Watching the recent cable movie, The Pentagon Papers, I was reminded of the 6-3 Supreme Court vote that allowed The New York Times and The Washington Post to continue printing the now-famous record of how we became mired in Vietnam. It was a great moment in the history of the First Amendment. But stop a moment and consider what would happen if a similar case came before today’s Supreme Court involving news the Bush administration didn’t like. Do you think that these justices would stand up for freedom of the press, as their predecessors did?

Among military people, the Air Force is widely considered the most coddled branch of the armed forces. Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times recently laid their hands on an Air Force memo that helps explain why. This message to Air Force personnel about to deploy with members of other services reads:

“AF people deploying to a joint environment can make the most of the experience if they learn the cultural differences of other services. For example, units with an Army or Marine Corps officer in charge may require group PT.”

Physical training may be avoided by today’s Air Force, but I can personally testify that it was diligent in its performance of group calisthenics during World War II. I saw newsreels and photographs in the newspapers of trainees performing their exercises on a field. Of course, as an infantryman, I did notice that the field was next to their Miami Beach hotel.

One benefit of getting past Bush’s obsession with Iraq is that the administration may at long last attend to more important matters. In the realm of foreign affairs, none is more critical than securing a just peace between Israel and Palestine. This seemed to be finally, if grudgingly, acknowledged by Bush last month after considerable prodding from friends like Tony Blair. When Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar visited Crawford, pledging solidarity on Iraq, according to The Wall Street Journal, “he also stressed the great importance to Europe and the Middle East for Mr. Bush to show visible progress soon on the Israel-Palestine dispute.” Another leader sympathetic to the United States, Jordan’s foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, recently told the Post’s David Ignatius that the best way to stem a post-Iraq renewal of Islamic militancy against the United States is for the Bush administration to show that it is serious about reviving the peace process and halting Israeli settlements on the West Bank. “If you don’t deal with settlements quickly, we are approaching the time when a viable Palestinian state isn’t possible.”

Israeli settlements already surround the Arab city of Bethlehem. Bush has done nothing to stop these settlements, although the pace at which they are being established has accelerated under his pal Ariel Sharon. Indeed, Slate’s Mickey Kaus writes of the Bush administration, “The Likudniks are really in charge now.” The Post’s Robert Kaiser reports, “For the first time, a U.S. administration and a Likud government in Israel are pursuing nearly identical policies.”

For Bush and Karl Rove, this means they won’t need butterfly ballots to carry Florida next time. But for many of their subordinates, like Elliott Abrams, director of Mideast Affairs for the National Security Council, this is not a matter of cynical political calculation but of passionate conviction. His guru, one he shares with Donald Rumsfeld, is Richard Perle, who has urged Israel to repudiate the Oslo peace accords.

If the settlements continue and Israel’s armed forces continue to protect them, Palestinians could be reduced to the state of Native Americans in the 19th century, slaughtering some settlers now and then but generally suppressed by the U.S. Army. Already, their circumstances are remarkably similar. “Two Studies Find the Palestinian People Impoverished and the Economy in a Shambles” was the headline over a March 5 report by James Bennet in The New York Times.

We have noted that the FBI’s culture favors prosecution over prevention, and that this tendency is not good for the war on terrorism. Colleen Rowley, the whistle-blower from the FBI’s Minneapolis office, recently offered this example. The FBI and the Justice Department have concentrated on making their case against Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid and have failed to question them about other al Qaeda contacts and operations, information that might be useful in preventing future terrorist attacks. In an interview with The New York Times, Moussaoui’s lawyer confirmed Rowley’s accusation: “To my knowledge the government has never attempted to talk to Moussaoui after September 11. I would think there is somebody in the government who would be curious about what Moussaoui knew.”

