The best explanation for why Condoleezza Rice gave John Bolton the U.N. job instead of keeping him on at State comes from Time‘s James Carney, who says she “didn’t want Bolton freelancing under her the way he had under Powell.” Although both Machiavelli and the Mafia counsel keeping your enemies close, veteran bureaucrats know better. Their solution: Get your enemy out of town and into a job that poses minimal threat to you. Shrewd Third-World rulers mastered this ploy long ago. They make their enemies ambassadors to posts desirable enough for them to accept, but remote enough to render them harmless.
The ACLU, while clearly laudable in purpose, sometimes displays a curious sense of priority. The latest example comes from Virginia, where the ACLU is attacking a statute that requires a parental presence at nudist camps for juveniles. Such a camp for youngsters between 11 and 17 was conducted in 2003 at White Tail Park–yes, that is the correct name. Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law that requires each participant at these teen and preteen nudist camps to be accompanied by a parent, grandparent, or legal guardian. The ACLU’s Rebecca Glenberg contends that the law denies the right to “a normal camp experience.”
“No analytical judgments were changed in response to political pressure,” concludes the Bush commission’s 601-page report on intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq. Michael Isikoff of Newsweek was curious: Had the commission considered the email sent Feb. 4, 2003, by a senior CIA official that rebuked underlings who questioned the now totally discredited intelligence provided by the source called Curve Ball? “What email?” replied Lawrence Silberman, the commission’s co-chairman. “I’m mystified.” Later, after Isikoff had provided the commission with a copy of the email, a commission spokesman told him “that the panel was aware of it, but chose not to include it because its contents were already known.” But apparently not to Silberman.
The email had said: “Keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn’t say and that the Powers That Be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he’s talking about.”
The Washington Post says it has difficulty finding women columnists. Why don’t they publish Molly Ivins more than once or twice a year? She is one of the great liberal voices, both wise and funny. Even when you disagree with her, she’s a delight to read. I won’t comment on the relative intellectual merits of the other Post columnists, but I will say that lightness is not one of their notable characteristics.
Last month, the House voted to end the estate tax. This has to be one of the greatest propaganda triumphs of the Bush administration. And that’s saying something because the boys have done pretty well in this area. When the administration came to power in 2001, only 49,911 decedents had estates large enough to be affected by the tax. That was only 2.1 percent of all the people who died that year. Yet by calling the tax a “Death Tax,” and selling the public on the idea that it was unfair to tax them for dying, the Republicans seem likely to succeed in eliminating a valuable source of revenue, one that was notable for hitting only those who could afford it. In 2001, the average estate taxed was worth $2.7 million.
Now, the Democrats seem to think that their best hope is to limit the tax to estates worth $3.5 million or more. We’re not talking here about the estates of the family farmer or the small businessman that proponents of estate tax abolition say they worry about. Yet the Republicans refuse to settle for even the $3.5 million figure, which has been proposed by Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.). They demand total repeal of the tax. This, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, will cost the Treasury, meaning all of us, $290 billion by 2015.
“The dreadful mediocrity of the intelligence community,” writes David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, “is its most striking characteristic.” Of all that has been written about the problems of our spy agencies, this is the truest. We need “smarter people,” writes Ignatius, “We don’t need a proliferation of new, inexperienced intelligence officers overseas who will fill quotas by recruiting bogus agents who produce large volumes of low-quality intelligence. We need real spies.”
The problem is that real spies not only have to be smart, they must also be courageous. That’s a hard bill to fill. And that, far more than reorganization, is the real challenge we must face if we want better intelligence.
Part of the problem may be a recent shortage of bravery among our intellectual elite. Four hundred and thirteen Harvard men lost their lives in World War I, according to the Harvard Gazette. This is truly remarkable. Of the scores–surely more than 100–of Harvard alumni who graduated after the 1950s and who I’ve met during my 44 years in Washington, I know of only one who had served in the military. I know some of these people well enough to know they’re not cowards. So, could it be a failure of patriotism? Or, what seems more likely to me, an unwillingness to enter public service except at or near the top. The problem is, unless there are smart and courageous people down below, good people at the top can’t make a difference.
National Geographic offered readers of its April issue a choice of covers, and of cover stories. If you live in Washington, the cover story was “Lost World of the Little People,” illustrated by a photo of a black hominid. In Richmond, the cover story was “The Civil War, Then and Now: The Fight to Preserve America’s Sacred Ground,” illustrated by a photograph of a Civil War soldier.
Did you see David Brooks’s “Masters of Sleaze” column? It demonstrated that he could supply the ironic moral voice desperately needed by today’s conservatives:
“Back in 1995, when Republicans took over Congress, a new cadre of daring and original thinkers arose…. [Y]ou no longer had to choose between being an activist and a lobbyist. You could be both…. And best of all, you could get rich while doing it….
