Tilting at Windmills

I know you won’t believe it, but this is true: Major General George Weightman, who was in command of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center at the time the Washington Post uncovered the scandalous treatment of some of its wounded, has been assigned to command Fort Detrick, Maryland, where the Army does biological weapons research. Weightman had been in command of Walter Reed for six months when the Post story appeared, yet he did not have a clue about what it reported. If he demonstrates a similar gift for not knowing what’s going on down below at Fort Detrick, terrorists could make off with a pound or two of anthrax and dangerous biological agents could leak into Maryland’s groundwater or poison its air, all to the general’s surprise.

Ricochet, a new book by Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, describes an important fact about the NRA that also applies to other K Street lobbies. They exacerbate the fears of their members or clients in order to raise money that pays for the lobbyists’ salaries. “Drawing nice clean lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ to battle over makes for far more successful direct mail solicitations than actually solving problems,” observes Feldman.

This is another version of what I call the Washington equation: make-believe equals survival. Deep in every bureaucrat’s DNA is an awareness that if his agency actually solves the problem it is supposed to deal with, his agency would cease to exist, and he would be out of a job. It is, as Feldman says of the NRA, “better to fight than win.”

Feldman got into trouble with his former bosses at the NRA when he helped the Clinton administration persuade gun manufacturers to agree to voluntarily place locks on handguns. His NRA bosses hated the idea of even a voluntary standard on gun manufacturers.

A similar reaction to a voluntary regulation has recently come from some trade associations representing builders. The regulation in question, intended to protect workers from repetitive-motion injuries, was adopted by the American National Standards Institute, which involves business and labor as well as safety professionals in developing its rules.

Since the standard is totally voluntary, why are the trade associations against it? The answer is that, like the NRA, they don’t want to make any concessions. As Frank Burg, a safety expert, tells the Washington Post‘s Cindy Skrzycki, they will “do whatever they can to stop an ergonomics standard.”

Trent Lott is resigning from the Senate “to make some money” after serving only one year of the term to which he was last elected. This is an example of how the greed that dominates Wall Street has spread to Capitol Hill.

Even Robert Novak, not exactly a harsh critic of the GOP, thinks so. He reports that Lott’s annual income from his Senate salary, investments, and other sources is $289,710, and that his net worth is between $1.4 million and $2 million. Not exactly food-stamp territory. But as Novak observes, “for many in today’s Congress, big money trumps public service.”

If you think the CIA’s failure to notify the FBI that two of the 9/11 terrorists had arrived in the United States was an isolated incident, or only indicative of a lack of cooperation between those two agencies, consider a report made by the Bureau of Land Management inspectors before the Crandall Canyon mine disaster in Utah.

The inspector, Stephen Falk, warned that attempting to remove coal from the pillars that held up the mine roof would “result in hazardous mining conditions such as pillar bursts and roof falls,” which is, of course, exactly what happened last August. The Bureau of Land Management, however, chose not to show the report to the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration until after the disaster. No one even thought to do so. After all, the mine’s safety wasn’t their responsibility.

Bob Drogin, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, in his new book Curveball, tells the story of the CIA being duped by the former Baghdad taxi driver with that code name who invented the story of Saddam’s mobile biological weapons labs. But the tale Drogin recounts is redeemed by at least one CIA analyst, called Margaret, who had the sense to see that Curveball was a phony. Similarly, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius recently praised the CIA analyst who wrote two reports early in 2003 that accurately predicted the postinvasion chaos in Iraq. But, with the exception of the two analysts and a handful of other success stories, the CIA’s record is far from impressive.

Indeed, Ignatius himself, in his new spy novel, Body of Lies, confirms the picture of ineptitude depicted by Drogin and Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, concluding that even though his CIA hero is a good guy, “much of the agency is laughably incompetent.”

Speaking of spy novels that tell important truths, if you haven’t read Richard North Patterson’s Exile, be sure to do so. It has the most complete and sympathetic description I’ve encountered of both the Palestinian and Israeli sides to their long and bitter dispute. And speaking of fictional depictions of bitter antagonisms, the best I’ve seen on the struggle between pro-choicers and pro-lifers is a movie from 1996 called Citizen Ruth, which stars that marvelous actress Laura Dern and is also, by the way, very, very funny.

