One of my favorite columnists, Molly Ivins, points out that after roundly condemning Democrats as a bunch of cut-and-run sissies, the administration proceeded to announce its own version of cut and run when Gen. George W. Casey Jr. unveiled his plan to reduce the number of combat brigades in Iraq from 14 to five or six, with the withdrawal neatly timed to begin in September, two months before the November election. Molly comments, “They don’t call him George W. Jr. for nothing.”

One reason we continue to be mired in Iraq is the painfully slow progress made in training Iraqi troops to replace our own. And one reason for the slowness is the living conditions of the Iraqi soldiers. For this point, I’m indebted to The Wall Street Journal‘s Greg Jaffe, whose original reporting highlights the contrast between the Iraqi and American troops at Camp Taji:

“On one side, about 10,000 U.S. Army soldiers live in air-conditioned trailers. There’s a movie theater, a Taco Bell and a post exchange the size of a Wal-Mart, stocked with everything from deodorants to DVD players.

“On the other side are a similar number of Iraqi soldiers… [who] live in fetid barracks built by the British in the 1920s, ration the fuel they use to run their lights and sometimes eat spoiled food that makes them sick.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama has the raw material to get elected president and govern the country wisely–and probably more of it than any of the other potential Democratic candidates. He is already a great speaker, and he could not have risen to the top of the Harvard Law Review without having an outstanding mind. He seems to have the right values and speaks easily of the Christianity he shares with most Americans. The greatest president of the last century, Franklin Roosevelt, was not embarrassed to do that. Indeed, he sold his programs like Social Security and Lend-Lease as applied Christianity.

Of course, other doubts about Obama remain. One wishes he had more experience, especially in the executive branch of government, where Roosevelt’s eight years as assistant secretary of the navy at the intersection of the policy-makers and the civil service prepared him to establish the New Deal and win the war. John F. Kennedy had a similar lack of experience in the executive branch and it showed at the Bay of Pigs. But Kennedy had the capacity to learn. He was intensely curious, unlike the present incumbent. I look for signs of such curiosity in Obama that will mean he has Kennedy’s capacity to grow. One sign to look for is evidence that he really listens.

I remember during the West Virginia primary in 1960 escorting Kennedy to one press interview after another in which I was stunned by the way he really listened to questions, with his answers displaying an appreciation of their unspoken subtext, even when the inquiry was less than artful. Everyone found out about this quality during Kennedy’s presidential news conferences. You can hear them now on tape, and excerpts occasionally appear in television documentaries. Kennedy actually enjoyed the give-and-take instead of hating it, as Bush does. One good sign is that I’m told Obama displayed precisely this quality answering questions during a recent appearance at the National Press Club.

Now not only can rich moms and dads buy their kids the leg up that a private school can offer, it also appears they can help little Jason or Jennifer take another step along the path to success. According to Slate‘s Timothy Noah, internships are now for sale at several of those auctions private schools use to raise money. A $10,000 bid could get Junior inside a major investment bank, or into another lucrative career opportunity.

My own view of cut and run is this. It’s always going to be a terrible time to leave. The same was true in Vietnam. When you take responsibility for establishing a democratic government in another country, especially one with a radically different culture, it is likely to be a precarious proposition for as long as can be foreseen. Any time you leave, you’re going to be deserting the Iraqis–or the Vietnamese–you’ve led to rely on your dedication to democracy and freedom. It is never a painless thing to do. That’s why I was against getting into Iraq in the first place, and why I think that those who opposed the escalation in Vietnam were right. Once the initial stupidity has occurred, however, responsibilities are assumed that are hard to shed. This is the way fools lure us into complicity in their folly.

One caution to Barack Obama. He recently confided to an interviewer that he and Hillary Clinton have a “huge advantage by virtue of our notoriety… we don’t really have to chase the cameras.” Putting yourself in the same league as the frontrunner is usually not a good idea.

More details have emerged on the Ralph Reed-Grover Norquist-Jack Abramoff connection. Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and current candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia, was not a minor player in the Abramoff scandal. It seems he received a total of $5.3 million from Abramoff’s clients for the sublime hypocrisy of opposing gambling where it would compete with the casinos of Abramoff’s clients.

Incidentally, more than one million of this was funneled through Norquist, guru of right-wing lobbyists and close buddy of Karl Rove. One email of Abramoff’s revealed by The Washington Post says “Call Ralph re Grover doing pass through.” I’m beginning to suspect that this scandal, if pursued vigorously by investigators, could be of Watergate dimensions, reaching major Washington figures.

