By the way, the “quiet car” on Amtrak’s Acela Express is a myth. I’ve been teaching at Columbia this spring and have returned to Washington on that train several times. The 5 p.m. Acela in particular has been so crowded that the quiet car has been taken over by cell phone users. But here’s a travel tip: The 4:30 p.m. Metroliner from New York to Washington is running half empty, so that the quiet car is really quiet. The same is true of the 9 a.m. Metroliner from Washington to New York.
Most people seem to think the Acela is a lot faster than the Metroliner. The fact is that the 5 p.m. Acela is only nine minutes faster than the 4:30 p.m. Metroliner, which is also $19 cheaper each way.
When Joshua Green exposed the absurd disorganization of our defenses against terrorism in these pages a year ago (“Weapons of Mass Confusion,” May 2001), he emphasized the need for an office with the power to impose order on the existing chaos. Then came September 11, quickly followed by George W. Bush’s promise to do just that by naming Tom Ridge to head the Office of Homeland Security. It has, however, become increasingly clear that Ridge’s authority is modest. Recently, a top Pentagon official was asked why Ridge was not consulted about the decision to cut back air patrols over Washington and New York. The reply was: “We don’t tell the Office of Homeland Security about recommendations, only about decisions.”
Speaking of those air pat-rols, the excuse given for the cutback is the great improvement in airport security. The same justification was given for the decision to change the flight paths from Reagan National Airport. And although the decision to eliminate the requirement that air marshals be aboard all flights into Reagan remains classified, I suspect that the same justification applies. Yet over and over, we hear stories indicating that airport security is not so hot. The latest from The Washington Post: “Security Gaps Remain at Dulles.” When I recently had a chance to ask Michael Jackson, the Deputy Secretary of Transportation, about these seeming inconsistencies, his reply was that we were protected by “a system of systems.” His words would have been more reassuring had he offered any specifics to explain what he meant. Instead, I’m afraid I have to say that his answer strikes me as the kind of bullshit bureaucrats fall back on when they have no real defense for what they’re doing
The Rev. Paul R. Shanley, who was recently returned to Massachusetts to answer an indictment for sexual abuse of a child, has enjoyed an unusual religious vocation. While being paid by the Boston archdiocese, he became owner, along with another Roman cleric, the Rev. John J. White, of the Cabana Club Resort in Palm Springs, Calif., described by Nick Madigan of The New York Times as “one of many hotels that cater to the town’s gays.” Whispering Palms, another hotel owned by White, is described by a guest as “one of the friskier places,” featuring nude sunbathing and sex by the pool. But don’t think piety was totally neglected amidst the frolic. “On occasion,” reports Madigan, “[Father Shanley] helped out at St. Anne Church in San Bernardino, celebrating a weekend Mass or leading youth retreats.”
Perhaps the most unheeded of all my advice to young journalists is the suggestion that it might be wise for them to get some experience in the field they’re going to cover before launching their reporting careers. But recently two powerful examples have come along to support my case. I’ve already mentioned that Bethany McLean, the young reporter who was the first to see through Enron, had worked on Wall Street before joining Fortune. Now there’s the news that Gretchen Morgenson had similar experience before becoming a reporter for The New York Times and winning a Pulitzer for her revelations about brokerage analysts who tilt their stock recommendations in favor of companies that do business with the analysts’ firms. I know my own experience as a lawyer, legislator, and bureaucrat has helped me immeasur-ably in my coverage of courts, Congress, and executive branch agencies. Because of this inside experience, I have at least a glimmer of understanding of how courts are run for the benefit of judges, of why congressmen can’t come up with the right follow-up question, and why bureaucrats devote so much time to writing memoranda and attending meetings.
The University of Wisconsin is spending $100 million on the renovation of its football stadium. The result will be 93 new luxury boxes. They will include television sets, a wet bar, and climate control. Why does college football need luxury suites?
Having been a politician was another experience that helped me as a journalist. I emphasize this because too many editors think of politics as a contaminant that disqualifies one from a career in journalism. But that attitude produces reporting that is notably lacking in empathy. Among the few writers to exhibit empathy for politicians were Theodore White in his Making of the President series, Richard Ben Cramer in What it Takes, and Robert Caro in his chapter on Sam Rayburn in The Path to Power. This failure of empathy was most absurdly expressed in the outrage over Clinton’s use of the Lincoln Bedroom and White House coffees to repay contributors. Would the reporters have preferred that he sell out on issues?
Speaking of Gretchen Morgenson, The Wall Street Journal has come up with smoking-gun confirmation that she is right. It has obtained copies of letters from two major Wall Street firms–Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and Credit Suisse First Boston–offering jobs to analysts and promising compensation for investment banking business they help bring to the firm.
