Respond to this Article May 2002

Tilting at Windmills

Bureaucratic Buddies ... Pentagon Payoffs ... White's Flights.

By Charles Peters

In late September, a couple of weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center had sobered even the most frivolous Manhattanite, The New York Times interviewed some of the city's singles to find out how their lifestyle had been changed by the tragedy. Most replied that finding a serious committed partner had become a much higher priority. One of them, Olga Valdes, "who had spent much of her professional life as a marketing executive," had just met a handsome architect from New Hampshire: "I felt this pure honesty coming from him I've met the man I'm going to marry." As time went by, the epiphanies of 9/11 began to fade. Ms. Valdes went to New Hampshire to visit her architect. When she suggested he needed a new fence he told her that it would cost a lot of money, $400 to be exact. "I was thinking to myself, 'The shoes on my feet are $400.'"

The relationship ended. "He's a wonderful guy, but when reality set in I realized that our goals and ambitions were too different. He had a lifestyle on completely the opposite end of the spectrum of anything I've ever had."

Of course. After all, what's pure honesty compared to $400 shoes?

*******

Did you read about the Pen-tagon civil servant who used her government credit card for $12,000-worth of personal expenses? The bureaucratically innocent may assume that she was fired. Those who know the civil service know better. She has transferred, but she still works for the Pentagon. She wasn't even asked to repay the $12,000. Can anything be done about this problem? Do we have to keep incompetent or misbehaving civil servants forever? There is an answer to the problem, and it comes from the Peace Corps, which has a system of two-and-a-half-year appointments. It's still hard to get rid of the bad apples immediately, but you don't have to keep them around for life. When their appointments are up, you simply don't renew them.

*******

M. Diane Allbaugh, the wife of FEMA director Joe Allbaugh, has joined the lobbying firm headed by former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour. She says she won't work on any matters involving FEMA. But it's hard to believe her clients, including three energy companies, care that much about FEMA. Her much more important asset is the fact that, since her husband made up, along with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, the "Iron Triangle" that guided George W. Bush through the Texas governorship to the White House, it is just possible that his influence extends beyond FEMA.

*******

Early in the morning of Aug. 21 of last year, Chang Wu, a broker at PaineWebber's Houston office, emailed his clients that Enron's "financial condition is deteriorating" and urged them to reduce their holdings in the company's stock.

When an Enron executive found out about the email later in the day, he sent a message to Wu's superiors at PaineWebber saying "Please handle this situation. This is extremely disturbing to me." Three hours later, Wu was fired. Could this have had anything to do with these facts, reported by Richard A. Oppel, Jr. of The New York Times: "PaineWebber managed Enron's stock option program for employees and handled brokerage accounts for many company executives. It also did substantial investment banking work for Enron, which generated fees for the firm"?

*******

The courtship of clerks has become one of the minor scandals of the federal judiciary. Judges have always sought the best law-school graduates to serve for one or two years as their clerks. The reason is simple: the brighter and more industrious the clerk, the better the judge looks and the easier his job is. Traditionally, the mating game began in the student's third year, but competition gradually moved it back into the second year, further intruding the distraction of future employment into the students' legal education. Now there is supposed to be a reform. A plan devised by two circuit court judges, Edward A. Becker and Harry T. Edwards, provides for a moratorium on recruiting second-year law students starting this coming fall and the resumption of the traditional third-year hiring the following year.

This plan is said to have the support of 92 percent of federal judges. But if 8 percent are going to sin and try to make off with the cream of the potential clerk crop, won't the righteous zeal of the other jurists quickly fade, as they scramble to avoid being left with the less-stellar? One is reminded that a previous reform, an attempt to forbid hiring before noon of March 1, fell apart when, as The Washington Post's Neely Tucker describes it: "Judges who called at noon found their chosen students had been snatched away by colleagues whose watches seemed to be running a few minutes fast."

*******

Michael Kelly, the columnist and editor of The Atlantic, has long been one of the most dedicated frothers-at-the-mouth whenever Bill Clinton's name is mentioned. But he may have outdone himself recently when he described the source of "the nearly unbelievable degree of his essential unfitness to be president---his profound immaturity, his pathological selfishness, his cynicism, above all his relentless corruption."

To attend to just the last of this litany, there is to my knowledge absolutely no evidence that Bill Clinton was corrupt in the sense that the word is usually applied to politicians, which is to say they padded their personal bank accounts with money paid to them for public favors. As governor of Arkansas, Clinton could have become a rich man, as many governors of similar states have, but he definitely was not rich when he left Little Rock. Hadn't he made money from Whitewater? Even the independent counsel says the answer is no. And however ill-advised some of his pardons may have been, there is no evidence he personally profited from them. Indeed, a large number of the pardons were for impecunious minor drug offenders.

*******

One of the oldest scandals in the medical profession is hospitals and senior physicians enrich-ing themselves by overworking low-paid interns and residents. Is something finally going to be done? A bill in Congress called the Patient and Physician Safety and Protection Act sounds hopeful. But the "reform" it requires is limiting the work week to 80 hours with no more than 24 hours at one stretch. The problem is that research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that a person who stays awake for 24 hours performs at the level of one who is legally drunk.

