Finally, an audience!

The members of the Foreign Service owe a great debt to Julian Assange. He got their cables read. One of the major frustrations of Foreign Service officers has been getting their voices heard amid the vast clutter of information arriving in Washington every day. Stanley Meisler, the veteran foreign affairs correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, tells of the time a Foreign Service officer in Africa pulled him aside at a cocktail party and asked if Stanley would please read one of his cables. He was proud of it, but feared no one of any consequence in Washington had even looked at it.

Several years ago, in testifying before the commission investigating 9/11, then CIA Director George Tenet was asked why nothing was done in response to a cable that reported one of the 9/11 terrorists had entered the United States. Tenet confidently replied, “I know that nobody read that cable.” And you can be sure when Hillary Clinton recently praised the quality of the leaked cables, she did so because she had just read many of them for the first time—and only because of WikiLeaks.

In the press, Obama only leads when he bleeds

Remember how Obama’s apparent inability to secure an expected trade agreement with South Korea led to front-page stories like “Foreign Policy Setbacks Deepen Obama’s Wounds”? Then you may find it curious that when South Korea agreed to the treaty on December 2, the story received only the most modest coverage, failing to appear on any front page I was able to find.

Knows when to fold ’em—and fold ’em, and fold ’em

Back in 2007, when I was beginning to get excited about Obama, a friend’s son, who lives in Chicago and knew Obama—and liked him—told me he wasn’t supporting him for president. I asked why. “He’s not a fighter,” he said.

I couldn’t understand. After all, it seemed like Obama was fighting hard for the nomination. The first sign I saw of what the son meant was the distaste for tough debate that Obama manifested during the campaign—which led to his losing most of the debates with Hillary Clinton. And the problem has since become even clearer. He signals a willingness to compromise far too quickly, so that he seems to give away too much before negotiations have really begun. This happened with the stimulus, the health bill, and his tax cut proposal. In fact it’s interesting to recall how quickly he caved when Charles Gibson, who was the moderator in two of the 2008 debates, insisted that Obama reconsider the roughly $100,000 ceiling he was then putting on income he would exempt from a repeal of the Bush tax cuts. Within days Obama had raised the figure to $250,000.

Cool Hand Barack

But it is important to emphasize that Obama has a compensating virtue—he is tenacious. He may not ask for enough originally, but he perseveres until he gets something. And that something, while falling short of liberal ideals, usually isn’t bad at all. Indeed, his legislative accomplishments during his first two years are matched by few presidents in our history.

The latest example is the tax cut deal. What he got, considering that the Republicans held the stronger hand, is pretty remarkable. The cut in the payroll tax alone, which the media constantly describes as 2 percent, actually amounts to almost one-third of the payroll tax burden for the average man. And remember that the payroll tax is the largest tax paid by those earning $80,000 a year or less.

Other measures like the earned income, education, and child tax credits, as well as the extension of unemployment benefits, also help the average family, as indeed does its share of the extension of the Bush tax cut. And even the part of the deal we liberals detest, the extension of the tax cut to the wealthy, will provide some stimulus for the economy. Those fat cats will spend part of that money. And the cuts will deprive them of the excuse that they constantly cite on CNBC and Fox News for not hiring: “uncertainty about the extension of the Bush tax cuts.”

More stimulus will come from the provision giving businesses the ability to write off the entire cost of capital expenditures in the first year. Anyone who has ever run a business knows that this will create new jobs. Indeed, what Obama got was the impressive stimulus package that had seemed unobtainable all year long, and that liberals like Paul Krugman had berated him for not getting.

A very good deal

Here’s how David Leonhardt of the New York Times does the math: “roughly $120 billion covers the high-end tax cuts and the estate tax cut, $450 billion covers Mr. Obama’s wish list and $360 billion covers the tax cut extensions both parties favored.” In other words, $810 billion of the total package of about $930 billion is what we liberals wanted, which prompts me to say, hooray for Obama.

He had a weak hand to start with, because he showed his willingness to compromise too soon. But he played that hand with impressive skill. Could he have reached a better deal if he had “stuck by his guns,” as many liberals indignantly urged, and refused to compromise in December? With more Republican votes in the 2011 Senate, coupled with Republican domination of the House and its tax-writing committee, that prospect seems, to put it as gently as possible, less than likely. Of all the commentariat, Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell deserve praise because they understood this fact. They had the kind of real-life experience working on the Hill that most of their colleagues lack.

