Tilting at Windmills

My candidate for Optimist of the Year is Wathiq Hindo. He is an Iraqi entrepreneur who thinks Iraq “is the world’s next great tourist attraction,” writes Monthly alumnus Robert F. Worth in The New York Times. “He envisions package tours, four-star hotels and resorts.” Crazily enough, Hindo could be right in the long run. Look at Vietnam. Even in the short run, Hindo makes an observation that intrigued me. “You know why people get politicized? They lack entertainment.”Of course there are many reasons why people get politicized. But why not do something about the one Americans are uniquely qualified to do something about? Even making allowance for its most dreadful offerings, American television is on the whole entertaining. It also gives a glimpse of the good life enjoyed by the Western democracies. It might even lure Iraqis to stay tuned in for news that presents our side.

Hindo’s optimism, it should be noted, is not unalloyed. “Like any good businessman,” writes Worth, “Mr. Hindo is hedging his bets: he has founded a private security company and is training 1200 guards.”

If you’ve been wondering about the basis for Tony Blair’s claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 30 or 45 minutes, Glenn Frankel of The Washington Post reports that, in a recent public hearing, Brian Jones, a retired official with the British defense intelligence analysis staff, said that his staff of experts was worried that the claim came from one unnamed Iraqi source quoting another unnamed source, and that there was no collateral intelligence to back it up. One unnamed source relying on another unnamed source sounds like another Blair–remember Jayson?

“We sell as much on the last day of September as we do in the whole month of January,” M. Dendy Young, the chief executive of GTSI Corp., recently told Anitha Reddy of The Washington Post. What’s the explanation? GTSI sells computers and other high-tech office equipment to the federal government, and, as we pointed out in the third issue of this magazine, April 1969, the time for vendors to get government contracts is toward the end of the fiscal year. Back then it was June 30, so the article was called “The Spring Spending Spree.” It’s now September 30.

This means that toward the end of summer, government agencies begin to panic about the unspent money they have on hand. If they don’t use it by the end of the fiscal year, they lose it. A mad rush ensues to buy things before the Sept. 30 deadline. Ms. Reddy’s is the first account of this practice I’ve seen in the press since our article appeared 34 years ago, so I congratulate her. At the same time I regret that neither she nor her editors seem aware of the ultimate cause of what is now the September spending spree. It is that agency officials dread the moment that a member of Congress will ask why they are requesting more money for next year when they couldn’t spend all their appropriations for the current one.

Vernon Loeb of The Washington Post has done the story on the Americans wounded in Iraq that I had expressed a desire to see in last month’s Tilting. The number of wounded as of September 2, when the story appeared, was 1,124. This is more than twice the total from the Persian Gulf War. One reason reporters hadn’t gotten the story earlier is that the military downplayed it by releasing the number of wounded only in incidents that also involved the death of servicemen and never giving the total until asked. Still, an entire summer of incuriosity about this matter stands as a rebuke to the media. I suspect this is another example of how reporters’ lack of military experience keeps them from knowing the right questions to ask.

Bush’s latest package of tax cuts went into effect on July 1. In July, the nation’s payrolls declined by 43,000 jobs. Well, you say, it’s not fair to judge the results of the tax cuts on just one month’s results. That’s true. But doesn’t it make you just a little bit nervous that the August job loss was more than twice as great–93,000?

But we’re happy to report that a departing administration official, John Pemberton, has found a job. Pemberton, a top air-quality official at the EPA, is going to join the Southern Company. While it’s nice that he has found a job in these tough times, the identity of his new employer gives pause.

Southern is the beneficiary of a just issued EPA rule that environmentalists describe as “gutting” the Clean Air Act. The new rule relieves Southern and other utility companies of the obligation to install anti-pollution equipment in their old coal-fired power plants. We of course do not leap to judgment. But cynics might conclude that the job is a payoff for the rule.

Of all the many reasons for parents to worry about their teenage children, the one that has always seemed to me the most important, is rarely mentioned. It is the other teenager, usually a bit older, that your child chooses as a role model. If that person is okay, you can stop worrying. If not, you have my deepest sympathy. The new movie Thirteen explains: Evie, the role model, leads her friend Tracy into drugs, shoplifting, and promiscuous sex.

