Tilting at Windmills

Why didnt Barack Obama mention the military option in his otherwise eloquent call to service at Wesleyan? Why didnt he show respect for the people of West Virginia and Kentucky by doing more than token campaigning there? These are troubling questions for an Obama supporter like me. I hate to contemplate the reaction of those less sympathetic to his cause. His San Francisco side could still cost him the election.

To Hillarys credit, it must be said that she won most of the debates on style, if not on substance. Her presentation was more vigorous and fluent than Obamas, whose victories on substance were often weakened by too many uhs and too little energy. He should have learned to do better after twenty debates, and be eager to challenge McCain to a debate. What he should insist on is freedom from network showoffs as interrogators, and on questions being asked by the candidates of one another. Because Obama and McCain need to appeal to moderates, this would ensure both would want to seem fair in their questioning.

Who arranged the National Press Club appearance by Reverend Wright that became such a headache for Barack Obama? Was it a matter of chance, or was there mischief afoot? Errol Louis of the New York Daily News was sufficiently curious to discover the answer. It was Barbara Reynolds, who used to work for USA Today, is an ordained minister, and runs the Reynolds News Service. She was also, notes Louis, an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter.

Do you find it increasingly difficult to make yourself heard in restaurants? We have friends who like to discover the hottest, hippest new places to dine. Having entered the evening looking forward to good conversation with old pals, we find ourselves unable to make out more than a word or two of what our friends are saying.

The effect is just like watching the moving lips of actors in the old silent films only in this case, not accompanied by silence, but by deafening noise.

I am indebted to Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post Magazine for letting me in on the secret behind this miserable phenomenon: It seems that restaurant owners believe that loud music makes customers feel young and lively, a kind of aural Viagra. Actually, all it does for me is make me feel old and deaf.

My son Chris is both an evangelical and a fervent Obama fan. He thinks Obama can gain a significant share of the evangelical vote if he overcomes the liberal distaste for wearing religion on ones sleeve and instead reaches out to the right people and uses the right words. Not so incidentally, repeatedly declaring his Christian faith would also reassure those who think he is a Muslim. Obama showed he understands the right people point by inviting to a post-nomination-clinching meeting the evangelicals who are most likely to sympathize with his cause, and are least afraid of the right-wing lunatics in the evangelical movement. As for the right words, Obama began his Fathers Days address at the Apostolic Church of God, You are blessed to worship in a house built on the rock of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. My son says those words, used together, signal to evangelicals that you share the essence of their faith.

We may not have the Salem witch trials today, but federal prosecutors in the District of Columbia are trying hard to rise to the challenge. In the course of prosecuting a local madam, they have managed to wreck the lives of several of her former sex workers who had subsequently gonestraight. One had become an officer in the U.S. Navy. Another had earned her Ph.D. and is now a sixty-three-year-old retiree.

The prosecutors should be named, because they belong in some hall of infamy for obsessive inquisitors. They are Daniel Butler and Catherine Connelly.

After a few more questions like that, even the judge had had enough, and he excused the officer. The judge must have felt guilty because, when the officer later returned to the stand, she was so obviously stricken that the judge said, Take two deep breaths and relax, and then assured her, Everything is going to be okay.

The trial has already led to two suicides: the alleged madam, Deborah Jane Palfrey, who had been sentenced to four to six years in prison; and a former employee, who hanged herself before the trial. The prosecutors will be lucky if there are not more suicides by the women whose lives they have ruined. By the way, none of the prominent male customers, like Senator David Vitter, were required to testify.

Last December, Paul Tewes, Obamas Iowa state campaign director, started to give him a detailed briefing on how the campaign was going. Obama waved him off, saying I trust you and you know what youre doing, according to a June article on Obamas managerial style in the New York Times. Obama may have thought he was showing faith in his staff by not micromanaging. And perhaps his campaign staff is so great that he is justified. But when he starts managing the federal government, hell find a bureaucracy that is less than uniformly excellent and that is gifted at filtering out the bad news as reports travel up the ladder to the White House. He should follow FDRs example and never miss an opportunity to learn from workers down the line what is really happening with the federal programs for which a president is responsible.

It is no accident that in the week before the Texas and Ohio primaries, when it appeared that Obama might have the nomination locked up, the press was filled with stories casting doubt on him. Indeed, the same thing happened the week before the Pennsylvania primary. If you want to understand the motivation behind this coverage, one of Billy Wilders less celebrated masterpieces, Ace in the Hole, explained how a reporter will do anything to keep a good story like the Obama-Clinton contest alive.

