Tilting at Windmills

“Don’t worry, just tell me what you know, and I promise never to tell who told me,” is the siren song that a reporter uses to lure sources into talking. Should you trust the journalist? If he’s Michael Brick of The New York Times, I would urge caution.

In a recent article about bars that still permit customers to smoke despite the city’s recent prohibition, Brick tells how in preparation for the article, “Bartenders were interviewed with the assurance that they not be named and that identifying details of their establishment would not be revealed.” Later in the article, he tells about “a bright and festively ornamented bar in Brooklyn where a tight group of regulars gather nightly to drink away the day’s frustration, to work crossword puzzles and argue about word derivations. It is perhaps the only etymology bar in the city.”

Susan McDougal recently sought reimbursement from the government for the $354,000 legal bill she ran up while she was being hounded by Ken Starr. McDougal may not have been the most innocent of lambs, but it is clear that the Starr Gestapo would not have pursued her had it not been for her friendship with the Clintons. The pictures of her in shackles are an embarrassment to American justice. But her plea for reimbursement has been turned down, reports The Washington Post, by “a panel led by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge David B. Sentelle.” The Post neglected to note that Sentelle, after consulting with his patrons, Republican Sens. Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, led the panel that appointed Ken Starr as the independent counsel who went after McDougal. Nor did the Post mention that soon thereafter Mrs. Sentelle was rewarded with a job in Sen. Faircloth’s office. The latter fact has been so underreported by the press that when I once mentioned it on C-SPAN, the very well-informed Brian Lamb–the man devours newspapers–gave me a look of disbelief and asked: “Are you sure about that?”

A headline I never thought I would see: “Union urges faster removal of incompetent teachers.” But there it was in the Jan. 15 New York Times, above a story by David Herszenhorn that began:

“The New York City teachers’ union proposed yesterday cutting to six months the time it takes to remove incompetent teachers, speeding a process that can now drag on for years.”

Judging from past experience, Randi Weingarten, the union’s leader, will face pressure from her less-talented members to forget about this proposal. But if she does follow through, she’ll be guaranteed a place in my Hall of Fame.

One of the grandest public inefficiencies in America is the multitude of county governments. West Virginia has 55, an average of one for every 30,000 people. Each has its courts, sheriff, assessor, and other county functionaries with staffs and offices. Within each county there are also towns with mayors, city councils, police chiefs, and fire departments. Among the unhappy consequences are lots of officials with little to do. State Sen. Brooks McCabe, with the support of Gov. Bob Wise, is trying to do something about this insanity. Every state should be doing the same, because the problem is nationwide. The reason behind the present county system was explained by one official to Kris Wise of the Charleston Daily Mail: “When counties first began, the idea was to have the courthouse be no more than a day’s walk or buggy ride away. Things have changed, but the structure hasn’t.”

When Peter Jennings, during the final New Hampshire debate, asked John Edwards to “tell us what you know about the practice of Islam that would reassure Muslims throughout the world that President Edwards understands their religion,” for a moment I suspected that Jennings was playing gotcha, trying to show up the hick from North Carolina. But, I told myself, maybe Jennings is seriously interested. After all, we should know about Islam. But then, a little later, my suspicion returned when Jennings asked Edwards this about the Defense of Marriage Act: “Senator Kerry was one of the 14 senators who voted against it. I’d like to know from you whether or not you think he was right or wrong and why.”

Edwards was not, as Jennings acknowledged, in the Senate when the act was passed. But beyond that, how many people, including the reporters on the panel, before they had been briefed by their researchers, had more than a faint idea about what the Defense of Marriage Act says? Most of us knew little more than that it was anti-gay.

But that didn’t stop Brit Hume from following Jennings with a series of questions about the act, clearly trying to bait Edwards into an embarrassing answer. Edwards gamely started out trying to deal with the questions, but finally, exasperated, he said: “Why don’t we talk about what’s happening in the country? For example, there’s been no discussion of 35 million Americans who live in poverty every day. Millions of Americans work full time for a minimum wage and live in poverty.”

Fannie Mae is running a commercial praising itself for saving “typical homeowners as much as $25,000 over the life of the loan.” However, a new study by a Federal Reserve Board economist says, according to The Washington Post‘s David Hilzenrath, that “the average homeowner saves only $87 a year, which adds up to $2,610 over a 30-year loan,” or barely more than a tenth of what Fannie Mae is claiming on television.

