Tilting at Windmills

Lessons from TR

Karl Rove recently wrote an essay for Time magazine on the lessons to be learned from the life of Teddy Roosevelt. One lesson was not mentioned by Rove. Roosevelt not only served in the Spanish-American War, leading the famous charge up San Juan Hill, but offered to serve in World War I. All of his sons served in that war. Theodore Jr. was seriously wounded in 1918. He still managed to see action, even though his injury required him to walk with a cane, in the Normandy invasion in World War II 26 years later. And Quentin Roosevelt, flying one of those rickety World War I planes, was shot down and killed.

By contrast, David Stout of The New York Times reported in August of this year:
A White House aide who requested anonymity said that he knew of no top Bush administration official who had a relative who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Change of Hart

Jeffrey Hart is a senior editor at the National Review, long a conservative bible. But whatever enthusiasm he had for George Bush appears to be fading fast. He recently wrote:
The common denominator of a successful president, liberal or conservative, has been that they were realists. Because Bush is an ideologue, removed from fact, he has failed comprehensively and surely is the worst president in American historyindeed in the damage he has caused the nation, without a rival in the race for the bottom. Because Bush is generally called a conservative, he will have poisoned the term for decades to come.

I agree with Hartbe sure to see his article on p.40about the worst president, and pray that he is right about the fate of conservative. Its time those guys paid the price for turning liberal into a dirty word.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%Forgotten casualties

Most people know that the number of Americans killed in Iraq has passed 2,600. But, as I have often complained, we hear the wounded figure much less frequently. In fact, it may already have hit 20,000.

The last figure I have from late August was 19,511and many of their wounds are horrendous. Because of improved roadside bombs, the number of wounded each month almost doubled over the first seven months of this year, reports The New York Times. Furthermore, The Washington Post gives a minimum estimate of 40,430 Iraqi fatalities and a maximum of 44,969. According to the latest figures, that number is now growing at the alarming rate of 3,500 a month.

Bush really is the worst president.

Another of Karls omissions

Another of TRs lessons that seems to have escaped Rove is that as early as 1916, TR was urging President Wilson to raise taxes to pay for the war that was coming.

Interestingly enough, another hero of Roves is Wendell Willkie. For a graduate class at the University of Texas, Rove wrote one of the best accounts Ive seen of Willkies amazing rush from nowhere to win the 1940 Republican nomination. Needless to say, however, it did not mention the fact that in 1943, Willkie urged Franklin Roosevelt to raise taxes even more than FDR was raising them to pay for World War II. This was when FDR was well on the way to a top rate of 90 percent, and was urging that all incomes be limited to $25,000 a year.

Smooth operators

Hospital executives were recently treated to a free trip to a luxury resort in Colorado featuring free golf and harmonic hot stone massages. They were also paid several thousand dollars each for advice.

Who were the generous hosts? Companies like Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, and GE Healthcare. And what was the advice the executives were to give these companies? It concerned, according to Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times, how the companies could most effectively go about selling their products to the hospitals run by the executives. In other words, the chickens were being bribed by the foxes into providing the key to their coop.

Home alone

NPRs Margot Adler has discovered a new reason for the Bowling Alone phenomenon. It is the McMansions that have been going up all over the country in the last decade. One man explained to her that with everything he needed in the house, theres no reason to go out.

Give Junior a break

When todays grandparents, a group that includes Beth and Charlie Peters, get together, one of the most common laments involves the over-scheduling of grandchildren. Todays parents seem to think they have to provide an hour by hour program of activities for little Jason and Jennifer. Mom and Dad arrange everything from soccer practices to viola lessons to fill the kids day.

What concerns the grandparents is the lack of room left for the child to develop imagination and initiative. From my earliest conscious memory, which goes back to my fourth year, vast amounts of the dayexcluding only public school and Sunday schoolwere left for me to play with toys and later read on my own, or to go out and play. Indeed, those words constituted almost the only what-to-do instruction given by my parents.

