Tilting at Windmills

If you needed a little pre-Katrina warning that all was not well at the Department of Homeland Security, consider its proposal, announced in August, to permit airline passengers to carry ice picks and knives less than five inches in length. Of course, a four-and-three-quarter inch penetration between your ribs would do no harm at all.

The Washington Post‘s Peter Carlson has a great idea for the neocons who got us into the Iraq war and continue to exhort our forces to keep fighting and not ‘cut and run.’ Carlson’s advice: Follow the example of Theodore Roosevelt who, having advocated the Spanish-American War, forsook his comfortable civilian life to join in the fight, organizing a regiment called the Rough Riders. Carlson suggests the neocons call themselves the Tough Talkers.

For two years, people have been trying to identify the source for Robert Novak’s revelation about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. There was a time when it wasn’t so difficult to figure out who was talking to Novak. During his first two decades as a columnist, he relied on three main sources: Lawrence O’Brien, the Kennedy-Johnson political operative who became chairman of the Democratic National Committee and had his office burglarized during Watergate; Melvin Laird, the prominent Republican congressman who became Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Defense; and another DNC Chairman, Robert Strauss. Not only were their fingerprints all over many of the columns Novak wrote with his partner Rowland Evans, but they were also consistently rewarded with praise from Evans and Novak, a practice Novak did not abandon when he continued the column on his own. A more recent source, Bob Shrum, is usually described in terms like, “a brilliant political strategist.”

Novak was not the only journalist to reward sources with favorable publicity. One of the most notorious examples is the way Walter Winchell built J. Edgar Hoover into a demigod during the many years the FBI director kept the columnist supplied with juicy items. Less well known is the role Drew Pearson, a very prominent columnist from the ’30s through the ’50s, played in building Lyndon Johnson’s national reputation in return for tips from the rising star on Capitol Hill.

I was reminded of all this by a recent story praising a White House staffer that followed only by a couple of weeks articles by the same reporter for which that staffer seems very likely to have been a source. My caution to the journalist involved is that this was a little too obvious and runs the risk of getting the staffer in hot water. I do not name names because I don’t want to increase the danger for the source. It is so hard to get inside dope out of this White House that one wants to be careful not to penalize those who risk letting the rest of us know the truth about what its inmates are up to.

There are, however, a couple of important cautions. First, a reporter should not let himself be used by a source to peddle false or misleading information. Second, a reporter must be careful not to endow officials with reputations they do not deserve. Winchell elevated Hoover to a point where even presidents were afraid to offend him.

A robber knocked a Washington woman to the ground, kicked her in the head and side, seized her purse and ran away. She called 911 and explained what had happened and where she was, near the Georgia Avenue-Petworth metro station in northwest Washington. The 911 operator dispatched the police to northeast Washington. Naturally, this took some time to straighten out. While she was waiting, the victim told the operator that the robber seemed to be coming back toward her.

The operator, according to Matthew Cella of The Washington Times, “told her to try to make him follow her so that the police officers could catch him.” Understandably, she found the advice “not a cool idea” and did not follow it.

Like most people who watched his confirmation hearings, I admired John Roberts’s knowledge of the law–he seems to have memorized every case ever decided by an American court–and his ability to succinctly summarize judicial opinions. But one answer he gave disturbed me.

Sen. Dick Durbin wanted to find out if there was any client Roberts would not represent. Durbin knew Roberts had represented gay-rights advocates in a suit challenging a state constitutional provision on the ground that it restricted those rights, so Durbin asked if Roberts would have been willing to work for the other side:

“I probably would have,” was the answer. He added, in the words of Robin Toner and David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times, that “a lawyer should not sit in judgment of his client.”

This is the hired-gun philosophy of the practice of law. The problem is that it leads most lawyers who subscribe to it to take any client who can afford their fee. The unfortunate effect is to make justice more available to the well-heeled, and only to the rest of us if we happen to be killed or maimed in an accident that could prove lucrative for a plaintiff’s attorney. What lawyers should be doing is to take only cases that they believe in–at the very least, insisting that their client have a reasonable ground for the claim he is making or the defense he proposes.

A lawyer should refuse to work for corporate villains like the tobacco companies. They can destroy your soul as they lure you into participating in tactics like intimidation and concealment. You become Robert Duvall in A Civil Action.

The only exception is that you should accept court appointments to represent the indigent so that they will not be deprived of counsel. Otherwise, why should you help the bad guys?

How does Frances Townsend get ahead? Since she joined Condoleezza Rice’s staff in 2003, she has risen to direct both the counterterrorism and homeland security offices at the White House. Before that, her ascent to power as an aide to Janet Reno during the ’90s had been equally rapid.

One of her colleagues, another Reno aide, tells The Washington Post that, “she was very ‘we’ll take care of it’ in those meetings. She understands the principle that you say ‘we’ll take care of it’ even if you have no clue how you’ll actually take care of it.” This, in my experience, is one of the great secrets of success in Washington. I have seen many a clever bureaucrat ride it to the top. Of course, it doesn’t work if you neglect to do the taking care of.

You can learn something about government by studying the Coast Guard’s role in response to Katrina and in the sinking of the Ethan Allen on Lake George. Its performance in rescuing Katrina survivors was superb. Its safety standards for the vessels it regulates are considerably less impressive.

