Tilting at Windmills

The bias toward seeing pro-Obama bias

Arthur S. Brisbane, the ombudsman for the New York Times, wrote a column this spring urging his paper’s reporters to take “a hard look at the president,” implying that they had not been doing so. His main evidence of pro-Obama bias dated from the 2008 campaign and the president’s first year in office. The fact is that from mid-2009 until today, the Times’s reporting of the White House has been very tough.

The real challenge for political coverage for the Times and the rest of the media is to tell the truth about the Republicans in Congress and get it on the front pages. Here’s why: the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have demonstrated that it was Republicans who were mostly responsible for congressional failures during the Obama years, but the public remains so unaware of this fact that there is a strong chance that the Republicans will win both the House and the Senate in November.

Think of how many times you’ve read articles that blame both parties—or blame “Congress” without identifying which party. The media is sacrificing truth to the appearance of evenhandedness.

The littlest one-percenters

A recent Thursday Styles section in the New York Times gave prominent display— including a photograph that took up at least a third of the front page—to two children wearing the latest preschool fashion. One wore a $375 Burberry trench coat from Bergdorf Goodman, a $180 kilt from Bloomingdale’s, and a $32 pair of Converse sneakers (how did they get in here?); the other girl wore a $1,200 Lanvin tulle dress and a $1,570 taffeta coat from Barneys, with $190 Rachel Riley flats. Over the last two years, the Times reports, Lanvin, Gucci, Sheila McCartney, and Marni have entered “the children’s market.” Gucci is offering a silk dress for $370. You can get it at Bergdorf’s.

Diluted and delayed

You have probably read about Wall Street’s attempts to water down the Volcker Rule. Less well known, and just as disturbing to me, is that the rule will not truly take effect for two more years.

Allen Ginsberg and me

I see that this fall will bring two new movies about Allen Ginsberg and the beats, which reminds me, since I’m getting along in years, that it’s time to try to recapture more of my memories of Allen.

I met Allen in October of 1946. I was a member of a class of Lionel Trilling’s at Columbia that was discussing William Blake. Allen was sitting in that day, and his observations about Blake impressed me enough that I struck up a conversation walking out of Hamilton Hall and proceeding to the Amsterdam Avenue bus stop. Amazingly, after boarding the bus at 116th Street, and leaving it at 92nd, we found ourselves entering the same building, at 200 West 92nd (Considerably spiffed up, it was still standing the last time I was in Manhattan.) He lived on the second floor in Mrs. O’Connor’s apartment, and I lived on the fourth in Mrs. Goldhurst’s.

I liked to think of myself as cool, though the word was not in use back then. The fact was that I was nineteen, had only arrived from West Virginia in January of that year, and was not nearly as sophisticated as I thought I was. To say that I found much of what I learned from Allen novel if not shocking would be a considerable understatement.

The first lesson was easy: it was to say “hip” instead of “hep.” The second, however, took a little more adjusting to. Allen introduced me to one of his friends, a gaunt thirty-one-year-old named Herbert Huncke, describing him as a petty thief and hustler, words that had theretofore not struck me as commendatory. (By the way, in those days Allen used the term “beat” to refer not to himself or Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady, but to people like Herbert, who seemed drained of hope and resigned to life on the margins.) Allen and Herbert introduced me to marijuana, a substance that had been unknown at my high school in Charleston. And while I was just worldly enough to realize that Reefer Madness had exaggerated the drug’s perils, I wasn’t quite sure by how much. In any event, it turned out that I couldn’t inhale, which would later make me the only living citizen of the United States of America who believed Bill Clinton.

Allen had met Herbert through their mutual friend William Burroughs, who, Allen would later tell me, had tried to imitate William Tell with a .22 pistol but had missed and accidentally killed his wife Joan. Was Allen making this stuff up? Then he told me about how his friend Lucien Carr had not only murdered his gay lover in Riverside Park but had gotten away with it. Allen assured me that Lucien now had his life back together, working as a reporter for United Press. Still, you will understand that it was with fascination tinged with wariness that my friendship with Allen began. It was to last for fifty years. More about it next time.

Department of missed connections

Have you noticed how many of the commercials on cable television are by manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices? And aren’t you just a bit troubled by how many of the other commercials are from law firms soliciting claims from people injured or sickened by these products?