Are women less romantic and more materialistic than men? Sixty-two percent of men said, “‘Just spending time together’ would be an ideal Valentine’s celebration,” according to a survey reported by Newsweek’s Elise Christenson. Fifty-three percent of the women, on the other hand, say “they’d most likely break up with someone who didn’t give them a gift.” The person most often named by women as the least likely to be kissed on Valentine’s Day is “a man who’s broke.”

Have you assumed that all banks contribute to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation? If so, you’re wrong. Ninety-one percent of banks don’t pay a cent, even though they use the fact that they are FDIC-insured as one of their main selling points to depositors.

The FDIC can’t require a bank that is “well-capitalized” and “well-managed” to contribute until its resources have fallen below $1.25 for every $100 of deposits. That would only happen if a lot of banks were failing, meaning the economy would be in bad shape, and surviving banks should be using their money not for FDIC contributions, but as The Washington Post’s Anitha Reddy points out, “to strengthen their balance sheets and extend credit” to help the economy recover. The obvious solution is to require that all banks contribute to the FDIC regularly, and not just when disaster is imminent.

A fiction of history–pop-ularized by Richard Nixon as he tried to demonstrate that other presidents had lied–is that Franklin Roosevelt’s inability to walk unaided was not known by the public because his condition was concealed by the White House. It is true that the White House tried to avoid having pictures of Roosevelt taken in his wheelchair, but it is definitely not true that Americans did not know about his paralysis. Remember, the disease at that time was not called polio, but infantile paralysis–and everyone knew FDR had been a victim. Since correcting the Nixon myth, as regular readers know, has been a minor crusade of mine, I have presented considerable evidence to make my case in previous columns. But, I recently discovered the most impressive proof I’ve yet found. This is from Time’s Jan. 6, 1941, issue:

This appeared in the third paragraph of Time’s lead article during an era when the magazine was not only widely read, but at the peak of its influence. There was no hint in the story that the wheelchair was news or that its use was anything other than routine.

One lesson from the recent tragedy in West Warwick, R.I., is to think twice before you enter a nightclub again. John Flansburgh of the group “They Might Be Giants” tells John Leland of The New York Times about finding himself on stage with a mob in front and locked doors behind: “I can see the fuse box held together with duct tape, and I know there’s 1,000 people between me and the nearest unlocked exit.” He adds, “I don’t think anybody’s surprised by what’s happened.”

A second lesson is to take a look at your local inspectors. The West Warwick inspector had failed to notice the flammable foam soundproofing on the nightclub’s walls for three years in a row. In two of these years, he didn’t bother to inspect at all, according to The Boston Globe. The Globe also found that West Warwick had only one inspector for a town of 30,000. Often, fire inspectors are only part-time. Bristol, R.I.’s only inspector is also its fire chief.

The third lesson is that inspectors are subject to the temptations of bribery and political pressure. For example, a Wisconsin state inspector was recently pressured by a Milwaukee politician to drop charges of asbestos violations against the politician’s brother. The politician also offered the inspector tickets to a $500-per-person event in honor of President Bush.

The fourth lesson is to find out whether inspections are actually taking place. According to Governing magazine, after Connecticut’s sole funeral-home inspector retired in 1989, the state’s funeral homes went uninspected for almost a decade, until New Haven police found five decomposed bodies in the garage of the Wade Funeral Home. The failure to provide effective regulation for the funeral industry–a half-century after Jessica Mitford’s memorable expos–has to rank as a major national scandal. Practically everyone gets ripped off by these people, but because our indignation is usually smothered by grief, we don’t press for the reforms so obviously needed.

One of the primary purposes of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was to simplify IRS rules and regulations. That the bill’s effect has not been permanent is indicated by the fact that the Commerce Clearing House publication devoted to these rules and regulations now numbers 54,586 pages, which Tim Horn of The Wall Street Journal notes is “an increase of about 2,500 pages from last year, and is more than twice as many as in 1984.”

Speaking of evidence to support a point made here–in this case that medical licensing boards usually fail to punish doctors guilty of malpractice–further proof comes from Dr. Sidney Wolfe, who head’s Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen Health Research Group.