In determining if a boat is overloaded, an average weight of 140 pounds is used for each passenger. This standard was applied by the state of New York to the Ethan Allen with tragic results. Its passengers were all adults, many of whom, in this age of obesity, can be assumed to weigh much more than 140 pounds.

Years ago, I wrote about another vessel regulated by the Coast Guard, a ferry that crosses the wide mouth of the Delaware Bay, noting that it had a sign reading, “Life Boats this way,” that pointed its 700 passengers to two boats with a capacity of 25 persons each. Over the years, changes were made. First, the sign reading “Life Boats This Way” was painted over. Later, the sign was restored and six life rafts were added to the two lifeboats. The lifeboats and the life rafts now had space for 200 passengers. That left 500 who needed to be good swimmers.

There are a number of reasons for the Coast Guard’s rapid reaction to Katrina, including a culture that encourages flexibility, but one sure factor is the universal support for its rescue function. We all want to see those in peril saved.

On the other hand, few businesses like being regulated, so the interests of the passenger have to be weighed against the complaints of the owners about the heavy hand of government. And it is usually the owners who are the most resolute in their lobbying, meaning that the regulators tend to lean their way.

Another clever Townsend ploy came one Christmas Eve when she told President Bush in regard to a pending matter, “I’ll call you tomorrow morning.” This may cause your colleagues to roll their eyes, but it is guaranteed to impress the boss.

Rebecca Carroll of the Associated Press recently came up with an interesting story about lawyers who haven’t gone to law school. Four states allow would-be lawyers to take the bar examination and become licensed by going through an apprenticeship with practicing attorneys. I approve. After all, that’s just what Abe Lincoln did.

Law schools have always seemed like a racket to me. Their real purpose is to provide nice jobs for the faculty and provide three years during which the law student, who often goes to law school to mark time while he decides what he really wants to do, to make up his mind, or at least pacify his parents who want him to appear to be doing something.

Maybe one year could be useful. The Socratic method used by the best law professors does teach students how to think–which, lamentably, a standard liberal arts education too often fails to do. And one year is all you need to find out whether you really like the law. If you are bored by the basics of the profession, you’re not going to enjoy practicing it.

You have to love one of those “blind trusts” that was supposed to insulate Sen. Bill Frist from control of the HCA shares that just happened to be sold at the right time to maximize his gain. Sen. Frist did not “control” the trust, his spokesman indignantly asserts. His brother did.

If you think the Coast Guard followed a too-little and too-slow policy in responding to the safety needs of those ferry passengers, consider the Federal Aviation Administration’s response to the danger of another fuel tank explosion like the one that brought down TWA’s Flight 800. That accident happened in 1996. Nine years later, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, reports Matthew Wald in The New York Times, “complained to the Federal Aviation Administration that it had slowed to a crawl on changes needed to prevent a similar accident.”

In 1996, “the safety board called for pumping the tanks full of inert gas so they could not explode.” In 2004, “the FAA said it was close to proposing” such a rule but it has yet to do so.

Before Flight 800 left New York, its departure had been delayed more than an hour. Heat from the planes’ air-conditioning unit, located next to the fuel tank, caused the temperature in the tank to become dangerously high, making it more likely to explode. So, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that, while on the ground, planes be cooled by ground-based, rather than on-board, air-conditioning equipment. The FAA has yet to require that this step be taken–and only one airline, Southwest, has taken it.

The airlines now have an excuse for not adopting the inert gas solution. Doing so would cost $200,000 a plane, which many cash-strapped airlines cannot afford at this time. There have however been periods of airline prosperity since 1986, when they could have afforded the fix if the FAA had only required it.

Speaking of delays in doing what should be done: Four years after 9/11, according to The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein, the Washington region has no plans “approaching credible… to respond to an attack or a natural disaster, or even an agreement of who will be in charge.”

For reasons that will quickly become understandable, I have been uncomfortable with all the condemnation of political appointees that has followed in the wake of Katrina. You see, I was once a political appointee myself. I was brought to Washington because I had managed John Kennedy’s campaign in my West Virginia county in 1960.

I went to work for a political appointee, Sargent Shriver, who turned out to be a great leader of the Peace Corps. He, however, was skeptical about other political appointees, and he didn’t know me, so I was given a job–called “Consultant to the General Counsel”–in which my capacity for doing any harm was modest indeed. I felt embarrassed that I was “political.” I eagerly volunteered for assignments that would give me a chance to prove that I wasn’t a hack but had some ability, and that I was as dedicated as my colleagues to the mission of my agency.

The general atmosphere at the agency was so free of partisanship that I recall one day Shriver and Bill Moyers danced into my office with joy as they celebrated having recruited an outstanding Republican, William Saltonstall, to head the Peace Corps in Nigeria. I did not put my inscribed photograph from John Kennedy on my office wall until after the assassination. Of course, most of us were devoted to Kennedy, but we were convinced that we could best serve him by making the Peace Corps an agency the country could be proud of.

What this means to me is that there is nothing wrong with political appointees who have the ability to do the job. Their dedication to implementing their president’s policies may even make them preferable to civil servants who are indifferent to these policies. But there’s a great big ‘if’ to all this.

The ‘if’ is if the president and his policies are wise and good. That is why we have to care about whom we elect. If you elect a Franklin Roosevelt, you’re going to get able appointees. If you elect George W. Bush, you’re going to get Michael Brown.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.