Bullseyes and Blunders

Over its forty year history, the Washington Monthly has made some spot-on predictions—and some major flubs.

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Good Call: Prying Eyes

The Washington Monthly celebrated the first anniversary of its debut with a bang: an exposé by former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer Christopher H. Pyle detailing the Army’s heretofore unknown domestic surveillance programs. For four years, Pyle explained in “CONUS Intelligence” (January 1970), the Army had been keeping tabs on the lawful activities of American political activists, ranging from civil rights leaders to white supremacists to antiwar groups. “What is perhaps most remarkable about this domestic intelligence network is its potential for growth,” he wrote, warning that if lawmakers and the public didn’t demand accountability, the United States could end up hosting “the largest domestic intelligence operation outside of the communist world.”

In fact, much of that operation was already in place. Pyle’s Monthly story—which won a George Polk Award—was the first in a series of shocking revelations about domestic spying in the Vietnam era. In 1971 news of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s now-infamous COINTELPRO operation came to light, followed by disclosure of similar Central Intelligence Agency activities in 1974. The ensuing Church Committee investigation ultimately led to the kind of congressional intelligence oversight that Pyle had argued was necessary.

Bad Call:
The We Decade?

As the 1970s drew to a close and Americans prepared to bid farewell to a decade that had begun in hope and hippiedom and ended in cynicism and polyester, Washington Monthly founding editor Charles Peters unleashed “A Platform for the Nineteen-Eighties” (February 1979), a thirteen-page manifesto calling on Americans to make the 1980s a new era of idealism. Peters wanted to put an end to “the politics of selfishness”; he argued that mediation should replace lawsuits, national service should be mandatory, and corporate greed should give way to labors of love. The ’80s, he declared, would be a time for Americans to come together and shed their lavish lifestyles. Alas, Gordon Gekko wasn’t a Monthly subscriber.

Good Call: Houston, We Have a Problem

Three decades ago, when NASA engineers were still hammering away on the space shuttle Columbia, the first in a planned fleet of reusable cosmic cruisers, the Washington Monthly’s Gregg Easterbrook took a long hard look at the burgeoning space exploration program. He discovered the shuttles were fraught with safety problems—the cover of the issue begged, “Beam Us Out of This Deathtrap, Scotty!”

In “The Spruce Goose of Outer Space” (April 1980), Easterbrook flagged two particular areas of concern. One was the vulnerability of the booster rockets, the flaming, 15-million-horsepower pillars of steel that propelled the shuttle during liftoff. “Suppose one of the solid-fueled boosters failed,” he wrote. “The plan is, you die.” The other was the heat-shielding tiles that lined the outside of the shuttle—they were fragile and impossible to fix in space, and if they failed the shuttle would burn up on reentry. Tragically, these were the exact two failures that doomed the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia—the source of Easterbrook’s initial concerns—in 2003.

Bad Call: Future Not Found

In the early 1980s, personal computers were making the transition from curious novelty to household mainstay, and Washington Monthly contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook correctly envisioned a future in which they would play an ever-more-intimate role in our lives. Unfortunately, Easterbrook also predicted that by the end of the ’80s computers, equipped with sophisticated voice synthesizers and programmed for empathy, would have largely replaced human companionship. “For the lonely and the overly intellectual of this generation and others to follow,” Easterbrook wrote in “The Heart of a New Machine” (March 1983), “computers could be the main agents of comfort and consolation.”

While this was a fairly accurate anticipation of the 1985 John Hughes classic Weird Science, the closest most PC users ever got to a silicon-based soulmate was Microsoft Word’s annoying cartoon paper clip. In fact, since the advent of the Internet the main social function of computers has been to connect people, not replace us.

Good Call: Delicate Instruments

On January 23, 1987, the Dow suffered a sudden drop, plummeting more than 100 points in just over an hour. The market quickly recovered, and most of Wall Street treated it as an odd blip. But in “Futures Shock” (March 1987), Washington Monthly editor Steven Waldman argued that the cause of the drop deserved more attention: the computerized “program trading” of stock index futures. The new technology and financial instruments were a boon for individual investors, Waldman argued, but they opened the door to systemic risks in the market as a whole. When international stock exchanges crashed on Black Monday the following October, computerized futures trading was believed to be one of the causes.

Good Call: prescient.blogspot.com

During the 1992 presidential race, the Washington Monthly’s Jonathan Alter put his finger on a little-noticed trend: talk shows were eclipsing mainstream news outlets as the public’s primary source of information. In “How Phil Donahue Came to Manage the ’92 Campaign” (June 1992), Alter predicted that the proliferation of cable news outlets and the advent of the Information Superhighway, or something like it, would further erode the standing of major news organizations, as consumer choices multiplied and barriers to entry in the media business fell. “The whole structure of the media, like that of other institutions, is coming unglued,” he wrote. The democratization of information, Alter argued, would “have the potential to redefine power relationships, to further dilute the power of the media elite.” Twelve years later, Dan Rather was toppled by a band of bloggers.

Good Call: Overly Derivative

Fourteen years before the complete meltdown of the financial industry last fall, Senator Byron Dorgan warned us about the risks posed by one of the key ingredients in that catastrophe: the complex financial packages known as derivatives. In “Very Risky Business” (October 1994), the North Dakota Democrat predicted with uncanny precision what actually happened in September 2008—the cascading failures of large lending institutions, the collapse of Fannie Mae, taxpayer-funded bailouts—and speculated that a derivatives-driven financial crisis would eventually leave Americans “nostalgic for the days of the $500 billion savings-and-loan collapse.”