And while we’re on the subject of refusing to see the other side, I see a danger that my fellow antiwar liberals will fall into another rigiditybeing so antiwar that they are afraid to acknowledge facts that may not fit their case. I recently wrote a column for Newsweek bemoaning the failure of many liberals to acknowledge that the situation in Iraq is much improved since last spring. Crediting General Petraeus with his accomplishment does not mean we have to change our minds that the war was a bad idea and that the subsequent occupation has killed far too many Americans and Iraqi civilians. But it does mean that we should face the future implications of General Petraeus’s success.

Among those implications is at least one that liberals should love. By talking to Sunni tribal leaders who had been shooting at us, Petraeus was able to persuade them to stop killing our soldiers and go after al-Qaeda instead. We should be eager to emphasize this lesson to the Bush administration, which desperately needs to learn that talking to our enemies might just be a good idea.

While General Petraeus seems to be doing well now, and certainly performed admirably when he was in charge of the occupation of Mosul in 2003 and early 2004, there is an intervening period in his career that cries for critical examination.

He was in charge of training the Iraqi army in 2004 and 2005, a role in which he does not seem to have performed impressively. Indeed, Congress and the media need to investigate why we so totally screwed up training the Iraqi army and police.

The New York Times has taken a first step with an article describing how “the American military lost track of some 190,000 pistols and automatic rifles supplied by the United States to Iraq’s security forces in 2004 and 2005.” The article describes an Iraqi businessman who was given a contract to supply weapons to Iraqi police cadets from the Baghdad Police Academy armory. But “he also turned the armory into his own private arms bazaar,” the Times writes, “selling AK-47 assault rifles, Glock pistols and heavy machine guns to anyone with cash in hand.”

One of the dirty little secrets of the nonprofit world, including foundations and universities, is how little of their endowment many of them spend each year. Some foundations are required by the IRS to spend 5 percent of their endowment annually. But other nonprofits, including universities, face no such requirement. The average expenditure from college endowments is 4.6 percent, according to the National Association of College and University Business Managers. Amherst spent exactly that percentage for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2006, but its endowment grew by 15.8 percent the same year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Even the foundations that have to spend 5 percent can count the generous salaries they give their executives as part of that amount. And, most galling of all, they can also include the cost of mailing those letters in which they plead the direst need for you to send your contribution today. What I fear is true is that many of these supposed do-gooders are primarily concerned not with doing good, but with ensuring the continuing existence of the organization that pays their salaries.

You’ve probably heard about those six celebrity preachers Senator Charles Grassley is investigating for abusing their tax exempt statusfinancing their lavish lifestyles with the contributions of believers who often sacrifice to squeeze the money from their modest family budgets. And now the Associated Press has identified two other conspicuous offenders.

They are Oral Roberts and his son Richard. A former regent of Oral Roberts University who resigned in disgust told the AP that “the board practically ‘rubberstamped’ the use of millions in endowment money to buy a Beverly Hills property so that Oral Roberts could have a West Coast office and house,” with, by the way, a country club membership included. The former regent also said that Richard Roberts “once took an ORU regent and their wives to the South Pacific on a university jet just to get away for a few days.”

A pending lawsuit alleges that the university paid for a $39,000 shopping bill at just one store for Richard Roberts’s wife, a “$29,411 senior trip to the Bahamas on a university jet for one of the Roberts daughters, and a stable of horses for the Roberts children.”

Are you beginning to suspect that there might be a need for a major investigation, not just of these churches but of what goes on behind the respectable facade of nonprofits in general?

Back in 1986, this magazine warned in an article by Steven Waldman of the danger presented by inflated real estate appraisals. A few years later these appraisals proved to be a major factor in the savings-and-loan scandal. Now inflated appraisals are back, playing a starring role in the sub-prime debacle. Bank officials pressure appraisers to inflate the value of a house in order to increase the amount of the loan. A national survey of appraisers in 2006, according to Kenneth Harney of the Washington Post, reveals “that nine of 10 appraisers said they had recently been intimidated or otherwise pressured to raise valuations on homes.” And far too many of them agreed, in the words of one appraisal company executive, to “roll over and just do it.”

It was enterprising of Harney to dig up the 2006 survey. But it would have been better if he had done so when it came out, and even better if he and other journalists were to have reported a similar survey in 2003, which found 55 percent of appraisers being pressured. That kind of reporting might have actually prevented the sub-prime crisis.