My wife recently received a brochure from The Institute Specializing in the Technology of Beauty in Marina Del Rey, Calif. The range of services is impressive. I had no idea that there were so many kinds of plastic surgery available to those who are unhappy with the way they look. In case you are similarly innocent, here’s the list: Facial Rejuvenation, Laser Assisted Facelifts, Band-Aid Facelifts, Vertical Facelifts, Endoscopic Brow Lifts, Templelifts, Eyelid Surgery, Rhinoplasty, Cheek Implants, Neck Lifts, Lip Augmentation, Laser Skin Resurfacing, Scar Revision, Laser Breast Surgery, Laser Breast Reduction, Laser Breast Lifts, Vertical Breast Lifts, Breast Augmentation, Implant Exchange, Inverted Nipple Repair, Tummy Tucks, Liposuction.
New York state has a basic examination that is required for the certification of teachers. Thirty-three hundred uncertified teachers have not taken the test; 3,000 who have taken it have never passed; 1,161 have taken it at least four times without passing. Yet The New York Times reports: “Teachers’ performance on the exam is a strong predictor of their students’ performance.” Unsurprisingly, teacher performance on the exam is worst among teachers from the worst schools. Some certification requirements, e.g. education courses, are silly. But this exam does not seem to be one of them. It just doesn’t make sense to let teachers continue to teach who repeatedly are unable to pass it.
I thought the idea of health insurance was that the insurance company would profit from your periods of good health and thus be able to pay for your care when you got sick. But now comes the news that health insurers want it both ways. They’re happy to bank your premiums when you’re healthy, but when you get sick they want you to pay more. An example from a recent Wall Street Journal article by Chad Terhune: “Shaneen and Tom Wahl of Port Charlotte, Fla., where paying $417 a month for health insurance when Mrs. Wahl was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996. Since then their premiums have been regularly increased, reaching $1,881 a month by 2000.”
We’re happy to report that in April the University of North Carolina abolished early admissions. The previous month the same step was taken by Wisconsin’s Beloit College. This is good news because early admissions, as we have pointed out, favor the well off at the expense of the poor.
Another piece of good news for low-income students is that Bethany College’s decision to slash its tuition by 42 percent has worked out not only for the students but for the college. Its freshman enrollment has increased by 58 percent.
Still more good news for students–and for the government–and from an unlikely source. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) has not been one of my heroes, but he has introduced legislation that adds significantly to the help we already give to students who agree to spend three years work-ing for the government. The up to $40,000 that the government contributes to pay off the student’s loans will not, under the Burton bill, be taxable income for the student. Now for the bad news. The Bush administration wants to take away the students’ ability to consolidate their loans and to take up to 30 years to repay them on a low fixed interest rate. This was an important reform that made it possible for students to contemplate taking interesting and worthwhile jobs that didn’t pay much. The administration wants to make the interest rate variable so students won’t have the assurance of being locked in at a low rate and will have to worry about the possibility of much higher interest rates, meaning that they will have to look for high-paying jobs regardless of how boring or unworthy they may be.
Governor Jeb Bush is featured in a new television advertising campaign praising his efforts to improve Florida’s public schools. Democrats are upset–and not without reason. It seems the footage for the ads was shot at a private school, and that the commercials, running in an election year, are being paid for not by the Republican Party, but by the state of Florida.
One of the consequences of the partisanship that has gripped Washington in recent years is that few members of Congress are willing to be critics of the performance of gov-ernment agencies when their party is in power. An exception today is Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, who is leading the charge to press the IRS to step up its efforts to pursue tax dodgers. “I’m amazed at the creativity of those who like being Americans but dislike their American tax obligation,” says Grassley. “Since tax cheats are endlessly creative, the IRS has to be just as creative to catch the crooks.” According to The Wall Street Journal’s John D. McKinnon, Grassley is working with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to push “the agency to act swiftly on offshore credit-card accounts, as well as on tax shelters promoted by Big Five accounting firms and other well-paid advisers.” The result is that the number of audits began to rise last year. They still have a long way to go, however. They’re barely more than one-third of the rate in 1996.
It has to be said that one of the big reasons the audit rate is low was legislation enacted by Grassley and his fellow Republicans that had the effect of discouraging the IRS’s efforts to get taxpayers to comply with the law. In the Journal’s words, they “quickly brought IRS enforcement activity virtually to a standstill.” And even as enforcement activity is increasing, it should be noted that too much of it is directed toward minor cheating on the Earned Income Tax Credit instead of going after the big-time crooks who can deprive the government of millions in the case of individual returns and of billions when corporations are involved.
More good news, bad news. This time we’ll do the bad first: Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was paid $500,000 last year to lobby for the coal users of the electric power industry. His clients were disturbed by Bush’s campaign promise to regulate the carbon dioxide emissions that are widely considered to be a major factor in global warming. Barbour, in a letter that has just come to light, wrote the White House in March 2001, “The question is whether environmental policy still prevails over energy policy with Bush-Cheney, as it did with Clinton-Gore.” The letter did the trick. Bush abandoned his campaign promise and followed the wishes of Barbour and his clients.