Bureaucracies tend to become top heavy as employees rise in salary and rank. A recent example comes from West Virginia, where a report recommends reducing management positions at the Department of Motor Vehicles. One position targeted is an executive assistant to the DMV’s commissioner. Phil Kabler of The Charleston Gazette points out that the commissioner already has two executive secretaries, another executive assistant, and a deputy commissioner.

I must say I was depressed by that recent study showing that people said where they had three close friends in 1985, they now have only two. According to Knight Ridder’s Ely Portillo “the number who say they have no one to discuss important matters with has doubled.”

My guess is that there are two main factors at work here. One is the explosion in the number of channels available on cable television, meaning that there is always something reasonably interesting to be found with another click of the remote. The result is that I spend twice as much time glued to the tube as I did 20 years ago. The other factor is the computer. Time spent on email does offer contact with other people, but many computer users are addicted to surfing the web and playing games alone.

Whatever the reason, the change is definitely not for the better. As Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, said, “Well-connected people live longer, happier lives.”

It may be that those of us who have complained about Dick Cheney’s increasing right-wing rigidity simply didn’t know the man well enough earlier. Robert Hartmann, who worked with Cheney in Gerald Ford’s White House, wrote in his book Palace Politics, published way back in 1980, that “whenever his private ideology was exposed, he appeared somewhat to the right of Ford, Rumsfeld, or, for that matter, Genghis Khan.”

Evidence of deteriorating conditions inside Iraq is provided by the U.S. government itself, in the form of an internal State Department cable obtained by The Washington Post‘s Al Kamen. The cable, marked “sensitive,” discusses problems recently experienced by the nine Iraqi employees of the American embassy’s public-affairs section.

The brother-in-law of one had been kidnapped. Another had a Kurdish neighbor who was being evicted from her home of 30 years as part of an attempt at ethnic cleansing, which an Iraqi editor cited by the embassy says is taking place in almost every province. “Employees all confirm that by the last week of May, they were getting one hour of power for every six hours without”–this as the temperature rose to 115 degrees. Female employees said that they were the victims of “stepped-up” harassment, pressing them not to drive cars and to dress conservatively, from wearing veils to full abayas.

If you can stand more bad news, consider a report by Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times that “increasing portions of the [Iraqi] middle class seem to be doing everything they can to leave the country.” This confirms with new evidence a trend reported earlier by the Times‘ Robert Worth. A quarter of the country’s middle class has acquired passports in the last 10 months. And the number of letters issued by the Ministry of Education permitting a parent to take his children’s academic records abroad doubled in the last year.

Betty Beale, a veteran columnist who covered Washington society for six decades, died this summer. Her obituary revealed that her romances included an affair with Adlai Stevenson. It will surprise more than a few readers to learn that the dumpy Stevenson, who definitely did not reek of sexual magnetism, actually had an extremely active romantic life.

Beale explained, “He wasn’t handsome; he did not have a physique that draws feminine raves. But he had a marvelous speaking voice, great charm, elegance, kindness and a delicious wit.”

Stevenson may have been even more of a Lothario than John Kennedy. One historian lists 10 women who succumbed to what one called his “emotionally promiscuous nature.” And Betty Beale did not even make that list. Nor did one other woman I knew who told me about her affair with Adlai. Still another female friend, as I’d recounted gossip about another affair he had had with a woman in London, became agitated and angry. It seems that she had been in London at the same time participating in similar activities with Stevenson, and couldn’t believe that practically simultaneously, Adlai was doing it with another lady.

Having just drifted into the realm of the frivolous myself, I can hardly adopt a high moral tone with this next item. But have you noticed how the cover stories of the newsmagazines–Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report–have been drifting away from serious subjects? A cover from the July issue of U.S. News illustrates the trend: “Secrets to a Stress-Free Summer.”

And Richard Cohen points out that “Time Inc., which reportedly paid about $4 million for pictures of Brangelina’s baby, recently let go two of the best investigative reporters in the business, Donald Barlett and James Steele. The company said it can no longer afford them.”

Barlett and Steele are among the very best. They have won the Monthly‘s journalism award several times and have often been cited in this column.

Back to West Virginia for a minute. I regret to report that the folkways of my native state continue to resist the injunctions of civics textbooks. The Charleston Gazette‘s Tom Searls recently revealed that “more than 6,000 dead people have been identified remaining on West Virginia’s voting rolls.” In another article, Searls reports that Glen Dale “Hound Dog” Adkins, the county clerk of Logan County, has pled guilty to selling his vote in 1996. “Hound Dog” had also been charged with “taking money from individuals to use to buy votes for them and others… in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002.”

