Tilting at Windmills

Veterans Defend VA Care was the headline over a recent article by Kate Long in my hometown paper, the Charleston Gazette . You couldnt be treated any better than they treat you here, a local veteran told Long, describing the treatment of patients at the Charleston Veterans Health Administration Clinic. Another veteran said: They treat you with respect. You got a problem, they get onto it. Any test you need, you get it. The much larger veterans hospital in nearby Huntington, West Virginia, where more specialized care is provided, received similar reviews.

Cynics might suggest that the excellent care for West Virginians reflects the states two senators, Robert C. Byrd, whose record for bringing home the bacon is unexcelled, and John D. Rockefeller IV, who happens to be a former chair of the veterans affairs committee.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%But the fact is that veterans hospitals nationally have been praised not only by this magazine (The Best Care Anywhere, by Phillip Longman, January/February 2005), but also by the New England Journal of Medicine, the Annals of Internal Medicine , and BusinessWeek , which said they provide the best medical care in the U.S.

This doesnt mean, however, that there arent problems, either present or looming. From the recent Bob Woodruff special on ABC, we know that VA hospitals werent prepared for the influx of brain injuries caused by IEDs in Iraq. Furthermore, most World War II veterans are now in their eighties, the time when health problems multiply. Korean veterans will join them in just a jiffy. And not long ago, Congress extended the care responsibility for VA hospitals from only those with service-connected illnesses and disabilities to veterans with any health problems. Additional budget requests and congressional appropriations have not kept up with these increases.

Nor have they kept up with the need to respond to disability pension applications from returning Iraq War veterans. This problem, first identified by the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) in 2004, now causes lengthy delays in payments that are desperately needed by families of the seriously disabled. Finally, the present head of the VA, James Nicholson, a Bush appointee, is not impressive. When Bob Woodruff was trying to make the point that a large number of veterans are coming to the VA with previously undetected brain injuries, Nicholson replied, A lot come in for dental problems.

All this demonstrates that important improvements are needed at the VA, but we should also be sure that we maintain the impressive strengths of its medical care and do nothing to reverse the progress that has been made.

For those Republicans and other conservatives who seem to think that all regulation is bad, I recommend a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Daniel Michaels and Alan Cullison that shows that the least-regulated airlines have the worst safety records. The bad records tend to be in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, where regulation is lax or nonexistent. The worst offenders are Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, and Equatorial Africa, which dont check on whether the planes they license actually fly. Airline operators are imitating the ship owners who registered their leaky dilapidated vessels in Liberia and Panama to avoid the slightest scrutiny of their seaworthiness.

A recent glimpse into the life of the elite was provided by Mrs. Daniel Snyder, the wife of the owner of the Washington Redskins, who observed, Almost everyone I know has a nanny. Indeed, you might say that the nanny is only the tip of the iceberg for the households of the wealthy. Running mansions needs many pairs of hands, reports Celeb Staff , a publication called to my attention by the Washington Post s Peter Carlson. Among the many folks attached to these hands, he explains, are an estate manager, house manager, personal assistant, chef, chauffeur, housekeeper, houseman, butler, baby nurse, ladys maid, and, of course, the nanny. And there can be several of each of these employees in order to provide the twenty-four-hour service to which the rich have become accustomed. Mrs. Snyder, for example, was recently sued by her night-shift nanny.

The Jeff Gerth Award for 2007 goes to Mike McIntire and Christopher Drew of the New York Times for Obama, in Brief Investing Foray in 05, Takes Same Path as Donors. Gerth, you may recall, is the Times reporter who in 1993 produced the countless paragraphs of dense prose about Whitewater that implied a major scandal involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. Neither his story nor an exhaustive investigation by Kenneth Starr and his legion of gumshoes, plus the right-wing scandal machine financed by Richard Mellon Scaife and other Clinton haters, found proof of involvement by the Clintons in anything crooked connected with Whitewater.

The purported scandalous revelation in the new Times article by McIntire and Drew leads with the implication that Obama benefited from stock tips from two of his donors, one of whom is now at the center of an FBI inquiry. But what is the evidence of Obamas benefit from his investment? In one transaction, he made $2,000: in the other, he lost $15,000. Is there any showing that he used his public office to benefit either company? Not a shred. The Jeff Gerth Award, as you can see, is richly deserved.