We believe government is bad—and now we’ll make sure of it, too

I must say I’m terrified by the Republicans’ control of the House committees overseeing government performance. Given the tendency of Republicans, especially Tea Partiers, to think all government except the military is bad, the probability is that they will not address the real need, which is to make government better. To them, more effective government presents the danger that regulations will be enforced vigorously and fairly, and of course Republicans tend to hate regulation of any kind.

Rally to Restore Complacency

At the Stewart-Colbert rally on the mall in late October, only one person, the venerable Tony Bennett, urged the audience to vote. Here was an amazingly large crowd, at least 200,000, of mostly young people, whose votes were desperately needed if the Democrats were going to stand a chance in the November election. Since I was and remain convinced that the Democrats and their president, whatever their flaws, are much better than the Republicans, I prayed that someone else would join Bennett. But what one observer called “the importance of never being too earnest” ruled the day.

In Stewart’s one stab at earnestness, he seemed to equate MSNBC with Fox News. Count me among those who disagree. There is a major difference between the two. Although MSNBC can be embarrassingly one-sided and predictable, it rarely lies. Fox lies all the time, amplifying or amplified by lies on the Internet, or those told by the right-wingers who dominate talk radio.

Don’t let sweeping lies dog

This lying has created a major problem that responsible journalists are not facing. It is the need for effective correction of the lies.

On Election Day, the New York Times ran an excellent editorial reciting and correcting the misrepresentations of the Republicans and urging readers to vote Democratic. Unfortunately, support for the facts cited by the editorial had not received anything like the prominence needed in the news columns of the Times. I have never seen a story on the top of the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post or on any of the nightly network national news programs that exposes Republican falsehoods with the boldness that the Charleston Gazette recently showed. A story in that paper about the Republicans’ misrepresentation of what they call “Obamacare” ran at the top of the front page under the four-column headline “That’s Just Flat-out Not True.”

It’s just not done by the “responsible media,” but what we need is a front-page correction box and its television equivalent that would prominently expose the lies frequently repeated by the irresponsible media.

The claims of Baron Munchausen do not quite align with the facts

The New York Times was certainly less direct than the Charleston Gazette in its reporting on the Republican ads against Obama’s health care program. The Times story ran at the bottom of an inside page, under the modest head “Ads Use Medicare Cuts as Rallying Point.” The story surmises that “the way in which those cuts will be felt by the roughly 46 million Americans covered by the program does not quite align with the dark implications of the ads.”

A typical Republican ad read, “Kilroy Voted to Gut Medicare by $500 Billion.” What the legislation really does is cut $500 billion from the projected growth in the Medicare budget over the next ten years. It seems to me that the Gazette got closer to the truth than the Times did.
Flair over fact

There is another problem with the media for which this magazine shares some of the guilt. Our birth in 1969 was part of a movement called “New Journalism,” which was a reaction to the objective journalism that was the only kind deemed responsible in those days. New Journalists tried to give flesh to the bare bones of fact by supplying lively detail observed by the reporter, whose attitude toward his subject—and often his outright opinion of it—was not concealed.

As the influence of New Journalism spread, one began to find stories in which the basic facts were hard to find. I remember my frustration in the late 1970s when I couldn’t find the score of a baseball game in a newspaper article about the World Series until I got to the seventh or eighth paragraph. The beginning had consisted entirely of a description of the feeling in the locker room.

By the early ’90s I had become concerned enough to publish an article by Katherine Boo called “The Dowd Crowd,” which deplored the tendency of talented reporters to try to imitate Maureen, whose style, interspersing the facts with ironic comment, had made her immensely popular. This meant that the facts of stories became subordinate to the writer’s “take” and its literary expression.

The president wore an eye-catching magenta tie (and may have mentioned something about World War III)

As I have pointed out in previous columns, this has been a major problem for Barack Obama. By contrast, when Franklin Roosevelt made a speech, reports in the next day’s newspapers would say what he had said, usually on the front page. When he held his twice-weekly meetings with reporters, he could count on most of them writing about the main points he had made during the meeting. Thus, even though 90 percent of the newspaper’s editorial pages denounced Roosevelt, his message was always able to reach the people.

Now Obama finds accounts of his speeches are usually buried on inside pages, and usually begin not with quotations of the president, but with the author’s “take” on the speech. And even the body of the article often contains only a sentence or two from the speech, with the rest of it devoted to the author’s views on its context and its political significance.

