing that.”
As a Democratic representative from Louisiana, Tauzin long had the sort of reputation for turning public service into private gain that might be a handicap in other states but is accepted equably in Louisiana. He reached new heights, or depths, of self-interest in 2004, when he helped win passage of a bill prohibiting the United States government from doing for Medicare patients what it does for sick veterans — that is, use the government's purchasing power to negotiate the lowest possible drug prices. The drug industry supported the bill, of course. Advocates for consumers and the elderly fought it, but were badly underfunded in comparison to the drug companies.
After the drug companies' bill was approved by Congress, Tauzin resigned his public office to join them. He became a reluctant movie star when leftish filmmaker Michael Moore made a documentary about American health care, “Sicko,” that brought wide attention to Tauzin's activities, including his frequent public declarations that “I love my Mama!”
How did Tauzin come to speak at the Clinton school? Rutherford said the school had more than 150 speakers in the 2007-08 school year. The speakers are chosen by Rutherford and Patrick Kennedy, director of public programs at the school. There are no criteria, Rutherford said. Sometimes the school seeks out speakers, perhaps people who've written new books. Suggestions come from students, staff and public. Sometimes the school learns that a speaker will be in the Little Rock area for another purpose, and invites them to the Clinton School too. That's how the school got Harriet Miers, former White House counsel to President Bush. She was speaking at a law conference in Little Rock. Karl Rove, formerly Bush's top political advisor, was working on plans for the George W. Bush Presidential Library when he called from the White House to ask questions about the Clinton Library, with which the school is associated, and then accepted an invitation to speak. The school has established such a reputation that some people call asking to speak, Rutherford said.
In the Tauzin case, Rutherford said he couldn't remember whether the school or Tauzin made the first call. But he said he'd known of Tauzin from the time Rutherford worked for U.S. Sen. David Pryor (since succeeded by his son, Mark). “He'd been on our radar screen for some time.”
Generally, the speakers receive no fees, only expenses, Rutherford said. And some of them receive huge speaking fees elsewhere. Rove, Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — they all spoke for free at the Clinton School. The lectures are open to the public and admission is free.
“We have all sides,” Rutherford said. He said Clinton students had heard a spokesman for the tobacco industry, and they'd heard the heads of the ACLU and NPR. They haven't heard Michael Moore, but according to Rutherford, “If Michael Moore wanted to speak here, he'd be invited.” The Arkansas Times tried to inform Moore of the opening via an e-mail to his website, but had not received a reply by press time. Probably some sort of computer error.