The Return of Tilting at Windmills

Starting in 1977, Washington Monthly founding editor Charlie Peters began writing “Tilting at Windmills,” a regular column of pithy thoughts on politics and current events, continuing long after he passed the editorship on to Paul Glastris in 2001. For our fiftieth-anniversary issue, we asked Charlie to bring back his column—and his distinctive knack for making sense of the present by drawing lessons from the past. “I’ve lived through a lot of history that many of our readers have not experienced,” Charlie explains, “and I think the history as it’s written sometimes fails to explain how it really was.”

Very important people

A reporter friend tells me he was stopped by a guard as he tried to enter the Pentagon’s VIP entrance for a scheduled interview with a top official. The guard kept my friend waiting in the hot sun until perspiration had soaked though his shirt. Finally, someone arrived to straighten things out and the interview proceeded. As my friend was leaving, the security official met him in the hall to apologize for the delay. My friend said it was all right; he just wondered why the guard had kept him waiting. The security official sheepishly explained, “It was because you didn’t have staff.” The meaning was clear: You can’t possibly be entitled to use the VIP entrance unless you’re accompanied by an entourage—or at least a briefcase carrier. Only in Washington! 

Hearing aids

Do you find congressional hearings as maddening as I do? Democratic and Republican members alternate, each given only five minutes to ask questions. As we saw with the Mueller hearings, when a Democrat’s question elicited useful information, it was immediately followed by a Republican effort to muddy the waters. A Washington Monthly alumna, Michelle Cottle, who is now a member of the editorial board of the New York Times, feels the same way, and has come up with a solution. Why not have five Democrats ask the questions serially, so that they can build a case, and then give five Republicans their turn? That way, the subject isn’t constantly changing and you don’t lose track of where the questions are heading. And if you don’t like that idea, Michelle suggests opening the hearing with questions from a knowledgeable staff lawyer, before legislators have a chance to sow confusion. At the end of Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s chaotic hearing, staff counsel Barry Berke was given thirty minutes to ask questions, during which he “sliced through Mr. Lewandowski’s baloney, getting him to admit some lies and answer some concrete questions,” writes Cottle. Unfortunately, this came too late to dispel all the fog generated by Lewandowski. It would have been far better if Berke’s questioning had come first.

401(k) mentality 

Recall the number of times you’ve heard a television anchor attempting to engage his or her audience in the latest Wall Street gyrations by saying, “Think of how it will affect your 401(k).” In fact, Patricia Cohen reported for the New York Times that roughly half of American households own no stocks, in 401(k)s or otherwise. As of 2016, over 80 percent of all stocks owned by Americans belonged to the wealthiest 10 percent.

More recently, Cohen has reported that in the last three decades, the wealth of the richest 1 percent has increased by $21 trillion, while the wealth of the bottom 50 percent has declined by $900 billion. It’s clear that a major factor in the creation of wealth is the ownership of stocks, and those who don’t own stocks are the losers. These are all too often the same people whose wages suffer because corporate revenue increasingly goes into raising the value of the company’s shares. This means that members of the investor class, who tend to be our educated elite, have become more interested in growing their shareholder value than increasing the wages of the worker.

The Census Bureau recently reported that income inequality is now the worst it has been since the bureau started tracking it. It’s now much worse than in any European country. This is why I’m sympathetic to the wealth tax proposals from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. And I am certain that American capitalism must change so that a greater share of corporate revenue goes to the worker and less to the shareholders and executives. 

The culture of bureaucracy 

This magazine was started by a group that worked with me in the evaluation division of the Peace Corps. We became convinced that we were discovering truths about bureaucratic culture that explained a lot about how Washington really works. An example was provided by the Vietnam War, which was going on at the time. The Pentagon was using enemy body counts as a measure of success. Our caution was that whenever a bureaucrat is given a numerical goal, you have to watch what is done to attain that goal. In Vietnam, the goal was sometimes attained by murdering civilians.

Vietnam provided another example of a classic bureaucratic tendency: softening bad news as it travels from the bottom to the top of an organization, such that it might disappear entirely by the time it reaches the top. This tendency is strengthened by the knowledge that the people at the top rarely want to hear the bad news. 