“Before long, folks like [Grover] Norquist and [Jack] Abramoff were talking up the virtues of international sons of liberty like Angola’s Jonas Savimbi and Congo’s dictator Mobutou Sese Seko–all while receiving compensation from these upstanding gentlemen….
“Tom DeLay’s former chief of staff helped run the U.S. Family Network, which supported the American family by accepting large donations and leasing skyboxes at the MCI Center.
“Ralph Reed, meanwhile, smashed the tired old categories that used to separate social conservatives from corporate consultants. Reed signed on with Channel One, Verizon, Enron and Microsoft to shore up the moral foundations of our great nation. Reed so strongly opposes gambling as a matter of principle that he bravely accepted $4 million through Abramoff from casino-rich Indian tribes to gin up a grassroots campaign.”
The clever lobbyist knows to warn his clients that a plot against their interests is being hatched by Washington bureaucrats or Congress. Fear tends to loosen the client’s wallet. Robert Leonard, a former staffmember of the House Ways and Means Committee, explains this strategy to the Post‘s Jeffrey Birnbaum, telling him of the time he gave lobbyists a memo listing potential tax increases. At first they were outraged: “How dare you … Surely, you’re kidding. You can’t do this to me!” Then Leonard reminded them, “Hey… It’s good for business.” After a couple of seconds of reflection they agreed, and sent copies of the memo to their home office, asking, “See how much you need me?” Birnbaum says the K Street crowd is currently stirring up business by citing the deficit as a reason why tax increases are coming, softening up the client for bigger lobbying bills to come.
Much of the front page of a recent Style section in The New York Times was devoted to a photograph of a chic, young man wearing a seersucker suit that costs $1,020. I recall checking seersucker prices as a student at Columbia in the spring of 1946. Could I afford one? Yes, even at Brooks Brothers, the cost was only $19.
There have been many reports about the FDA’s failure to monitor the performance of drugs after they’ve been approved. Now comes news that they failed to adequately monitor the performance of medical devices like heart valves that the agency has approved. Barry Meier of The New York Times has highlighted a FDA report that says, in Meier’s words, “that the agency had little idea whether device manufacturers were fulfilling their obligations to conduct studies on the safety of products once they were on the market.”
This failure to find out what happens when the rubber meets the road is, as we never tire of pointing out, a common shortcoming of Washington. Another Times story, which like the FDA one, was buried on a back page, reveals that the EPA is failing to check up on the performance of the BioWatch air monitors that have been installed in 30 metropolitan areas to detect the release of such biological agents as anthrax, smallpox, and plague. The EPA’s inspector general has found that some of the monitors are installed too high or too low, others too far apart or with obstructed air passages, and that in any case not enough care is taken to make sure that the monitors are regularly inspected and properly maintained.
This failure to find out what’s going on extends to the Congress. Consider its oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. Although the Department’s own inspector general and the GAO have issued many reports–in the case of the GAO, more than 100–citing lapses in airport security, watch-list shortcomings, lax cargo security, lost and stolen passports, and immigration non-enforcement among many troubling subjects. Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times reports that the House Homeland Security Committee held only 15 oversight hearings in 2003 and 2004. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, explained that the committee was, in Hudson’s words, “top-heavy with chairmen of other committees, making scheduling difficult.” Cox says the committee now has new members, and promises that the situation will improve. In the Senate, there is little hope for improvement, since responsibility for oversight of Homeland Security was assigned to the Governmental Affairs Committee that already oversees many other agencies. Last year, for example, its main energy went to the reform of the intelligence community.
A Maryland employer has just been accused by the National Labor Relations Board of “such unfair practices as reprimanding workers petitioning for employment benefits and job reassignments.” The same organization has been charged by the IRS with avoiding the payment of payroll taxes. And Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation has found that the organization has failed to pay both state workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. You’re thinking this must be Wal-Mart. No, it’s the Maryland State Teachers’ Association.
Two pieces of good news on the health front. Johnson & Johnson, instead of following the example of other pharmaceutical companies and mentioning drug risk sotto voce in its commercials, is giving the risk equal time. J&J’s ads for the Ortho Evra birth control patch have split screens, with half devoted to a doctor describing the risks and side effects. Of course, I’m still for taking all drug ads off television. But J&J’s approach is a definite improvement over the hard sell we’ve been getting from other pharmaceutical companies.
The other good news comes from Medicare, which is posting data on its Web site comparing how well hospitals perform in treating heart attacks, heart failure, and pneumonia. You can find out which hospitals have the best records for dealing with your ailment.
