I had hoped Keith Bradsher’s devastating critique of the SUV in High and Mighty (see Stephanie Mencimer’s review) would get those top-heavy gas-guzzlers off the road. But what we have instead is even more of a monster. It’s called the H2, a civilian version of the military’s Hummer.
Menacingly heavier and wider than other vehicles, it looks like its driver has a license to kill. What about its gas mileage? It doesn’t have to be reported because H2s are so heavy, writes Danny Hakim of The New York Times, “that they do not fall under normal federal fuel-economy regulations that govern cars, SUVs, and pickups.” Buyers don’t seem to be bothered by the fuel economy issue, even though the vehicle costs $50,000. “If you can afford to buy an H2, if you get 10 miles to the gallon, you’re not going to care,” one owner told Hakim.
If all of this sounds like bad news, there’s more coming. The H2 is a big success, selling out as fast as dealers can stock it without any of the special discounts being offered on almost every other vehicle.
New Yorkers are living high these days. You can pay $50 for a cocktail at the World Bar across the street from the United Nations building. Luxury is in. “The season’s new mood,” reports Ruth La Ferla in The New York Times, “is an effusive glamour. At a string of parties … the look of luxury was matched by an almost palpable feeling of release–like champagne popping its own cork … The dress code was just as extravagant at the Fashion Group event, where style-setters like Anna Wintour shed their customary cloth wraps in favor of silver fox.”
The city’s new mayor fits the new mood. Consider his lobbying technique: “Mayor Bloomberg has whisked the state legislature’s two most powerful leaders to his posh Bermuda hideaway for serious golf and even more serious talk about his budget,” reports Fredric Dicker in The New York Post. “Sources say the three flew out of LaGuardia Airport on Sunday morning aboard Bloomberg’s personal jet and then headed for the mayor’s mansion–which Bermudans say is worth at least $20 million–a stone’s throw from the exclusive Mid-Ocean Golf Club.”
The Bush administration is granting the IRS a 4.8 percent increase in its enforcement budget this year. Is that enough to make more than a dent in the number of tax cheats? Not according to someone who should know, David Hariton, a tax lawyer with the leading Wall Street firm Sullivan & Cromwell. Tax avoidance has become so sophisticated, he tells David Cay Johnston of The New York Times, that “the government needs to devote 10 times as many resources as it does now.” Johnston reports that the IRS, with its present strength, is unable to pursue 56 percent of the unreported tax on incomes of $100,000 and above, 79 percent of offshore tax evaders, and 75 percent of the individuals and corporations that simply don’t bother to file tax returns.
Is the Transportation Security Agency using the most cost-effective approach to recruit airport screeners? There is some reason for doubt. Recently, 20 TSA recruiters, faced with the task of finding 50 screeners for airports in southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico, found it necessary to spend seven weeks at the Wyndham Park Resort and Golden Door Spa near Telluride–a resort featuring an 18-hole golf course, indoor and outdoor pools, fluffy robes, and oversized bathrooms, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Power. At $147 per person per night, that adds up to at least $144,060. They also paid $29,000 for “extra security” to the Mountain Village Police Department. This means that the total cost of the 50 recruits was at least $173,060. Now you can understand why the TSA’s pleas for more money are greeted with some skepticism on Capitol Hill.
Incidentally, the Wyndham Park is, according to the Journal, “more than an hour’s drive on winding two-lane roads from most of the region’s airports.” In Durango, the town with the region’s largest airport, Best Western has rooms for $112 a night with coffee and donuts.
George W. Bush sold his Harken Energy stock a week after he and the company’s other directors had been warned by the firm’s outside lawyers not to sell if they had unfavorable information about the company’s prospects that outweighed the favorable facts. Bush sold his stock for $4 a share; it soon dropped to $1.25, and now sells for 20 cents.
Bush’s attorney did not inform the SEC of the lawyers’ warning until the day after the SEC staff had concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to take action against Bush for insider trading. What a front-page story this would have been if Bill or Hillary Clinton had been in Bush’s shoes! Yet, after The Boston Globe broke the story a week before the election, The Washington Post found it worthy only of page A4 two days later. Susan Schmidt, where are you?
Democrats’ loss of the Senate Judiciary Committee means that we’re doomed to see the federal judiciary increasingly dominated by clones of John Ashcroft, whom a respected friend of mine from Missouri says is the greatest threat to civil liberties since J. Edgar Hoover. The loss of the other committees means that there is no one to investigate wrongdoing by the Bush administration. Our only hope is that media stars will stop dreaming about being on talk shows and get back to doing investigative reporting in the great tradition of Woodward and Bernstein at their best.