How’s this for moral hazard

Speaking of overpaid corporate executives, did you know that Vikram Pandit received a total compensation of $42,815,263 as CEO of CitiCorp in 2011, even though his shareholders saw their returns fall by 44 percent? William Weldon, who was CEO of Johnson & Johnson until April of this year, presided over a series of recalls of “Tylenol, Benadryl, Motrin and Zyrtec as a result of such problems as metal shavings found in medicines, incorrect levels of an active ingredient and bad odors,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Weldon stands to collect pension benefits and deferred compensation currently valued at $143.5 million.

It’s not just the return of giant glasses and leggings

Have you noticed how many of the unfortunate trends of recent years, though they may have had earlier roots, really took off in the 1980s? Most notable was the explosion of greed and selfishness that inspired so many talented young people to flock to Wall Street for no other purpose than to get rich. But income inequality, too, would take a giant step in the ’80s in its growth to extremes not known since the 1920s. And incredibly enough, the 1980s saw the first great increase in the American obesity rate, as it rose 50 percent.

Not tough, just obvious

All that I dislike about CNBC was captured recently in an interview of Sheila Bair, the former head of the FDIC, by CNBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. When Bair would start to say something that Caruso-Cabrera didn’t like or didn’t want to hear, Caruso-Cabrera cut her off. This happened first when Bair tried to explain that JP Morgan Chase was too big to manage effectively and then when Caruso-Cabrera wanted to pin responsibility for the mortgage debacle on the borrowers, and Bair tried to say that often both borrowers and lenders were at fault.

A bit too obvious

The job of general counsel of the West Virginia Educational Association, the teacher’s union in my home state, recently became vacant. “We had an opening and saw this as an opportunity to hire a highly qualified, well-respected attorney,” explained the association’s president. He was describing Rick Thompson, who just happens to also be the speaker of the House of Delegates, the lower house of the state legislature. Even in West Virginia, where conflicts of interest tend to be viewed charitably, having the speaker of the house simultaneously serve as a union’s general counsel proved to be too much for the state ethics commission to stomach. It has refused to give its approval of the appointment.

The informant

Speaking of West Virginia, the former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch Mine, the scene of the 2010 explosion that cost twenty-nine miners their lives, has testified, according to the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr., that officials from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration “regularly revealed to mine officials when they planned to visit the Raleigh County mine.” In other words, the feds were tipping off the mine officials so that they could temporarily halt their dangerous practices while the inspectors were onsite.

Lost in translation

One of the consistent problems with our foreign policy is that those executing it have been less than fluent in the languages of the people with whom they are working. The good news is that the State Department is improving: the number of positions filled with people qualified in the appropriate language now stands at 75 percent. The bad news is that, for the Defense Department, the figure is at just 25 percent.

The clowns in black

Be sure to read Tim Weiner’s Enemies. It is a history of the FBI’s many failures and occasional successes. The former include Ruby Ridge; Waco; the escape of the traitor Eddy Howard, who was able to flee to Moscow with the names of CIA agents because the FBI was parked in front of his house while he departed from the back; the failure to sniff out traitor Robert Hanson who, for twenty-two years, while working for the FBI, slipped name after name of American agents to the Russians, often leading to their execution; and the similar failure with regard to Katrina Leung, a Chinese spy who managed to bed two FBI agents while collecting $1.7 million from the FBI because she was supposed to be spying on the Chinese, not for them.

But in contrast to Mark Sullivan, the head of the Secret Service, who appears to be clueless, Robert Mueller, the latest head of the FBI, strikes Weiner as the best so far because he is instituting needed reform.

CSI: FBI

That Mueller’s efforts have not been totally successful, however, is suggested by a recent series on the FBI’s forensic labs, by Spencer Hsu of The Washington Post. Flaws in the labs’ procedures began to emerge a decade ago, and we were told a task force had been appointed to investigate. But the full results of the investigation have yet to emerge. And The Post is still finding convictions that were unjustly obtained because of defective lab work. The Post has also found that the work of only one analyst was reviewed by the task force, despite the fact that errors were made by others. Another troubling fact that emerges from the Post series is that when defective lab work is uncovered, the prosecutors are notified, but not the defense attorney.

