Tilting at Windmills

One of the crueler results of Bush’s war is this headline from The Washington Times. “Third Division to return to Iraq, unit led assault to free Baghdad eighteen months ago.” Imagine how hard this is to take for the soldiers involved and for their mothers and fathers and wives and husbands.

My friend Jonathan Rowe, who lives in California, is puzzled that Democrats don’t respond to being called “girly-men” by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Have they missed the issue of Vanity Fair with Arnold and Maria on the cover? In the credit box accompanying the photograph, we are told that the governor’s “grooming products” are from Dior, his “hair products” by Bumble & Bumble, and his jacket by Prada.

For that matter, would a “real man” refuse to debate unless he gets the questions first? Or would he have had more cosmetic surgery, as one source put it, “than Joan Rivers”?

If nothing else, the example of Bernard Kerik should remind us that it’s a good idea for government agencies, especially those with national security responsibilities, to look into the backgrounds of the people they employ. Unfortunately, there is an enormous backlog of pending investigations. Estimates range from 258,000 by UPI to 350,000 by Stephen Barr of The Washington Post of uncompleted background investigations at the Department of Defense, and from 224,000 (UPI) to 340,000 (Barr) at civilian agencies. On average, it now takes 375 days to complete a full-field investigation. When I was in the government during the Kennedy-Johnson years, it took two months. With investigations now taking more than a year, agencies are confronted with the miserable choice of letting potential employees come aboard without the proper clearance, or of making them wait so long that they become impatient and take another job.

The administration’s solution to this problem is to merge the Department of Defense investigators into the Office of Personnel Management. Alas, as we have learned with the Department of Homeland Security, mergers do not guarantee increased efficiency.

My son lives in California, in an exurban hotbed of Bush voters. I asked him why his neighbors, who seemed conservative in most respects, were not at all disturbed by the deficit. His explanation was that they are so in hock in their own lives–with maxed-out credit cards and home equity loans piled on top of mortgages–that the last thing they want to do is contemplate the dangers of excessive debt, whether it is their own or the nation’s.

You may have seen on the front page of The Washington Post in late November the headline “Virginia wife slain after court denies protection.” It told the story of a woman who had been murdered after pleading with a judge to extend a protection order against her estranged husband, who had beaten and threatened to kill her. A few days later, the Post ran two sentences in its correction box on page 2, saying that the original story “may have left the impression that the judge had refused” to grant the extension, and that in fact “additional documents show that the protective order was dismissed at the [wife’s] request.” Are two sentences on page 2 enough to correct the erroneous main thrust of a front page story?

After it was revealed by ABC’s “20/20” in April 2001, among other reports, that federal judges were getting free trips to “conferences” at fancy resorts where more time was spent on the golf course than on jurisprudence, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) proposed to prohibit such junkets when they were sponsored, as they often are, by corporations interested in currying favor from the bench. Wait a minute, the judges said, give us a chance to police ourselves. So Leahy forbore. The judges assigned the issue to a committee headed by District Judge Willis L. Osteen.

The panel has now reported, we learn from Carol D. Leonnig of The Washington Post. The only problem is that the new rules are looser than the ones they replaced. Judges no longer have to report the value of the trips. Furthermore, under the old rule, they were cautioned not to take a trip if the corporate sponsor was likely to be involved in litigation before any of their courts.

The reason for this provision was that Merck and Pfizer, for example, knowing that they are faced with an avalanche of lawsuits from users of Vioxx and Celebrex, might well decide to hold a conference and invite all federal judges to a week at the Greenbriar since it is probable that many, if not all, of the judges will soon be confronted with litigation against one or both companies. But what would have been a no-no is now permitted by the new rule. There has to be an actual case involving the sponsor company before the judge–and the subject of the conference must be “directly related” to the case before the judge has to forego his junket.

Is it possible that these more generous rules are related to the fact that Judge Osteen was among those “20/20” caught on a golf course during a trip financed by corporate sponsors?

Of course, judges aren’t the only ones who benefit from the conference con. Recently, ABC’s cameras caught Tom Ridge lounging around a pool at “a sumptuous resort and spa on Waikiki.” Ridge was in Honolulu for an Asia-Pacific security conference where, Brian Ross and Rhonda Schwartz report, most of the cost was paid for “by corporations seeking government contracts.” Ridge justified going to Honolulu by saying it was necessary so that he could meet with foreign officials. ABC notes, however, that the top ten foreign officials at the meeting were from their countries’ embassies in Washington, all of which were located within blocks of Ridge’s Washington office.

Have you heard about Weldon Angelos, the 24-year-old first offender from Salt Lake City, Utah, who had been sentenced to 55 years in prison for twice selling $350 of marijuana while having a handgun in his possession? No violence or threat of violence was alleged. Even the judge thinks the sentence is outrageous. But it is compelled by mandatory minimum sentencing laws–laws that Congress obviously needs to rethink, just as the state of New York has recently done.

