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.”

Gauchebusters

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

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.

VIP-itis

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.

Then a few years later came an article called “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” by James Fallows, who told the story of how he had starved himself to avoid the draft, but when he was standing in line for his physical, he realized the average guys standing beside him might be going to die in his place. This piece had the greatest impact of all, I suspect because Fallows was writing in 1975, when the threat of the draft was no longer imminent, and because he was telling the story as a fellow sinner. In any case, the Fallows article marked the beginning of the turning of the tide. People whose attitudes toward those who had served in the war had once bordered on contempt gradually began to give respect to people in the service. Not to the point, however, of joining up themselves.

Status inflation

Unfortunately, if we helped end one kind of snobbery, we had little impact on another, the kind that’s continuing today—as evidenced in the Times Styles section. In 1975, the same year as the Fallows article, we published “Taste, Class and Mary Tyler Moore,” in which another young editor, Suzannah Lessard, described how, in order to prove their elite status, people had begun dropping the names not of an ancestor, but of a writer, artist, restaurant, or even a television show. But those names had to be the right ones, and they could change before you knew it. “Being ‘in’ now days is a condition that must be constantly and feverishly maintained,” she wrote. Publications like New York, the New York Review, and Rolling Stone flourished as guides to what was “in” and what was “out.”

One name that became essential to drop was the name of the college or graduate school that you or your offspring attended. In the world of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, the identity of one’s college made little difference, but by the mid-’70s, the right identity was limited to the Ivy League and a relatively short list of acceptable alternatives. The SAT scores needed to gain admission to one of these institutions became the new Holy Grail. This led to a whole new industry of test preparers like Kaplan and to a new emphasis on finding the right prep school, the right elementary school, even the right nursery school, in order to get your kid on the surest path to acceptance at one of the most highly selective institutions. This, of course, usually turned out to require a bundle of money.

Dropping names

There’s probably no other place where American’s meritocratic and celebrity cultures are as intertwined as they are in New York City. The Styles section notes that its fashionable fund-raiser, Audrey Gelman, attended Oberlin with her pal Lena Dunham, the star of Girls, and finished her degree in political science at New York University. (Both Oberlin and NYU are, of course, among the acceptable non-Ivies.) How did Gelman and Dunham meet? “My mom was Lena’s shrink for eight years,” Gelman explains. They would run into each other in the mother’s waiting room. Gelman’s boyfriend, Terry Richardson, is described in the Times as a photographer “known for pornography chic portraits of skin-baring celebrities.”

Paying through the nose to turn up your nose

Even today, as we hear more and more complaints about the soaring cost of higher education, the Journal’s Melissa Korn reports that some students and parents still believe that a high sticker price means a more selective, and therefore better, institution. If the school sweetens the pot with even a token merit-based scholarship, the higher sticker price becomes even more acceptable. In what may be the ultimate example of meritocratic snobbery, Korn cites a study showing that “families overwhelmingly preferred a higher price and scholarships over a low sticker price with no aid.”

Keeping up with the Rockefellers

Education is just one of the ways this kind of snobbery to prove taste has raised the cost of living. If you drink the best wine, eat at the best restaurants, drive the best car, clothe yourself at the best tailors and designers, and stay at the best hotels, you need to work on Wall Street—which is exactly where many of the cleverest meritocrats headed in the 1980s.

Oh, darling, you never order the merlot

Over the years, more people have become aware of the absurdity of the more obvious kinds of taste snobbery, like wine snobbery, and began instead to talk about their favorite beer. But within a few years, even what beer you drank became a way to indicate your taste too. First it was a series of imports, then it was one new microbrew after another, and then it was back to Budweiser. If it’s any indication of where the needle stands now, at Audrey Gelman’s fund-raiser, the Times notes that the “guests were sipping Peroni.”

The problem, of course, is not that someone prefers good wine, or that someone else might choose a single-malt scotch over a microbrewed bourbon, but that many of these people actually think that those preferences make them better than the other fellows—a fact that the other fellows often sense and resent.

The “We” Generation?

Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh proved geniuses at exploiting that resentment, helping them not only to convince people that all snobs and elitists are liberals, but also to turn average guys into potential recruits for the Tea Party and making them as selfish as the Wall Streeters. Indeed, beginning with the Me Decade, selfishness and self-absorption have become more and more widespread. “What’s in it for me?” seemed to become the nation’s new motto. If it’s too corny to again ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country, maybe we can at least begin to think about what’s best for everybody.

One hopeful article in the Times in December reported that Millennials are less materialistic and more concerned with helping others by, among other things, working in the government than were previous generations. One immediate test is presented by Obamacare. Will enough young people sign up for a program that helps many Americans but whose benefits are less immediately obvious to them? Another test will be whether Millennials, unlike young people since the ’60s, actually run for unglamorous offices like the state legislature, and are willing to serve in the trenches of government, helping to implement programs like Obamacare and working to make the system better.

Well-managed government can work

Soon after the president pledged to fix the Affordable Care Act Web site, Jay Leno began his monologue, “When was the last time the government fixed anything? We’ve still got troops in Korea.” The big laugh he got from his audience reflects the automatic antigovernment attitude that’s so pervasive today. I disagree with the attitude, but I understand it. To explain, I have to go back to my beginnings in West Virginia.

When I was a child, my father took me to a company town where the miners had to shop at the company store, where they were overcharged but had no choice but to pay. They did so using the script that the mine companies gave them in lieu of cash. I realized something was wrong when I had to pay ten cents for a pack of chewing gum that cost a nickel at every other store.

That was when I was six or seven years old, the Great Depression was at its worst, and Franklin Roosevelt had just become president. Both my father and mother came from farm families for whom the hard times were the hardest. Some lost their farms and several came to live with us as they looked for a job. At the same time, one hungry man after another appeared at our kitchen door offering work in exchange for a meal. Then I began to see the WPA and the CCC building bridges, paving roads, and creating parks. By 1936, our relatives all had jobs, the parade of hungry men at the kitchen door had dwindled, and coal miners and other workers were now able to organize and stand up to their bosses. Watching all that, I knew that government could work.

Years later, I came to Washington to serve in the federal government in the Kennedy/Johnson administration. My agency, the Peace Corps, proved again that government could work. But the truth is, even with good people working hard and making the best decisions they could, we screwed up a lot along the way. We were saved from disaster by a leader, Sargent Shriver, who insisted on keeping close track of how our programs were being implemented,¬†getting the bad news fast, and then acting quickly to fix the problems before they got worse. That’s why those articles appeared in our first issue trying to tell the president and other government administrators to insist, like Shriver, on finding out the bad news and making the necessary changes so that their programs actually work.

Until we meet again

As you gathered from the previous item, I’m an old guy. In fact, I just turned eighty-seven, and there’s not as much gas left in the tank as there used to be, so this is going to have to be my last regular Tilting at Windmills column. When I’ve written it, I’ve always felt like I was talking to an old friend who I haven’t seen for a while, and after the column is published, I always think of what I wish I’d said, or had said better, or of a funny story I forgot to mention. And then, as time goes by, I see new things in the news that fire me up, amuse me, and make me want to grab my old friend by the lapels. So you can be sure that if I’m able, I’ll be back here from time to time. But for now, so long, old friend, and thanks.

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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