Wolfe points out that only 15 percent of New York physicians who have paid five or more malpractice claims have been disciplined by the state medical board. Nationally, it is pretty much the same, one out of six. In Pennsylvania, the figure is only 5 percent.

When a Dupont Circle house caught fire recently, the first three 911 calls were put on hold. There were 14 operators on hand, but only six were actually answering calls. Two had “unplugged” five minutes before their shift came to an end. Two were on “authorized breaks.” And four others, reports The Washington Post, “were on duty but not actually taking calls.” Why weren’t they? A man was killed by the fire. In still another example of the dedication of the District’s employees, an ambulance driver was ordered to the scene of a cardiac arrest at 6:01 a.m. He decided not to go because his shift had ended at 6 a.m., and did not bother to inform his colleagues until he returned his ambulance to its quarters. Another ambulance was dispatched, but by the time it arrived the victim was dead.

Even amidst the colossal dysfunction of the District government, one agency–the Department of Human Services–stands out as the model of ineptitude and indifference. Two years ago, Mayor Anthony Williams named the highly regarded Carolyn Colvin to straighten the agency out. Now she has quit. Why?

“I don’t think any investigation I made prior to coming aboard could have prepared me for the level of challenge,” she told The Washington Post’s Sewell Chan. “There are years of neglect in this department You’re plugging the dike, trying to prevent or respond to crisis after crisis.” When Deputy Mayor Carolyn Graham, who had earlier run the department, was asked if she would fill in until a replacement for Colvin was found, she replied, “Absolutely not. My own physical and emotional and professional needs cannot support that. Never again.”

Just one more story–this from the Post’s Colbert King–to illustrate the depth of the local abyss. The Department of Human Services placed a seven-year-old and an infant in foster care, as well as three other children in daycare, in a house where also dwelled one Donald Twitty Jr, a.k.a. Ronald Twitty. Donald or Ronald has a record. In fact, he’s been convicted of three violent crimes. When police raided the house to arrest him, they found 585 Ziploc bags of crack cocaine and a loaded 9mm Taurus semiautomatic pistol with an additional supply of ammunition. Just think of it. These kids not only were given the opportunity to have their lives enriched by getting high on cocaine, but also of being wounded or killed in a shootout!

My friend Mark Shields has written a marvelous column making fun of Bush’s advocacy of democracy for Iraq but not for the District of Columbia. He is right to the extent that Washington does not, but should have, voting representation in Congress. But the truth is, the rest of the District government is largely democratic, and it stands as the most compelling argument against democracy that I know.

I want to congratulate Shankar Vedantam of The Washington Post for his excellent article on the problem of the cultural divide between the engineers and the managers at NASA. Culture explains so much of what goes wrong in Washington, yet while the anthropological approach has become common among business journalists, it is not used nearly enough by reporters here. Vedantam quotes a survey by physicist Richard Feynman after the Challenger disaster concerning the differences in perception of danger between the engineers and the managers. The engineers said one flight in 100 was likely to experience catastrophe, the managers said one in 100,000. Feynman told Ronald Reagan, “For a successful technology [program], reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

The fact is that for any program to succeed, it must be based on reality and constantly reevaluated in terms of actual experience. The effort to find out the truth about how programs are performing must be led by the agency’s head. In NASA’s case that person, Sean O’Keefe, did not find out about the engineers’ concerns until weeks after the crash.

“Why was it that even if there was hint of a footnote of a memo on a scrap of an envelope that was within this investigation’s scope, that it only made its way to you yesterday, at the same time it made its way to everyone else on the AP wire?” asked Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.).

What happens is that too often the people at the top don’t want to know the truth. This was the case with the Challenger. The top levels of the agency were looking forward to Ronald Reagan praising their program to Congress in his State of the Union address the night of the day that the Challenger was launched. Postponing the launch because of the danger that the O-rings would freeze that cold morning would have eliminated NASA from the speech, which is surely why intermediate-level managers at NASA told worried engineers at the contractor Morton Thiokol to keep their mouth shut.