Speaking of scandals, why did the Bush administration withhold the news about North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons until after the Iraq war resolution had been passed? If it is true, as it appears to be, that North Korea is actually closer than Iraq to possessing a weapon of mass destruction, why shouldn’t it take priority over Iraq? It seems like the White House didn’t want to confuse the Congress with facts.
If you tend to get riled up about the moral health of our society, ponder Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a new videogame that’s sweeping the country. The player is the bad guy, free to kill anyone he wants. He can pick up a prostitute, pay her for her services, then, after they are rendered, kill her and get his money back.
At a recent hearing, when CIA director George Tenet was asked why the FBI was not alerted by the CIA to a cable saying that one of the 9/11 terrorists was coming to this country, he replied, “The cable that came in from the field at that time, sir, was labeled ‘information only,’ and I know that nobody read that cable.” The senators did not follow up on that answer. They should have. If the cable contained information important enough to have been sent, why wasn’t it important enough for someone at the CIA to read?
The fact is that the foreign affairs/national security establishment is awash in unread cables. A State Department friend tells me, “Nobody reads the cables. That is, nobody but the desk officer.” At State, the desk officer for a particular country knows he will be the one to face the music if a relevant cable is ignored. At the CIA, however, it appears that no one feels responsible. Remember, Tenet could confidently say, “I know that nobody read that cable.”
One reason that cables are not read is that too many of them are sent and too many are distributed to too many people. The truly important messages are buried amongst the travel itineraries of colleagues, statistics on the annual rainfall in Zimbabwe, and other such odds and ends that you don’t need or want to know. The system of distribution and accountability desperately needs reform so that people get only the cables that are truly relevant to their work and then are held accountable for reading them.
Washington’s farcical tendencies have rarely been on more conspicuous display than at the Civil Rights Commission, where there is a four-to-four deadlock. The conservatives include a law professor who was appointed by George W. Bush just after she wrote an article urging that the commission be abolished. The liberals are led by chair Mary Francis Berry, who critics have labeled “abrasive,” “obnoxious,” a “race-baiter,” and a “Maoist,” according to The Washington Post’s Peter Carlson, to whom I’m indebted for these facts. Recently, Berry announced there would be a meeting of the commission in Wilmington, Del. The conservatives decided to boycott the meeting, but two of them showed up in Washington and demanded that they be connected to the meeting by speakerphone. When their demand was denied, they issued a press release, “For immediate release: Two commissioners show up at U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Headquarters; Told they cannot participate in meeting.”
Their indignation might have been understandable if the commissioners were full-time employees based in Washington. But they are part-time and come from all over the country to attend the meetings. So they might as well go to Wilmington as to Washington. On the other hand, Berry’s reasons for holding the meeting in Wilmington were something less than compelling. For the next meeting, she has offered no reason at all for holding it in San Diego.
I was touched by the many tributes to Paul Wellstone, especially by those from conservatives like David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, Fred Barnes, and Robert Novak. But there was one theme that ran through the praise that I found disturbing. It was that he was a “pure liberal” or “honest liberal,” never a “New Democrat” or “moderate.” My friend and former colleague Timothy Noah asks in Slate, “Can’t a New Democrat or a neoliberal be just as true to his beliefs as Wellstone was to his?” True, some of us may be in the center out of cowardice or cynicism. But isn’t it also possible that some of us are there because of our beliefs? Just because our principles may be a mixture of conservative, liberal, and middle-of-the-road, it doesn’t mean that our convictions are any less strong or pure or honest.
The TSA’s sins are not confined to its selection of hotels. It also appears to be cannibalizing much of the rest of the government. Consider Gail Linkins, the TSA’s security director at the Mobile (Ala.) Regional Airport. Her senior staff–you’ve got to love the fact that the Mobile Regional Airport director has a senior staff–consists of a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms officer, a former U.S. marshal, and a former administrative officer at the U.S. attorney’s office, reports The Washington Post’s Stephen Barr.
The TSA’s air marshals program has already taken 60 members of the U.S. Capitol police. Mayor Anthony Williams tells The Washington Times that the marshals program is pulling away the District’s “most seasoned veterans.”
So that the CIA will sit up and pay attention to those terrorist messages, I suggest they try the label that the State Department puts on such cables: VISA VIPER.