In the movie, Kirk Douglas plays the reporter who discovers a miner trapped deep in a mine. Although he knows how to rescue him immediately, he realizes he can milk the poor miners plight for story after story. So he keeps this knowledge to himself, prolonging the story for weeks, and becoming famous for his breathless Anderson Cooper-like reports from the scene.

Another indication of the medias strong unconscious desire to keep the race going: Up until the week before the Pennsylvania primary, the conventional wisdom was that Clinton had to win by a double-digit margin to retain credibility as a candidate. But as election day neared, and polls predicted a single-digit margin, Chris Matthews reduced his estimate to 8 percent; MSNBCs Chuck Todd to 7 percent; and the Washington Posts Dan Balz decided 5 percent would be good enough.

I noticed, however, that the passion to keep the race going seemed to fade after Oregon, and wondered why. Then I had dinner a week or so later with a prominent Washington journalist. He and his wife were scheduled to leave for a European vacation in a few days. Of course, I realized, many Washington reporters and their families have vacations planned for the summer and didnt want to be stuck covering a continuing contest between Clinton and Obama.

As you see the price of oil rise to unprecedented heights, recall the wisdom of all your friends who have raved about the virtues of deregulation and free markets. Their views have largely prevailed for three decades. One result, reports the Washington Posts David Cho, is that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission staff now stands at its lowest levels in the agencys 33-year history.

The CFTC happens to be the agency that regulates the trading in oil futures, which is exactly where all the speculation is occurring. Big banks and hedge funds have been exempt from rules that limit speculation. Isnt this the same kind of regulatory laxity that got us in the housing mess?

When Senator Richard Lugar asked General Petraeus whether the administration has a definable political strategy that recognizes the time limits we face and seeks a realistic outcome designed to protect Americas vital interests, the general responded, Weve got to continue. We have our teeth into the jugular and we need to keep it there. The Washington Posts David Broder, who understandably felt that this was less than a full response, asked Petraeus to try again. This time Petraeus told him, There has to be a regional approach. When Senator Obama asked how they would determine when we had been successful enough to leave, he was greeted by similar obfuscations. It seems Petraeus and the administration have no real idea what their goal is.

A few months ago I discussed the self pity of those making $100,000 to $250,000, who seem to regard themselves as the New Proletariat. It now appears they have their own Karl Marx, ABCs Charles Gibson, who in two different debates expressed great concern that Democrats might raise taxes on this group. By contrast, he seemed totally indifferent to the plight of those making under $100,000, who strike me and Senator Obama as more deserving of concern.

Although Obama brought up his plan to help the lower income group by reducing the burden of the payroll tax on those earning under $70,000, Gibson ignored him in his eagerness to pin Obama down on not raising taxes on the New Proletariat.

Gibsons crusade against taxes on the affluent does not stop there. He also expressed concern that Democrats might raise the capital gains tax, and implied that onehundred million Americans would be hurt. Of course, the great bulk of the burden of the capital gains tax is not on average Americans, but on rich people.

Gibson also repeatedly asserted that cutting the capital gains tax produces increased revenue. Of course it doesfor a little while. After a rate reduction, people are more likely to sell their stocks because of the lower tax. But the effect rarely lasts beyond eighteen months.

My suggestion to Charles Gibson is that he look into the payroll tax. Obama, with his disconcerting gift for using fancy words when they do not serve clarity, called the payroll tax regressive. He should have made clear that, unlike the income tax, which gets higher as incomes go up, the payroll tax stops dead at $102,000, and it falls hardest on working people. For those making under $80,000, it is the largest tax they pay. Why not worry about them, Charlie, instead of the New Proletariat and Wall Street?

Gibson should also have known that reducing the payroll tax on working people would stimulate the economy by providing new jobs. As the head of an enterprise that barely kept its head above water for thirty-two yearsand innumerable other businesses are in similarly precarious shape todayI know what a deterrent the payroll tax, which both employer and employee pay, is to hiring. When you need a new worker and would otherwise hire immediately, you think of the payroll tax and decide not to do anything.

If Gibson had only showed he understood all this during the two debates he moderated, working-class voters would realize that Obama is the only candidate who would reduce their greatest tax burden. And Gibson is not alone in the media in his ignorance of the payroll tax issue. On May 29, the Washington Posts Perry Bacon Jr. had a front-page story headlined, On Policy, Obama Breaks Little New Ground. He does not mention the payroll tax and says that Obamas tax policies differ little from Clintons.

As for the rest of my journalistic colleagues, Im afraid that only a handful of the campaign stories Ive read have shown the faintest understanding of the payroll tax issue. Journalists accuse Obama of elitism, but their ignorance of the payroll tax demonstrates that they are the real elitists.

