When I last attended church regularly, my pastor, like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, was a good man in many ways but had a few truly bizarre ideas. For one thing, he was obsessed with the cause of the Chinese Nationalists who had retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by the Communists. He even seemed willing to risk World War III by having the U.S. help the Nationalists retake China. During such sermons, I usually tuned him out and used the time for the kind of contemplation and reflection not possible during a busy workweekwith, I must admit, a passing thought or two about sex or my favorite sports. If I had run for president, would I have been accused of advocating World War III because I had gone to that church?
It was dismaying to read recently in the Washington Post that the Iraqi army still needs more training and better equipment. Part of the fault lies with the U.S. military, including with General Petraeus, who was responsible for training Iraqi forces in 2004.
But part of the responsibility for equipping troops lies with the Iraqi government. Now we learn, from a Government Accountability Office report summarized by the Associated Press, that the Iraqi government is not “spending much of its own money, despite soaring oil revenues that are pushing the country toward a massive budget surplus.” All this as we are on the road to spending $2-3 trillion and running massive budget deficits, because of Iraq!
The recent passport scandal has been treated by the media as simply a State Department story, without any suggestion that it is symptomatic of a government-wide problem of people at the top not knowing what is going on down below and making far too little effort to find out. Good news travels up the bureaucratic ladder with lightning speed. But bad news tends to be buried, since no one wants to tell the next fellow up the ladder, for fear that the bearer of the bad news will be blamed, and his or her career will suffer. And sometimes the people at the top don’t reach down for the truth because they fear it will conflict with their policies, or simply because they hope the bad news can be buried until their successors can be blamed for it.
This failure of the bureaucratic top to communicate with the bureaucratic bottom has recently been illustrated in the case of the twenty-eight-mile “virtual fence” built along the Arizona-Mexico border at a cost of $20 million. It seems that the fence, complete with its high-tech sensors and cameras, has been built, according to Jerry Seper of the Washington Times, without any consultation with the field agents who will use it. Needless to say, the goal of the fence, to detect 95 percent of illegal crossings, has not been met.
And speaking of bureaucracy, the local baseball team is trying to find enough parking space for fans coming to the new stadium. It looked into the possibility of using an empty federal garage nearby. The team’s owners got the city to pay for the stadium; now they want to get the government to provide parking. So it is difficult to have any sympathy for their problem. Still, here is the list of agencies that, according to the Washington Post‘s Marc Fisher, must grant permission for use of the garage: the Federal Protectors Service; the Department of Justice; the General Services Administration; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and five different offices of the Department of Transportation.
And since part of the document that Fisher relied on for this story was redacted “to protect national security,” it seems likely that intelligence agencies are also involved.
There are some signs that the Obama campaign plans to sit on its lead, running out the clock in the hope that Hillary Clinton will not be able to overtake Obama in pledged delegates and the popular vote. I urge them to attend to the fate of Thomas E. Dewey in the 1940 Republican convention, which he entered with 400 of the 501 votes needed to secure the nomination.
Dewey not only had 80 percent of the votes he needed, but he had won by large margins in every primary he contested and enjoyed a wide lead in the public opinion polls. But in the final three months of the campaign, an unknown candidate named Wendell Willkie emerged from literally nowhere0 percent in the polls on April 1to command the media’s attention and in effect control the story, as Hillary did for much of March. Willkie was favored by media moguls like Henry Luce and most reporters because of his opposition to Hitler. His candidacy was gaining momentum that accelerated as the convention opened on June 23. Three days later, when the balloting actually began, a Gallup poll showed Willkie had moved well ahead of Dewey. On the first ballot, Dewey’s 400 votes shrank to 370 and Willkie got 105. But Willkie gained on each succeeding ballot. Dewey eventually withdrew, and Willkie won the nomination late that long and exciting night on the sixth ballot.
How could Hillary overcome Obama’s lead and win at the convention as Willkie did in 1940? Two unofficial alliances that came together in the week before the Texas and Ohio primaries must continue in full force. They are between McCain and Clinton, and between Clinton and the media.
The former is based on McCain and Clinton’s shared interest in promoting the commander in chief issueand on McCain’s assumption that he would be better off running against Clinton in the general election, making it desirable to remove Obama from the race.
As for the media and Clinton, as long as she is behind in delegates, the press will consciously or unconsciously tilt toward her to keep the race going, their ratings high, and their bylines and TV appearances frequent. The danger in this for Obama is that if he doesn’t fall behind until the convention, it will be too late for a media tilt in his favor to save him.
The media may have rightfully decided they were tilting toward Obama before Saturday Night Live ridiculed them for doing so, but since then they have been tilting very much against him. I had hoped that the speech he gave in Philadelphia would put an end to the firestorm of race stories that had lately dominated the news, beginning with Geraldine Ferraro’s comments and exploding with around-the-clock cable replays of some of Reverend Wright’s less judicious pronouncements. But on the Sunday after the Philadelphia speech, as I scanned the contents of the Washington Post, I found that there was not one but, count ’em, eight articles on race in the campaignincluding one by the paper’s ombudsman regretting the fact that the Post had not gotten on the Wright story earlier. The first and last page of the Post‘s “Outlook” section featured large photos of Reverend Wright.