Both Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld have recently claimed that we faced the same kind of resistance in post-war Germany that we are experiencing in Iraq. Rice asserts, “SS officers, called ‘werewolves,’ engaged in sabotage and attacked coalition forces”–note to Ms. Rice, the word was “Allied,” not “coalition,” back then–“and Germans who were cooperating with them, much like today’s Baathists and Fedayeen.”

Rumsfeld, apparently relying on a similar briefing paper, says that post-war Nazis “plotted sabotage of factories, power plants, rail lines. They blew up police stations and government buildings.”

Rice says this problem was at its height in 1945-1947. I was in the Army in 1945, but in January 1946, I arrived in New York to enter Columbia and quickly became a newspaper junkie. That meant I read The New York Times, PM, the New York Herald-Tribune, and the New York Post with some care, and quickly scanned the Sun, the World-Telegram, the Journal-American, the Daily News, and the Daily Mirror–total cost was 39 cents a day. You could say that I was reasonably well informed, and I don’t recall any but the most isolated incidents of sabotage by any Nazi. PM and the Post, both liberal and anti-Nazi, would have been zealous in reporting such incidents. But if you doubt my memory, see Daniel Benjamin’s recent article in Slate that demolishes the Rice-Rumsfeld thesis. What we know now is that most of the Nazis went into hiding or took care to conceal or minimize their past sins. Travel to Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay was popular. Those who had experience in rocketry or Soviet intelligence found jobs with us. Violent resistance was never a significant factor in American occupied Germany. Rice and Rumsfeld are lying–again.

Now that we know the basis of Tony Blair’s 30-to-45 minutes, what about those mobile labs we kept being told were being used to make WMDs? Even after he declared victory, Bush called these trailers “proof” that Iraq had a biological weapons program. But Douglas Jehl, a former Monthly intern now at The New York Times, has discovered a memorandum dated June 2 of this year, from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, that says, in Jehl’s words, “that the evidence found to date did not justify the conclusion that the trailers could have been used for no other purpose than as mobile weapons laboratories.” The C.I.A. and D.I.A. provided the intelligence on which the administration’s claim was based. They did not, Jehl reports, consult State.

My wife has a friend whose only son just got sent to Iraq–he’s stationed near Tikrit in the most dangerous area of the country. So his mother clearly had enough to worry about. But now, she has joined the millions of others who have lost their jobs under the present administration. I suspect hers is not a vote Bush can count on. A disturbing sidelight to this item is that one of the son’s soldier friends in Iraq recently died of pneumonia. The Post‘s Vernon Loeb reports that “thousands [of troops] have become physically and mentally ill.” Should young people like these have such a rate of sickness?

Remember how Wall Street’s Charles Schwab urged Bush to cut or eliminate taxes on dividends, saying this would be a sure prod to jobs and growth. Bush followed his advice. A year or so later, The Wall Street Journal reported that Charles Schwab had saved $5.4 million in taxes himself because of the dividend tax cut. Not long after that, Charles Schwab Inc. announced that it is laying off more than 800 employees. Now you know how Bush economics works. But don’t tell anyone. That would be class warfare.

Johns Hopkins Hospital was recently found to be violating a new rule limiting residents’ workweeks to 80 hours and shifts of no more than 24 hours. If a great institution like Hopkins is violating the policy, imagine what is going on at other hospitals. What is so pathetic is that the reform is actually absurdly modest–80 hours a week and 24-hour shifts are still too much to produce alert physicians.

A recent article by Jack Hackenbach of the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail suggests there may be a similar scandal involving overworked nurses. A “reform” under consideration by the West Virginia legislature would limit nurses’ hours to no more than 16 in a day.

There is new support for my long campaign to prove that knowledge of FDR’s paralysis was widespread and not concealed from the public as some historians have suggested. First is a 1933 New York Daily News full-page photograph of FDR leaving his home on crutches, recently reprinted by The New York Times that was originally seen by the several million readers that the News had then. Now Monthly alumnus Jon Meacham’s new book, Franklin and Winston, quotes an article Churchill wrote in 1934, and included in his book Great Contemporaries, published in 1937.