A few years ago, I wondered why popular products I liked–Rise shaving cream for example–seemed to disappear from store shelves. My late and much loved friend, the cartoonist Herblock, wrote me that he had the same experience and was similarly mystified. Now we have an explanation, thanks to Margaret Webb-Pressler of The Washington Post. Stores are paid to display certain products. The payments are called “slotting fees.” They have become standard in the supermarket industry. If the fee is not paid, the product is not on the shelf. Excuse me, but doesn’t that sound like bribery?

In our last issue, I discussed the fact that most of the CIA’s agents operate under diplomatic cover. This means that where we don’t have an embassy, we’re less likely to have spies, which helps explain why, with no embassy in Baghdad, our intelligence on Iraq was worse than usual, and we had to rely too much on foreign intelligence agencies and on satellites. This is why those CIA analysts could only express their doubts as caveats, rather than as hard facts.

You will recall that I’m a big fan of articles that look into how government programs actually work when they are implemented. Here’s an example from The Miami Herald. Reporters Noah Bierman and Wanda DeMarzo investigated how successful those electronic ankle bracelets are in preventing misbehavior by those wearing them. It was another idea that sounded good: use those bracelets to make house arrest at three dollars a day a humane and much less costly alternative to $78 per day overcrowded jails. Experience, alas, has revealed a few flaws in the idea.

One enterprising detainee figured out that he could still pursue his crack cocaine business while staying in his grandmother’s home under house arrest. He cooked the cocaine in her kitchen.

Another loophole is that the wearers of the bracelets are often authorized time away from home, to visit their doctor or to attend a class. One woman skipped a class, went to a bar, and ran over a man.

“Some people fitted with bracelets,” reports the Herald, “simply lop them off.” What happens then? “The monitoring company gets an alert in Indiana, contacts the detention unit, which then contacts pre-trial services. They must get a signed warrant from a judge before sending law-enforcement officers after the absconder.”

“Why did the SEC fail to spot almost every major financial scandal in recent years–from improper fund trading to research analysts’ conflict of interest cases, to favoritism in doling out coveted shares in initial public offerings?” ask Mark Maremont and Deborah Solomon of The Wall Street Journal.

One reason, familiar to students of regulatory agencies, is that Congress gives the agency too little money to perform its work. And individual lawmakers, responding to Wall Street lobbyists, often pressure the agency to be soft on enforcement.

The other reason is rooted in the culture of the agency, reports the Journal, “a reactive culture that often fails to identify a danger ahead of time, leaving the agency to respond after others expose the problem … Enforcement action usually occurs too late to prevent large market losses.” It reminds me of the FBI, which is good at catching criminals but lousy at preventing crime.

In the history of the deficit there have been some crucial turning points, moments when reason almost prevailed. One was in 1987, when members of the Senate Finance Committee, realizing that the Tax Reform Act of 1986 had gone too far in scheduling a reduction of the top rate to 28 percent, were ready to keep the rate higher but were dissuaded at the last minute by Sen. Bill Bradley, who felt his personal honor was at stake because he had pledged to lower the rate to 28 percent.

A similar situation presented itself in 2001, when Sens. Olympia Snowe and Evan Bayh tried to amend the first Bush tax cuts to provide that they would be ended if projected budget surpluses did not come about. They lost, 50-49.

In 2002, when the possibility of proposing a second round of tax cuts was being discussed by Bush and his aides, Karen Hughes dared to say, “But isn’t there a real uncertainty in the economy? Real uncertainty that this won’t solve?”

It was a dramatic moment. Here was the former second mommy and security blanket in chief, briefly back at the White House to consult, and actually seeming to side with Paul O’Neill in questioning the gospel of Grover Norquist and Karl Rove. Was there a chance common sense would prevail? Not according to Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty.

Can you believe it? Could he really think that the problem with the SEC was overreach and not, as we have seen, the underreach that permitted his pals at Enron and elsewhere to get away with fleecing the average investor.

Even Bush seemed to realize that he had not totally disposed of the issue. So he came up with an alternative: “Until we get rid of Saddam Hussein, we won’t get rid of uncertainty.”

Maybe that’s the real reason Bush took us to war in 2003. In any event, that day in 2002, it was enough for him to decide to go with the tax cuts: “We will roll out in mid December.”