I was fortunate to spend my childhood in neighborhoods, whether urban or rural, where there were plenty of kids nearby. Still, it was up to me to initiate social contact and make friends. The only exceptions were occasional play and birthday parties my parents arranged with the children of their friends. Otherwise, it was always up to me to think of what to do when I played alone, or to join with other kids to think of what we would do together. I cant help believing that was good for me, and that the loss for todays children is not good.

The Democrats dilemma

Ordinarily, Im on the side of those who believe that concerns for national security must be balanced and often outweighed by concerns for civil liberties. Nonetheless, in my heart I know the Democrats could lose this electionand almost certainly will lose the next presidential raceunless they make absolutely clear that in the rare cases when this country is in real and imminent danger of attack, Democratic leaders will favor doing whatever has to be done to protect the American people. The problem is not only that the Democrats have failed to communicate this idea. Its that too many of them dont seem to comprehend that such a stand is necessary.

Bad medicine

You have heard a good deal from this column about the severe shortage of relevant skills among the District of Columbias emergency medical technicians. Errors by the EMTs have been so glaring that an Inspector Generals report said a recertification program for the technicians was critical for public safety.

So a recertification program was launched, consisting of 40 hours of training, followed by written and practical skills exams. But suddenly in July the recertification program was cancelled. Why?

I was intrigued by one explanation buried at the end of the long story by Matthew Cella of The Washington Times: the federal government gave less than the anticipated reimbursement for service provided for federal events.

What events? I asked. Then I recalled that the White House routinely deploys D.C. police to escort motorcades every time the president leaves the White House by car. On looking further into the matter, I discovered that a D.C. fire truck and ambulance attend every departure and arrival of the presidential helicopter on the White House lawn. I asked Lucy Kennedy, a Monthly intern, to look into whether the fire department was reimbursed for its services. The answer came back: No.

Thus the White House has been at least partially responsible for the cancellation of the recertification program. This reminds me of the failure of our Middle East policy, which has constantly heightened the danger for America, just as now the failure to reimburse the fire department increases the risk to the president. If his helicopter crashes, what if he is treated by the clowns who totally fouled up in the case of David Rosenbaum?

Reality bites

His friends tell us that Josh Bolten, since becoming Bushs chief of staff, has made a valiant effort to forge a connection between the White House and reality. And he does appear to have made at least some progress. He took a step in the right direction with the appointment of Tony Snow as press secretary. Snow is not only likeable, but usually manages to avoid the more blatant forms of obfuscation and flim-flam that we have come to associate with the Bush administration.

Alas, however, Bolten has had less success in hooking his boss up with the real world. Two statements Bush made after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon are illustrative. At a Pentagon meeting, he expressed shock that thousands of Iraqis had attended a pro-Hezbollah, anti-American demonstration in Baghdad. At another gathering, he said that the war had been a defeat for Hezbollah. Incredible.

Bad Democrats

Speaking of the Middle East, it sometimes seems like the Democrats are almost as bad as Bush. This summer, when the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, dared to distance himself from his American sponsors by criticizing Israels excessive response to Hezbollahs provocation, Democratic congressional leaders demanded that Maliki retract his criticismeven though it was painfully obvious to almost everyone else that Maliki had to speak up if he was to have any credibility with the people of Iraq.

Not again

I am proud of the fact that the Monthly anticipated the savings and loans crash of 1989, which cost the taxpayers more than $150 billion to bail out. It did so with an article by Kenneth Weiss (Banking on Unreal Estate, February 1986) that identified one factor that proved significant in causing the crash: inflated appraisals. When a buyer makes a bid on a new house and goes to a financial institution to get a loan, an appraisal is required as a condition to the loan. If the appraisal is lower than the price bid, the deal, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, is likely to fall through.

Mortgage brokers and loan officers often want the loan to go through, either because of the commission they earn, or because of their loans made statistics. To understand the cynicism that operates here, the institution that originates the loan usually sells the loan to another organization, so the originator doesnt have to pay the price for its sins. Brokers and loan officers also tend to choose appraisers who are known for the generosity of their valuation. Indeed, gaining such a reputation tends to enhance the appraisers prospects.

