Tilting at Windmills

January/February 2013 Petraus’s demands … Fox News’s GOP ambitions … Washington’s merry-go-round

By Charles Peters

Langley’s Bartlebys
I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about “the talking points,” but it’s fascinating to discover that the real culprit was not Susan Rice or a sinister White House plot, but, according to Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous of the Wall Street Journal, a daylong debate at the CIA involving “more than two dozen intelligence officials, in which they contested and whittled the available evidence into a bland summary with no reference to al Qaeda.” As a former public employee,

I can testify that one of the most reliable rules of bureaucratic behavior is that the more officials involved in drafting a document, the more likely it is to be watered down, often to the verge of absolute meaninglessness.

A tale of two budgets
If you suspect that I have been overly cynical in my portrayal of government contractors, here is an example of how I got that way. It comes from a suit by the Department of Justice against the Gallup Organization. A whistleblower named Michael Lindley had helped prepare cost estimates for the organization when it was bidding for a government contract. Lindley says he was told to create two budgets—one considerably higher, to be given to the government, and another much lower, to be used within the organization to guide how much was actually spent carrying out the contract.

As a result of this practice, reports Sari Horowitz of the Washington Post, Gallup partners “frequently boasted that profit margins on government contracts were among the highest in the company.” It’s no wonder, then, that the Justice Department accuses Gallup of submitting $13 million worth of false invoices.

Washington’s merry-go-round
The Gallup case also illustrates how the revolving door works in Washington. The Justice Department lawsuit alleges that Gallup conspired to hire a Federal Emergency Management Agency executive, if that executive succeeded in procuring a hefty contract for Gallup. In an email, which is now in the court records, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton writes that if the FEMA executive “gets us a big deal at FEMA … i think we should hire him.” The FEMA executive, who Clifton interviewed while he was still an employee of FEMA, then sent Gallup an email about the proposed contract with FEMA: “I got another 500k for the contract. Cool huh?”

Hey, we were learning something there
I have seldom found a kind word to say about the Style section of the New York Times. So I feel some obligation to note when they nail it, as Henry Alford did recently in the article “If I Do Humblebrag So Myself,” with this example of the fine art of false humility, from a tweet by Paula Broadwell: “Honored and humbled to be included in @claudiachan’s profiles of ‘global remarkable women.’”

I must say that I regret the media’s apparent loss of interest in Ms. Broadwell, as well as in Jill Kelley and Kelley’s sister, Natalie Khawam. Each fact revealed about this trio has not only had the appeal of irresistibly juicy gossip, but has also raised serious questions about the judgment of two of our most highly esteemed generals.

Drop and give me fresh pineapple
Speaking of David Petraeus, when he arrived at the CIA in 2011 to take up his new duties as its head, he raised a few eyebrows by informing his aides that he expected a fresh bottle of water to be handed to him at the exact points he specified along his jogging route—and, by the way, while he was traveling he wanted fresh sliced pineapple at his bedside each night.

What the CIA officials may not have known is that such accoutrements are only a small part of the imperial trappings enjoyed by our top generals and admirals. Their perks have become so lavish, in fact, that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered an investigation. According to the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, however, the conduct of the investigation has been assigned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who does not seem to be the most disinterested of possible observers.

Getting Stoned
Oliver Stone’s documentary miniseries The Untold History of the United States is more accurate than his movie JFK, in which he wove a few remotely plausible facts into an absurdly vast conspiracy to explain the assassination of John Kennedy. Our opinion of that film, and the book by Jim Garrison on which it is based, was captured by the headline of an article we ran in 1976, “Was Sirhan Sirhan on the Grassy Knoll?”

Stone has one fact right that few other historians have acknowledged. Henry Wallace was indeed deprived of the 1944 vice presidential nomination by Democratic political bosses, who ordered the adjournment of the 1944 Democratic National Convention when it seemed clear that if a vote had been held that night, Wallace would win.

I was listening to the radio as Chairman Samuel D. Jackson called for the yeas and nays on the motion to adjourn and heard the weak yeas, followed by a thunderous chorus of nays. On the other hand, Stone does not mention that Wallace’s original nomination to the vice presidency in 1940 had also been forced down the convention’s throat by the bosses. I was there and witnessed the loud booing whenever Wallace’s name was spoken.

As for Harry Truman, if David McCullough’s beguiling biography tends to airbrush the blemishes on his record, Stone tends to exaggerate them to the point of painting Truman as more responsible for the Cold War than the Soviet Union, which is just plain not true. This kind of tilting, emphasizing the sins of the United States while minimizing the misdeeds of the other fellows, mars the entire series.