*******

Remember the bullies who used to torment you on the playground? I was fortunate in having only two to contend with in my childhood, and each for a relatively short time. But those experiences were enough to make me appreciate what a nightmare bullying can be for its victim. Apparently these days their favorite targets are boys who are or who seem gay. My hometown paper, The Charleston Gazette, recently reported an example:

A boy named Matt had a picture drawn of him in art class. He was hanging from a noose and labeled a "faggot." As he was walking home a few days later, an older boy put his arm around him and said, "You're coming with me." After a few steps, he pushed Matt to the ground and he and a friend kicked Matt as a third boy laughed. They proceeded to light one match after another and drop it on his stomach. Finally, they let him scramble to his feet, yelling after him, "Run, faggot, run."

His mother appealed to school authorities. Here's what they did. They had Matt sit alone in the art class away from the other students, and they held his tormentors for 15 minutes after school. The authorities told his mother, "This would give him time enough to get home if he hurried."

*******

The final report of White-water independent counsel Robert Ray, whose objectivity has been certified by his candidacy for the Republican nomination for senator from New Jersey, said "that evidence [of criminal conduct by the Clintons] was, ultimately, of insufficient weight and insufficiently corroborated to obtain and sustain a criminal prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt." All that's missing is a wink and a nudge to ac-company Ray's implication: "Boy, do we know they're guilty! We just don't have quite enough to satisfy legalistic judges."

I like David Kendall's comment that Ray might just as well have said that he had found insufficient evidence "from which a jury might infer beyond a reasonable doubt that the Clintons had pilfered Powerball tickets, trapped fur-bearing mammals out of season, or sold nuclear secrets to Liechtenstein."

*******

Outsiders worry that too many government jobs are filled by political patronage. But insiders know that far more jobs are filled by the patronage of friendship, known in the trade as the buddy system. The insiders know but don't want the rest of us to know, so they can quietly fill the jobs with their pals. Of the 60,000 middle-management jobs that opened up in the fiscal year 2000, only 13 percent were filled by people from outside government, according to a report by the Partnership for Public Service.

Even in the case of the 13 percent who are outsiders, the buddy system also applies, as when a civil servant's neighbor is tipped to a job opening, and a job description is written that magically fits the neighbor's talents.

*******

Here's a challenge for conservatives. As neoliberals, we at The Washington Monthly have made a point of acknowledging when conservatives are right. But we've been disappointed by the failure of conservatives to reciprocate

As early as the 1970s we agreed with them that violent criminals belonged in jail and that business, the military, and religion should not be automatically scorned. Isn't it time for conservatives to admit when we liberals are right? Perhaps nonviolent first offenders don't belong in jail; maybe business, the military, and religion aren't always right. Shouldn't Enron inspire even the most conservative to realize that some regulation of business is needed? Shouldn't the Catholic Church sex scandal remind them that religion needs to be scrutinized as well as respected? And shouldn't the Pentagon budget remind them that while the military deserves our admiration, it shouldn't get every weapon system it asks for?

*******

The Bush administration's anti-regulatory bias is so automatic you would think some conservatives would be embarrassed. Add to the long list that has already appeared in recent "Tiltings" these three March headlines: "EPA Will Ease Coal Plant Rules," "FDA to Suspend a

Rule on Child Drug Testing," "Bush Energy Order Wording Mirrors Oil Lobby's Proposal; Directive Targeted Regulations with 'Adverse Effects.'"

*******

Any doubts about George W. Bush's dedication to campaign reform were eliminated by his recess appointment---recess meaning it evades Senate confirmation for one year---of Michael E. Toner to the Federal Elections Commission. Toner comes to his new job fresh from serving as chief counsel to the Republican National Committee. Who could he think would be better qualified to be a fair-minded en- forcer of the nation's election laws---Katherine Har-ris?

*******

"TV ads spur a Rise in Prescription Drug Sales" reads a recent headline in The New York Times. Another headline, this from The Wall Street Journal: "In Europe, Prescription Drug Ads are Banned---And Health Costs Lower." Does this not suggest that we should reconsider our current policy? I don't know about you, but after an evening of television I'm absolutely convinced that I suffer from at least a half dozen ailments from which only the latest pharmaceutical miracles can save me.

*******

Did Robert Ray see Repub-lican politics in his future while he was serving as the Whitewater independent counsel? Here's what Christie Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and the current head of the EPA told Raymond Hernandez of The New York Times about what Ray said to her in a break in his testimony before a Senate appropriations committee---while he was still in that post: "He didn't talk to me about running, his personal running. He talked about whether or not the Senate race, no actually, I take it back. What he did was say he might have an interest in it."

*******

Speaking of W, the latest Bushism to come to my attention is "there's no cave deep enough for American justice."

