There are four reasons why I strongly suspect that Reagan will not recover from Irangate. The press now smells blood and will aggressively pursue any hint of scandal. Many stones they overturn will have nothing under them, but they will find enough dirt to keep the administration’s reputation thoroughly soiled. In addition, because there are only two years left to the term, reporters are beginning to be less protective of their sources. Jack Anderson once noted that a reporter would turn against a source only when he had more dirt on the source than the source had to give to the reporter. For many of the Reaganites, that time either has arrived or is coming soon.

The third reason is that Reagan will have an increasingly difficult time attracting good people willing to work hard. Who wants to work for an administration on its last leg, when it’s a wobbly leg at that? It will, of course, fill the top slots, but most likely with over-the-hill types more interested in having distinguished titles to cap their listings in “Who’s Who” than in doing real work.

The fourth reason is that as the administration goes into its last two years, even its most dedicated members start casting an eye to the future and begin to worry less about their work and more about polishing their resumes and calling up old friends to see what might be available on the outside….

One news commentator after another solemnly assures us, “If they take the Fifth, we shouldn’t conclude they are guilty!’ Why shouldn’t we? There is absolutely nothing wrong with members of the general public inferring guilt from an invocation of the Fifth Amendment. Judge and jurors are forbidden to do so because of the theoretical possibility of torture, but when the rest of us know that torture is not a factor, we are correct in concluding that the witness is taking the Fifth because he is afraid of going to jail because of what his testimony would reveal….

When Donald Regan asked, “Does a bank president know whether a teller is fiddling with his books?” and answered, “No,” he revealed that he is unfit to be chief of staff at the White House and that his apparent success at Merrill Lynch must have been based on abundance of good luck, for if a bank president doesn’t know what his tellers are doing, he is in danger of waking up one morning to find that his bank doesn’t have any money. In the White House, this truth applies with special force. Frustrated presidents are quite likely to explode with orders such as, “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done,” which heel-clicking subordinates are equally likely to execute in ways that could bring ruin on the administration. It is therefore essential that the president and his chief of staff take special care to learn how such instructions are being carried out….

When network executives speculate about the low ratings of their nightly news programs, one explanation they offer is that the news is depressing, that people don’t enjoy being reminded that the world is falling apart.

I think the real reason is that they don’t enjoy being reminded that they are falling apart. It is the content of the commercials, not the news, that is the problem.

Because a large number of senior citizens watch the news, many, if not most, of the commercials are addressed to them.

On just one recent news program, there were plugs for a bran cereal that restores regularity, for a garment that solves bladder control problems, and for a substance that causes dentures to adhere to the gums. These messages do little to enhance the self-image of the audience. You may be 60, but you don’t want to be reminded of it. Think how much better we would all feel if the ads were for surfboards and Club Med instead of Fasteeth and Preparation H….

Schizophrenia is the most common mental disease. Its victims occupy half of the beds in this country’s psychiatric hospitals. On the outside they constitute almost as large a share of those people we call “the homeless.” Yet since 1980 the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has spent less that 10 percent of its budget on research related to schizophrenia. What has it spent the rest of the money on? What studies did it deem more urgent? E. Fuller Torrey, a Washington psychiatrist, looked into this matter and found that the following studies have been funded by the NIMH:

  • Training Student Leaders for Changes on Campus.
  • The Impact of Religious Belief on Voting Behavior.
  • Tenant Organization: Mobilization and Consequences.
  • Self-Regulation in Altruism….

I have always been an advocate of getting academics out of the Ivory Tower and exposing them to some practical experience. But Paul Stewart, an instructor in criminal justice at the University of Nebraska’s Omaha campus, may have subscribed a bit too enthusiastically to my advice. On October 28, he was arrested for burglary. When police checked his files, they found that under other names, he had eight prior felony arrests….

Another fellow who may have carried my advice too far is Jeffrey Nightbyrd of Austin, Texas. I have always been an advocate of the entreprenuer who sees an opening in the market and has the creativity to fill the need with a new product, which is exactly what Nightbyrd has done. His company is meeting a growing demand from such groups as professional athletes by selling drug-free urine for $49.95 a bag….

If you create the appearance of a conflict of interest, you have to be prepared for some people to assume that the conflict is real. We created such an appearance by publishing a favorable article about Ford in an issue that also carried a paid advertisement from Ford on its back cover.

