First penned in 1903, the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” has become the gold standard by which folk tales imparting the lesson “be careful what you wish for” are judged.
In the original version—written by English author W.W. Jacobs and since adapted into countless iterations, including the Stephen King novel Pet Sematary and, appropriately, an episode of The Monkees—an avaricious couple come into the possession of the eponymous primate paw. The mummified paw is described offhandedly by its previous owner as “just a bit of what you might call magic,” bestowing upon its possessor by way of a long-dead fakir three wishes. But the fakir’s enchantment twists the wisher’s words, bringing grave misfortune upon those who seek to interfere with the Grand Design.
So warned, the couple flippantly wishes for a few a few hundred quid, a wish speedily granted the next day in the form of compensation for their son’s grisly death in a factory accident; a tearful wish for his return from the grave results in his corpse arriving on their doorstep.
The lesson of “The Monkey’s Paw”—that an ungenerous reading of one’s stated intentions might spare you sorrow—can be most recently applied in the case of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, whose more than two dozen flights on private planes at taxpayer expense have drawn sharp criticism even from his own boss. Among the flights Price took include a $17,760 Learjet flight to Nashville, Tennessee. A commercial seat on such a flight would have cost between $102 and $333.
Amidst mounting criticism, and one day after the House Oversight Committee announced that it would investigate the flights, the embattled former congressman declared on Thursday that he intended to “write a personal check... for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes.”
The secretary’s emphasis on “my seat” left some ambiguity—was Price paying for the entire cost of those private flights, estimated at roughly $400,000? Or merely for the price of his own passage? The difference between the two was akin to renting out a hotel on the company dime, but only reimbursing the cost of your personal room.
When contacted by The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services admitted that Price was taking the “unprecedented step” of reimbursing the government “for his share of the travel.” Price, a former orthopedic surgeon whose estimated net worth is in the eight figures, will write a check to the U.S. Treasury for $51,887.31.
“The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for his seats on charter planes,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast. Price would not be paying for his seats aboard military planes at home or abroad, the price of which reportedly increased the total cost of Price’s travels into the seven figures. The spokesperson did not answer when asked whether the rest of the people who flew on Price’s private planes would write similar checks to the Treasury. The identities of those ride-alongs is unclear.
The ambiguity in the secretary’s first statement led numerous press outlets to initially state that Price intended to repay the cost of the flights in full. In the context of other omissions from the Trump administration—Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised incriminating information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign was initially described as being “primarily” related to a program involving the adoption of Russian children—Price’s statement might best be viewed as a latter-day sequel to Jacobs’ short story, wherein official government statements must be parsed like they’re wishes granted by a malevolent monkey’s paw.