*******

Last month we reported that the government was no longer attaining its goal of an air marshal on every flight into and out of Reagan National Airport. Next came the news that the 24-hour fighter protection of Washington and other obvious terrorist targets has been ended. It was no longer needed, explained the Secretary of the Air Force on March 19. On April 1, a Frontier Airlines plane flew within a block of the West Wing.

*******

You've probably read about Army Secretary Thomas E. White's use of a military jet for a trip to close the sale of a house in Aspen. But you may have missed another military flight he took to Naples, Fla., where he checked out a waterfront property. It seems that White views public service as a better way to oversee his investments---not only in real estate, but in the stock market as well. According to The Washington Post, he has reported 84 phone calls, attempted calls, and meetings with his former colleagues at Enron since taking office last May. These intensified last October, just before White unloaded his 200,000 shares of Enron stock.

*******

Speaking of air safety, the aviation security law enacted by Congress after September 11 required that checked luggage be examined by "explosive detection systems," but the Transportation Safety Administration has an-nounced that smaller airports will not be required to install X-ray machines. The "system" these airports use will not exactly be the highest of high tech. They're going to rub the outside of the bags with a cloth. Seriously. This is somehow supposed to yield a telltale explosive residue. Maybe they should hire faith healers to do the rubbing. One thing is certain: Terrorists are going to be moving to Des Moines.

*******

The drug companies are, as we have pointed out, doing a lot of advertising. But this does not mean that they have abandoned their traditional sales techniques. Earlier this year, according to The Washington Post's Bill Brubaker, Forest Laboratories invited two dozen physicians to cocktails, dinner, and an overnight stay at New York's luxurious Plaza Hotel to get their "advice" on the treatment of depression. The next morning, the doctors participated in a seminar on depression, which---surprise, surprise---can be treated by a Forest drug called Celexa. After lunch, for which Forest picked up the tab, of course, each of the doctors was presented with a check for $500. Needless to say, this is the kind of experience that inspires warm and fuzzy feelings for Forest and Celexa on the part of the medical community.

*******

There are 103 nuclear reactors in the United States. Only four were designed to withstand a plane crash. And even those were not built to withstand a hit from a plane as large as those hijacked on September 11. Admittedly, the source of this information, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) is a longtime critic of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But the commission itself, or to be more precise, its chairman Richard A. Meserve, admits, according to Matthew L. Wald of The New York Times, that it "does not keep track of the number of foreign citizens working at nuclear power plants, or how many guards are employed at the plants or what the owners spend on security."

*******

The law books are full of statutes that are rarely, if ever, enforced. One example forbids false testimony before Congress even if it is not under oath. Another, pointed out in a recent Washington Post op-ed by Michael Davis, a law professor, and Peter Arno, a professor of epidemiology, requires drugs developed wholly or in part with federal funds to be made available to the public at a reasonable price. Yet prescription drug prices are rising at the rate of 19 percent per year, even though in the case of anti-cancer drugs alone 54 of 84 approved by the FDA are products of federal funding.

*******

Melvyn R. Paisley, who died recently, became a kind of celebrity in the 1980s for taking cash bribes from defense contractors while he was employed by the Pentagon. Many people think this is the way the military-industrial complex works. But the truth is that cash bribes are relatively rare. The inducement that is held out---implicitly rather than explicitly---to Pentagon employees is that their chances of gaining lucrative employment with defense contractors upon retirement will be greatly enhanced by a record of indulgence toward those contractors while stationed in the Pentagon.

*******

As most readers of the Monthly know, I've been like those federal judges in my dependence on a series of bright young people who come here for a couple of years to help put out the magazine and then go on to distinguished careers in journalism.

Although their level of intelligence has been consistently high, there has been one area in which I've found a good many of them wanting: their lack of knowledge of history, especially the history of the last century. That the problem may be true not just of them but of other members of their generation is suggested by a factual error in a recent The New Yorker review of the Broadway musical, "Sweet Smell of Success," based on the life of Walter Winchell, the most powerful gossip columnist of the 1930s and '40s.

"Winchell was wooed," reads the review, "first by FDR, to advance his political agenda, and then by Herbert Hoover as a conduit for nefarious right-wing disinformation." Of course, the author really means J. Edgar, not Herbert Hoover. Yet none of The New Yorker's bright, young fact-checkers caught this obvious error. Less obvious, but still something that any student of the Winchell era would have known, is that the first 20 years of the Winchell---J. Edgar Hoover relationship were based on the columnist's building up Hoover as the great G-man crimefighter in return for Hoover's giving crime-news tips to Winchell. The "commie" phase of their relationship did not dominate until the late '40s and '50s when Winchell's career was in decline.

*******

Okay, we realize every reader over 50 is asking, "Is Dr. Peter Arno related to the great New Yorker cartoonist with the same name?" We were curious too, so we called Dr. Arno and asked. The answer is no. In fact, Dr. Arno told us that the real name of the New Yorker's Peter Arno was Arnold Peters. No, I'm not related either.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of The Washington Monthly.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here