Speaking of the culture of bureaucracy, Slate’s Timothy Noah has come up with a lovely illustration from the State Department in the form of a document entitled, “Ground Rules for Interviewing State Department Officials.” Theoretically, officials are not supposed to leak. But, of course, practically everyone does, and the ground rules implicitly acknowledge the practice. Not only do they cover “on the record” interviews, which of course are the only ones that officials are supposed to give, but “on background,” “on deep background,” and “off the record,” each of which is a form of leaking.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the rules are needed. A few years ago, Noah questioned a flock of Washington Post reporters to find out how they defined the terms. Each had different definitions.

The SEC is investigating whether Holly Becker, then an Internet analyst at Lehman Brothers, tipped her husband to a coming Lehman downgrade of Amazon in time for him to unload Amazon stock before the news broke.

“I’m surprised this is the first time this has come out,” Amy McCooey, a Goldman Sachs trader, tells Timothy O’Brien of The New York Times. “There’s got to be more like this. But it’s hard to figure out, because if someone talks about it at home in bed, where’s the proof?”

Evidence that there was at least one other case comes from a confession made by Nikki Haskell, who was a pioneer woman broker more than 30 years ago. She is quoted in Susan Antilla’s Tales From the Boom-Boom Room: “I got some of my best information through pillow talk.”

We’ve all read about the harm done by ephedra, including its suspected role in the recent death of a young Baltimore Orioles pitcher, Steve Bechler. But do you remember that Stephanie Mencimer told us in these pages two years ago (“Scorin’ with Orrin,” September 2001) that the man most responsible for our failure to regulate this and other herbal remedies and supplements is Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)? At that time, Hatch’s position was quite clear. “If you die from taking too many ephedra, maybe the problem was you. It’s not the government’s fault,” a Hatch aide told Mencimer. But as Michael O’Keeffe, a sports writer for the New York Daily News, points out, Hatch has changed his tune. “The recent tragic death of this athlete and the ensuing confusion over whether the dietary supplement ephedra may be linked underscores the need for prompt federal review,” said Hatch, just after Bechler’s death.

The Bush administration may be on the right track in pressing for more educational content for Head Start. This program, which could make a real difference in the lives of millions of children, is too often used simply to provide the most basic kind of daycare and to give jobs to the unemployed, with minimum regard for their ability to teach. Of course, to get better teachers, Bush must offer to increase the miserable wages most Head Start programs pay. Unfortunately, his record on backing up his educational reforms with dollars is, to put it as gently as possible, pathetic.

When you’re a legislator, as I once was back in West Virginia, one lure the devil presents to you is to give you an apparent victory by getting your bill passed if you just accept an emasculating amendment. The bill will still sound good, and, your name being on it, you will get the credit–even though in your heart you know that the bill is meaningless. A lot of legislators, I can assure you, succumb to this temptation. I was therefore delighted to report that Mike Oliverio of the West Virginia state senate has resisted. He refused to accept a conference-committee compromise on his All Terrain Vehicle safety bill that would have lifted the requirement that children under 18 wear helmets while operating ATVs when they are doing so on private property. “That’s pretty much every time a kid would be operating an ATV,” Oliverio told the Charleston Gazette. “He’s either going to be on his property or on someone else’s.”

I was reminded of a less-admirable side of my home state’s politics by an anecdote told by Dale Bumpers in his new memoir, The Best Lawyer in a One Lawyer Town. During the 1970 Arkansas primary, a rural sheriff managed to credit 400 of Bumpers’s votes to his opponent, Orval Faubus. Bumpers went on to win, despite the theft. However, when the guilty sheriff showed up at Bumpers’s victory party, the senator berated him for his carelessness with the ballots. Unabashed, the sheriff grinned, “Next time we’ll do it for you.”

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.