In a housing boom, all this is not a problem, but when the market cools off, the inflated appraisal means the buyer may not be able to sell the house for enough to repay the mortgage. This means trouble for the buyer and for the institution that owns the loan. And the Journals James Haggerty and Ruth Simon warn that this could be happening soon.

They will fight on the beaches

Sen. Tom Coburn is suspicious about the amount of money the government spends on conferences. Last year he found that the Pentagon alone sent 30,000 military and civil service employees to 6,600 conferences at an average cost of $2,200 per person, reports Stephen Barr at The Washington Post. That the Senators suspicions are not groundless is suggested by his discovery that 98 of the conferences were held in Hawaii, 224 in Las Vegas and 663 in Florida in the middle of winter.

Say it aint Joe

Just after losing the Connecticut primary to Ned Lamont, on the day when the terrorist plot to bring down civilian airliners bound from London to the United States was revealed, Joe Lieberman said, in a quote that deserves to live in infamy, that for this country to follow Lamonts Iraq policy would be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up those planes in this plot hatched in England.

Of course it would. But that doesnt cleanse the slime from Liebermans statement. By following policies ardently advocated by Lieberman, we have so inflamed Islamic opinion that almost all of the Muslim world is now against us. Sure, theyre going to cheer when we leave. But that in no way changes the fact that we were wrong to invade Iraq and would be right to go.

On thin ice

If you hadnt taken global warming seriously, you might begin to suspect we have a problem when you hear a finding by Professor Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University, reported by The Washington Posts Doug Struck: In Peru, Quelccayas ice cap shrunk only four yards between 1963 and 1978. Between 2000 and 2002, it retreated at a rate of 360 yards a year.

Polarized at the Post

Two days after Lieberman announced he would run for the Senate as an independent, The Washington Post endorsed his candidacy. You have to wonder why they pulled the trigger so fast. Maybe its because they still cant admit they were wrong to support the war in Iraq. At least in the case of Iraq, the Post now seems as polarized as The Wall Street Journal has been for years: The news columns tell truths that the editorial page ignores.

The greatest deal

I just received a copy of Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream by Edward Humes. Not having read it, I can only say the subtitle sounds like the author is on the right track. I believe that the G.I. Bill, which gave college educations to eight million veterans of World War II, was one of the greatest social advances in American history.

People like one of my Columbia roommates, Bob Williams, who had been an electrical worker and had never even thought of higher education as a possibility, were able to get college degrees. Bob, having endured the freezing cold and terror of the Battle of the Bulge, richly deserved the reward his country gave him. But it was the country that profited immensely from the education Bob and all those other veterans received. Not only did it move them and their families, which in that era meant 30 million people, solidly into the middle class, it trained them for the jobs that powered the lasting postwar prosperity.

When historians tell us that the New Deal ended in the late 1930s, or at the very latest, at the onset of World War II, I want to say, Wait a minute, what about the G.I. Bill? It was passed in 1944, the last full year of the war and of FDRs life.

Playing to the base

There has been a lot of really fine reporting from Iraq. Some of the best has been by Aparisim Ghosh. If you can lay your hands on the August 14th issue of Time, read his Baghdad Diary. It fortified my conclusion that whether we leave or stay, Iraqs foreseeable future is grim. One of the many seemingly insuperable obstacles to ending the violence described by Ghosh, and one that I had heard little about before, is the absence of an Iraqi leader who could unite the country.

Politicians, writes Ghosh, have discovered that the easiest way to win votes is to appeal to sectarian chauvinists. The country desperately needs a Nelson Mandela but in three and a half years of covering Iraq, Ive not come across a single leader who has seemed able to rise above petty political or sectarian interests.

Never mind a Mandela. There is not even an Iraqi Hamid Karzai. The beleaguered Afghan president has more credibility with his people than any Iraq politician could honestly claim.

