Tilting at Windmills

Although Clarence Thomas is not ordinarily viewed as pre-eminent among the justices of the United States Supreme Court, he is their leader in at least one respect: His rule as King of the Freebies is absolutely secure. The Los Angeles Times has reviewed records of gifts to justices between 1998 and 2003, and found that “Thomas accepted $42,200 in gifts, making him the top recipient.” By far. The next highest justice received less than $6,000, roughly one-seventh of Thomas’s take.

The Army’s report on prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib found that Lieutenant Colonel James O’Hare of the 800th Military Police brigade “appears to lack initiative and was unwilling to accept responsibility for any of his actions.” O’Hare’s punishment, according to Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times: He has been promoted to full colonel.

New York Post columnist John Podhoretz asked liberals: “Did you momentarily feel a rush of disappointment [at the news of the January 30 Iraq election] because you knew, you just knew, that this was going to redound to the credit of George W. Bush?” I plead guilty, and remind myself and my fellow liberals that even though we are convinced that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible idea, we must welcome any good that might result.

You may have heard about the DVD called “Stop Snitching” that advocates witness intimidation and that emphasizes its point with an illustration on its back cover showing three dead bodies over the words “snitch prevention.” In Baltimore, where this DVD is on sale, Ricky Prince, a witness to a gang shooting who had agreed to testify, was recently shot in the head. Organized crime’s custom of eliminating witnesses has spread to street gangs. This may be happening because, as I have often complained, the punishment for witness intimidation can be absurdly light. In Maryland, it is classed as a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of five years. Gov. Robert Ehrlich is proposing to make it a felony, with a maximum sentence of 20 years. I hope he prevails, and that other states will follow.

Liberals can take heart from a recent national survey of college students reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The percentage of freshmen who describe themselves as liberal has risen from 20.7 percent during Ronald Reagan’s heyday in 1982, when they were practically tied with the conservatives, to 27 percent today–a 4.3 percent lead over conservatives. And at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, the story is even better. In 1982, liberals led conservatives by only 12.1 percent. Today, 51.2 percent say they are liberal, against only 12 percent who describe themselves as conservative, and 36.8 percent who say they are in the middle of the road. One worry nags at the back of my mind. How much did the Berkeley liberals inflate the national average?

U.S. News & World Report‘s Jan. 31 issue has an interesting section on health care. Among other findings, it reports that young doctors want a life outside medicine. A majority of applicants to medical schools are now women and they work fewer hours than male physicians have been accustomed to. They want to spend time with their husbands and children, and they refuse to be defined solely by their careers. Many younger male doctors have similar feelings.

In the past, this would have troubled me. I used to think that work of the highest quality required lunatic commitment. Indeed, I demanded this kind of commitment from the young people who worked here. But I’ve learned from the lives of these young people after they escape my clutches. All but a handful are happily married with children and are devoted spouses and parents, finding time for their families even as they continue to do excellent work.

I was reminded of this lesson by the recent death of Marjorie Williams, who married a Monthly alumnus and became part of our extended family. Marjorie wrote articles and essays that were almost uniformly superb. But she managed to produce them without sacrificing her sanity or her family. In fact, she was among the kindest and most thoughtful of all my friends. That many others felt the same way was demonstrated by the large crowd that attended her memorial service at National Cathedral and by the grief visible on almost every face when it came to a close.

So I know that many of these young doctors will, like Marjorie, combine sane lives and good work. But it must be acknowledged that some troubling trends accompany their rejection of lunatic commitment.

There is a shortage of primary care physicians. These are the front-line doctors on whom most of us depend. They have to work long hours for relatively low pay. Shortages also loom among surgical specialists, obstetricians-gynecologists, and others whose hours are hard to control. Medical students are saying that the “R.O.A.D.” to happiness lies in radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, and dermatology, all of which make modest demands on the physician’s time. Last year’s medical school graduates filled 97 percent of the dermatology residency slots available in U.S. hospitals, but only 41 percent of those in primary care.

I think I learned the lunatic effort principle from the practice of law, in which I engaged for four years, long ago. It is true that when you are trying a case against a smart lawyer, you better be sure you work harder than he does. But–and this is the important point–you do not have to try one case after another. If you’re good, you’ll win enough so that you can take breaks in between cases. Just don’t join one of those firms that are obsessed with billable hours. If you want to see what that kind of firm makes you do to your family and associates, take a look at the Web site, www.anonymous lawyer.blogspot.com, written by a third-year Harvard Law student who has managed to parlay a summer with a big-city law firm into an astonishingly accurate portrayal of the trap that snaps shut on those who enter such firms. “You never see your kids. And they hate you. And then you don’t even want to go home, and so you stay at the office, and the spiral continues.”