Bad Call: William Perry, Big Spender

In a roundup of policymakers that the next Democratic president (optimistically assumed to be taking office in 1989) shouldn’t hire, Washington Monthly editor—now editor in chief—Paul Glastris named William Perry, an undersecretary of defense under Jimmy Carter and a likely pick to head the Defense Department. Perry’s enthusiasm for high-tech boondoggles and enlarging the Pentagon’s secret, oversight-free “black budget,” Glastris argued in “The Powers That Shouldn’t Be” (October 1987), meant he would be trouble in the cabinet.

As it happened, the next Democratic administration did tap Perry, who served as Bill Clinton’s second defense secretary. Perry turned out to not only be pretty good, but also a champion of reining in the defense budget, fighting a Republican Congress that wanted to give the Pentagon more money even as it was trying to slash budgets everywhere else.

Good Call: Waning Intelligence

Two months before the 9/11 attacks, University of Georgia political science professor Loch Johnson warned that America’s intelligence agencies were poorly prepared to anticipate the threats the United States faced in the post–Cold War world. Johnson argued in “The CIA’s Weakest Link” (July/August 2001) that the CIA had lost far too many of its intelligence analysts, the quasi-academic experts who made sense of the information the agency gathered, and that the few who remained had too little familiarity with the world outside of Russia and Europe. Thanks to analysis oversights, the CIA had failed to anticipate India’s nuclear tests in 1998, the outbreak of violence in Macedonia in 2001, and—most ominously—the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden by Islamic terrorists in 2000. The biggest failure, of course, was right around the corner.

Bad Call: The Reality-Based Community

In the first summer of George W. Bush’s presidency, Washington Monthly editor Nicholas Thompson profiled Mitch Daniels, Bush’s Office of Management and Budget director, who had just overseen the passage of a $1.3 trillion tax cut. In “Dick Cheney’s Dick Cheney” (July/August 2001), Thompson argued that Daniels, a fiscal conservative whose budget-slashing credentials had earned him the nickname “The Blade,” exemplified why liberals should be worried about the new administration: Bush’s team was not only deeply conservative, but frighteningly competent at their jobs. After the pre-9/11 intelligence failures, two botched wars, Hurricane Katrina, a $400 billion deficit, and a manhandled economy, we wish Thompson had been right.

Good Call: The Well-Wired War Room

After the dot-com bubble burst, many pundits and politicos believed that the prospect of the Internet revolutionizing politics had burst with it. “The Internet is Tinkertoys,” declared Jim Jordan, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But the Washington Monthly’s Nicholas Thompson argued that “[f]or savvy candidates, the Internet has become the new political machine.” All the attention paid to the Web’s bells and whistles, Thompson wrote in “Machined Politics” (May 2002), had obscured the potential for the less-sexy opportunities it offered—its efficiencies of organization and communication—to become a potent political tool in the right hands. The use of the online tactics he identified would prove to be one of the decisive factors in Obama’s 2008 victory.

Good Call: The Fine Print on the Mortgage

At a time when most economists were pooh-poohing the dangers of a housing bubble, and Alan Greenspan was inflating it with low interest rates and advising homeowners to take out adjustable-rate mortgages, Washington Monthly editor Benjamin Wallace-Wells made a crucial observation. The recovery from the post-9/11 economic slump, he wrote, was perched on top of the housing bubble—for the first time in American history, appreciating property values were the main engine driving consumer spending. “Within the next year or two,” Wallace-Wells predicted in “There Goes the Neighborhood” (April 2004), “that bubble is likely to burst, and when it does, it may very well take the American economy down with it.” He was off by a year, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Good Call: The Democrats’ Real Welfare Problem

Many factors contributed to John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 election, but as George W. Bush celebrated his second inauguration, Washington Monthly editor Amy Sullivan zeroed in on the one that Democrats didn’t want to talk about: the party’s campaign consultants were losers. Super-consultants like Bob Shrum and Mark Mellman, Sullivan argued in “Fire the Consultants” (January/February 2005), had track records that would have gotten them laughed out of any Republican war room. But because they were deeply burrowed into the Democratic campaign apparatus that picked candidates, Democratic hopefuls were bullied into paying them huge sums of money to dispense the same half-baked advice that had doomed earlier campaigns.

Sullivan wrote that Republicans did better in part because they gave upstarts like Karl Rove a chance, and she suggested similar outsiders that the Democrats should tap for national races. Among them, she pointed out, was a relatively unknown Chicago-based strategist named David Axelrod, who had just helped a Democratic state legislator in Illinois win his first term in the U.S. Senate. Four years later, Barack Obama’s campaign, helmed by none other than Axelrod, cruised to victory. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s—which was run by the veteran consultants that Sullivan had deemed failures—faltered in the Democratic primaries after a series of tactical blunders.

Bad Call: Fuzzy Math

While other pollsters were predicting a photo finish in the 2004 presidential election, Hotline editor in chief Chuck Todd went out on a limb in the Washington Monthly, predicting in “A Kerry Landslide?” (May 2004) that “it’s going to be Kerry in a rout.” Unfortunately, the limb broke.

Click here to return to the Best of the Washington Monthly 40th anniversary collection.

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