If Charles Gibson is the New Proletariats Karl Marx, CNBCs Maria Bartiromo is its Rosa Luxemburg. She worries about the impact of Obamas plan to increase taxes on those with incomes over $200,000: Thats not rich. So its actually going to impact more people than you think. This probably comes as news to Bartiromo, but exactly 3.2 percent of taxpayers have taxable income more than $200,000.

Bartiromo, aka the Money Honey, also frets that when people sell anything, like a home, 30 percent of the profit will go to the government. She seems not to know that when a couple sells a home, $500,000 of their gain is not taxed. How many of us have homes that in todays market are at the slightest risk of burdening us with a profit of more than $500,000?

If you need an illustration of the importance of the medias role as government watchdog, all you have to do is look at the impact of the recent outbreak of stories revealing inept regulation at the Federal Aviation Administration and Consumer Product Safety Commission. The result is that in March Matthew L. Wald and Micheline Maynard of the New York Times have written about the pendulum swing from easy to tough regulation at the FAA. And Annys Shin of the Washington Post described how the CPSC revived after years of decay.

Needless to say, both agencies have a long way to go. But the prognosis is far better today than it was before all those stories were written.

Christine Haughney and former Monthly intern Eric Koningsberg recently told readers of the New York Times, Despite Tough Times, Ultrarich Keep Spending. I had guessed as much a few weeks ago, when I spotted a jewelry dealers ad with this headline: I need your diamonds and jewels, followed by, Right now demand for diamonds is at an all time high.

What Southwest Airlines did in hiring a former FAA employee to ensure tender treatment by his former government agency has been perfected into a high art by defense contractors who have long dangled the possibility of lucrative future employment before Pentagon officials in order to secure contracts. In the most recent example to emerge, Strategic Message Solutions not only was headed by a pal of several Air Force officers, it hired a retired general, Hal Hornburg. The result: When the winner of the more than $1 million dollar contract was decided by a group of seven officers, they were assembled by Major General Stephen Goldfein, who outranked them all, and told them: I dont pick the winner, but if I did, Id pick SMS.

Unsurprisingly, the seven lower ranking officers agreed with the general. As a consequence, in the words of the Washington Posts Josh White, A controversial $50 million contract was awarded to a company that barely existed to reward a recently retired four-star general and a pal of several Air Force officers.

If the Pentagon is not enough to worry about, ponder our intelligence agencies. Together the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other associated minor entities have about 100,000 employees. A survey conducted by the Director of National Intelligence and reported by the Washington Posts Stephen Barr found that only 28 percent think their bosses take steps to deal with colleagues who slack off at work.

The fact is that there are too many intelligence employees who arent doing their jobs, not learning languages like Arabic and Chinese, and resisting real spying jobs in favor of safe assignments inside embassies or back at HQ in Langley. Recall the Karachi station chief who, at the beginning of the hunt for Osama in 2001, was spending half his time at his farm in Virginia.

Indeed, the Posts David Ignatius, whom I rank among the top two or three reporters in the know about the intelligence agencies, wrote when the next president thinks about fixing the CIA, he or she ought to consider the radical thought that its time to blow up the CIA and start over.

Ignatius doesnt mean getting rid of all present employeessome are terrific but the agency needs to get rid of the slackers and of a culture that in so many ways encourages the wrong behaviors. The June Senate report shows that the bad intelligence that led to the Iraq war, though certainly partly the fault of Bush and Cheney, was also the result of failures by the CIA. You dont have to know much about that agency to realize that its errors were largely attributable to a shortage of bureaucratic bravery, both about serving as real spies in the field and about standing up to their bosses.

On another matter, David Ignatius showed himself to be less well-informed, when he criticized Obama for his association with Tony Rezko. His column did not contain one word to even hint that Obama had performed a single wrongful public act because of this association. This is the same kind of journalism that condemns Obama for his association with Wright without giving any evidence that Obama agrees with any of Wrights outrageous assertions.

The International Monetary Funds lending decreased 86 percent over the last five years. In that same period, the IMF found it necessary to retain all but 13 percent of its staff. This illustrates an important point about bureaucracies. As they age, they tend to become more interested in the preservation of their staff than in the performance of their mission.

If you wonder whether George W. Bush has retained the gift for selecting government officials that he demonstrated when he hired youre doing a heckuva job, Brownie, consider his Undersecretary of Defense, Gordon Englund. (To understand what follows, you need to know that the Department of Energy pays the lions share of the cost of nuclear weapons development, even though the Defense Department pretty much determines the amount that needs to be spent.)