A more recent example of how bureaucratic culture can have a baleful effect comes from the Boeing 737 Max jet disasters. What the FAA’s complicity with Boeing illustrates is the tendency of regulators to become prisoners of the regulated. This happens because it is the regulated who are most likely to make trouble for the regulator with the congressional committees that determine the appropriation given to the agency. The agency is most likely to sail through those appropriation hearings if the regulated are happy. That’s how you end up with the FAA essentially saying, “Oh, we have perfect confidence in Boeing’s design.” Deep in every bureaucrat’s DNA is the imperative to avoid cuts to his agency’s appropriation. Civil servants know that they are hard to fire, but that their job could disappear if funding dries up.

The great divide

Vietnam had another major effect on the Monthly, which was to make us realize that one of the great stories of the time was the division the war was causing within America. We were against the war, but also troubled by the arrogance of many of the students who were our allies. We watched them clash with hard hats and call the police “pigs.” Then there was the remark my wife overheard in a Washington bookstore: “Let those hillbillies go get shot.”

That divide has since gotten worse, separating the educated elite from rural, working-class, and evangelical voters. There are many reasons why one should be concerned with bridging that divide, but if you want a practical one, consider the races for the United States Senate in 2020. Many of those seats are in purple states. If we want to be sure of winning, and if we want to be sure of getting rid of Mitch McConnell—which to me is almost as important as getting rid of Donald Trump—then we have to find a way to win over at least some Trump voters.

Don’t look down

How can we peel off some Trump voters? Well, I think the main thing is simply to stop looking down on non-elites. I’m from West Virginia, and I can tell you that’s what they hate the most. Consider the fact that Trump won white voters without college degrees by a margin of 37 percentage points—and that nearly two-thirds of all Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees. If we’re going to win over some Trump voters, it doesn’t seem wise to look down on people without a college education.

Or take another group: the evangelicals. At least a good number of them must surely be troubled by the un-
Christian behavior of Donald Trump. Why don’t liberals use religion to sell their policy proposals? After all, most liberal programs are expressions of the Golden Rule. I was impressed by how successful Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. were in using Christianity to advance their causes—and disturbed that so many of my smart friends seem embarrassed when I describe that success and urge that the approach be emulated to win support for everything from the humane treatment of immigrants to fair wages for workers. 

In an effort to reach evangelicals, it’s also worth taking to heart some of the things they don’t like about elite condescension. One is dismissing their views on abortion as medieval. Many people think abortion is wrong, but also personally know someone who chose to have one. It’s possible they could come around on the issue, so long as they aren’t treated like monsters from the outset. Show that you understand exactly why they feel as they do, even though you’ve come down on the side of believing that it has to be left to the choice of the woman.

Reagan’s true colors

This past July it was revealed that Ronald Reagan, in conversation with Richard Nixon, had referred to African leaders as “monkeys.” I’m glad this came out, because it shows a side of Reagan that history has attended to insufficiently. Reagan practiced coded racism. One of his more famous campaign oratorical flourishes was his reference to “welfare queens,” which was clearly intended to evoke images of bejeweled black women driving around in Cadillac convertibles. 

Reagan had other ways of communicating this coded racism. Just after winning the Republican Party’s nomination in 1980, he gave a speech just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, near where three brave civil rights activists were murdered by white supremacists in 1964. His speech consisted of a spirited advocacy of states’ rights, which of course was another coded way to let people know that he was against federal action to support civil rights.

Ronnie at his best and worst

It’s difficult to get a proper perspective on Reagan because he was such a charming man, and he unquestionably did one of the most glorious things in American history when he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” His effort to control nuclear weapons was also admirable. But as much as Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a liberal era, Reagan shaped the conservative era. Just consider one fact: Reagan cut the top tax rate dramatically, from 70 percent to under 30 percent. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama dared raise it back above 39.6 percent.

One of Reagan’s worst actions was his response to the air traffic controller strike in 1981. The controllers were in the wrong in striking, but what Reagan did was even worse. He not only fired them, but he banned them from federal employment for life. This was a signal to employers all over America that anti-union tactics had been green-lit by the president of the United States. 

If it was possible to top that, Reagan’s response to AIDS did. For years, he simply did nothing. If you want a quick way to get livid, you can find press conferences on YouTube where Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, mocks people with AIDS.