There have been a number of recent articles, including one on Newsweek.com and another in the L.A. Times , about a growing openness of evangelicals to a Christianity that emphasizes help to the needy and responsibility for the environment. My son Chris tells me he has seen this tendency among the evangelicals in the church he attends in California. In a tiny but revealing illustration of whats going on, his pastors son just gave his son the middle name Bono. The secret, Chris said, is to be able to talk frankly and unashamedly about what Christ means to you. If you can do that, you will find a growing number of evangelicals ready to talk about what Christianity requires that we do for our fellow man.

To me, one of the greatest mysteries of Whitewater was why the White House resisted making public all the relevant documents in late 1993 after the Times article had caused an outcry by the press demanding them. Its failure to do so led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, and to the endless torment for the Clintons that ensued. I subsequently learned that the only person who resisted giving the documents to the press was Hillary. The only thing she had to cover up was the investment tip from Robert L. Red Bone that made her $100,000. It was not even crooked. But it would have proved to be embarrassing when revealed, as indeed it did when that finally happened.

This trait of Hillarys is why Im so uncomfortable with her candidacy for president. Otherwise I find her a completely likeable human beingits hard to overstate her one-on-one charmand an impressive public servant. But her one weakness is a dismaying one for a president. It is a desire to appear perfect that cannot permit her to admit a mistakelike taking advantage of the Red Bone tip, or voting for the Iraq War.

Recently the right-wing columnist Robert Novak spotted more evidence of this problem: Hillarys statement in her recent Selma speech on how impressed she had been hearing Martin Luther King speak in Chicago in 1963. Had she forgotten, Novak asked, that Barry Goldwater, whose presidential campaign she ardently supported a year after being so impressed by Dr. King, was a dedicated opponent of civil rights legislation? In the past, Hillary herself has disclosed her support for Goldwater, but it was not mentioned in Selma. Im afraid that the Selma speech means a persistence of Hillarys desire to gild her own lily to the point where the truth is denied or at least forgotten. But I still think highly of her and wish her the bestif not as president, then as senator for life.

One of the few good things to come out of the disastrous war in Iraq has been the growing number of gays permitted to serve their country. The number of discharges for violations of the dont ask, dont tell policy has dropped from more than 1,200 in 2001 to less than half that number last year. It just goes to show how nothing inspires tolerance like need.

To the extent that media attention is given to the sins of the Bush administration, it is to the more conspicuous that airtime and newspaper space tends to be devoted, unhappily to the exclusion of other stories of official malfeasance or nonfeasance. Among the recent examples that deserve more attention than they have gotten:

A Washington Post story about how Bush political appointees had ordered a Justice Department lawyer to weaken a case against the tobacco industry.

A New York Times story about how IRS agents are pressed to close corporate tax cases prematurely, allowing billions in tax dollars to go unpaid.

Another Post story about how the FDA is allowing antibiotics to be used in animals, a practice that can ultimately cause the development of human resistance to those drugs. This has already happened to a drug given to poultry that was effective against anthrax and serious forms of diarrhea, but to which humans have developed immunity by eating poultry products.

A Times story about how the Bush administration has let an industry lobbyist edit government climate reports to play up uncertainty about a human role in global warming, or play down evidence of such a role.

Still another Times story describing how the IRS is asking tax lawyers and accountants who create tax shelters and loopholes to take the lead in writing some of its new tax rules. The article quotes Paul Light, a professor of political science at NYU: Its the fox designing the henhouse.

The result of these and many similar stories is to demoralize the best career public servants who have tried to do the right thing only to be overruled by jerks.

An unfortunate consequence is that one of the few good innovations proposed by the Bush administration, an effort to make pay raises for civil servants reflect merit more than just hanging on, is opposed by most civil servants and their unions. The bureaucrats traditional resistance to evaluation has been heightened by their experience of the past six years: they dont trust the Bush gang to decide who is meritorious. And neither do I.

The Rosenbaum family has done something wonderful. You may recall how the death of New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum was partially attributable to the failure of D.C. emergency medical personnel to determine the real cause of his problema blow to the head instead of drunkennessand their subsequent decision not to take him to the nearest emergency room, but to a hospital that just happened to be conveniently located on their way home. Rosenbaums family had filed a $20 million suit against the city. But they have offered to forgo the money in return for a commitment by the city to improve emergency services within one year.

Wouldnt it be lovely if more litigants sought solutions to a problem, instead of big bucks? Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine lawyers, practically tasting their third or more of a juicy verdict, agreeing to take cases that might be settled the Rosenbaum way.