What has been most disturbing to me about most of the Wright coverage is that it implies that Obama must share some of the cleric’s more outrageous views. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that Obama does in fact agree with any of them.
This reminds me of the Rezko story coverage. You may recall that reporters badgered Obama so mercilessly about this supposed scandal that he finally walked out of one press conference. But as the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune finally concluded, there was no evidence of a quid pro quo in the form of something improper that Obama had done for Rezko. Too often reporters see scandal merely in an association, not realizing that there may only be smoke and no fire, and that there is no story unless the fire exists.
It seems to me that the only way the media can make up for all the time they devoted to Reverend Wrightand on cable, that time was immenseis to give equal time to replaying Obama’s Philadelphia speech, which of course they will not do.
That speech, by the way, told us more about Obama than simply his views on race. It told us how he would react in a crisis. Wright’s remarks had created a dangerous situation. Obama had to muster the coolness and smarts to contain it. That he reacted so impressively should reassure those who worry about his ability to function as commander in chief.
Harvard has announced that it will not charge tuition fees for third-year law students who pledge to perform five years of public service in nonprofit organizations or in the government. The government desperately needs more smart people, so I applaud Harvard.
I’m reminded, however, of a point I made many years ago in this column: Why charge anyone for a third year of law school? If you have been through law school, you know the third year is usually, to put it as gently as possible, undemanding. If that year serves any purpose at all, it is to offer a restful recovery period from the hard work required in the first two. But the fact is, you would be just as good a lawyer after the second year. The main point of the final year seems to be to earn tuition fees for the law school and to protect the lawyers’ guild from your competition for another year.
Still, given the prevailing system, Harvard is doing something genuinely admirable. It also reminds me to ask Obama why he omits from his list of activities that young people could perform to earn the cost of college the choice of civil service. He does mention the foreign service, but it already has a much easier time recruiting than the civil service. This is further evidence of Obama’s troubling ignorance of the executive branch of the federal government.
While I’m on Obama, I have another complaintdon’t worry, Hillary’s turn is coming. For a man who badly needs blue-collar support, he uses too many fancy words. Take his characterization of Ferraro’s statementthat he wouldn’t be where he was if he wasn’t blackas “patently absurd.” This is not the kind of usage that will commend him to the voters of states like Kentucky and my native West Virginia. Even in his truly memorable speech in Philadelphia, he found it necessary to use “endemic,” a word not customarily heard in coal mines and steel plants. Obama should realize there is no disrespect or condescension in understanding that many Americans with good common sense have not been privileged to acquire a Harvard vocabulary.
As for the Clintons, the admiration I have long felt for both of them is fading fast. I defended Bill Clinton against impeachment and thought he would have been one of the greatest presidents in our history if he had been able to overcome his tendency to self-pity and self-indulgence. The only extended conversation I ever had with Hillary left me in awe of her knowledge and touched by her palpable concern for America’s children, which was our subject that day.
But the repeated attempts by the Clintons to make race a major issue in this presidential campaign have left me depressed. And as I mentioned in a previous column, you don’t have to know much about politics to know that the Clintons were behind the three occasions on which their surrogates brought up Obama’s long-ago cocaine use. The final blow for me and many others came when Hillary was asked by Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes if she thought Obama was a Muslim and she gave her now-infamous answer, “There’s nothing to base that onas far as I know.”
Another government problem often bemoaned in this column was recently confirmed by David M. Walker, the retiring head of the GAO, who told the Washington Post‘s Stephen Barr that 85 percent of civil service pay raises “have nothing to do with performance. Zippo.”
In a city where government employees are not always as dedicated as one would wish, it is heartening to learn about Martin Bennett, a retired inspector for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Aware how understaffed the agency is, with only ninety inspectors for the entire country, he keeps on doing his job on an unofficial volunteer basis. When the Wall Street Journal‘s Joseph Pereira recently caught up with him, Bennett was being thrown out of a mattress warehouse, where the owner was outraged that he had been asked for documents confirming that the bedding materials had undergone the required sanitation tests. Bennett’s devotion to duty has brought about product recalls and other victories for consumers. “He’s a kind of hero,” says John Drengenberg of the Underwriters Laboratories Board. I agree.
On the issue of the Michigan and Florida delegates, syndicated columnist Steve Chapman has a point that makes a lot of sense to me: “Of course, the DNC could simply surrender and let those who broke the rules get away with itthus assuring that next time, there will be primaries in December or November or October” instead of January. In case you’ve forgotten how insane the rush to earlier and earlier primaries has become, the New Hampshire primary used to be in March.
EPA chief Stephen Johnson recently caved to White House pressure to reduce protections against ozone depletion that had been recommended by the agency’s staff. He has also refused to comply with the Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts vs. EPA requiring him to develop a way to regulate greenhouse gases. When asked by Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein at a recent hearing why he had not complied with the court order, he cited Justice Anthony Scalia’s opinion supporting his failure to act. The only trouble is, Justice Scalia’s was a minority opinion.