“Doctor tried to ignite patient” was the headline on a story by Jim McElhatton in a recent issue of The Washington Times. Naturally, my curiosity was aroused. So I read on. I found the following excerpts from the testimony of Dr. Willie Blair in a sworn deposition in a case involving a woman who had been burned in the operating room. Contending that such fires are unlikely, Dr. Blair said, “I’ve been trying to set people on fire for the last three months, and can’t do it.”

Q: Are you doing this on live patients?
A: Yeah.
Q: Did you ask any of the patients whether you could do that?
A: No.
Q: How many different attempts have you made?
A: At least four.

Once his testimony became public, Dr. Blair said he was only kidding. But this still seems to leave the physician with a problem. If he is not guilty of trying to set fire to his patients, isn’t he guilty of lying under oath?

Few people realize that, because the armed services are so much smaller today, the chance of a soldier or marine being killed or wounded in Iraq isn’t much less than it was during the bloodbath in Vietnam. Indeed, according to an op-ed by Brian Gifford in The Washington Post, the chances of being a casualty in Vietnam were only one-fourth greater than they now are in Iraq.

Military recruiters target working-class high schools, according to Charlie Savage of The Boston Globe, and avoid affluent ones where students are already planning to go to college. They do so, Donald Rumsfeld’s director of recruiting, Kurt Gilroy, tells the Globe, to “maximize return on the recruiting dollar…to go where the low-hanging fruit is. In other words, we fish where the fish are.”

The problem with this kind of thinking, as this magazine never tires of pointing out, is that we end up with a military from which the affluent classes are largely missing. A recent decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals may make things worse. It says universities can keep military recruiters off their campuses without risking the loss of federal funds. So we’re even more likely to have a military in which the presence of a son or daughter of privilege is so rare that it occasions an entire column in The New York Times. Which is what happened recently when it was learned that Patrick Daley, an MBA and the son of Chicago’s mayor, was joining up.

Aliakbar and Shahla Afshari emigrated here from Iran 18 years ago and now live in Morgantown, W.Va., where they work for the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety–that is, until May 5 of last year, when they were fired. They were told they had failed background checks. That was it–no other explanation. No appeal allowed.

“When their lawyer requested the documents used to justify the action,” reports James Dao of The New York Times, “he was told none existed.”

Neither of the Afsharis worked on matters involving national security. She “researched allergic reactions to common items like latex gloves and hand cleansers.” He studied the health effects of things like asphalt fumes and dust particles.

A professor of engineering at West Virginia University who had been Afshari’s doctoral advisor told the Times: “I fear a serious mistake has been made.” So do I. And so does the ACLU, which, I am happy to report, is helping with the Afsharis’s case.

John Kerry recently embraced another ancient cause of this magazine when, according to Newsweek’s Debra Rosenberg, he told a group of loyal Democrats assembled at AFL-CIO headquarters that the Democrats needed to understand pro-lifers and to convince them that we do not like abortion. “There was a gasp in the room,” reports Rosenberg. I understood because I was once hissed by a group of Democratic women for making similar statements.

In 1989, a Monthly article by Jason DeParle, “Beyond the Legal Right,” had this subhead: “Why liberals and feminists don’t like to talk about the morality of abortion.” Jason quoted Barbara Ehrenreich, whose Nickel and Dimed I admire inordinately, making a remark that I definitely did not admire: “I cannot speak for other women, but the only regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to the movies and theme parks.” The Nation‘s Katha Pollitt described the anti-abortion movement as “a reactionary religious crusade, opposed to non-procreative sex and contraception, indifferent to the health and individual circumstances of women, bone-ignorant.”

The reason behind those gasps and hisses was revealed when both Ehrenreich and Pollitt told DeParle that they “found it particularly troubling that moral objections should be raised by someone who, to use Ehrenreich’s phrase, ‘had been on the right side of the barricades.’ When I asked why, she said ‘that kind of thing always cuts the legitimacy of our [legal] right; it’s the kind of wedge used to threaten us.'”

What pro-choicers need to understand is that neither Kerry nor the Monthly wants to take away the legal right conferred on them by Roe v. Wade. It is not a threat to emphasize that the legal right presents a moral choice, and that people who take that moral choice seriously are not the mortal enemy of those who prize the legal right.

Kerry’s point that the party should be open to pro-lifers makes sense as a matter of practical politics. In West Virginia, for example, the anti-abortion Democratic gubernatorial candidate won by 29 percent in November, while Kerry lost by 6 percent.