If you wonder why increasing numbers of mayors are proposing to take over local schools, a recent chart published by USA Today provides illumination. The chart shows that test scores improved after the takeover by Chicagos mayor for pupils in grades three through eight compared to the national average, and in New York for the fourth and eighth grades after a similar takeover by its mayor. In New York, the improvement in the mathematic percentage almost doubled in both grades. The overall results were even a bit better in Chicago and occurred in both math and reading.

Takeover by a mayor, however, provides no automatic assurance that schools will improve. The mayor has to be willing to face problems that elected school boards have traditionally avoided, like how to get rid of incompetent teachers and principals and attract talented replacements. Perhaps most difficult of all is the need to shake up the administrative bureaucracies that have often become so preoccupied at protecting their own jobs and benefits that they neglect even their most basic responsibilities, like keeping school buildings in a decent state of repaira scandal in Washington and many other cities. All the bad guys have entrenched support groups that know how to place minefields in the way of reformers who dare take them on.

Residents of a FEMA trailer park for Katrina victims were recently shocked by loud knocks on their door from officials who told them they had to pack and be ready to leave in forty-eight hours. Why the sudden rush?

That is the obvious question. But it took the article in the Washington Post describing the event nineteen paragraphs to share the answer with readers: FEMA was reacting to a story by the Daily Star of Hammond, Louisiana, criticizing FEMA for letting the electric bills for the park go unpaid so often that the power was turned off on three separate occasions.

Quite frankly, we received press earlier that week that pointed the finger at FEMA for not paying the bills. We were getting beaten up, the Post quoted
FEMAs Jim Stark. At this point we said, enough is enough.

The residents were transferred to other parks, some a considerable distance away. Most are unhappy at their new locations. Wouldnt it have been better for FEMA to pay the electric bills?

Drug companies are so afraid of competition from cheaper genericsdrugs that have the same combination of ingredients possessed by the name brands and that come out after the name drugs patent has expiredthat they are taking elaborate steps to keep the generics off the market. One, recently reported by NBCs David Faber, is to bribe the generic makers not to sell their version. As one physician points out: Imagine a Super Bowl game where one team writes a check to the other to keep its star quarterback on the bench.

Has the Freedom of Information Act accomplished its purpose in making federal records available to the public? You dont need to have lived in Washington very long to know the answer to that one: A review of 149 federal agencies, conducted by the nonprofit National Security Archive and reported by the Washington Post s Elizabeth Williamson, found that only one in five posts on its website all the records required, and that even fewer6 percenttell people how to request what does not appear there.

The insanity of the sub-prime lending spree must have reached its peak when a California mortgage broker persuaded a seventy-year-old woman to take a mortgage requiring payment of $2,200 a month, when her income was less than half of that.

How could this have happened? Even if the broker had acted unwisely, shouldnt the lending institution, New Century Financial Corp., have rejected the loan application? Unfortunately it appears that in their frenzy to make loans, no one at New Century even looked at the application. If they had, they could not have failed to notice that, according to the Wall Street Journal , the applicants income section was blank.

The New Yorker s George Packer, who has been one of my allies in the effort to get some attention paid to the need to rescue our Iraqi friends as the situation there disintegrates, recently asked a young Iraqi why he had little hope in finding asylum in the United States. The answer:

This is exactly what happened in Vietnam. We waited until the very last minute to admit failure. So we were able to save far too few of our friends.

Speaking of Iraq, did you catch the NBC Nightly News Brian Williamss first report from there? As an Army colonel was telling him how much safer Ramadi has become with the recent American troop surge, a frantic-looking soldier yelled that they had to move because it was too dangerous to continue staying in the open.

That advice, given to a young lawyer considering leaving a large law firm to go into public service, was fondly recalled at the funeral of the adviser, the late Senator Thomas Eagleton, by Senator Claire McCaskill, the grateful beneficiary. It is the same advice Ive given over and over again to young lawyers who were tempted to stay at the firms because of the prospect of a bright financial future. But therein lies the snare. As Tom pointed out, the longer they stay, the harder it is to leave. Their rising incomes and generously paid colleagues introduce them to a world of fine cars, fine wine, and gourmet food, of large houses in the better neighborhoods, of expensive private schools and universities, and all the other accessories of the good life that rarely come at bargain prices. Even if the desire for public service continues, they soon come to feel they cant afford it. Or, when they finally feel rich enough, its too late in life to get the jobs they want.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the president of Understanding Government, a nonprofit dedicated to better government through better reporting.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.