The Monthly has long taken pride in being Washington’s resident anthropologist. And it is in that role that we advise you of a recent subtle change in the city’s culture identified by The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin.
It used to be that lobbyists could succeed by being a good friend and a generous contributor to the target politician. Now there is something else you must do: go back home with the politician and help him campaign.
“The price of access has gone up,” one lobbyist tells Eilperin. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that fundraising is not enough anymore,” says another. “You have to do your part on the grassroots and be part of the ground game.”
“Army Weighs Privatizing Close to 214,000 Jobs,” was the headline on a Nov. 3 story in The Washington Post. On the newsstand that day was the Nov. 4 issue of U.S. News & World Report, with a feature article entitled “America’s Secret Army: A swarm of private contractors bedevils the U.S. military,” which identified the problems that have followed in the wake of privatization efforts the military has already made. They hint strongly that, although it may be a dandy idea to outsource functions like garbage collection at bases here in the United States, it may not be such a good idea to privatize essential functions overseas such as weapons maintenance. Contractors are subject to military orders only in an inefficient and roundabout way, through the contracting officer. Also, they are not permitted to carry arms. If they are permitted to do so for self-protection, who is going to train and oversee them? Most nettlesome of all is the potential for price-gouging by a sole-source contractor performing an essential function: “I deeply regret to inform you that the recent economic downturn has compelled me to double my charge.”
The California three-strikes law is before the U.S. Supreme Court this year. I hope the court rules against it. Not that I’m automatically against three-strikes laws. Far from it. I favor them when the offenses are violent crimes. But the California law is applied, writes Charles Lane of The Washington Post, even “when a third felony conviction is for a nonviolent crime–even one that could have been charged as a misdemeanor if the prosecutor had wanted to.” For 57 percent of the 7,000 prisoners doing life under the California law, the third strike was a nonviolent crime. In the case now before the Supreme Court, the third strike was a conviction for shoplifting videotapes worth $150.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has been my friend for 20 years. Many of you know her as the writer of several thoughtful articles that have appeared in these pages. Her loss in the recent gubernatorial election in Maryland has saddened me. But I’m more mad than sad–mad at the press for its relentless picking at her faults while too often giving her opponent a softer ride. I had been increasingly irritated by this tendency over recent months, but had not taken the trouble to document it. By Oct. 20, I was disturbed enough to carefully follow the coverage for five days by the editors and writers of The Washington Post Metro section. During that time, they ran three negative stories about Kathleen on the front page of the Metro section: “Townsend’s Anti-Crime Efforts Struggle,” “Townsend Attacked on Gun Checks,” and “Maryland’s Defunct Crime Institute Costs $200,000: Townsend Project Halted Two Months After its Launch.” There were no positive headlines about Kathleen.
For her opponent, there was only one headline that could appear negative to at least some people: “Ehrlich Defends His Stance on Abortion: Activists Say Gubernatorial Hopeful Opposes a Woman’s Right to Choose.” And that story appeared not on Metro’s page one but on page six. The only front-page Metro mention of Ehrlich was the kind of photo a candidate would sell his soul for, showing a smiling Ehrlich holding his smiling three-year-old son, surrounded by smiling supporters.
The editorial pages of The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun endorsed Kathleen. So why the rough treatment by the reporters? (The Sun’s were equally guilty.) As the frontrunner for a long time, she was the most tempting target to take down a notch or two, and that temptation was compounded by her own missteps and even more by her family’s celebrity. Beyond that, there’s a tendency for reporters, most of whom are liberal, to bend over backward to criticize liberals and to wake up too late to the damage they are doing. I have seen this tendency work against Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and, most recently, Al Gore. Remember how the reporters would jump all over Gore for his “exaggerations” on minor matters, while ignoring Bush’s substantive lies–for example, three about Texas health care in just one debate?
It was a big story on the business pages last month when Citigroup named Sally Krawcheck to run its research and brokerage division, which will be called Smith Barney, which is just what it used to be called before it was acquired by Salomon Brothers, which in turn was acquired by Travelers Group, which itself was acquired by Citigroup.
What distinguishes Ms. Krawcheck is that she talks tough and once had the nerve to downgrade an enterprise headed by Citigroup chief Sanford Weill. But will Krawcheck really be all that different from the usual rah-rah Wall Street analysts? After all, the name of the game is getting customers to buy stock. So let’s look at what her most recent recommendations were at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., her last company: Only 5.4 percent were “sell” or “strong sell.” In other words, 94.6 percent were optimistic.
