Tilting at Windmills

After hearing Alberto Gonzales uttering the words I dont recall, I have no recollection, or I have no memory sixty-four times during his April 19 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and pondering the fact that Gonzaless former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, had said I dont remember 122 times before the same committee three weeks earlier, the Washington Posts Dana Milbank suggested that the Justice Department might want to consider serving ginkgo biloba at the employee cafeteria.

It seems that Gonzales and Sampson may well have gotten their bad-memory defense from the same source who told them who to fire and hire, namely, Karl Rove. You will recall that Rove managed to escape a perjury charge in the Valerie Plame case by returning to the grand jury to correct his previous testimony that he hadnt talked to Matt Cooper, and declaring that he had simply forgotten the incident at the time of his first appearance before the jury. His memory had been refreshed after his lawyer learned from a pal at Time that Cooper planned to tell the jury that Rove had been his source. Roves attorney, Robert Luskin, in a stunning display of persuasive advocacy, managed to sell this defense to Patrick Fitzgerald.

Now Luskin is using a variant of the defense to deflect accusations that Rove had anything to do with the Republican National Committees deletion of his e-mails that might have shown his role in Justice Department personnel decisions. Instead of I forgot, the defense is now I never knew. Luskin tells the Posts Michael Abramowitz that not only did Rove not know the messages had been deleted but that he has always understood that his RNC and campaign emails were being archived from very early in the administration. What is so impressive about this defense is that it cant be disproved.

He doesnt have the handicap that a lot of smart people have, which is that they come across as Youre not smart enough to talk to me, a friend of Barack Obamas tells the New Yorkers Larissa MacFarquhar. In that sense, the friend says, Obama is the opposite of Adlai Stevenson.

I cant tell you how those words delighted me. Ive long thought the Democrats began to lose their bearings in the 1950s, when they began to value seeming smarter than the next guy over seeing themselves as equals and talking to the rest of us with down-to-earth common sense.

My father, like many other Democrats of the thirties and forties, thought of himself as a common man. Indeed, a liberal leader of that era even wrote a book called The Century of the Common Man, a term that disappeared from the Democratic vocabulary with Stevensons emergence. But in the thirties and forties, men like my father valued the plain speaking of their heroesWill Rogers, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, who cared more about making themselves clear to the average American than showing how smart they were. And instead of feeling superior, as liberal intellectuals are especially prone to do, they could reach out to find common ground. Thats what we must do if were ever going to win anything like the five straight elections that Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman won.

I must say that I feel sorry for Marilee Jones, the MIT admissions director who recently resigned after admitting that she had lied about her credentials twenty-eight years ago. Certainly she shouldnt have done that. But now that she has performed the admissions job more than successfully for all that time, hasnt she proved that she is qualified? We put far too much emphasis on the possession of degrees compared to demonstrated ability. My favorite example was when Paul Blair was denied the opportunity to coach a high school baseball team because he didnt have an education degree, even though he just happened to have been a Major League player.

Im reminded of a conversation I had years ago with the late New Yorker writer Michael Arlen. I was telling him that the thing I liked about small towns in contrast to New York was that in New York, you encountered a lot of people who lied about or concealed facts about their background. In small towns, people know everything about you, so their judgments about you are based on what you really are. I liked that. Its better to know everything about each other than not to know what to believe.

But Arlen pointed out that many people come to New York to get a new start. And, though it might not be admirable for them to lie about their backgrounds to get the break they need, the new start could give them the chance to prove their ability. As Ive grown older and have become aware of the many talented people in New Yorkand in Los Angeles, where self-reinvention is also rampantwho have used embroidered resumes to get the opportunity to show what they could do, I became more forgiving, especially of those who proved to be able to do what they said they could do. The song New York, New York says that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere; maybe it needs to be amended to say that you may only be able to make it there.

Ive been dismayed by the misunderstandings of neoliberalism that Ive encountered lately on the part of people as smart as David Brooks. So Ive decided to make an attempt to more fully explain our beliefs, a regular feature of this column. One example in which our views appear to be more widely adopted is abortion, which weve long regarded as a legal right but a moral choice. The legal right part used to anger conservatives, while the emphasis on the moral choice upset many abortion advocates. But now an increasing number of liberals seem to be moving toward our point of view, as well as at least a few conservatives.