Of all the dismaying facts the Democrats have had to face since November, the toughest for me is the trend in blue-state exurbia. In December, the Los Angeles Times noted that the proportion of California counties voting Republican has reached two-thirds. The winter 2005 issue of City Journal adds that about 75 percent of New York counties now vote Republican, as do, amazingly, about 90 percent of those in Pennsylvania. To top it all off, former Rep. Tim Roemer says that 97 of the nation’s 100 fastest-growing counties voted for Bush in November.

Parents enroll their children in the government’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) because their own employers do not provide their families with adequate health coverage. The Charleston Gazette recently revealed that the West Virginia company with the most employees filing for CHIP coverage is Wal-Mart. It beats the next highest employer by three to one. In Georgia, the situation is worse. Wal-Mart children constitute 14 times the number of the state’s next highest employer’s applicants for CHIP, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Wal-Mart does offer a health insurance plan for its employees, who can participate if they can pony up 10 percent of their income before federal and state taxes have been deducted. But, and this is a big but, Wal-Mart does not offer family health insurance to its part-time employees. They are not just an occasional fellow here and there, but one-fourth of all its workers. Wal-Mart has left their health care to the taxpayer, as its owners have become three of the five richest Americans.

I like Chuck Colson’s advice to his fellow evangelists about their apparent triumph in the November election: “Sad to say, the Church has managed to shoot itself in the foot almost every time it has achieved power in society. So what we need now is a bracing dose of humility.”

Norman Mailer urges that we ban television commercials. In a recent article in the Sunday supplement, Parade, he argues that our ability to concentrate is being destroyed by the barrage of commercials that interrupt television shows every few minutes and dramatically reduce the viewers’ attention span. Mailer notes that the number of books read annually by teenagers declined more than 25 percent from 1982 to 2002.

Mailer wants us to pay for television, so that the need for commercial sponsorship could be eliminated. I doubt that people will support such a radical step, although I certainly would. But I do see realistic hope for eliminating some harmful commercials.

Our first target should be prescription drug commercials. These were banned until a few years ago, but have rapidly proliferated. In 2003, Pfizer spent $87.6 million on marketing Celebrex, and Merck spent $79.2 million on Vioxx. Since these drugs have been found to significantly increase the risk of heart disease, the harm they do is clear. A study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that the good these drugs do could be effectively accomplished by much cheaper over-the-counter products in the case of at least 73 percent of patients.

My next target would be commercials on children’s shows. That is where the first and, to me, the most dangerous assault on the attention span takes place. It is also where kids are given a jump start on the road to obesity. According to columnist Michael Fumento, author of The Fat of the Land and not a man given to attacking corporate misdeeds, kids watch an average of 40,000 commercials a year, roughly half of which are food ads. And 90 percent of those are for junk food. Since Americans now fret about fat as never before, a prohibition of junk food ads may just be an idea whose time has come.

If you think it is unrealistic to eliminate drug or children’s commercials, just remember that some years ago we prohibited cigarette commercials. Since tobacco advertising then constituted a major source of income for television networks and stations, there was widespread fear of the economic consequences. But other sources of revenue appeared and television flourished.

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) was voted the “brainiest” congressman in a survey of Capitol Hill staffers conducted by Washingtonian magazine. He was also voted “meanest.” Michael Crowley explains the latter in the Feb. 7 issue of The New Republic: A former aide recalls “boarding a Capitol elevator with Thomas and seeing him ‘vigorously’ jab the door close button as a group of tourists approached. When the door shut in their faces, Thomas gleefully chuckled.”

Having long contended that the CIA needs more NOCs (spies with non-official cover), I’m happy to find my position supported by Reuel Marc Gerecht in a recent Washington Post op-ed. If you’ve heard Gerecht pontificate on the Middle East, you might find his views a little more hawkish than your own. I certainly do. But in describing the facts of life within the CIA, few do it better than Gerecht. His February 1998 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” written under the pseudonym “Edward G. Shirley” remains the best thing I’ve read about the culture of the CIA.