Sheep’s clothing: A shopping guide
I could not believe it, but there was CBS’s Scott Pelley, who heretofore had struck me as a serious, if sometimes too serious, journalist, respectfully interviewing Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein about the fiscal crisis. Then I heard Blankfein had been invited to the White House to counsel Barack Obama. I recalled noting in this space last
year that Blankfein had managed to get himself named national corporate spokesman for same-sex marriage for the Human Rights Campaign.

Remember, this is a man who presided over an organization that encouraged its own clients to accept what employees referred to in internal emails as a “shitty deal.” Blankfein’s apparent success in recreating himself as a sage adviser and crusader for worthy causes all goes to show what skillful public relations can do. I have long marveled at the ability of Wall Street sharks to get good press for supporting the arts and socially liberal causes, while amassing immense wealth for themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

Let’s see Lloyd Blankfein pouring concrete at sixty-six
Among the pearls of wisdom that Blankfein shared with Pelley was that “the retirement age has to be changed.” It was clear that he meant upward. Of course, later retirement can make sense. I didn’t retire until I was seventy-four, but I was fortunate enough to have work that I loved for the preceding forty years. Unfortunately, many people don’t have my good luck. Life has forced them into jobs they don’t like, or that are so physically demanding that they are worn out by the time they’re in their sixties. These people need Social Security. If Social Security is reformed, why not do so by raising the employment tax so that it applies to all income over $106,000? That way, the Lloyd Blankfeins of the world, instead of pontificating about how others should bear the pain, can pay their fair share.

No escape
Speaking of taxes, Warren Buffett has a great idea: a minimum tax on the wealthy—one they can’t use any loophole to escape. He suggests 30 percent for incomes between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on incomes above that. My only worry is the lawyers and accountants who serve the privileged will manage to redefine either the word “taxable” or the word “income.”

“What I Wore,” redux
Back to the Times’s Style section for a moment. I had thought that its editors had been embarrassed enough by the designer name dropping of the “What I Wore” feature that they’d abandoned it. In a November issue, however, the feature returned in a slightly different form with a photo of a young woman named Sky Ferreira, identified as a “musician, actress and model.” Under the caption, “What I’m Wearing Now,” is a list that includes a shirt from Miu Miu and shoes by ChloĆ« Sevigny.

This is followed by Ms. Ferreira’s “Style Credo”: “When I wear designer clothes, I want to feel like myself. That’s probably why I always wear the same designers. If it’s not going to be a vintage or something from Uniqlo, I will wear Givenchy, Saint Laurent or Margiela. And Miu Miu,” she said, adding with Broadwellian modesty, “which is the only store where everyone knows me.”

Mind the gap
Congratulations to Jerry Markon of the Washington Post for revealing that the AARP gets a 4.95 percent royalty each time a senior buys a Medicare supplement policy from UnitedHealthcare with its widely advertised AARP endorsement. This not only nets the AARP a major share of its income, but it’s also a cash cow for UnitedHealthcare. According to Markon, the Medicare supplement and other AARP-endorsed policies are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars a year, generating “slightly more than half of the group’s $1.4 billion in revenue.”

The one fact that Markon misses is that all Medicare supplement polices are a racket. Not only can the profit margin be huge, but many people who buy these policies think they will cover the difference between what Medicare pays and what policyholders are billed. What the supplement actually pays is the difference between what Medicare pays and what Medicare “authorizes”—an amount that’s frequently less, sometimes considerably less, than the actual bill.

Dewey, Cheatham & Howe
I was once a lawyer, and while in the game I observed that though some of my fellow attorneys were admirable—this magazine would not exist if it were not for the kindness and skill of two of them—a good many others used tactics that ranged from devious to contemptible.

Last year, West Virginia’s attorney general, Darrell McGraw, discovered that a Texas law firm was charging West Virginia clients a 20 percent fee to process claims under the National Mortgage Settlement. The fact is that a lawyer is not needed to make the claim. Free relief can be obtained by filling out a simple one-page form. McGraw was able to get the firm to agree to cease and desist this exploitative practice within West Virginia, but it appears to remain free to fleece the innocent in other states.

Hiring good teachers
The rush of the intellectual elite to embrace Diane Ravitch, noted in this space last spring after the New York Review of Books published articles by her in consecutive issues, now continues with an admiring profile in the New Yorker. Her distaste for Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and other public school reformers have made her a darling of teacher’s unions. The unions, in turn, have been embraced by liberals newly aware of the harm done by Republican efforts to cripple the labor movement, and the way that the unions’ decline has contributed to the increasing income inequality in this country. Ravitch and her allies threaten to undermine what had been a growing commitment to improving the quality of teachers. Both the liberals and Ravitch have a reasonable point that the socioeconomic status of the pupil can affect the quality of his education. Of course it does, but it is not more important than the quality of the teacher.