This kind of information has been notoriously hard to come by. A recent Washington Post series shows how nearly impossible it is to find out about incompetent physicians, and what a poor job medical societies do in disciplining them. Of course, this is one of those stories that reporters can do any year they have a little spare time. I know the problem has existed as long as I can remember. Indeed, stories about it have been done several times and noted in this column. But there is never the kind of follow-up that would hound medical societies to reform.
Remember, there is a Peters Solution to this problem. It would also take care of Medicare lawsuits. We should put injuries and death caused by malpractice on a no-fault basis so that victims could recover their losses automatically without lawsuit. But in return for giving doctors this freedom from the threat of bankruptcy, we should take away their control over licensing. Medical licensing boards could still have a few doctors to provide the necessary expertise, but they should be dominated by laymen who have every reason to discipline the incompetent and none to conceal them.
You may remember an item in this column a couple of years ago about how Princeton had taken a fund, now worth $600 million, donated by Charles and Marie Robinson to help prepare students for careers in public service, and used it for other purposes. Well, it appears Princeton is not getting away with it. The Robinsons sued; the suit attracted publicity. The result: Donations from alumni dropped 45 percent last year while giving to other colleges and universities rose 3.4 percent.
Where is the editor? I kept asking that question as I read a Washington Post article headlined “D.C. Schools Could Cut 395 Staff Positions.” The first question that seemed not to have been asked of the author was: Is there any effort being made to distinguish between the good teachers and bureaucrats and the bad ones? In other words, will the cut target the right people?
The article says that the cuts are necessary to pay for a teacher pay raise and “step increases that teachers will be owed.” I doubt that readers who are not bureaucrats themselves will know–and the article does not explain–that step increases are also pay increases, supposedly based on merit but in the federal civil service granted almost automatically to 99 percent of those eligible. Are the D.C. step increases also given without regard to merit? And is the other pay raise similarly unrelated to performance?
The article quotes George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, as saying that “it would be difficult to justify [the cuts]when the city has a surplus.” The city’s Treasury is unusually flush at the moment, so the issue Parker raises is a legitimate one. But the article does not deal with it.
I’m sure there were excuses for these issues not being raised by an editor. The reporter may have been on a tight deadline, for example. But there is no excuse for the fact that at most newspapers, most of the time, not nearly enough of these sorts of questions are raised by the editors.
“Revoke Club U’s License, D.C. Says,” is the headline over another article in the Post‘s Metro section that could have benefited from the attention of a curious editor. You will recall that the U is a go-go club in the basement of the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, which houses offices of the D.C. government. The article says “Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, City Administrator Robert C. Bobb and D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) want to close the club,” but it fails to ask or answer the obvious: Why don’t they just close it? Nor does the article delve into the equally obvious question of why a go-go club was permitted in a city building in the first place.
The performance of one medical device, the silicon breast implant, has received attention from the FDA–and from the media. FDA hearings on the implant’s safety, the approval of one manufacturer’s version, and the disapproval of another were lead stories on ABC’s “World News Tonight” and in The New York Times. Why so much attention for this one device, I wondered? I imagined it to be of concern to only a small number of women. I asked my wife if she had an explanation. She said she wasn’t sure this explained everything, but that when she was growing up, the majority of women, if not downright flat-chested, were not conspicuously well-endowed. Today, the majority is a minority.
Sean Reilly of Newhouse News Service supplies another example of how Congress often fails to put its money where its mouth is. Four years ago they enacted what was supposed to be a $482 million program to clear up the backlogs in forensic crime laboratories that were preventing evidence from reaching the judicial system in a timely manner. This is not a trivial matter. We’re talking about evidence that can spare the innocent and convict the guilty. It took 13 months for the sample given by Christa Worthington’s murderer to be analyzed by Massachusetts labs. But Congress has appropriated just $35 million, considerably less than one-10th of the amount it promised.
Mohammed Harvey Goldstein certainly has to rank among the more intriguing names I’ve ever encountered. Did some monumental spiritual struggle lead to its adoption? Not exactly. According to The Wall Street Journal, Goldstein is a lobbyist in Indonesia who added Mohammed to honor his Muslim bride. It is also possible that the name eased Goldstein’s access to the Indonesian officials he lobbies. That access is also helped by the fact that Goldstein is Gambia’s consul to Indonesia. “The red, blue, and green flag of Gambia, a country of 1.4 million on the West Coast of Africa, hangs outside the entrance to Goldstein’s Jakarta office,” reports the Journal, which was unable to discover how he secured his diplomatic appointment. I have no excuse for running this item, except to say that I’m fascinated to learn that a man who began life as an American named Harvey Goldstein could end up an African diplomat in a Muslim country in Asia.