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

All these points have been made again and again in the Monthly since that first issue, and we made them yet again to Obama in the March/April 2011 issue. We even advised him on a way to do it by using the Office of Management and Budget as Franklin Roosevelt had intended it to be used—as the White House’s eyes and ears on how well the agencies are performing their missions, or indeed if those missions are still needed.

Unfortunately, we have been about as successful at making this point as we have been in making our point about snobbery. Congressman Michael Burgess describes the White House’s attitude as “Don’t check the weather, we’re flying anyway,” but in reality the attitude is not so cavalier. It’s more that they don’t quite know how to make sure the weather report is accurate, not to mention whether the plane is ready to fly.

But maybe there’s hope yet. A “senior White House official” tells the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Nicholas and Carol E. Lee that the White House aims to reorganize itself so that “going forward, we don’t have these problems.” Obama himself tells the Journal, “What we probably needed to do on the front end was to blow up how we procure IT, especially in a system so complicated.” But this has been obvious to even casual observers of the bureaucracy for years—namely, that previous government efforts to install complicated computer programs have faced great difficulty and taken much more time to perfect than predicted.


In a recent issue, I commented on the absurdity that towns of 25,000 have SWAT teams, but that is just one example of how we’ve-got-to-have-ours-ism has infected public officials in regard to security matters. The latest example involves the wife of the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, who, according to a recent story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, announced that to spare taxpayers’ expense she is no longer requiring her security detail to accompany her each week from Harrisburg to her job as a real estate agent in New York City. That’s nice. But why did she have the security detail in the first place? And why do so many other state and local officials seem to think that they have to have security details too? When Joe Manchin was governor of West Virginia, he had twenty state police assigned to protect him. And why do so many state university football coaches have to have a phalanx of state police escorting them on game day?

Loaded dice

Bless the Center for Public Integrity for its recent revelation of how respectable physicians and lawyers have helped the coal industry avoid compensating miners who suffered or died from black lung disease. An eminent physician at Johns Hopkins could never find a case of black lung, even though he examined hundreds of miners who said they suffered from it. He even managed to stick by his diagnoses after he was confronted with autopsy results indicating that miners who he had said did not have black lung had in fact died from it.

Then there were the lawyers, like those from the firm of Jackson Kelly in my hometown, Charleston, West Virginia, who have for more than a century prospered by serving the interests of the privileged. In one case described by the Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby, the firm had obtained reports from two pathologists whom it could usually rely on to follow the company line, but this time dared to depart from the script to say, “This man has black lung.” But the firm decided not to give the reports to the judge or even to the other experts who testified on its behalf. The result was that “the judge denied the miner’s claim.”

The reason this did not surprise me was that I remember an experience I had as a member of the West Virginia legislature, when I had voted for, and we had passed, a workers’ compensation bill that we did not realize was subtly tilted in the employer’s favor. We had voted for it largely because of the impressive case made for the bill by a Jackson Kelly partner, and the experts he consulted. (Somehow the firm had managed to engineer a hearing in which the only side represented was the industry position.) A few days later, when I discovered that the lawyer had significantly misled us, I moved to reconsider the bill. Unfortunately, that motion required a four-fifths vote, meaning eighty of a hundred members. I failed, but enough of my colleagues shared my outrage that we came close. We got seventy-nine. That’s the way it was with Jackson Kelly: when you finally figure out how you’ve been had, either the rules are stacked against you or, as in the case of that poor miner, you’re dead.

What is most maddening of all is that these lawyers are so skilled that what they do usually turns out to be perfectly legal. And most of the time, they lead decent, honorable private lives and are active in community affairs, which lends credibility and respectability to their work tilting the scales in favor of the bad guys.

That’s, like, so uncool

Let’s go back to that Styles section put-down of “city politics—an area where it passes for style if you manage to keep the mustard off the lapel of your Poly-blend suit.” As one who wore a raincoat stained with mustard from a carelessly consumed hot dog for more than twenty years, I sympathize with those city politicians. And by the way, Styles should know that if it wants to put someone down, polyester as a way to do it is old hat. Snobs were using it by the late 1970s. Seriously, why should we want to think we’re better than people who wear polyester?
Better than the next guys

The Monthly’s concern with how the educated elite have separated themselves from the average man by their disdain for his taste, values, and opinions began in our first years. Those years coincided with the growth of the anti-Vietnam War movement. We too were against the war, but we were alarmed by some of the attitudes displayed by antiwar demonstrators so we asked Sam Brown, the one leader of the antiwar moment who we knew shared our opinion, to write about it. With the help of his friend, our young editor Taylor Branch, Brown wrote an article arguing that such tactics as calling the police pigs and wearing the American flag on the penis seemed unlikely to win the support of—and indeed would alienate—many of the people the movement most needed to win over. A second article, “Let Those Hillbillies Go Get Shot” (a remark my wife overheard in a Washington bookstore), confronted the contempt that too many in the antiwar movement felt toward those who were doing the dying.

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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