I can assure you, however, that the editorial content of The Washington Monthly has never been influenced by the prospect of gaining or losing an advertisement. In this case, we had the contract for the ad before we got the article. The article came to us not because we had commissioned it, but because a respected former colleague, Gregg Easterbrook, brought it to us in finished form and it fit the pattern of concerns that we had earlier displayed in Kitry Krause’s article on Honda in our July/August issue.

The only changes we asked that Gregg make in the article were to toughen the criticism of Ford’s president, Donald Petersen, for his excessive salary, and to concede that there were still some Ford plants that were run little differently than they had been in the dark ages of the industry. In other words, in our hands the article got tougher, not kinder. It is also interesting to note that not long after Gregg’s article appeared, both Newsweek and Time, in their November 24 issues, came to pretty much the same conclusions Gregg had. In fact, an editor of Newsweek called to assure me that they hadn’t stolen the article from us. He would not have called had there not been enough similarity to arouse suspicion. Of course, I guess some people will argue that all this means is that Time and Newsweek are on the take too. So we’re back where we began. If you create the appearance of a conflict-of-interest you have to be prepared to take some criticism….

For this reason, we don’t think we have a right to be careless about appearances. Finally, we must, of course, do what we think is right regardless of how it looks, but if we can avoid the appearance of evil, we should try to do so. This is why I was at first relieved that a recent ad for Philip Morris came in too late for us to publish. For if we had run it, I know it would have disturbed many of our readers who had been used to our railing against cigarette ads and would assume we must have finally sold out to the tobacco industry.

But, even though it would have been embarrassing to do so, I think we should have run the ad if it had come in on time. The kind of cigarette ad we have opposed and never solicited is the one that makes smoking glamorous. We should publish, if not solicit, the kind of ad Philip Morris submitted. It argued that, on free speech grounds, cigarette ads should not be abolished. While I think the glamour ads should be outlawed, I do defend the cigarette manufacturer’s right to argue the opposite case. That is a free speech right. If we are asked to run such an ad again we will do so….

Do you recall that when the Boesky scandal was revealed in November, the stock market plunged downward for two days? Then it recovered all the ground it had lost in the next three days. I have an explanation. When the story first broke, everyone on Wall Street said “My God, this is going to be terrible. We’re all involved!’ Then, after chewing on this thought for a couple of days, they said to themselves, “If we’re all involved, what can the government do? They can’t put us all in jail.”

The solution to takeovers is to outlaw their financing by bonds issued after the acquisition. Another company may have the funds to finance a takeover on its own, but don’t let the financing he done on the basis of the value of the acquired company.

The same argument applies to leveraged buy-outs by the company’s management. How can a company be in better shape if it has to take on the burden of paying off a large debt to in effect pay for itself?

Another way to reform Wall Street is to tax, as Warren Buffett suggests, at 100 percent capital gains on stocks held less than a year. This would put an end to short-term speculation which is the largest single root of evil on Wall Street….

Somebody tells you blacks are lazy and you try to argue. If you point to successful blacks in government or business, the person will remain unconvinced; anyone who really believes blacks are lazy undoubtedly also thinks their achievements are either the exceptions that prove the rule or are due to patronage or affirmative action. But try this. Ask him if he’s a sports fan. If he is, you’ve got him, because, if he is honest, he will have to concede that black athletes work just as hard as whites do. The reason is instructive. It is that in sports blacks know they will be judged on their performance. If they have the ability and make the effort, their chances for success are roughly equal to those of whites. This is simply not true in other fields. It may be coming close to being true for the children of middle- and upper-class blacks, but not for blacks from the ghetto. If we expect them to make an effort in areas other than sports, we should show them that the effort has a fair chance of being rewarded. For one thing, this should mean that any black who manages to graduate from high school should be guaranteed a chance to go to college.

A young man who works in our office and read the foregoing said to me “Don’t they know that anyone who really wants to go to college can manage it one way or another?” This is what I have learned to call “country club wisdom” meaning that it shows sublime ignorance of the reality of the lives of the poor. What some sophisticated senior at an elite suburban high school knows is not known by the ghetto 16-year-old.

The reason for the problems of ghetto youth are, of course, complex, and need to be attacked in a variety of ways. But I am confident that the most important of these is to make clear to the kid that he will have a fair chance….