Worth a read

By the way, Im troubled by the fact that Time and Newsweek are ignored by a lot of smart people, especially the young. Both magazines have been criticized in these pages, most recently for their increasing tendency to favor cover stories that seem better suited to People and Parade. Still, they both have a goodly number of first-rate reporters like Times Mike Allen, and gifted writers like Newsweeks Evan Thomas, and are worth a look each week.

Thats insane

The Department of Agriculture is cutting its testing for mad cow disease by 90 percent, reports the Associated Press. The test, instituted in 2003 when the disease was first discovered in an American cow, is being cut back even though two more cases of the disease have turned up in the United States and another quite recently in Canada. Consumers Union thinks every cow slaughtered should be tested. But even before the cutback, the Department of Agriculture was testing only one percent of the cows slaughtered. Now it will be one tenth of one percent. Cattle owners are delighted. Are you?

If at first you dont succeed

Another example of the Bush administrations zealous regard for the haves has been the effort to abolish the estate tax. This summer, Senate Democrats were able to fight off the most recent attempt to cut the tax. But the administration has found another way to achieve its objective. They are crippling enforcement. According to David Cay Johnston of The New York Times, the IRS is cutting the jobs of 157 of the agencys 345 estate-tax lawyers.

Tax fairness?

Speaking of tax policy that favors the haves, The Charleston Gazette recently reported that the poorest 25 percent of West Virginians pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than the richest 25 percent.

Poison Ivy

One reason todays parents over-schedule their kids is another cultural phenomenon much lamented by grandparents: parental pressure on Junior to get into Harvard. His activities must be planned to not only achieve high SATs, but the kind of extracurricular resume thought to impress admissions directors.

The problem is that this lament, though often repeated in this column and elsewhereindeed, most recently in Time and Newsweekseems to have no effect on todays parents. Their Ivy League obsession just becomes nuttier.

A stunning example comes from a clinical psychologist, Madeline Levine, in an interview with The Washington Posts Sandra Boodman: I just had parents [who] came into my office with their crying daughter and said, We just wasted $160,000. Why did they think that? Because they sent their kid to private school, and now she wants to go to the University of Colorado.

Getting to the polls on time

Eighty-one percent of Republicans are almost certain to vote in November, and 14 percent say they are very likely to do so, according to Paul Bedard of U.S. News & World Report. What this means to me is, however good the opinion polls may look to the Democrats, they better make sure they get their voters to the real polls.

The slot machine

When this magazine began publishing in 1969, the most neglected field of study by anthropologists was the culture of modern organizations. The Monthly, to remedy this problem, inaugurated a feature called The Culture of Bureaucracy, but it had little impact on other journalists for the next decade. By the early 1980s however, Japans economic success, compared to ours, had ignited interest in the culture of business organizations, and that interest has continued. Today The Wall Street Journal has a column by Jared Sandberg called Cubicle Culture. Im a fan.

Not long ago, Sandberg wrote, How do you say no to a yes man? His answer:
The problem is you cant say no to a yes man. Having rarely uttered it, they dont value the currency of a no. No matter how deftly delivered, a no to a yes-man is transformed into one of corporate Americas most career-limiting charges: Youre not a team player.

This is true in government as well as in business. Indeed, there are often carry-over truths about cultures that can help denizens of one understand another. For instance, I often tell reporters for larger papers like The Washington Post that their own experience can help them understand what happens or doesnt happen in government. An example is the slot syndrome.

For years at the Post, an applicant to work in one section wouldnt be hired if they had no slots for that section, even though jobs were available in several other sections of the paper. Sometimes, of course, real expertise was relevant, so that knowing something about baseball was handy in covering baseball. But more often the same talents were needed in several different sections, but the applicant would be turned away if they didnt have the right slot. This happens all the time in government.

Jobs are usually established to fill real needs. Yet even when the real need disappears, the slots often remain. Supervisors cling to their slots even when no longer justified, because the number of employees under each supervisor often determines not only his bureaucratic units budget, but his own rank, salary and clout.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.