Respond to this Article September 2004

Tilting at Windmills

The GOP's madam ... Bush's light duty ... Sweet Revenge ... The comfort class ...

By Charles Peters

November delight

Poetic justice on Nov. 2 is forecast by a mock election held by the National Association of Student Councils. George W. Bush wins the popular vote but loses the electoral vote to John Kerry.

The GOP's madam

Marlene Baldwin has been named California Businesswoman of the Year by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Baldwin now sells direct-mail advertising, but before that, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, she spent "fifteen years as the most famous brothel madam in San Francisco." When advised of this fact by the Chronicle, a spokesman for the Republican group said, "Really? We did not know that, I'm sure." Anyway, he explained, the award recognizes contributions to Republican causes or Republican candidates.

The dodger vote

During his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton won my respect with his willingness to acknowledge his own failure to serve while expressing admiration for Kerry's courage in Vietnam. This election could turn on whether most of his fellow draft-avoiders can do the same. The fact is that there are more of them than there are of those who served.

Clinton himself provides the relevant facts in My Life. During the Vietnam era, 10.9 million men served in the military, but 16 million avoided the draft. I know enough of them to know that many have experienced wildly conflicting emotions about not having served--pride at having opposed the war mixed with guilt over those who were killed or maimed in their stead. Some, like Clinton, have worked their way through this tangle of feelings to an acceptance of what they did that leaves them capable of honoring those who served. But for some of the others, their self-hatred translates into hatred of Kerry. Let's hope that they are few in number, or at least that the worst of them, the chicken-hawks who supported the war but avoided serving in it, are already Republicans.

Bush's light duty

By the way, I think it important that the Democrats and their allies, although not Kerry himself, make sure that Bush is exposed as a draft-dodger. Most people today think of National Guardsmen as standing a good chance of having to go to war, as they did in World War II, and as they are doing today in Iraq. But every voter should know that during Vietnam, the Guard was widely recognized as a way of avoiding danger. That's why so many young men tried to get in, so many in fact that Bush's father had to use political influence to help his son land one of the prized slots. Finally, no voter should be left unaware that on his application for the Guard, there was a box asking if you wanted to serve overseas that Bush checked "no."

People problems

The major defect of the 9/11 Commission's report is its failure to face the government's personnel problem. 9/11 was a failure of people as well as of the systems that the report blames. There was a lot of incompetence in the FBI, the CIA, the INS, the FAA, and the White House. Stupid decisions were made. George W. Bush ignored the early August 2001 warning in the President's Daily Briefing that was headed "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." And as CIA veteran Ray McGovern pointed out to William Raspberry of The Washington Post, the FBI's Spike Owens "received a $20,000 cash award from the administration for his duties in safeguarding the American people" after rejecting unread that report from the FBI's field office about "all those Arab fellows training on aircraft but with no interest in learning how to land them."

Out of sight

Have you noticed this past summer how stories of American soldiers dying in Iraq quietly moved to the back pages? On July 9, for example, Los Angeles Times put the story of five G.I.'s being killed on page 7; The New York Times put it on page 8. On July 22, "U.S. Troops Dying Two Per Day Since Turnover In Iraq" made page 10 of The Washington Times. We need another dramatic reminder of the costs of this war such as Ted Koppel gave us in March. And this time, stories of the wounded, nearing 6,000 at last count, need to be told. Many Americans have no idea of the terrible injuries that have been suffered, and of the impact those injuries are having on the lives of the wounded as they return to the civilian world.

Was I right?

Just before we went to war in Iraq, I wrote in this space, "This country has been conned by Karl Rove and the super-hawks. They have succeeded in changing the subject from Bush's failures and embarrassments, putting Iraq first on the national agenda for nearly six months at the expense of more important matters--like finding Osama bin Laden, securing peace between Israel and Palestine, drastically improving the FBI and CIA's ability to deal with terrorism, keeping nuclear weapons from being used by nations that already have them, including North Korea, and engineering economic recovery here at home. If we end up paying practically all the bill for Iraq and subsequent military occupation, that money won't be there for badly needed health and education programs Once you consider these other higher priorities, the danger from Iraq isn't nearly imminent enough to justify war." I haven't changed my mind.

Farming turkeys

In my own experience, what protects incompetence in the bureaucracy is the spirit of collegiality that encourages government officials not to blow the whistle on the other guy's ineptitude lest he call attention to theirs. How else did the FBI's Robert Hanssen and the CIA's Aldrich Ames survive for so long, despite plenty of evidence that Hanssen was weird and Ames a drunk? Usually the worst that happens to such turkeys is that they are "farmed." The supervisor who has caught on engineers a transfer of the turkey to another branch of his organization. While this is usually seen as a great bureaucratic triumph for the supervisor, the catch is that the turkey may be able to do, as Ames did, yet greater harm where he was farmed.