What reporters decide is the “sexy” item in a speech or news conference will dominate the media accounts. Thus when Obama, in a press conference on July 20, 2009, as the health care bill had begun to make its way through Congress, made a major effort to reassure seniors who feared that reform might reduce their Medicare coverage, his words were almost totally ignored in the next day’s account. What was emphasized was his response to a question at the end of the press conference about the Cambridge police’s treatment of Henry Louis Gates Jr. Of course, that answer was news. But it should not have preempted everything else said in the press conference, including what the president had wanted to emphasize—and the public had a right and a need to hear.

The challenge: Finding out what Clinton actually said

For a recent example of how reporting favors color and “take” over essential facts, consider the accounts of former President Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Obama’s tax cut compromise. Neither the New York Times, which ran the story on page twelve, nor the Wall Street Journal, which put it on page four, gave Clinton’s reasons for praising the deal. How was the reader supposed to judge the merits of Clinton’s position if they weren’t told his reasons? Instead, the Times and the Journal described the theatrics of the occasion. The only thing the public is likely to retain from most of the reports I saw is that Obama left the conference early to join Michelle at a White House Christmas party. That, or they might just remember the “surreal flashback” to the Clinton presidency that reporters were so anxious to capture. Even the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, who had enough roots in the old journalism to explain Clinton’s reasoning, still slathered on seven paragraphs of scene-setting detail before he got to the meat of the story.

Objective doesn’t mean dull

A good case can be made for New Journalism. I know, I’ve made it often enough. But I came to the conclusion over the years that it’s much better suited to magazines. I think the newspapers and the networks should make a much greater effort to report the news thoroughly and dispassionately. Certainly, reporting what a president says should be more important than displaying the writer’s bells and whistles.

I understand that a reporter’s point of view influences his selection of relevant fact, but I also know that self-awareness can minimize the adverse effects of that influence. And I also understand the enormous competitive pressure on the print media today—though some of it is self-imposed by the yen for stardom of some reporters. Fortunately there is still room in objective journalism for prose that is both lively and graceful. And there is also a place for the writer to add a sidebar to the news that gives his opinion or analysis, so long as—and this is important—he labels them “opinion” or “analysis.”

Capitalism could break your heart

If you wonder why I always couple my statement of faith in capitalism as the best economic system with the caveat that you have to watch capitalists like a hawk, ponder the case of Abbott Laboratories. The Associated Press’s Alicia Caldwell reports that Abbott just had to pay a fine of $126.5 million because the Department of Justice had caught it inflating wholesale prices “for dozens of products, including powerful antibiotics used by Medicare and Medicaid patients.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Alicia Mundy and Thomas M. Burton report that Abbott “hired a Baltimore-area cardiologist as a sales consultant after he had been barred from practicing at a local hospital for allegedly putting heart stents in hundreds of patients who didn’t need them.” The stents had been manufactured by Abbott, which rewarded the barred physician because, as an internal company e-mail put it, “he helped us so many times over the years.”

The Journal concludes that “stent use has flattened out in recent years in the U.S. in the wake of studies suggesting that many patients would be better off either with major heart surgery or with drugs alone.”

This round goes to the teachers’ unions …

The cause of education reform has suffered some tough blows recently. First came the forced resignation of Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. It was quickly followed by Baltimore teachers’ rejection of a contract that would have changed a pay system based entirely on seniority to one that took account of teacher effectiveness. Then the D.C. teachers’ union voted out its president, who had signed a reform agreement with Rhee, and replaced him with an opponent of reform. Finally, Joel Klein appears to have been eased out as chancellor of New York City schools by Mayor Bloomberg and replaced by a woman whose entire record reveals not a smidgen of concern for public schools. (If, by the way, Cathie Black was selected to mollify the teachers’ union, it is a sign to me that Bloomberg is seriously considering a run for the presidency.) And the New York teachers have, for the time being at least, succeeded in holding up the release of ratings for the city’s teachers that would have given the people of New York the chance to find out how just how good—or bad—the teachers of their children are.

The Baltimore vote is especially disheartening because it is so obviously stupid to base pay solely on seniority. No successful business does that. Effectiveness in the classroom should always be the main factor in pay decisions.

… But reform scores a point

This explains why I’m delighted to note, from an article in the Wall Street Journal, that California is now requiring an appraisal of prospective teachers’ classroom performance as a factor in the initial hiring decision. This may seem like the most basic of common sense to you, but I have to tell you, it is rarely done.