The floating cost of a vestigial organ

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and reported by The Associated Press reveals that in California, the cost of an appendectomy can range from $1,500 to $180,000, with the average coming in at $33,000. Lest you think these costs reflect a range of wildly different conditions, they don’t. The appendectomies covered by this study all had roughly the same low degree of complexity. “Researchers and other experts” tell the AP that “the results aren’t unique to California.”

Strong hair, weak spine

Two suggestions for those who were shocked when Mitt Romney joined hands with Donald Trump at a Las Vegas fund-raiser just hours after Trump had restated his doubts about Obama’s birthplace: first, recall Romney’s failure to confront a speaker at an event in Euclid, Ohio, who said Obama “should be tried for treason.” Then remember how he failed to reproach Rush Limbaugh for calling the Georgetown student who testified about birth control “a slut.”

It is said that Romney inherited his aversion to confrontation from his mother. It may have been forgivable in the mother. But not in a son who needs to convince us that he has the courage to be president.

Of bullies and blowing smoke

If the recent story of Romney’s prep school bullying belonged on the front page of the Washington Post, so does the story of Obama’s collegiate pot smoking. So goes the argument in a recent piece by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei in Politico. But Obama had told the story of his drug use years ago—it is no longer news. Romney, however, had never confessed to forcibly holding down a fellow student who was screaming for help. That is news.

Though Allen and Herbert failed to teach me how to smoke marijuana, most of my colleagues at the Washington Monthly over the last forty-three years have been users from time to time. Many of them have become lifelong friends for whom I have the highest esteem. On the other hand, when I was fourteen, I was the victim of a bully. I have never wanted to see that guy again, much less vote for him to be president of the United States.

Read once, then bang head repeatedly

Back to West Virginia: the Charleston Gazette’s Phil Kabler recently uncovered a maddening catch-22 for 1,800 inmates of the state’s regional jails. The regionals are the jails that house lower- risk inmates who should be the best bets for parole. But state law requires that, to be eligible for parole, these prisoners must have completed treatment programs for drugs, alcohol, anger management, etc. However, treatment has not been available because of its cost. Providing it would require only four dollars a day per prisoner. On the other hand, paroling them would save the state $48.80 a day.

Even a broken clock…

The Columnist, a new play about Joseph Alsop, whose observations on public affairs were a staple of op-ed pages for forty years, has attracted a lot of attention and praise for its devastating portrait of Alsop’s malign influence on American foreign policy in Vietnam. I did not get to know Alsop until a decade or so later, but his arrogance was still obvious. So that and everything I heard about him from friends during the Kennedy-Johnson era combines to confirm that his portrayal in the play is accurate.

There was a time, however, when Alsop was not wrong. During the years 1940 and 1941, when the Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie and Franklin Roosevelt joined in the effort to save Britain and prepare this country for World War II, no other American was more influential in the success of that effort than Joseph Alsop. Though his activities may have been questionable for a journalist, they were sublimely right for a citizen. He organized and manipulated behind the scenes and, in his column, tirelessly propagandized for the cause, consistently finding the right buttons to push to move the country in the direction it had to go to first stop and then defeat Adolf Hitler.

Details, details

It is the contention of many people that Obama’s stimulus should have been quicker and bigger. But the facts are that his stimulus bill became law on February 17, 2009, less than one month after he took office. And the two crucial Republican votes were obtained only by Obama’s agreement to reduce the amount of the stimulus to under $800 billion.

First in class

You may have read about the recent death of Lieutenant Commander Wesley A. Brown, who in 1949 became the first black midshipman to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. Other blacks had tried—my wife’s grandfather, who was at Annapolis in the 1880s, received a letter in which his mother urged him to be nice to the one black midshipman in his class—but all had fallen victim to the bigotry that was so powerful in those days. Brown himself endured “racial epithets and ostracism from his classmates,” according to the Washington Post’s obituary. “A group of upperclassmen gave him so many demerits during his first term, mostly for fabricated actions or petty offenses, that he was threatened with expulsion.”

It was bad enough that when he was later asked if he had thought about quitting, his answer was: “Every day.”

Sticking it out was made easier by the midshipmen who rallied around him, encouraging him with their friendship. Among them, improbably, was a young man from rural Georgia whose background would have given him every excuse to join in the prevailing prejudice. His name was Jimmy Carter.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.