Richard Clarke, in the only commentary other than Raspberry's I've seen that deals with the failure of the 9/11 Commission to deal with the personnel problem, says that "the only way to infuse these key agencies with creative new blood is to overhaul their hiring and promotion practices." The key units of the FBI and the CIA, Clarke observes, "are headed almost exclusively by those who joined [the agencies] young and worked their way up. This has created uniformity, insularity, risk-aversion, torpidity and often mediocrity."

Government tends to attract people looking for job security who come in risk-averse, a tendency which only grows as risk might imperil their slow but steady rise up the ladder.

The comfort class

Tom Ridge has told colleagues he may retire in November. The AP reports that he needs to make more money in order to "comfortably put his two children through college." The man is making $175,000 a year. That should make them very comfortable.

Gasping for airplay

During the Democratic convention, FOX News channel gave less than one minute to Al Gore's speech (this, courtesy of that great devotee of fair play Bill O'Reilly) and not much more to Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. MSNBC's Chris Matthews cut off Al Sharpton, righteously proclaiming, "This is a partisan act here," as if political conventions were ever anything else. Even NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather were guilty. On Monday night, they chose to feature 10 minutes of themselves instead of a speech by the Rev. David Alston, the black clergyman who was a swift-boat crewmate of John Kerry's. On Thursday night, two of the big three networks did not show the eight high-ranking military officers, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who endorsed Kerry. CBS did not show Max Cleland's introduction of Kerry. It should have--we owe him. I also thought Alston deserved to be heard. And it was important for the country to know that respected military leaders believed Kerry could be trusted with responsibility for the nation's security.

Truth lags

The truth is having a hard time catching up with the lies of the Bush gang. When asked whether there was a partnership "between Saddam Hussein in Iraq and al Qaeda," 56 percent of the respondents in a late June poll said yes, and only 28 percent disagreed. The respondents were also asked whether Saddam had advance notice of the 9/11 attacks. When the same question was posed late in 2001, 79 percent said it was very or somewhat likely. Now, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that figure has only declined to 68 percent.

Smoke screen

Why are state legislatures rushing to help tobacco companies? "Thirty states have adopted controversial laws in recent years offering protection for cigarette makers that lose massive verdicts," reports The Wall Street Journal's Vanessa O'Connell. Why such solicitude for the bad guys? Tobacco company lobbyists have convinced legislators that large verdicts threaten the ability of the companies to pay their share of the giant 1998 tobacco settlement. States have come to rely on this money as part of their regular revenue stream. So now they have become allies of the very people whose wrongdoing the settlement was supposed to punish.

Higher Ed, Inc.

While I was working for the Peace Corps back in the 1960s, I began to notice that the idealism of the students who were volunteering for our and other worthy causes was accompanied by a less noble but growing trend towards commercialism by their universities. Prestigious institutions were committing larceny with outrageous charges for what they called "overhead" on contracts for the training of our volunteers. Professors were opening outside offices to moonlight as "consultants." It seemed that every second floor on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, Mass., housed another consulting firm.

The trend was only in its infancy. Potential profits have soared. Now we have what James B. Twitchell, writing in the Wilson Quarterly, describes as "a $250-$270 billion business." He calls it Higher Ed., Inc. Just one institution, Harvard, has an endowment of $20 billion, which Twitchell describes as "greater than the assets of the Dell Computer Company, the gross national product of Libya, the net worth of all but five of the Forbes 400, or the holdings of all the non-profits in the world except the Roman Catholic Church ... Every two weeks, Harvard's endowment throws off enough cash to cover all undergraduate tuition." Instead it adds to the endowment and increases salaries for faculty and administrators. Harvard's five top money managers, according to The New York Times, were paid $105 million last year.

Those entrepreneurial professors I began to encounter in the '60s are having their talents harnessed by Higher Education, Inc. to tap another fiscal oil well. At the University of Pittsburgh, reports Bernard Wysocki of The Wall Street Journal, Dr. David Kuptor, the head of the psychiatry department, has helped the university move from 12th to eighth in the amount of grants received from the National Institutes of Health in just five years, by requiring his students "to attend boot camps" for writing applications for grants, and by paying researchers bonuses of as much as $50,000 a year based on how much NIH money they bring to Pitt.

Higher Ed, Inc. is also going in big for marketing. The student is seen as a customer, whose every need must be satisfied. Education as an objective is being lost in a scramble to provide "Olympic-quality gyms, Broadway-style theaters for plays, special trainers, and glitzy student unions with movie theaters." My favorite is Washington State University, which offers its students the "largest Jacuzzi in the West."

Punch drunk

Here's a man-bites-dog story from The International Herald Tribune which you may have missed. It seems that a passenger on an Aeroflot flight out of Moscow was beaten up by drunken flight attendants. Deplorable as this may be, it has to quicken the hearts of countless flight attendants who have struggled to pacify passengers who have had far more than one too many.

Another civil action

It is true that trial lawyers can be greedy troublemakers, but they can also be useful. Here's an example.