If you’ve been worried about whether the rich have managed to spend the extra cash they received from Bush’s tax cuts, you will be comforted to learn that our free markets have risen to the challenge. The evidence is supplied by The Wall Street Journal‘s Robert Frank:

The most expensive Mercedes used to cost about $100,000. Last year, Mercedes came up with the Maybach 62, which can sop up $350,000 of tax savings. This year, inspired by the promise of more tax cuts from the Bush administration, Mercedes has come up with the SLR. It’s yours for only $450,000.

You can now spend more than $200,000 for a wristwatch, and more than $100 million for a yacht. Although a yacht of 100 feet in length used to be considered good-sized, Frank found a 197-footer at the recent boat show in Fort Lauderdale with “an indoor gym, swimming pool and helicopter pad.” But it was a dwarfed by a 400-footer with “a basketball court, music studio and personal submarine.” Have you realized how much you need a personal submarine?

While the beneficiaries of Bush’s tax policy are inspecting yachts, the beneficiaries of his foreign policy are looking at another kind of scene in Fallujah. “The first time Jose Ramirez saw a human body ripped apart by a rocket, it took him hours to regain his composure,” reports Jackie Spinner in The Washington Post.

“I walked around in shock,” said the medic. “It doesn’t hit me when I’m working on a patient. But after we’re cleaning up, and I see the blood on the floor or I see someone bagging a piece of arm or leg. I know it’s going to be in my mind for the rest of my life.”

Recently a spending bill sailed through Congress containing a provision that only one person had read–and he was not a member of Congress. It was written by someone on the staff of the Appropriations Committee, and not a single other soul seemed to know about it. Although members of Congress are supposed to have three days to read a bill before its final passage, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) pointed out in a recent Post op-ed, that rule is “routinely overridden by the Republican majority, leaving only a few hours to read bills that are thousands of pages in length and spend hundreds of billions of the people’s money.” That may help explain why, as The Boston Globe has reported, Republicans were able to sneak 3,407 pork barrel projects into appropriations bills in the session that just ended, compared to 47 such projects that the Democrats managed the last time they controlled Congress in 1994.

Did you know your land could be taken away to make room for a Wal-Mart? This has been happening in localities from Kansas and Missouri to New Jersey and New York, reports Dean Starkman in The Wall Street Journal. “Desperate for tax revenues, cities and counties across the country now routinely take property from unwilling sellers to make way for big-box retailers.” Courts are supposed to protect citizens from eminent domain except when it is for a “public use.” If judges have been conned into expanding public use to include benefiting Best Buy, developers must have been sponsoring a lot of those judicial conferences.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, James A. Baker, Bush I’s secretary of state, urged Bush II to reignite the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Baker surprised some readers by noting “the plan presented by Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000…offers one plausible place to start.” A kind word for Clinton from James Baker! Yet it really isn’t so surprising. Dennis Ross, Clinton’s top negotiator at Camp David, had also played a similar role under Baker.

It seems unlikely, however, that Baker’s favorable remarks about Clinton will attract Bush’s sympathetic attention. Maybe it would have been better to praise Ross. When I hear Ross speak or read what he has written, most notably in his new book, The Missing Peace, I am always impressed by his intelligence, objectivity, and empathy for both sides. It is probably too much to hope for, but I wish Bush would put him in charge of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Thank goodness those mandatory sentences do not apply to our friend and former colleague Matthew Cooper, who is threatened with jail for refusing to reveal a source. The special prosecutor does not have to recommend jail, and even if he does recommend it, the judge can ignore it.

Although we believe Matt is right in refusing to identify his source, that is not the argument that we make here. Our concern is to keep him out of jail. Matt is not only a fine reporter, he is a caring husband and father, a kind and thoughtful friend, and an all-round good citizen. And he has a marvelous sense of humor.

Wait a minute, what relevance does his sense of humor have, you ask. Unlike many who share his comic gift, Matt laughs at himself. He is incapable of the self-righteousness that seeks martyrdom.

If the prosecutor and judge can approach this case in the same spirit without self-righteousness, they will see that even if they disagree with Matt, he has good reason for taking his stand. There is a total absence of criminal intent on his part. He should not be put in jail. Criminals belong in jail, not Matthew Cooper. How about house arrest for a month–or, even better, a week? That way, the authorities can be loyal to their principle while respecting Matt’s loyalty to his.

You will recall that air marshals are required to identify themselves to receive a special rate at the hotels they are also required to use. It turns out the CIA has a similarly insane rule. Its undercover operatives are required to fly American airlines. Picture the scene: the agent is preparing to board Air Syria for a flight to Damascus. Is it not possible that members of the terrorist cell he has managed to penetrate will become a tad suspicious when he says, “Wait a minute, I have to fly American.”

Another bizarre CIA requirement is that its undercover agents have to file federal and state income tax returns. Imagine the dialogue: “Excuse me, Mohammed, you have to stop telling me where you’re going to plant your next bomb. What I really need to know is the nearest branch of H&R Block.”

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.