Of course, Bush’s tax cuts have given his affluent friends plenty of extra money to spend on goodies. We’ve all read that it was the high-end stores that really prospered during the Christmas season. Luxury watches were among the favorite items. “At Saks Fifth Avenue,” reports Tracie Rozhan of The New York Times, “one thousand dollar watches by Michele and Phillip Stein sold out… Buyers were attracted by the diamonds that circled the watch.” My favorite luxury item, however, was a pair of women’s “distressed cotton jeans,” torn at both knees, by Dolce Gabbana. They’re yours for $544.

NASA’s bosses used a survey to find out what their employees thought of them. They got an earful. A sampling: “The more spectacularly they screw up, the higher up the food chain they go … The focus is still scheduling and budget over people, lives, doing the right thing … Management does not communicate or listen to staff; need technical people in high level meetings.”

The last is not some casual afterthought, but reflects NASA managers’ failure to hear the safety concerns of engineers before both the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

Another inspiring story about the dedicated public servants of the District of Columbia: A local police officer collected $19,000 in sick pay from the district from April to August. What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t we take care of sick police officers? Of course, but it seems that during the very same time period, this officer was employed full-time by the Susquehanna regional police in Lancaster County, Pa., according to The Washington Post‘s David Fahrenthold. The district police force has 10.3 percent of its officers on sick leave or working limited duty because of injuries or stress. The figure for the New York City police department is 5.24 percent.

My friend Kathleen Kennedy Townsend recently wrote me about a book she was thinking of writing about religion. In it, she plans to explore the difference between religion that concentrates on the believer’s relationship with God–what God can do for you–and religion that asks what you can do for God, how here on earth you can do his work.

This reminds me of what my son, who attends an evangelical church in California, tells me about the evangelicals. Their religion is almost exclusively concerned with what God can do for them. Helping them overcome alcoholism is an example. He says their belief is real and their gratitude is real and they are mostly good people.

So I’ve been thinking, isn’t it possible that those of us who believe in a social gospel could reach the evangelicals by challenging them to express their gratitude by helping their fellow man–not only with personal acts of kindness and generosity but also by political actions through which their love can reach beyond their personal circle? Let me know what you think.

Willie Williams, a Miami high school football star being recruited by Florida State, was flown by private jet to the school’s campus in Tallahassee. “When I got to Miami International airport, this guy was waiting for me. He was like, ‘Mr. Williams, right this way.’ When I got on the plane, it was like, ‘Where was everybody else?’ It was me, the flight attendant and the pilot,” Williams told Manny Navarro of The Miami Herald.

Williams was met at Tallahassee airport by the line coach, who took him to a hotel–“The place was beautiful, nicest place I’ve ever stayed”–and then to the city’s “most elegant restaurant, the Silver Slipper” where he ordered steak and lobster tail. “The lobster tail was like $49.99. The steak didn’t even have a price. The menu said something about market value … After dinner, we hit the clubs.”

Sounds like living is good at Florida State, doesn’t it? But it may be even more alluring at the University of Colorado, where, reports The Washington Post‘s T.R. Reid, “Colorado coaches also dangle another inducement, according to the local prosecutor, sex with attractive female students.”

District Attorney Mary Keenan states in a sworn deposition: “They were told they were going to get laid, we’ll get you sex, sex Thursday night, they’re going to get sex Friday night. Oh, I’m sorry you missed it Thursday night. We’ll make sure you get it tonight. Come here… It’s like this all the time.”

A report recently published by the Army War College, not heretofore noted for dovishness, calls the war in Iraq an “unnecessary” detour from focusing on the threat posed by al Qaeda. The report goes on to say that the Iraq adventure has left the Army “near the breaking point.” That conclusion was supported by a survey last fall of troops in Iraq conducted by the military’s own newspaper, Stars & Stripes, which reports, according to The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank, that “half of those questioned described their unit’s morale as low, their training as insufficient, and said they did not plan to reenlist.”The Pentagon is now compelling soldiers to stay after their enlistment has expired.

Have you ever thought about what it must be like to be one of those soldiers getting ready to return to Iraq after two weeks of home leave, as Jeffrey Zaslow of The Wall Street Journal captures it, “holding fast to the final images of their children saying goodbye”?

Zaslow describes what happened when Spc. Yanira Chavez drove her 8-year-old son to school on the way to the airport to start her trip back to Baghdad: “When her son got out of the car, he just stood there, waving goodbye. He knew he had to enter the school, and eventually he did–waving sadly until he disappeared into the building.”

With that scene in your mind, think back to Aug. 26, 2002. The scene was a national convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville. The speaker was Dick Cheney. Here’s what he said:

“Simply stated, there is no question that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.