Back to the well

Remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster? It wasn’t too long ago that we saw what BP’s greed, combined with lax government regulation, could produce. Now, I regret to say, the lax regulation is back. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration has rolled back rules adopted by the Obama administration after Deepwater Horizon. As it turns out, the top safety official at the Department of Interior in charge of regulating offshore drilling, Scott Angelle, sat for several years on the board of a pipeline company, and has been fighting to roll back Obama-era protections since long before Trump appointed him. Unfortunately, other Trump appointees have proved similarly beholden to the interests of the industries they regulate. Stop and think—can you think of one agency head who isn’t?

Deadly denial

In April 1980, Gregg Easterbrook wrote a cover story for this magazine, reporting that NASA’s costly, outmoded shuttle project might fail disastrously, killing astronauts in the process. Six years later, when NASA’s Challenger exploded, he proved prescient. 

On the morning of January 28, 1986, the Challenger was scheduled to launch. That evening, Ronald Reagan was set to give his State of the Union address. It was common for agencies to compete for favorable mention in the president’s speech, and NASA had reason to be hopeful. After soliciting applications from thousands of civilians who hoped to go to space, they had selected a charming and telegenic public school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, to join the Challenger crew. NASA saw public relations gold in the making. 

But the night before the scheduled launch, engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company that had built the solid rocket booster, warned NASA managers that it should be postponed. Unusual freezing temperatures in Florida meant that the seal on the O-rings on the booster rockets would contract, allowing gases to escape and causing the rocket to explode.

NASA managers didn’t want to hear the engineers’ warning. “My God, Thiokol,” one said. “When do you want me to launch—next April?” When the engineers persisted in their warning, they were reminded that Thiokol’s contract was up for review. This quickly got a callback from Thiokol’s managers, who overruled their own engineers and ordered the launch. 

Unfortunately, the engineers knew what they were talking about. The Challenger exploded, killing McAuliffe and all the other members of the crew. One can’t help wondering how much the NASA managers were influenced by their desire to be praised in Reagan’s speech. Why else would they have ignored a credible warning that would have prevented the disaster?

Doing the right’s thing

Recently the Washington Post Outlook section ran a piece saying that the New Deal had not ended the Great Depression, and that, in fact, the Depression did not end until America entered World War II. But the impact of the New Deal on the Depression was actually immense. It cut unemployment so dramatically that in November 1936, just three years and eight months after Roosevelt took office, he was reelected by a landslide, carrying all but two states. I was nine years old at the time, and even I could sense how much brighter the world looked in 1936 than in 1933. 

Roosevelt then made a terrible error. He responded to Republican criticism of his jobs programs as make-work by slashing their budgets. This helped produce a recession in 1937. It was the first of countless examples in my lifetime of liberals giving up a good policy out of fear of conservative criticism. 

Kids on the Court

In 1937, Roosevelt made another big mistake. He came up with a proposal to increase the size of the Supreme Court by up to an additional six justices. His obvious motivation was that the conservative Court had ruled several important New Deal measures unconstitutional. His proposal was wildly unpopular, in part because the country still had great respect for the judiciary, and it failed to get anywhere in Congress. 

Ironically, Roosevelt didn’t need those six new justices. By 1942, he had appointed eight. That’s because the Court Roosevelt inherited was composed of old men, who died or retired quickly.

Unfortunately, our problem today is that the conservatives aren’t a bunch of old men, they’re a bunch of young men who are going to stay there for thirty or more years. It is a frightening prospect, requiring some truly innovative thinking and, I suspect, enormous political effort to reverse. Otherwise, the only way we can get around horrible decisions, like Citizens United, is by amending the Constitution, which can take years—if ever—to pass. 

Pacts Americana

The Cuban missile crisis was one of John Kennedy’s great triumphs. He saved us from nuclear war. One way it is often remembered is a comment that then Secretary of State Dean Rusk made afterward: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

The truth that is both sides blinked. It turned out, as I’m proud this magazine was the first to reveal, that Attorney General Robert Kennedy had gone to the Russian ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to assure him that the United States would pull its missiles out of Turkey—with the only condition being that the agreement should be kept secret.

It was kept so secret that few Americans knew about it. Even our article in the early ’70s, unfortunately, had little impact, and it wasn’t until the late ’80s that most Americans found out what Bobby had done. Over the years this secrecy has come to seem tragic to me. The American people were left thinking that toughness was the key to JFK’s success, when in fact the key was putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes. This mistaken belief has created lasting pressure on American presidents to seem to be tough in dealing with foreign adversaries. 

And what army?