In my book, How Washington Really Works, I argue that in this city, make-believe is widely viewed as the safest path to survival. Writing memoranda and attending meetings give the appearance of action, but avoid doing anything that risks upsetting the apple cart. The Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus offers a recent example. Whatever happened, she asks, to all that talk of lobbying reform in the wake of the Abramoff scandal? “Run out the clock” and “avoid the subject” were the formulas used by Congress. Hearings took up time and offered the appearance of doing something. Any threat to the members’ comfort, like requiring them to pay the actual cost of their rides on corporate jets, was avoided simply by agreeing not to let the matter come to a vote.

Another prominent Washingtonian who died this summer was William Hundley, who rose to prominence as the prosecutor who persuaded Joe Valachi to blow the whistle on the Mob, and then became the defense lawyer for such luminaries as John Mitchell and Vernon Jordan. His obituary tells of when he worked for the F.B.I in the 1950s. During that time, he said that the Communist Party of the USA was largely supported by J. Edgar Hoover: “His informants were nearly the only ones that paid their party dues.”

Hundley tells of reading one informant’s report: “I came across a line where a guy jumped up and said, ‘Let’s cut out all the bull. When are we going to start the revolution?’ I got excited and ran to the FBI supervisor. All the agents had a big huddle and they came back and said, ‘Well, you can’t use that, that’s one of our informants.’”

We have previously recounted the incompetence of the D.C. fire and emergency department in the death of New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum. Now comes the news that when another ambulance failed to answer an emergency call, an investigation revealed that the crew was parked on a side street, sound asleep.

One factor in the incompetence of the ambulance crews was recently reported by the Post‘s Colbert King, who discovered that answers on the test given to qualify technicians were distributed in advance of class.

Meanwhile our mayor Anthony Williams continues to be AWOL. Why stay in Washington dealing with all these sticky problems when he can travel? In the period between June 7th of last year and June 11th of this, he took 11 international trips, including three to London, where you can be confident he was not studying how to improve emergency medical services.

Usually the fellow who tells the Bush White House the truth gets punished. As, for example, were Lawrence Lindsey for being right about the cost of the Iraq war, and Gen. Shinseki for being right about the number of troops needed after Baghdad was taken. But recently, the administration actually promoted–or permitted John Negroponte to do so–at least one truth-teller. Thomas Fingar, who as director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research had refused to support the administration’s misrepresentations about Iraq’s nuclear program, has been named by Negroponte as his deputy in charge of analysis.

Another columnist, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, has an idea for the Democrats on how to deal with the cut-and-run accusation without getting into involved discussion of the timing of withdrawal. It is to say this to voters: “If you believe that the Iraq war is a success, vote Republican. If you believe it is a failure, vote Democratic.”

Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times has great sources among the federal air marshals. One of their concerns, she reports, is that “their guns are loaded with bullets capable of running through more than one person, metal doors, and thick glass,” penetrating most of the material in the plane. So that the bullet aimed at a terrorist could go through him to kill or injure another passenger or a crew member. It could also damage the plane’s hydraulic and flight control system, leading to catastrophe.

The marshals say that their present ammunition should be replaced by frangible bullets “which break into smaller pieces on impact and thus have limited power to exit the target.” Makes sense to me.

I fear the Bush administration is beyond shame. But if anything might penetrate their thick hides, it is this from an open letter to the secretary of the treasury, Henry Paulson, from the columnist Ben Stein, who is not some rad lib, but a certified conservative of long standing:

“May I suggest that having the lowest taxes in 65 years on high-income taxpayers is not really as prudent as it might be if we were not running stupendous deficits, with far worse in the future?”

Unfortunately, not all of the rich are as generous as Bill Gates. “The Walton family owns Wal-Mart stock worth more than $90 billion, more than twice the value of the Gates family’s Microsoft stock,” reports David Cay Johnston of The New York Times. “But the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is 35 times larger than the Walton Family Foundation.”

If you’re saying, “well, that’s only one family,” consider that 47.7 percent of estates worth $20 million or more gave not one cent to charity in 2004.

Back to Betty Beale. As many of you know, one of my minor crusades has been to persuade younger historians that they are wrong to depict the American public as ignorant of Franklin Roosevelt’s paralysis. A few years ago I asked Betty if people living in the ’30s and ’40s were aware that FDR could not walk unaided. Her answer: “Everyone knew.”

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Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.