Tilting at Windmills

January/ February 2014 Why bad news should always trickle up … Polyester and merlot … The hippest fund-raiser in New York

By Charles Peters

No exit

Imagine your reaction to being trapped in the backseat of a car having to listen to Ted Cruz quote from one speech of his after another. I suspect my own would be very similar to that of the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson: “I made a quick calculation as to how many vertebrae I would damage if I slipped the lock, opened the door and did a tuck and roll onto the passing pavement.”


A consistent concern of this magazine dating from its earliest days has been to attract more liberals to working in political campaigns and running for office. Another of our causes has been to eliminate the snobbery that we saw separating liberalism from the average man. So it was encouraging to find a report in the Styles section of the New York Times that Audrey Gelman had lured chic New Yorkers into participating in a political campaign, especially for a job so decidedly unglamorous as the Office of City Comptroller. That may have satisfied one of the Monthly’s concerns, but I’m afraid the Styles section’s account of how she succeeded exacerbated the other: “Working in an area—city politics—where it passes for ‘style’ if you manage to keep the mustard off the lapel of your Poly-blend suit, Ms. Gelman cuts a striking figure.” The night of the fund-raiser she “wore a sleeveless white Dior cocktail dress” and later “popped up in Paper magazine’s 2013 list of ‘Beautiful People,’ wearing a Mod-inspired Vuitton shift and Ali McGraw pout.” She “liked the idea of rolling up the sleeves of her Jil Sander blouse and delving into politics at the street level.”

As you can see, our anti-snobbery campaign still has a way to go.

Man of mystery

If you have been rooting for the Washington Post to not only survive but to get better, then you’d better be praying that Jeff Bezos turns out to be the right owner. Unfortunately, a couple of disturbing signs have emerged recently. One is the book by Brad Stone describing Bezos’s tough business tactics and how Amazon threatens to eclipse Walmart as a destroyer of other retailers. And then there’s the headline in Slate that describes Bezos as an “Inscrutable Libertarian Democrat.” These fellows are usually on the side of the angels when it comes to issues like human rights and sexual and racial equality, but when it comes to economic issues, the rights they favor tend more toward not paying taxes and not having their businesses regulated.

Elephants never forget?

When Hank Paulson was first describing to George W. Bush the Wall Street collapse and its potential to take down the whole economic system, Bush said, according to Peter Baker’s new book, Days of Fire, “Someday you guys are going to have to tell me how we ended up with a system like that and what we need to do to fix it.” Have you heard Bush or any member of his party express similar sentiments since that frightening period? If they supported Dodd-Frank or made any attempt to toughen it, I am unaware of the fact and suspect you are, too.

It reminds me of the stories I heard about how people on Wall Street were terrified of losing their jobs in the months following the meltdown. At the time, I was hoping this would lead them to have more empathy for others who were also fearful of losing their jobs, or had lost them already. Unfortunately, like Bush and other Republicans on financial reform, the Wall Streeters seem to have completely forgotten how they felt back then.

Looking down for the up-and-up

As this issue goes to press, the fate of Obamacare remains uncertain. The Republicans, of course, continue their crusade to sabotage every effort to make the program work—even as they delight in exploiting examples of it not working. You have to feel sorry for Obama as he contemplates their hypocrisy, especially since so many of the bill’s problems stem from the compromises Obama made to try to persuade Republicans to support the bill. Other compromises were made to secure the essential involvement of Senator Max Baucus and his Senate Finance Committee staff, who have rarely met a lobbyist they didn’t like. But these compromises had to be made, and I supported them, even though I’ve long been a single-payer advocate.

So Obama can’t be blamed for the bill’s complexity—it was the best he could get. But he is to blame for paying too little attention to how the bill was being implemented. Not only did he give too little effort to finding out what his subordinates were doing, he failed to heed the warning signs that did emerge.

Bureaucratic plumbing

In the first issue of this magazine, Russell Baker and I wrote, “In any reasonably large government organization, there exists an elaborate system of information cutoffs, comparable to that by which city water systems shut off large water-main breaks, closing down, first small feeder pipes, then larger and larger valves. The object is to prevent information, particularly of an unpleasant character, from rising to the top.”

In the same issue, Bill Moyers explained how Lyndon Johnson’s mistakes in Vietnam could be traced to his failure to reach down through several layers of the bureaucracy to find the officials who would tell him the truth, which differed significantly from the intelligence he was receiving from his generals and top advisers.

Hear no evil

Sometimes presidents don’t look at what’s going on below them because they don’t want to find out. They cross their fingers and hope whatever disaster is threatening doesn’t occur on their watch. Other times, they are so intent on believing the good news that they shut out the bad, or actually try to suppress it.

Department and agency heads like Kathleen Sebelius are no different. Consider the behavior of top NASA officials the night before the Challenger disaster. Two engineers at Thiokol called to warn them that because of the low temperatures predicted for the time of the launch, the O-rings on the booster rockets might freeze, releasing gasses that would cause the rocket to explode and doom the Challenger. Not only did NASA executives ignore that warning, they threatened the engineers with the loss of Thiokol’s government contract if they didn’t change their tune.

NASA’s leaders had already displayed reluctance to face the potential dangers of its program. In 1980, they ignored warnings about the Challenger and its booster rockets in an article by Gregg Easterbrook in this magazine entitled “Beam Me Out of This Death Trap, Scotty.” Six years later, they did not want to hear anything that would force them to cancel the Challenger launch. Ronald Reagan was scheduled to deliver a State of the Union address the night of the launch in which NASA hoped he would dwell with pride on NASA’s accomplishment, including sending to space the first teacher, Christa McAuliffe, a member of the Challenger crew. Often the only time a White House will reach out to the agencies beneath it is to ask for good news to include in a presidential speech.

Know thy government

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.


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