On defense, weve preached the need to be prepared with the best weapons and tactics for the military actions were likely to have to take. Our concern for being ready to use force does not imply an eagerness to do so. We think it only very rarely justifiedas it was in the case of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001. Far more often, we feel that diplomacy can attain our legitimate ends, especially when it is backed up by credible military power. This approach, we believe, could have avoided both wars against Iraq.

On criminal justice, we applaud getting violent criminals off the street, and the resulting decline in violent crime. At the same time, however, I think most neoliberals would be horrified by the news that California is planning to spend $8.3 billion to add 53,000 beds to its prisons. The prisons we already have are more than adequate to take care of the violent. All of those extra beds are being built to take care of the nonviolent, too many of whom are serving absurdly long sentences. My experience as a criminal lawyer in the 1950s convinced me that short sentences or probation are usually the best way to deal with the nonviolent, with probation almost always best for first offenders.

Washington Monthly alumnus Jason DeParle points out in a recent article in the New York Review of Books that there are now seven people out of every 1,000 in jail or prison today compared to one in 1,000 at the beginning of the century. Our rate of incarceration is also seven times that of the average Western European country.

Among the disturbing effects of this overuse of imprisonment on the rest of us, even those disinclined to sympathy for the incarcerated, is the 1.5 million people who are released from prisons and jails each year with an infectious diseasetuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV and drug-resistant staph infections. As for the former inmates themselves, the impact of their record on employment is dramatic. The disclosure of a prison record reduced the chances of getting a second interview by half for whites and by two-thirds for blacks, writes DeParle.

You can see why we favor alternatives to jail for the nonviolent. And although we value having the violent kept off the streets as long as they are dangerous, that time is not as long as most sentences now extend, ending in the midthirties for most.

Neoliberals dont agree on everything. Jason opposes capital punishment. I favor it, but only for the monsters like Ted Bundy, and only when the proof goes beyond eliminating reasonable doubt and reaches virtual certainty.

Sergeant Edelman Hernandez had completed his four-year enlistment in March. At twenty-three, he had a long life to look forward to, a future in which he could achieve his dreams. But even though he had completed his enlistment, including one year of combat in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, he was not allowed to come home. The U.S. Army is so short of manpower that Hernandez, like thousands of other soldiers, was retained. On April 11, he drowned while his unit was crossing a deep river in Afghanistan.

On February 2, Private Matthew Zeimer was killed in Iraq. He had been there exactly one week, after just nine weeks of basic training, and what Times Mark Thompson describes as a cut-rate, ten-day course in weapons use, first aid and Iraqi culture which, Thompson adds, is the same length as the course that teaches soldiers assigned to generals household staff the finer points of table service.

By contrast, after three and a quarter years of World War II, I can testify that infantry basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, was sixteen weeks. I know because I was there.

Practically everyone now knows that the Army is stretched far too thin. By last December, Colin Powell was already saying that the active army is about broken. Combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are being extended to fifteen months, with many soldiers returning for a heartbreaking third tour. Two American units are returning to Iraq after not having even a year at home. Equipment is as worn out as the troops. All this in a desperate attempt to save the reputations of Bush and Cheney. Never forget what Cheney said when asked why he had not served in Vietnam. I had other priorities. And never forget all those reporters who were conned by Karl Rove into giving more ink to questioning John Kerrys actual life-risking service in Vietnam than to questioning George Bushs evasion of serving there.

Why did the head of the Smithsonian, Lawrence Small, and his deputy, Sheila Burke, want to serve on the board of directors of the Chubb Group insurance company? Compensation of more than $100,000 each may have had something to do with it. Why did Chubb want them on the board? That may have had something to do with Chubb getting more than a half a million a year in insurance payments from the Smithsonian.

Motivation for board service fascinates me, especially where in contrast to the Smithsonian case there appears to be little or no compensation for the board members, which is often true with charitable or educational institutions. You begin to get a glimmer when you hear one board member say about another, Roger is so good at handling our finances. Hes a VP at First National, you know, and you happen to find out that the organizations funds are deposited at First National. Or suppose that Roger is a lawyer, and you hear another member of the board, who happens to be the CEO of a large company, say, Were so lucky to have Roger. He gives such sound advice. The light begins to dawn when the CEO adds, As a matter of fact, were going to ask Roger to be our corporate counsel.

A recent Israeli government report on Israels attack on Lebanon last fall condemns Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a serious failure of exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence in attacking Lebanon and criticizes Minister of Defense Amir Peretz for not grasping the basic principles of using military force to achieve political goals. The commission could have been talking about Bush and Rumsfeld.