We haven’t had a military draft since the 1970s. One unfortunate consequence is that only a tiny percentage of Americans are aware of the facts of military life. What troubles me the most is the way the country has gone along with the repeated deployment of the same soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, with some deploying seven or eight times. I think people have forgotten that in Vietnam, it was one year in the field and you were out. I was just an infantry trainee during World War II, but I got enough of a feeling from that experience to realize how awful it would be to get on a plane, having escaped being killed or maimed on one tour, only to know that you had to go back on another, and another, and another. 

One reason for the frequent deployments is that, to the best of my knowledge, we have never had more than 100,000 combat troops fighting in the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other soldiers perform support functions. That explains why the same soldiers have been redeployed again and again.

But not for thee

There was a revealing piece in the Times by Farhad Manjoo describing the views of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs. They are “unrepentantly liberal,” Manjoo wrote. “They oppose restrictions on abortion, favor gay rights, support gun control and oppose the death penalty.” How do they differ from others on the left? They are “deeply suspicious of the government’s efforts to regulate business, especially when it comes to labor.” This is true of libertarians in general, of course. But I regret to report that it’s also true of a considerable number of liberals, not in the sense that liberals are anti-regulation or consciously anti-labor, but in the sense that they are liberal in every way that does not affect their own pocketbook. Their lack of enthusiasm for efforts to reduce economic inequality is depressing. Apparently their 401(k)s are more important. 

Executive privilege

In a book published two months after Barack Obama left office, I expressed hope that he would not cash in. I had been depressed by Bill and Hillary Clinton’s greed, so I wrote that “we cannot continue to have our role models continue to cash in.” The problem was much deeper than the presidency. Consider Congress: Throughout the entire 1930s, only eight retiring congressmen became lobbyists. By contrast, in 2010 alone, more than forty departing congressmen became lobbyists. Similarly, congressional staffers now flock to K Street offices. One staffer explained to the journalist Mark Leibovich that he wanted to “monetize his public service.” But it’s especially bad when a figure who represents so many of the values and aspirations of the party, as Obama does, decides to trade his celebrity for cash. So, I was depressed to find that just after my plea made it into print, Obama agreed to make a speech to a Wall Street firm for a fee of $400,000. Since then, I’ve learned that Michelle, of whom I’ve also been a great admirer, charges you up to $3,000 to attend her book talks—where other authors feel amply rewarded if you simply buy their book. 

Smart money

When you’re making political contributions, be sure to give to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. They’re trying to win back enough seats in state legislatures across the country to take control of the redistricting that will occur after the 2020 census. This is how we can put an end to Republican gerrymandering. 

What would Jesus drink?

One fact about Christianity as I was growing up, which few people today understand, is the influence that our recent experience with Prohibition had. You need to know that religion—in the form of fiery denunciations of alcohol from the pulpit—had been one of the driving forces behind Prohibition. Now, consider one of my earliest memories: my father picking me up from Sunday school to drive up a country road to visit his bootlegger. It was hard if one had such an experience—and similar ones were shared by many Americans through Prohibition—to feel very self-righteous about one’s beliefs. If Americans today felt some of that humility, I think it would be far easier to bridge our great divide.

Belly of the beast

It’s not easy for me to relate to Donald Trump, but there’s one matter where I can. It is our preference for the open suit jacket. Sometime in my early forties, I was cursed with a “spare tire.” Despite trying diet and exercise, admittedly not for long, I have not been able to eliminate it. I assumed the president was similarly afflicted—that is, until he met his pal Kim Jong Un at the Korean border. As they were standing there, I noticed that Trump’s jacket was buttoned. When they crossed the border, I saw that Trump’s waist was nipped in.

How could he have managed a nipped-in look, which I had never been able to achieve? I went into intensive research mode: I asked my wife. She said women sometimes wear something called a “waist cincher,” but she’d never heard of one for men. So, I was compelled to turn to my next research tool: Amazon. It turns out that there are men’s cinchers. Those shown on Amazon certainly seem capable of doing the job. If you take a close look at the illustrations, you will see that they are, if not instruments of torture, garments capable of inflicting extreme discomfort. I know I couldn’t bear to wear one for five minutes. 

Since that day, I’ve occasionally seen Trump with a closed jacket, which, after all, is possible with a skilled tailor and several yards of fabric, but I’ve never again seen him with a nipped-in waist. My guess is that, as Air Force One departed from Korea, Trump thrust his cincher into a closet, where it remains. 

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.