Last month’s article about liberal helplessness on defense issues (“War Torn,” by Heather Hurlburt) modestly refrained from mentioning the Monthly’s long effort to inspire our fellow liberals to play a constructively critical role on defense. I’m not so modest. Indeed, I’m very proud of what we did, beginning with an article in our second issue called “How the Pentagon Can Save $9 Billion,” and we meant without cutting muscle. We were always willing to take responsibility for distinguishing between what was needed and what wasn’t. To give just one example of our pioneering on what was needed, Gregg Easterbrook wrote in 1984 about the need for a drone plane a decade before the first one went into action in Bosnia.
Don’t let the Republicans seize the middle. Expose the phoniness of Wall Street reform a la Harvey Pitt, of prescription drug benefits that don’t give enough help to enough people, and of leave-no-child-behind education programs that do not provide the money to really improve poor schools. When the Republicans actually have good ideas, as in the case of seeking higher standards and better teachers, you can warmly embrace them, confident in the sure and certain knowledge that they will be few and far between. The GOP is far too firmly rooted in its right wing.
Lead the base; don’t follow its lowest common denominator. The Democratic base consists of women, minorities, and unions, especially those of public employees and teachers, who are the party’s major contributors. It is essential that we lead our base instead of selling out to its worst side, as the Republicans have too often done with their judicial and regulatory appointments. Consider, for example, the public employees’ unions, whose wishes the Democrats followed by opposing flexibility in hiring and firing for the homeland security agency. This cost at least one Senate seat, Max Cleland’s in Georgia. Public employees and teachers need to realize that the Democratic Party is their friend in recognizing the importance of government and of the public schools. They also need to realize that the best interests of good government and good schools are served when the best civil servants and teachers are hired, and the worst are fired.
Don’t talk down. Don’t treat people who oppose liberal policies such as gun control and abortion as cretins. Often they are workers and farmers who would be our natural political allies on economic issues. Treating them with disdain doesn’t win elections. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter understood this, and they are the only Democrats to win the presidency in the last 34 years.
Have faith in the common sense of the people and explain. Too often Democrats assume the public can’t or won’t understand. For example, the real position of most Democrats on Iraq was that there was no need to rush to decision in October because there was no evidence of imminent danger and that Bush’s effort to keep the issue on the front burner in September and October was designed to keep economic issues that would favor the Democrats off the front pages. Why didn’t they explain themselves? Doing so would have enabled them to expose Bush’s cynical manipulation and at the same time put the spotlight on his administration’s economic and regulatory failures.
On terrorism, the Democrats need to explain that invading Iraq will not deal with its main causes–Islamic fundamentalism and the strife between Jews and Arabs that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton worked so hard to end and that George W. Bush has largely ignored.
On the danger of nuclear weapons, those lying around the former Soviet Union remain a far greater danger than those supposedly being developed by Iraq and North Korea. And so are the nuclear weapons held by Pakistan, where an unstable government is threatened by a rising tide of anti-Americanism. On tax cuts, Democrats must explain how the future Bush tax cuts and others the Republicans are talking about benefit mostly or only the rich. If and when tax cuts are necessary, Democrats should explain that the equivalent of a partial rebate of the payroll tax is the best way to help working people. On health care, the Democrats need to explain that they have been the party that from Truman to Johnson to Bill and Hillary Clinton has tried to expand the protection of the American people against the expense of medical care. The greatest challenge for the party is to learn from the failure of the Clinton plan and develop a health program for all that the American people can and will support, for this is our greatest need. On regulation, the Democrats must explain that they have been the protectors of the environment, economic fairplay, and public health and safety, and that the Republican deregulators have usually been the enemy. Where they don’t know enough to explain, they need to learn. Democrats must accept their responsibility to master military issues. We need new Gary Harts and Sam Nunns. And that means a lot of Democrats have to learn a lot more than they know now so that they can discuss equipment and manpower needs with authority. This is not only relevant to national preparedness but to making sure that we do not waste money that could be spent on health and education to develop weapons that we don’t truly need.
Finally Democrats must always remember that we are the party not of the privileged but of the people, that we have a proud history of protecting the powerless from the powerful, of caring about what happens to average everyday Americans and of appealing to the generosity and idealism in the human spirit. If we remain true to ourselves, victory at the polls will come.