I continue to be able to restrain my admiration for John Lehman, the secretary of the Navy, and am pleased to report that in at least one respect the Inspector General of the Department of Defense shares my feelings. He has issued a report rebuking Lehman and other Navy officials for putting pressure on Raytheon, a large defense contractor, to stop one of its executives from criticizing the military. The executive, Lawrence Korb, was actually fired by Raytheon last month after the company received an angry call from one of Lehman’s assistants.

By the way, guess who originally recommended Col. North to the White House? John Lehman, of course….

Ronald Reagan has presented us with a fine assortment of clowns, crooks, and borderline talents. In this connection, did you happen to read about Anthony T. Bouscharen, one of the president’s nominees to the National Council on the Humanities? In 1981, he published an article in Human Events which, except for one paragraph, was by curious coincidence identical to one published earlier in Commentary by Walter Laqueur….

Fourteen years ago in our concern over the decline in the spirit of entrepreneurship, we wrote “In the culture of liberal idealism an urban planning consultancy is looked on as a desirable occupation while being a building contractor is viewed as comparatively base.”

You will then understand my delight at a recent article in The Wall Street Journal which ran under this headline: “Do as I Do: More Consultants Quit Profession to Start New Businesses,” and which contained this comment:

” ‘You don’t get a lot of oohs and ahs at a party if you say you are a consultant,’ says an ex-consultant. ‘If you say you are an entrepreneur, people ooh and ah’ “

While I’m pleased that the entrepreneur has become glamorous again, I worry it’s just because he takes risks to make lots of money, not because he takes risks to make a good product at a fair price and creates new jobs, which is the reason he should be admired….

In November I had a chance to spend a week in my hometown, Charleston, West Virginia, and was reminded of a fact that makes the city almost unique in modern America: it has two papers, The Gazette and The Daily Mail, one morning, one afternoon, one liberal-Democratic, the other conservative-Republican. While they have the same printing plant and business staff, they are separately owned and vigorously competitive editorially. Both are good papers. Does such a happy situation exist anywhere else in the country?

I had forgotten how much I liked coming home at the end of the day to find the afternoon paper at, my door, and to look forward to a quiet time reading it before dinner. We haven’t had one in Washington since the Star folded in 1981. Of course, the situation I enjoyed most was the one in New York of my student days at Columbia in the forties. There we had four afternoon papers, the World-Telegram, the Post, the Sun, and the Journal-American. This feast was only interrupted by the night, for in the morning we could turn to the Times, the Herald-Tribune, the Mirror, the News, and, my favorite, a lovely left-wing tabloid called PM. I bought them all everyday. If that sounds extravagant, they cost anywhere from two to five cents each.

West Virginia is especially fortunate to have papers like the Gazette and Mail because it needs them more than most states. Its level of public morality is so low that crusading newspapers are a vital necessity. To give just a few examples that came to my attention that week: A Huntington lawyer was found to have billed the Legal Service Council for 75 hours’ work in a single day and for 880 miles of travel on that same day for driving to a courthouse 20 miles from his home. A prominent political supporter of the governor was found to have received a state loan of $455,000 and to be leasing offices to state agencies for $7,100 a month. Another supporter of the governor, who was rewarded with a nomination to be the state’s energy commissioner, revealed during his confirmation hearings that he had given $18,200 to the governor’s campaign. Legislators were curious as to how this was done since the state law forbids anyone to give more than $1,000 per candidate, per election. Among the explanations the commissioner gave was that his six-year-old son made two $1,000 donations from his birthday money.

Such scandals are common, in West Virginia and seven other states: Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Nevada, and Illinois. Why is it that these states are especially susceptible to corruption? In West Virginia, I have always suspected that one factor is its long-time status as an economic colony, the continuing victim of exploitation by giant coal companies. People who are being taken to the cleaner themselves usually don’t find it difficult to do the same unto others. In any event, there must be some brilliant anthropologist, who will take on the task of figuring out why these eight states are so much more crooked than the rest.

One of the local scandals was, however, not of the kind that tend to be confined to the notorious eight. It concerned the closing of the federal parking lot in Charleston, which previously had been reserved for federal employees during the day, but it was at least open to the public at night. Now the lot is being closed to the public even then. The Gazette observed that “these parking places were and are paid for by the public, few of whose numbers enjoy parking spaces reserved for them.” “Why not, then,” the Gazette continued, “when the Federal Building’s parking spaces aren’t filled, which is practically every Saturday and Sunday, most holidays and in evening hours the year around, permit the public to park in them?”