“His lower limbs refused their offices. Crutches or assistance were needed for the smallest movement from place to place. To 99 men out of 100, such an affliction would have terminated all forms of public activity except those of the mind. He refused to accept this sentence.”

Churchill was writing for public consumption. Roosevelt was not his friend at the time. They had met only once. It was during World War I, and Churchill didn’t remember the meeting. He had no special source of information that was not available to the public, yet even in then-faraway England he knew about the paralysis and wrote about it, not as news, but on the assumption that others knew as well.

It cannot be denied that the cost of malpractice insurance is a problem. But is it really driving large numbers of doctors away from medicine?

According to recent testimony by a state health official to a committee of the Florida legislature, applications for medical licenses in Florida are not only not declining, but actually rose from 2,261 in fiscal 2000 to 2,258 in 2003. The committee also heard from a state insurance regulator who said, reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “he often depends on insurance companies’ information when deciding whether to raise rates.” The committee was told that the state’s largest malpractice insurer pays $500,000 a year to the Florida Medical Association. It’s called “an entertainment fee.” Of course it has nothing to do with the association’s efforts to put a cap on malpractice verdicts.

One reform proposed by the Department of Homeland Security may make sense: combining the jobs of the customs, immigration, and agriculture inspectors. I don’t know enough to know about the merits of the agriculture-inspector part, but when you come into this country you have to wonder why you always have to deal with two different sets of people in Customs and Immigration, when one person could look at your passport and luggage and ask the questions that need to be asked.

When I worked for the Peace Corps, I was asked to conduct a study to see if there were some agency jobs that could be eliminated. What I discovered was that practically no one was doing nothing. Everybody did something useful, for at least part of the day. But there were a lot of overlapping jobs that could have been combined. For example, the selection, training and program officers spent a large part of their day in necessary communication with one another. If the three jobs had been made into one, a lot of meetings and phone calls could have been avoided.

Bush tells us defeating our remaining enemies “will take time and sacrifice.” Sacrifice by whom? Certainly not by those who had their taxes cut and whose sons and daughters do not serve in the military. For 34 years this magazine has harped on the American elite’s disdain for service. Not long ago, Mark Shields pointed out that of our 535 members of Congress, only one–South Dakota’s Tim Johnson–“had a son or daughter who had enlisted in the U.S. military.”

Fannie and Freddie, Unchaperoned

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are gigantic forces in the nation’s economy. If they happen to head south, as the recent disquieting news about Freddie Mac suggests is at least possible, so will a lot of the rest of us. After all, according to The Washington Post‘s Carrie Johnson, they “own or back nearly half of the nation’s residential mortgage debt.”

But guess who is responsible for regulating them–someone with at least a bit of muscle, like, maybe the SEC, or the Treasury Department? Not on your life. Deep in the bowels of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, you’ll find a tiny outfit called the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, not exactly a name to make the mighty quail. Here we find another example of where we need not less regulation, as conservatives advocate, but tougher regulators who will guard the public interest.

Seabiscuit Scandal

Laura Hillenbrand is one of the most gifted writers around. She appears, however, to have yielded to a temptation I understand, because I face it in a book I’m now writing. The temptation is to downplay a fact that would otherwise distract from the climactic point of your book. In Hillenbrand’s case, the moment was the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap–then the country’s richest race. Seabiscuit won. There is, however, impressive evidence that he was allowed to win by the jockey riding his stablemate, Kayak II. Before the race, the owner of the two horses had said he wanted Seabiscuit to win. This desire appears not to have been ignored. During the race, as the horses entered the stretch, Kayak II had surged from last place to third. Seabiscuit and another horse were neck and neck for the lead. When Seabiscuit moved ahead, Kayak II’s jockey seemed to stop trying. Writes The Washington Post’s Andrew Beyer, “he put Kayak II under visible restraint and didn’t use his whip, while [Seabiscuit’s jockey] Pollard continued to flail Seabiscuit.” Despite the radical difference in effort by the two riders, Seabiscuit won by only a half -length. Beyer’s account is based on film of the race. But he is supported by an eyewitness, veteran journalist Morton Cathro, who describes the event in a racing magazine, Blood-Horse, and says “nine out of ten [trainers, owners and other knowledgeable eyewitnesses] believed Kayak II would have won.”