Profits from the financial sector “account for 31 percent of total United States corporate earnings,” reports Gretchen Morgenson in the New York Times, “up from 20 percent in 1990 and 8 percent in 1950.” When you contemplate all the chicanery revealed by the sub-prime and other Wall Street scandals, aren’t you a bit concerned about the soundness of our economy?

Another sign that there’s something deeply unhealthy about the economy was pointed out by Warren Buffet when he testified before the Senate Finance Committee: the estate tax. He said, according to Bloomberg News, that tax laws over the last twenty years have benefited the super-rich, “including me, in a huge way.”

During that time, average Americans went exactly nowhere on the economic scale: they’ve been on a treadmill, while the super-rich have been on a spaceship.

Speaking of the gap between the rich and everyone else, here are two recent books I admireand you won’t find it hard to guess why I like them when you read the full titles and subtitles. One is The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing, by Greg Anrig. The other is Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill), by David Cay Johnston, in which even my favorite rich guy, Warren Buffet, does not escape unscathed.

Richard Nixon learned the hard way that congressional investigations can have impact. Even the threat of one can sometimes help. Consider the use of carbon monoxide to keep meat “looking red and fresh.” The technique definitely helps sales, and was approved by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe.” There’s one little problem, however, that caused the European Union to ban the practice: coloring meat “can mask visual evidence of spoilage.”

Representatives John Dingell and Bart Stupak of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to major food-store chains and processors asking how, in the words of the Washington Post‘s Rick Weiss, “the companies are ensuring that customers are not being fooled about freshness.” Several of the biggest decided to fold. Giant Food and Stop & Shop said they would stop buying colored meat, and Tyson Foods, a food processor, announced that it would abandon the practice.

Congress recently passed a bill to expand Head Start containing a “reform” that strikes me as pathetic. It requires at least half of the Head Start teachers to have a bachelor’s degree in education, but postpones the effective date of the requirement until 2013.

The tragedy of Head Start from its inception is that a great idea was too often ruined by too many incompetent and marginal teachers. Behind the problem was an insistence by community-action theorists of the 1960s that Head Start instructors must come from “the community.” If the community was largely uneducated, or the victim of third-rate schools, it wasn’t likely to provide the best-qualified teachers. Doing anything about the problem has been hampered by the fact that it might be interpreted as bigotry because a good many of the communities are black.

The District of Columbia’s chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, appears to be another subscriber to the style of management favored by General Weightman. His suspicions were not aroused when Harriette Walters, an employee of his, was making $62,000 to $81,000 from 2004 to 2007 while she was driving a Mercedes-Benz, wearing a mink coat, designer suits, and carrying a different Chanel handbag practically every day. If he had been even slightly suspicious, he would have discovered that she had spent $1.4 million at Neiman Marcusjust one of the different stores she frequentedand that she had managed to deposit $8 million in the bank and buy houses worth $2.3 million.

How had she acquired these funds? She and a colleague had bilked Gandhi’s office of at least $40 million in phony tax refunds that Gandhi had failed to notice, although auditors had pointed out that there were, to put it gently, an unusually high amount of refunds being paid by the office. But just as General Weightman has been rewarded with a promotion, Gandhi has been cited by Governing magazine as one of the top nine public officials in the country.

We have a problem in Washington, where identifying incompetent bureaucrats is often met with charges of racism. The reality is that the majority of the city’s employees are black, so a lot of the incompetents are black. This incompetence is probably worst at the administrative offices in D.C., where it is hard to find anyone who knows what he or she is doing.

Michelle Rhee, the new head of the D.C. school system, is trying to get authority to fire those who need to be fired. Predictably, some of the politicians are resisting.

A few weeks ago I was watching a city council meeting on televisionokay, I know this proves I’m a masochistas Rhee explained to the council that she only wanted the same authority they had to hire and fire their staff. Some council members bristled. She had them. Instead of admitting it, however, they became angry. It is still uncertain whether she will get the authority she needs.

In the meantime, administrative chaos continues in the D.C. schools. Consider student records and schedules. “Students, parents, and teachers,” reports Lonnae O’Neal Parker of the Washington Post, “say kids frequently have been put in classes they have already taken, scheduled for two classes at the same time and not scheduled for classes they need.”