The question is simple and the answer represents a problem that I think is worse than corruption—the indifference of civil servants to the public, of which the parking lot is a minor but telling indication.

Here in Washington, the Smithsonian, which has 20 million visitors annually, has recently restricted its parking spaces to use by its employees only. An official said the steps were taken as a precaution against terrorists. Although he conceded that no threats had been received, he explained that “in light of continuing and totally unpredictable international incidents around the world, this step is necessary as a reasonable and prudent precaution.”

You have to be a real fool to swallow this one. My guess is that the fellows were sitting around a table discussing terrorism when someone’s brain lit up with, “My God, this could solve the employee parking problem.” Anyone who has served in a government agency in Washington knows that next to protecting and expanding their salaries and benefits, no issue arouses such passion among government employees as dividing up the available parking places. I know this sounds absurd, but it is, alas, the precise truth.

But I’m glad to report that there is at last one federal facility where the public can park. It is the Beverly Hills Post Office. And it doesn’t have plain old parking, it has valet parking at $1.50 an hour with a validation stamp, $4.00 otherwise….

For years we have been hoping The Washington Post would take a stand against Marion Barry, who seems to have dedicated himself to personally adding the District of Columbia to those eight states. This summer it seemed that sleeping giant had finally awakened. The Post was filled with exposes of the District government, culminating in a major article in August that pulled all the scandals together.

But then in September the Post’s new magazine enraged all of black Washington by arguing that a store owner had a right to keep blacks out in order to prevent crime. The angry reaction to the magazine seemed to cause the Post to pull back from the Barry story. It reminded me of October 1972 when, three weeks before the election, Woodward and Bernstein made a minor misquotation of Hugh Sloan and the Post then retreated from the entire Watergate story until President Nixon had been re-elected.

This was dismaying to those of us who opposed Nixon then, just as the retreat on Barry was dismaying this fall. The Post even ran an editorial endorsing Barry. Are the Grahams worried about having their real estate assessment raised by the city? Does Meg Greenfield fear her car will be booted? Or did the Post commit one wrong to atone for another?…

Jim Wright deserves praise for urging that the top tax bracket be kept at 38.5 percent after this year, instead of allowing it to drop to 28 percent as scheduled. We have not been uncritical of the new speaker, but on this issue, he is absolutely right and we hope he will stick to his position in the face of all the flak that he has already begun to get.

One fact that few outsiders understand about the civil service is that the pay isn’t all that bad and the benefits are quite a bit better than most of the rest of us enjoy. In an ad headlined “Federal Jobs $12,862-$72,300,” the Federal Job Digest says the “benefits and job security are quite outstanding.”

“For example,” continues the ad, “as a new federal employee you receive virtually automatic annual pay increases plus cost-of-living increases. In addition, in many positions you are eligible for merit bonuses. Excellent hospital, medical, and life insurance coverage is available. You are part of a generous pension and early retirement program. And you are given lengthy vacations-13 working days the very first year plus 13 paid sick days and all federal holidays.”…

On November 24, as I was watching the NBC Nightly News and sipping my Geritol, I was alarmed to see a report on anti-submarine weapons that indicated the Navy was prepared to use nuclear depth charges in order to protect its carriers from attack. We shouldn’t have these giant sitting ducks in the first place. To start a nuclear war to protect them is the ultimate insanity. I hope Congress will investigate….

Endless mind-numbing meetings have become the leading hazard of modern organizational life. Bureaucrats, both corporate and governmental, feel they have to attend because other people will think they have lost status, or try to infringe on their turf, or propose them as the most worthy victims of a budget cut. The same reasons for attending the meeting make leaving before it’s over unwise. The minute you’re out the door, someone might say, “I think it’s time we take a look at George’s operation.” So no matter how desperate you may be to get out of there, you know you have to stick it out to the bitter end.

This is why of all the joys of running my own business, the one from which I derive the keenest pleasure is that I don’t have to sit and endure when I get bored in a meeting. I can simply shuffle my papers and say, “That’s all we’ll cover today. Thanks very much everybody.” If you have once been a bureaucrat, as I have, this is a truly delicious feeling….

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.