History as Art

Hillenbrand’s book also provides an interesting illustration of how the writer of history can make history. She says that Seabiscuit got more attention than any other hero of the era. She bases her claim on the amount of newspaper space devoted to him. She may be right about the amount of space, but many other figures of the time loomed larger in the public mind, including FDR in politics and Joe Louis in sports. But Hillenbrand’s eloquent book means that from now on Seabiscuit will be remembered, if not as eclipsing FDR, at least as the greatest sports figure of the era. This is simply not true. Even among horses, Seabiscuit was quickly overshadowed by Whirlaway’s victories in the Triple Crown races of 1941. This reminds us that the history we think we know may be more art than fact.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of The Washington Monthly and president of Understanding Government.

Bush tells us defeating our remaining enemies “will take time and sacrifice.” Sacrifice by whom? Certainly not by those who had their taxes cut and whose sons and daughters do not serve in the military. For 34 years this magazine has harped on the American elite’s disdain for service. Not long ago, Mark Shields pointed out that of our 535 members of Congress, only one–South Dakota’s Tim Johnson–“had a son or daughter who had enlisted in the U.S. military.”

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are gigantic forces in the nation’s economy. If they happen to head south, as the recent disquieting news about Freddie Mac suggests is at least possible, so will a lot of the rest of us. After all, according to The Washington Post‘s Carrie Johnson, they “own or back nearly half of the nation’s residential mortgage debt.”

But guess who is responsible for regulating them–someone with at least a bit of muscle, like, maybe the SEC, or the Treasury Department? Not on your life. Deep in the bowels of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, you’ll find a tiny outfit called the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, not exactly a name to make the mighty quail. Here we find another example of where we need not less regulation, as conservatives advocate, but tougher regulators who will guard the public interest.

Laura Hillenbrand is one of the most gifted writers around. She appears, however, to have yielded to a temptation I understand, because I face it in a book I’m now writing. The temptation is to downplay a fact that would otherwise distract from the climactic point of your book. In Hillenbrand’s case, the moment was the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap–then the country’s richest race. Seabiscuit won. There is, however, impressive evidence that he was allowed to win by the jockey riding his stablemate, Kayak II. Before the race, the owner of the two horses had said he wanted Seabiscuit to win. This desire appears not to have been ignored. During the race, as the horses entered the stretch, Kayak II had surged from last place to third. Seabiscuit and another horse were neck and neck for the lead. When Seabiscuit moved ahead, Kayak II’s jockey seemed to stop trying. Writes The Washington Post’s Andrew Beyer, “he put Kayak II under visible restraint and didn’t use his whip, while [Seabiscuit’s jockey] Pollard continued to flail Seabiscuit.” Despite the radical difference in effort by the two riders, Seabiscuit won by only a half -length. Beyer’s account is based on film of the race. But he is supported by an eyewitness, veteran journalist Morton Cathro, who describes the event in a racing magazine, Blood-Horse, and says “nine out of ten [trainers, owners and other knowledgeable eyewitnesses] believed Kayak II would have won.”

Hillenbrand’s book also provides an interesting illustration of how the writer of history can make history. She says that Seabiscuit got more attention than any other hero of the era. She bases her claim on the amount of newspaper space devoted to him. She may be right about the amount of space, but many other figures of the time loomed larger in the public mind, including FDR in politics and Joe Louis in sports. But Hillenbrand’s eloquent book means that from now on Seabiscuit will be remembered, if not as eclipsing FDR, at least as the greatest sports figure of the era. This is simply not true. Even among horses, Seabiscuit was quickly overshadowed by Whirlaway’s victories in the Triple Crown races of 1941. This reminds us that the history we think we know may be more art than fact.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.