In another congressional hearing, Steve Mendell, president of Hallmark/Westland Meat Company, testified about photographs showing his employees using electric prods and forklifts to get “downer” cows off the ground. Indignant, he told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, “They were not slaughtered, ground, or sold. They were euthanized and removed.”
The committee then asked him to watch a video. It showed workers dragging a sick cow into the “knock box” where it would be slaughtered, on its way to being ground and sold.
In order to keep up with what’s going on outside the Beltway, and because I like keeping up with old friends, I regularly read my hometown paper, the Charleston Gazette. Here’s a sampling of recent headlines I found troubling: “17 W. Va. Counties Violate Revised EPA Smog Limits.” “$2 Billion Power Plant Has No Plan to Capture Greenhouse Gases.” “Nearly Half of W. Va. Fifth Graders Are Overweight or Obese.”
Recently I was watching Chris Matthews interview Time magazine Washington bureau chief James Carney and Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times. Matthews asked if there was any evidence that Obama could work with Republicans, and both answered “no.” And Matthews, though often sympathetic to Obama, failed to correct them. I was astonished that these three relatively informed people seemed ignorant of Obama’s record of eliciting Republican support for bills in the Illinois legislature and working with Republicans like Indiana’s Richard Lugar in the U.S. Senate.
Matthews, who has a great feel and an infectious enthusiasm for politics, is resolute in his boredom with substance. A couple of days after his hilarious interview with a Texas Obama supporter who could not think of a single legislative accomplishment of his candidate, he asked Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill to describe what Obama has accomplished in the Senate. But when she began to reply with chapter and verse, Matthews quickly cut her off.
William Paddock, who died recently, and his wife Elizabeth wrote with marvelous insightfulness about the culture of American bureaucracy overseas. For example, in an article for the Monthly entitled “So Easy to Forget, So Hard to Remember,” they described how the constant turnover of personnel at the various posts deprived foreign service organizations of institutional memory. They told of good projects abandoned, and bad ones repeated, because no one presently at the post knew what had happened before.
This was a considerable problem in Vietnam, where officers often served for just six months. In Iraq, ironically, because of the cruelty of repeated tours, the ability to learn from experience has contributed to the remarkable accomplishment of turning Iraqi Sunnis against al-Qaeda.
“The U.S. military’s role in Iraq’s fragile transformationfrom a country plagued a year ago by worsening violence to a place of at least some hope,” wrote the Wall Street Journal‘s Greg Jaffe, is attributable to “dozens of tales of largely anonymous and entrepreneurial [mostly junior and midlevel] American officers who relied on four years of hard-won knowledge of Iraq’s complex tribal and sectarian politics to change the course of a conflict.”
In the Washington Post, Amit R. Paley and Joshua Partlow tell the story of Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno, who during his first tour in Iraq was “accused of overly aggressive tactics that did more to fuel the insurgency than to quell it,” but now on a subsequent tour has a new understanding of “the necessity of using non-lethal tactics to reduce violence in Iraq.”
Don’t get me wrong. Even though I believe in learning the lessons, good as well as bad, from our experience in Iraq, I still believe in getting out. I do not think that the Iraqi government will be motivated to get its act together until they know they have to because we’re leaving. As long as their leaders know we’re there to protect them, they’re not going to make the immense effort required to bridge their differences.
I guess John McCain doesn’t read the Monthly. Or he wouldn’t say we should stay in Iraq for a hundred years. As I pointed out several columns ago, the British stayed in India for more than a hundred years and there was still a bloodbath when they left, costing the lives of at least a million Muslims and Hindus.
I’m worried about Afghanistan, the war we should be fighting. Because of the shortage of troops on the ground, attributable, of course, to our ill-advised war in Iraq, we rely too much on air strikes, which kill too many innocent civilians and turn their friends and families into enemies. And our policy of eradicating poppies is nothing short of lunatic. To take away Afghan farmers’ best crop is obviously not the way to win them over.
I also worry about the antiwar movement in Europe that too often lumps Afghanistan in with Iraq. This has led to very modest troop contributions from most NATO counties. Only one, Britain, has sent more than five thousand troops; only six have sent as many as a thousand.
Finally, it appears that Kabul is taking on a troubling resemblance to Saigon during America’s misadventure in Vietnam. Writing in the most recent Virginia Quarterly Review, J. Malcolm Garcia describes the scene: Americans and other international aid employees living in “luxurious residences” and driving around in “air-conditioned Land Rovers, Nissan Pathfinders, and Toyota Land Cruisers,” and dining in a restaurant called “Red Hot ‘n’ Sizzlin’,” while their Afghan drivers wait while “smoking cigarettes in the parking lot [for] their employers to finish their dinner and drinks … Afghans can’t enter some restaurants, stores, whole sections of the city that are frequented by foreigners.”