Since 1981, DuPont has been making around $200 million a year from the manufacture of Teflon. It has also been suppressing studies showing that a chemical used in making Teflon is toxic. A 1981 study showed that the chemical was, reports Los Angeles Times, "toxic to newborn rats, killing some and causing some to be born with eye and facial deformities .... Within a few months, DuPont discovered that two babies out of a group of five born to employees exposed to the chemical at a plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., had similar rare birth defects .... The company found [the chemical] in the blood supply of its female workers... and also learned ... that the chemical had contaminated the water supply of 30,000 Ohio River Valley residents." The Environmental Protection Agency is now proposing to fine DuPont several hundred million dollars. But, and this is my point, the EPA would not have found out what DuPont had done if the facts had not been uncovered by discovery in a lawsuit.

Name games

The General Accounting Office (GAO) has long been one of the most important agencies in Washington. Unfortunately, it has been handicapped by a name that absolutely reeks of dullness. Its work--of finding out for Congress what is going right and wrong in the rest of the government--is crucial, extending far beyond accounting. So, to give the public a better idea of what it is, it has changed its name. The initials are still the same, but now they stand for Government Accountability Office. It still doesn't exactly suggest naked ladies dancing on the lawn, but it's definitely an improvement.

Ralph's right point

Occasionally, although increasingly rarely, I find myself agreeing with Ralph Nader's plague on both your houses. The latest of these occasions was when I learned the following, from a column by Jeffrey Birnbaum in The Washington Post: There are regular meetings between Democratic lobbyists and Democratic Senate staff members (every other Monday), between Democratic lobbyists and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi's chief of staff (every Friday), and between Republican lobbyists and Republican senators (every other Tuesday and every other Wednesday).

Private planes and nightclubs

You may have noticed that the aircraft that caused all that security hullabaloo just before the Ronald Reagan memorial service at the Capitol was the private plane of the governor of Kentucky. Many other governors have their own planes. Why? I suspect it is because they see the president riding around in Air Force One and want their own toy. Many of these governors also have their own security details, like the president's secret service. In the case of the governors, their only real function seems to be to protect the governors from indignant voters.

Even mayors are getting into the act. Mayor Anthony Williams of the District of Columbia is an example. "The Executive Protection Unit of the Metropolitan Police Department has dispatched police officers, sergeants, detectives and lieutenants on more than 130" occasions, reports Jim McElhatton of The Washington Times, running up $320,000 in expenses, "including bills at a luxury beachfront hotel in Hawaii, a Las Vegas night-club, and the Tavern on the Green restaurant in New York."

Publish or perish

A new insight into the CIA's failures on Iraq comes from the 9/11 Commission's report. It seems that the agency's analysts have created a university-like culture, in which "its men and women tended to judge one another by the quantity and quality of their publications (in this case classified publications)... particular value is attached to having a contribution included in one of the classified 'daily newspapers'... or, better still, selected for inclusion in the President's Daily Brief."

Unfortunately, the commission did not take the obvious next step, which is to point out that every signal emanating from the Bush White House said "we want information that justifies war with Iraq." Ambitious analysts who wanted their work included in the President's Daily Brief knew that providing such information was their ticket to success.

Shallow background

Another problem with the CIA's analysts is that many of them have no background in the area they cover. U.S. News & World Report tells of what a leading scholar found when he recently met with the CIA's top analysts for Southeast Asia. Half had no experience in the region at all; none knew any of the languages.

U.S. News reveals another shocking fact about the CIA's clandestine service. As of April, it had fewer agents abroad than the FBI has in its New York field office--and that figure is 1,100. This raises two questions. Why does the FBI need 1,100 in New York? And, what do the CIA's other 20,000 or so employees do all day?

The CSI effect

The "CSI effect" is what prosecutors are calling it. Jurors who have seen all those television crime shows have come to expect "DNA, fingerprints, and other irrefutable scientific evidence," reports the Associated Press. The problem is that in Baltimore, for example, fewer than 10 percent of the homicide cases in the state attorney's office involve fingerprint or DNA evidence. The result is that jurors aren't convinced even by the kind of eyewitness testimony that used to nail down convictions. In one recent case, an 11-year-old girl pointed at the defendant and said, "That's the man who shot my father." The jurors found him not guilty. One explained, "I would have liked to see some evidence, like finding the gun with fingerprints.

U.S.S. community relations

The Navy is currently conducting an exercise called "Summer Pulse '04" in which, according to the AP, the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and six more carriers, with a retinue of 120 other ships, will be deployed around the globe "to demonstrate America's ability to deal with ... the outbreak of violence just about everywhere at one time."

Does this make sense? How much will it cost? And what will be its effect on the morale of the crews? We've been told repeatedly that the Navy's been stretched too thin by its duties in support of military actions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with sailors and their families complaining about long separations from home and talking about not reenlisting. There is plenty of real work for these people to do. The last thing they need is a phony public-relations exercise that just might succeed in supplying more targets for the terrorists.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of The Washington Monthly and president of Understanding Government.


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