Recently Englund testified before the Energy Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, whose ranking minority member, David Hobson, observed, I heard some complaints that Defense asks for the pie-in-the-sky sometimes because they dont have to pay for it; it doesnt come out of your budget, so ask for everything.

Citing ethics, some doctors are rejecting industry pay, is the headline of a recent article by Gina Kolata in the New York Times. The word some was used advisedly, as the first sentence makes clear, by referring to the small number of physicians involved.

The great scandal of American medicine is the large number of doctors who take payoffs from manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices and the number of respected medical journals whose integrity has been compromised by publishing the results of industry-subsidized studies.

The latest example is provided by the prestigious physicians who allowed Merck to use their names as authors of studies actually done by Merck employees to demonstrate the potency and safety of Vioxx. In other words, the studies were not just paid for by Merck, they were performed by Merck.

One study by nine Merck staffers was found in the files with a notation, external author?meaning they were looking for another corrupt physician ready to sell his name.

If Reverend Wrights God damn America, Michelles the first time in my adult lifetime Im really proud of my country, and the flag-pin issue have raised doubt about Obamas patriotism, I have a suggestion for him. It is to recall the day he gave the speech in Iowa in which he got the audience so fired up about the potential of this country to come together that they started chanting, USA, USA,and give that speech again and again.

After watching the Reverend Jeremiah Wrights appearance with Bill Moyers and their hour-long discussion of Wrights life, religion and values, I called Bill to congratulate him for letting the public see how thoughtful Wright had been. I then called several friends who had missed the show to tell them how impressive Wright could be. They must have thought I was demented when they saw Wrights performance at the National Press Club the following Monday morning. Over the following month, I searched the media for reports of the Moyers show, and found only snippets that failed to suggest the impression Wright had made.

That disturbs me. It disturbs me because all the American people have seen of Wright is his crazy side. They have no idea why Obama would have respected him for so long and would not be able to understand why Obama had not distanced himself earlier.

I got a foreboding of the disaster the press might be creating when I read Dana Milbanks report of a Pennsylvania voter who said of Obama: I think he just wants to be president because hes black.

Jim Johnson is a charming man. Curiously, the only time I met him was when we shared a table with Vernon Jordan. As I chatted to him, I thought, My God, hes even smoother than Vernon.

Washington is full of skilled operators, though these two are a little smoother than most. Many see themselves as devoted to the public interest, and more than a few really are. But there is one exception that Barack Obama should understand: their devotion to the public interest ends when it conflicts with the interests of their clients.

A wise president will certainly use operators like these if he wants to be effective. But he has to be very careful to look at the background of each in terms of his fitness for the particular assignment. In Johnsons case, Obama clearly failed to do this. It would have been fine to have Johnson as a member of his vice presidential search committee. But the symbolism of him as the head of the committee was painfully wrong. Johnson should have been disqualified by his history with Fannie Mae and his participation in the backscratching clique of CEOs and board members who take care of one another with lavish compensation.

Gregg Easterbrook warns, in the cover story of the June Atlantic, that the Earth could be struck by an asteroid capable of causing catastrophic damage, and NASA is doing almost nothing to prevent this potential calamity. Although he makes a persuasive case, my first reaction was, Weve already got enough other dangers to worry about. Then I remembered an article Easterbrook wrote for the Monthly in 1980 in which he told astronauts that if a booster rocket failed, Youd die. His warning was ignored by NASA, with the result being the Challenger disaster.

The Armys suicide rate, reports the Associated Press, is now the highest it has ever been. If you want to understand why, I suggest you look at the Armys cruel policy of sending soldiers back to Iraq for repeated tours, and most especially its stop-loss program. This policy permits the Army to compel soldiers to remain in the service even though their enlistment has expired. The poor soldier who had signed up for four years and served his time, been shot at in Iraq and thinks he is now safe, is told he must stay in the Army and return to Iraq once more. This happened to Sergeant David White, who told NBCs Jim Miklaszewski, I was just in disbelief. I didnt think something like that could ever happen to me.

But happen it did. Another stop-loss victim was shipped back to Iraq, where seven months later a roadside bomb severed my hand almost completely off.

They were far from the only victims of this policy. Fifty-eight thousand other soldiers have suffered the same fate, and many have been wounded or, even worse, killed.

Thus, it is not surprising to learn from Times excellent Pentagon reporter Mark Thompson that in order to endure the stress of continuing service in Iraq, a sizeable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants prescribed by Army doctors. Compelling them to stay, keeping them doped up until they are so maimed that they cant continue fighting, and denying them decent veterans benefits because that might tempt them to even consider leaving the Armythis is the Bush-McCain policy, and it is shameful.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

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.