What he says now is that the case officers who represent the vast majority of the CIA’s spies are in fact hopelessly unsuited to effective espionage. They operate as American embassy officers and are pathetically easy for our enemies to spot. Their favored milieu, embassy cocktail parties, was useful in recruiting Soviet diplomats but is definitely not where members of al Qaeda congregate. Nevertheless, we have lots of case officers and few NOCs, because case officers are the way it has been done and the old boys always like to stick to the old ways. Also NOCs, who operate completely outside American embassies, pose bureaucratic problems. How are they to be paid, should taxes be deducted, and most absurd, as we mentioned in our last issue, should they be required to travel on American airlines. But the point is, the only way to have more spies is to have more NOCs, meaning the bureaucratic problems must be overcome.

I was recently reminded that some color left my life when I moved to Washington from my native West Virginia. The state’s former assistant school superintendent, G.A. McClung, has just been indicted, according to the Charleston Gazette, for allegedly awarding two and a half million dollars in contracts to Phillip “Pork Chop” Booth. It seemed that Booth had not only forgiven loans to McClung, but had treated him to tickets to the Kentucky Derby and a Bahamas cruise for two. Pork Chop made a profit of over $400,000. Unfortunately however, he now faces the possibility of 15 years as a guest of the state penitentiary.

Federal regulators often behave like pussycats. The reason is not that they are bad guys, but that they fear that their budgets might be cut by congressional friends of the regulated industry in case the industry finds them too tough. That is why the fellows at the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise, led by its director Armando Falcon Jr., deserve special praise. They blew the whistle on Fannie Mae, one of the most powerful organizations in Washington, famous for its cultivation of influential friends in Congress and elsewhere. Falcon, by the way, was not appointed by George W. Bush but by William Jefferson Clinton.

You may recall Sibel Edmonds, the female linguist who complained on “60 Minutes” about the inept translations, bad management, and possible espionage in the FBI translation section. You may have greeted Ms. Edmonds’s charges with some skepticism. After all, there’s always the possibility that a whistleblower is a nut or has some ax to grind against the agency involved. The FBI was more than skeptical. It fired Edmonds.

Was the FBI justified, or was this another example of the Bureau’s distaste for dissent? We now have the answer in the form of a report from the Inspector General of the Department of Justice. It finds that many of her allegations, according to Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times, “were supported, that the FBI did not take them seriously enough, and that her allegations were, in fact, the most significant factor in the FBI’s decision to terminate her services.”

In the largest merger of last year, J.P. Morgan acquired Bank One. Morgan assured its investors that it had not paid too much, telling them that it was sure the price was fair because it had sought an opinion from one of “the top five financial advisors in the world.”

The investors might have been just a tad dubious about the objectivity of the “top financial advisor” if they had known what Ann David and Marsha Longley of The Wall Street Journal later discovered: The advisor was J.P. Morgan itself. The two reporters also found out that Bank One’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, had actually offered to sell his company for several billion less on condition that he be named head of the merged entity. Perhaps Morgan’s shareholders would have preferred the combination of Dimon and the lower price. But Morgan’s CEO, William Harrison, decided to spare them the knowledge that might endanger his own job. He had his minions describe the higher price as fair and did not bother to disclose the lower offer.

Is this case unusual? Not according to the Journal’s reporters, who say that “it is an open secret on Wall Street that bankers’ opinions are anything but arms-length.”

The Army has estimated $3.6 billion for Iraq expenses that Halliburton says will cost nearly $7 billion. Guess what the taxpayers will ultimately pay?

If you’re thinking of taking a cruise, you may want to reconsider. Here’s what David Burpee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency told the Associated Press about that uncharted mountain in the Pacific that the U.S.S. San Francisco smacked into during January of this year.

“It’s not like there was one little area that got away from us that escaped detection. This is part of a massive amount of sea that has not been mapped or charted in detail.”

How long will it take to remedy this problem? Using all of the 150 ships in the world that can do mapping and charting work, the answer is 30 years.

It’s hard to believe, but the Bush administration is actually getting rid of someone who screwed up on Iraq: Douglas Feith, one of the parties in the failure to face the potential post-war problems, is going “to spend more time with his family.”

One trend that I would like to stop in its tracks: “A small but growing number of families are pulling up stakes,” reports The New York Times, “selling the house and following the children to boarding school.” I sympathize with the kids and their parents. Having spent a miserable ninth grade away from home at a military school, I know how lonely it can be for the child and for Mom and Dad. But the answer to the problem is not to uproot the family, but to do what I did and return to public school. Have faith in your child’s ability to overcome the limitations of public education. That confidence will do more for him than any prep school.

Washington’s civil servants are splendid fellows in many respects, but they are sissies about snow. Hundreds of air marshals were grounded for eight hours in January because the government employees who man the air marshals’ Missions Operations Center did not report for duty. The reason: An inch of snow had fallen.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.