The good news is that the administration has stuck by Clinton’s proposed regulations that will by 2007 virtually eliminate pollution from the trucks and buses that use diesel fuel. The administration supported the standards in a recent case before the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and they were upheld unanimously by the three judges who heard the case.
Other good news comes from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which has decided to buy 250 natural gas buses that emit much lower levels of nitrogen oxide than diesel buses. Natural gas has always seemed to me far preferable to diesel or gasoline for fleet vehicles like delivery trucks, buses, and rental cars that are used within a confined area where it is realistic to have natural gas facilities available. Another sensible step would be for localities to adopt ordinances that outlaw vehicles that are obviously polluting the air and authorize police to stop trucks and buses that are emitting clouds of black smoke, impound the vehicles, and ticket the drivers. I’ve never seen that done. Have you?
By the way, in my home state of West Virginia, those big trucks are not only polluting the air, they’re tearing up the roads. Roads meant to handle trucks weighing up to 30 or 40 tons are being pounded by giant coal trucks weighing twice as much. Of the 537 overweight trucks that inspectors caught last year, the average weight was 75 tons. Fifty-two weighed more than 85 tons. And you don’t have to be very sophisticated about how often these trucks are inspected to realize how few of the offenders are actually caught.
A few weeks ago, Warren Buffett predicted that nuclear terrorism is coming. Everyone wondered where he got his information. I have a clue. Warren is on the board of The Washington Post. Here are a couple of items from that paper: “The Department of Energy privately warned White House officials in late March that it lacked funds to adequately protect the nation’s nuclear weapons research facilities . . . The letter from Bruce M. Carnes warned that DOE was at a critical juncture’ and that its safeguards and security budget were not sufficient to meet the potential terrorism challenge,” report Eric Pianin and Bill Miller. “U.S. business and medical facilities have lost track of nearly 1,500 pieces [of] equipment with radioactive parts since 1996, according to a new federal accounting of radiological material that terrorism experts warn could be used in a dirty bomb’ attack against a U.S. city,” writes Joby Warrick.
And if that’s not enough to make you massage your worry beads, consider these articles from The New York Times about the nation’s water supply. The headline from one by Elizabeth Becker says, “Big Farms Making a Mess of U.S. Waters, Cities Say.” The other, by Andrew C. Revkin, reads “Federal Study Calls Spending on Water Systems Perilously Inadequate” and cites an EPA report which estimates that by 2019 “the gap between actual and necessary investment in these vital, but largely invisible, underpinnings of urbanized America is likely to exceed $650 billion.” Michael Charles of the American Society of Civil Engineers explains that “a lot of these aging facilities have outlived their design life and have to be replaced.” But antiquated facilities aren’t the only problem. Lax oversight has led to situations like that in Milwaukee, where a local publication, Shepherd Express, has detailed “generally chaotic, dangerous and unhealthy workplace conditions at the Milwaukee Water Works,” including “allegations that employees urinated in the purification filters.”
Another example of the widespread ignorance of history that I illustrated last month with The New Yorker’s confusion of J. Edgar Hoover with Herbert Hoover: The New York Times’ “Week in Review” section of April 21 says, “October 5, 1965, the president [LBJ] called Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general.” The problem here is that the people of New York had elected Kennedy to the U.S. Senate in November 1964. He was a senator, not attorney general, in 1965.
When I was a student in New York in the late 1940s, I rented a room in the apartment of Genevieve Gallagher Goldhurst. Tiny, as she was called, was a remarkable woman. For one thing, not many Irish Catholic girls married Jews. For another, her humor and hospitality were legendary among those of us, mostly theatrical or literary wannabes, who shared her apartment or joined her for dinner. Among the guests were the then unknown Elaine Stritch, E.L. Doctorow, and Allen Ginsberg. But the most fascinating to me was her husband Harry. They were separated, but he was a frequent visitor from his home in Charlotte, N.C., where, as Harry Golden, he ran an improbable publication called the Carolina Israelite and later wrote a couple of bestsellers called Only in America and For Two Cents Plain. Harry was like most of the Jews I met in those days, only more so–warm, tolerant, humane, and a liberal who shared my love for FDR. An illustration of his tolerance was that when he found out that I loved Christian hymns, a passion that most of my New York friends regarded as an embarrassing eccentricity, Harry would sing along with me. He was interested enough in his Charlotte neighbors to have actually learned the words.
I think a lot about Harry these days. He would be incredulous that there’s now an organization called the Republican Jewish Coalition. He would be dismayed by tough-guy Jews like Ariel Sharon. He would understand Arabs just as he understood Gentiles like me. He would walk the last mile for peace.
Israel’s hope for the future lies in its Harrys not its Sharons. Harry’s commonsense wisdom would see that generosity, not never-ending retaliation, is the right way to go. Harry would understand that Israel can afford to be generous because America will never let Israel down.