I’ve been meaning to congratulate Time’s Mark Thompson for his investigative reporting on the U.S. military. In June, he cowrote an analysis of how Iraq had worn the Army out. And in October, he published a thorough expose of the V-22 Osprey, the hybrid helicopter-plane whose many defects the Marines have resolutely refused to face. Thompson’s headline told the story: “It’s unsafe. It can’t shoot straight. It’s already cost thirty lives and $20 billion. And now it’s headed for Iraq.”

The primaries are about to start. And as bunched up as they are, we could easily have nominees by the time our next issue appears. If there were more space between the primaries, I’m convinced Obama would be the Democratic nominee, and Huckabee the Republican.

I believe Obama would win because as voters get to know him, they will recognize that he is the only presidential candidate who has the potential for greatness.

As for Huckabee, it’s not that I agree with him on most issues, it’s simply that he and McCain come across as the only human beings among the Republican candidates. And McCain is ruled out by the hostility of the Republican right, which dominates the primaries.

But since this will be a short primary season, I fear that Obama and Huckabee will fall to more famous candidates. As for the general election, I think it will be a full-blown disaster if the Republicans win. On the other hand, I think that all the Democrats would make decent presidents.

Unlike most observers, I thought Obama and Clinton were at their best when they were supposed to have flubbed a question about driver’s licenses for illegal aliensHillary in Philadelphia, and Barack in Las Vegas. What they were doing in each case was trying to face the complexity of a very difficult problem, and to me they deserved great credit for doing so. Unfortunately, in Las Vegas Hillary took the politically expedient course of saying a flat no.

I think she also took the politically expedient course on the Social Security tax. When Obama said he would raise the current cap that prevents people from being taxed on income over $97,500, Clinton said she refused to “fix the problem of Social Security on the backs of middle-class families and seniors.” When Obama replied that “only 6 percent of Americans make more than $97,500 a year,” Clinton replied, “There are people who would find that [tax] burdensome … [like] firefighters … school supervisors.”

I’m sure that not more than a handful of American firefighters make more than $97,500. Even in New York City, where public employee salaries are high, a firefighter with five years of experience makes only $68,475. And even with overtime and holiday work, that sum can only rise to $86,518, according to the Washington Post‘s Joel Achenbach.

Just what Clinton meant by the school supervisors remains unclear, but again, only a handful of public school employees make over $97,500. The exception is top school superintendents, who are often well paid.

What fascinates me is that although Obama clearly seemed to have won the point, few commentators noted the fact that he had, and almost all of them said that Hillary had won the debate. This is, I think, a tribute to the very large percentage of the media elite who make more than $97,500 a year.

As for Hillary Clinton, there is of course much to admire. But what has troubled me the most since her arrival at the White House is her hostility to the press and what it means. (The best account I’ve seen of Hillary’s problems with the press is in Sally Bedell Smith’s For Love of Politics.) It was Hillary who ordered the door to the press room shut to cut off reporters’ access to the rest of the West Wing. It was Hillary who, in the winter of 1993 and 1994, exploited Bill’s guilt over Troopergate to refuse to give the Whitewater papers to the press, although virtually the entire White House staff urged her to do so. And it is Hillary who has displayed a disdain for holding press conferences second only to George W. Bush’s.

By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest president of the twentieth century, and John F. Kennedy, the president who showed during the Cuban missile crisis that he would have been great, loved talking to reporters. They were sufficiently open and unafraid to hold press conferences more frequently than any other president. We need a president who, like them, will not fear being questioned but will instead delight in it.

In addition to believing that Obama has the potential to be great, there are two other reasons I support him. Earlier this year I quoted a Democratic senator who told me that Obama was the only candidate who had even a remote chance of doing something about the growing hatred of the United States by Muslims. Andrew Sullivan makes this point eloquently in the December issue of the Atlantic.

My other reason for supporting Obama, as some of you will remember, comes from my own experience in the state legislature in West Virginia, where a substantial number of my colleagues shared a distaste for reform similar to that encountered by Obama in Illinois. So I have some idea of the skill and effort it took for him to get a tough ethics bill enacted. Even more impressive was his bill requiring the videotaping of murder confessions. This effectively put an end to the practice of coerced confessions that led to the execution of far too many innocents in the State of Illinois. There is nothing that Hillary Clinton has done in the Senate that compares in terms of demonstrating both courage and effectiveness to that achievement.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.