Reformers want bad teachers to be fired, while Ravitch and the unions passionately defend tenure. Tenure may be justified when awarded to a teacher who clearly deserves it. Unfortunately, in most states, tenure has been awarded almost automatically without regard to merit, and too often to teachers who were unqualified when hired.

In a sign that the teacher’s unions are at last beginning to recognize the hiring problem, a task force appointed by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently recommended basic qualifications for teachers: a year of practice teaching, a test of subject knowledge, and a requirement that they enter and graduate their teacher preparation program with a 3.0 average. The reason why these reforms are relevant to the issue of teacher quality is that these requirements are not now in place everywhere. Indeed, in most states, a 3.0 average is not required, nor is a year of practice teaching, nor is a teacher’s knowledge of his or her subject tested.

Ironically, it is the teachers colleges with the complicity of the teacher’s unions that have been responsible for the state rules that do not require subject knowledge or practice teaching, but do require “education” credits—in other words, courses in how to teach, but not what to teach.

Saving Private-contractor Ryan
I harp on the issue of government contractors because so few people have any idea how great their number is. The Washington Post recently reported that at the height of our diplomatic mission in Iraq, there were “twenty support personnel for each official,” many of them contractors, including 6,000 security guards. The Project on Government Oversight reports that each contract employee costs the Department of Defense 2.94 times as much as the average civil service employee.

The reliance on contract employees to replace civil servants began with the Clinton administration’s emphasis on “downsizing” as part of its Reinventing Government initiative, and expanded under George W. Bush, as government-phobic Republican administrators preferred hiring private contractors to adding civil servants. To be sure, private contractors are sometimes more efficient, but more often, as we saw with the Gallup Organization, their true expertise lies in the art of padding costs.

Fox as campaign HQ
I also want to say a kind word for Bob Woodward, whose recent book I was definitely not kind to in our last issue. I could kiss him for his revelation that Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, had one of his minions present David Petraeus with this proposal: if the general would enter the race for the Republican nomination in 2012, Ailes would manage the campaign. And Ailes’s boss, Rupert Murdoch, would finance it.

If this news becomes widely known, as is my hope, it seems likely that Ailes will no longer be able to get away with proclaiming that Fox is “fair and balanced.” And that development, given the power of Ailes and Fox, seems totally desirable to me. It is comparable to Karl Rove’s failure to elect more than two-thirds of the candidates he supported in November. I have feared Rove and Ailes more than any of the other Republican gurus because they combine cleverness and cynicism in a truly dangerous way.

Obama’s party loyalty
I’ve been working on a book about how Washington and the country have changed in my lifetime. Since I recently celebrated my eighty-sixth birthday, that covers a considerable span of modern American history.

One of the more consistent truths of that long run has been that the Democrats have been right and the Republicans wrong, most of the time. This helps explain my disappointment in Barack Obama’s failure to campaign for congressional Democrats and his seeming lack of interest in building the party and pointing with pride at its record. In campaign speech after campaign speech, he failed to mention local Democratic candidates. Sometimes, of course, his own dubious popularity in the area made that a wise choice, but on the whole, it meant that he was depriving his fellow Democrats of the support that might have helped them regain the House in 2012.

More importantly, I’m disappointed in his failure to inspire his droves of idealistic supporters to become active in party affairs—to help nominate good candidates in 2014, for example, and not repeat their mistake, almost tragic in its consequences, of sitting on their hands in 2010 and letting the Know-Nothings gain control of the House. I’m afraid Obama’s tendency here reflects a larger trend of growing individualism in America, where it’s how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers I have.

How many times have you heard someone smugly declare, “I vote for the person, not the party.” That may be right if you’re well informed about the candidates. But the less you know about them, the more relevant party becomes in determining your choice. Who will control your state legislature? Who will control the Congress and chair its committees? Who will pass or fail to pass the laws that will make a real difference in your life?

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.

Comments

  • Richard Fox on January 15, 2013 2:57 PM:

    Regarding your item about AARP and Medicare, medical providers agree as a condition of participating in any insurance to accept what the insurance authorizes as total payment for a bill. This works the same with Medicare as with any private insurance. Therefore the difference between what Medicare pays and what it authorizes becomes the total amount owed. There is no "gap" as you imply.

  • Sparky Satori on February 21, 2013 4:04 PM:

    "...is more accurate than his movie JFK, in which he wove a few remotely plausible facts into an absurdly vast conspiracy to explain the assassination of John Kennedy."

    Why is it that those who have never bothered to acquaint themselves with the "facts" expect to be taken seriously when they pontificate about which among them are "plausible?"

    Oliver Stone got more right than wrong in JFK, but in order to know that, one would have to read more than just the Warren Commission Report, which is apparently where your own education on this ended.