Speaking of the media, David Carr of the New York Times recently pointed out that when Circuit City announced it was laying off 3,400 sales clerks, his paper published only a wire report inside its business section, and the Wall Street Journal ran a brief on B4. Carr adds that only four of the top twenty-five papers in this country have reporters assigned to the labor beat. The Times itself has increasingly become devoted to the interests of the upper classes. Not only is much of the papers advertising directed at the more affluent, but even more important, a large number of its editors and reporters and their spouses are now earning in excess of $200,000, and are firmly part of the upper middle class.

This helps explain why the Times has joined the crusade against the alternative minimum tax. In the words of the Times editorial page, most people who will owe the tax make between $200,000 and $500,000, and if you read the editorial carefully, you will learn that most means more than three-quarters.

It has to be a little bit worrisome that so much of the most influential mediaincluding the Times, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fairdepend on advertising that appeals to the well-heeled, and that much of their editorial staff belongs in the same economic group. If they question the wealthy, it is only the very richest, as the Times puts it.

A word of caution for Senator Edward Kennedy. He is working with Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming on a largely laudable bill to improve FDA oversight of drugs. What worries me about the bill is that it not only fails to improve the FDAs grossly inadequate system of food inspection but that it continues the FDAs reliance on fees from pharmaceutical companies to finance its drug reviews. Enormous lobbying power will be directed against any effort to make the FDA more effective. Thus, FDA reform is a major test of Democrats ability to free themselves from the clutches of K Street.

After reading for a month about the disgraceful student loan scandals, it was dismaying to pick up the May 1 Washington Post and learn from Amit R. Paley that six years ago, the Bush administration killed a proposal generated by the Department of Education in the last days of the Clinton administration to reform the student loan industry by eliminating many of the dubious practices that have recently been revealed. If you voted for Bush, you have to chalk it up as one of the worst mistakes of your life. And if it wasnt the absolute worst, you must have made some real lulus.

One of the loveliest government buildings in Washington, the Georgetown branch of the D.C. public library, was gutted by fire on April 30. One factor in the fires rapid spread, revealed in the next days Washington Post, was that two of the fire hydrants closest to the library were not functioning. This prompted me to ask, how many times have I seen fire hydrants being checked? The answer: in the forty-five years Ive lived in our house on a street with one fire hydrant, I have only seen it being checked twice.

Although all of us are grateful to firefighters for the bravery and skill they often display in dealing with danger, I wonder why they cant check hydrants more often. After all, their moments of peril punctuate long stretches of sitting around the station playing cards and watching television. Why cant some of that downtime be used for regular inspection of hydrants?

Jane E. Brody of the New York Times recently embraced a cause dear to all of us senior citizens, the need for more public toilets in our cities. Brody points to Sydney, Australia, where, on a recent visit, she found public toilets, lots of them, clean, neat, safe, free of graffiti, working flushes and faucets, and well-stocked with toilet paper.

This paradise will, I fear, be a long time coming to the United States. In the meantime, I endorse a tactic recommended by Brody: Walk into the nearest restaurant and head for the restroom. If interrupted by a head waiter who says the facilities are for customers only, proclaim a state of emergency. I find that the look on my face of genuine desperation always gets me by.

It is also wise to make a mental map of the exact location of toilets in restaurants, hotels, stores, and public buildings in the areas that you frequent in your city. When youre going out of town, Brody suggests you consult www.thebathroomdiaries. com for a list of toilets in the cities you plan to visit.

The announcement of our political book award for 1972 featured a drawing by Vint Lawrence of David Halberstam and two other authors, but the accompanying article did not mention Halberstam. How could such an absurdity have happened?

I had devoured The Best and the Brightest, and, having decided that it should at the very least share the award, commissioned the art from Vint. While he was working, two of our young editors lodged a powerful protest against giving the award to Halberstam. Thus, we had a drawing of Halberstam without an award for Halberstam.

Although there have been many times in the history of the Monthly that I have thanked the Lord for the young people who have tackled me before I crossed the wrong goal line, this was not one of them. I was mortified. I kept looking for ways to atone. And when the publisher of the New York Times decreed that Russell Baker had to leave our editorial advisory board, I offered David his place. He was forgiving enough to accept. We were honored. He was, quite simply, one of the very best journalists of the twentieth century.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.