Disarmed regulators

The most conspicuous examples of inadequate budgeting for enforcement come from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The ATF had 2,500 agents in 1972 and, reports the Washington Post, it has only 2,500 today, even though this country’s population has grown by 50 percent since then. In addition, in response to incredibly effective lobbying by the National Rifle Association, Congress has hamstrung the ATF with restrictions limiting it to antiquated methods of tracing gun ownership, while also preventing it from putting gun sales and ownership records in a database accessible to the public.

Early warnings? Heaven forfend!

By contrast, a rare bit of good news comes from the Consumer Products Safety Commission, which has announced that, beginning in March, its database of consumer complaints will be opened to the public. Industry groups had heretofore successfully lobbied to prevent the disclosure of this information, which can give consumers early warnings of defects in toys, appliances, and other products.
One has to fear that the new Congress will attempt to reverse this decision by the CPSC. According to a November report in the Wall Street Journal, Republicans were already planning to take on the newly established Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

The Kennedy legacy, part 1

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” How quaint and unrealistic those words sound today. But when John Kennedy spoke them fifty years ago, they inspired much of the nation. And for Kennedy they were not just words for that day. When he accepted his party’s nomination six months earlier, he said, “The new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook—it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”

Kennedy could call on his countrymen to do their part because he had done his. He had not only served in World War II, he had done so heroically.
I fear the ability of subsequent American leaders to ask for sacrifice ended when the educated elite began to avoid service in the military in the mid-’60s. This was understandable because of Vietnam. But the more a leader began to excuse his own failure to serve, the harder it became to challenge his fellows to do what he himself had not done. And it has now been forty-five years since the educated elite acknowledged its obligation to serve.

The Kennedy legacy, part 2

The tragedy of the 1960s is that so much that was good—the antiwar movement, the rights revolution that led to major advances for blacks, women, and gays—gradually morphed into a concern for personal rights that brought about the “me decade” of the 1970s and the explosion of personal greed that followed in the ’80s. But that doesn’t mean we should discount the immense accomplishment of the ’60s, including Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, for which, by the way, John Kennedy should share the credit. In achieving his overwhelming electoral victory in 1964 and in getting his programs enacted, Johnson consistently emphasized that he was carrying out programs initially proposed by John Kennedy, whose popularity after his death considerably exceeded its depth or breadth during his lifetime.

One exception where Kennedy did receive the credit is the tax cut he had proposed in 1962, which finally got enacted by Johnson in 1964. The Republicans love to describe this as the “Kennedy tax cut,” without mentioning that it cut the top rate from 90 percent to 70 percent—twice what it is today.

One child gets to keep his candy

While the Republicans are likely to be reckless in slashing the budgets of other government agencies, they are likely to be entirely too generous to the Pentagon, blindly accepting military requests without regard to real need.

Winslow Wheeler, one of my favorite Pentagon critics, points out that you can add the defense budgets of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba—and then double the total—and it’s still less than the present Pentagon budget.

Yet while spending billions on complex high-tech weapons systems, many of which are of questionable need, the Pentagon consistently lags in developing the simple tools combat soldiers require. The most conspicuous recent examples have been the body armor and adequately armored troop transport vehicles needed by our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Historically the Army has been behind in the development of rifles for infantrymen, and though this magazine advocated drones as early as 1982, it took more than a decade for the Pentagon to get serious about developing the weapon that now seems so valuable.

The real problem with the federal pay freeze

Obama’s proposal to freeze federal pay is not the outrage that liberals like Paul Krugman have painted it to be. There are a lot of overpaid or very adequately paid civil servants, especially in the managerial levels, where excessive layering is the rule, with far too many chiefs and far too many deputies.
But there is a problem with Obama’s freeze, and it is that, where salaries are too low—and some are—they can’t be raised to attract the kind of talent the government needs. An example is the salary for oil rig inspectors, which starts at $47,448. This simply does not compete with what the oil industry itself offers promising engineers.

I’m sure part of this problem rests with the inspection agency itself, now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement. If the agency were determined to pay its engineers more, it could find one of those clever bureaucrats capable of writing a job description that would persuade the Office of Personnel Management to authorize much more generous compensation for the rig inspectors. (These job descriptions are an art form in the civil service, capable of endowing, in the words of the late Leonard Reed, “a file clerk with responsibilities that would make an MBA from Harvard quail.”) But I suspect the managers are more concerned with holding on to enough of the agency budget to pay their own $150,000-plus salaries.

Another problem is that Congress didn’t give the agency enough money. In fact, it got $67 million less than the Obama administration had requested. This is doubtless the result of the clever lobbyist’s strategy of appearing to go along with reform, only to then persuade Congress to cut the budget for enforcement of the reform.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.