The benign attitude that the media showed toward the Peace Corps was shared by almost all Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress. Still, there were some who wanted to give us a hard time. But in hearings they rarely proved informed enough to ask the right question, and if they happened to stumble upon it, the right follow-up question almost never came. Even if it did, the questioner would soon have to leave the hearing for a quorum call or some other congressional business, or their time for questioning had expired.
and when loyalty curdles
As long as we had frank internal self-evaluation, the Peace Corps could get by without informed outside critics. After the 1968 election, however, the Nixon administration abolished my office, and the loyal desire to protect the agency, left unchecked, ultimately led to the disgraceful concealment of the rapes of female volunteers that has recently come to light. At its worst, this desire to hide the bad news resulted in the agency’s helping a murderer go free. (See American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps, by Philip Weiss.)
As an agency matures, pride in its work as a motive for not revealing the bad news is accompanied or replaced by a concern for the agency’s budget. The one sure way any civil servant can lose his job is if his agency’s budget is cut. And so the survival imperative becomes a strong motive for avoiding excessive candor.
Asking the right questions
Today I can imagine that there is an even greater reluctance to disclose the bad news. The Republicans in Congress have become so automatically anti-government that they are almost certain to use any critical information to reduce or eliminate an agency’s effectiveness rather than to improve it.
This does not excuse control freaks like Michael Hayden, or the inanity, not to mention insanity, of indicting Thomas Drake for espionage. But I hope it does help explain why good people can feel obliged to conceal their agency’s difficulties, and why it becomes so important for White Houses, congressmen, and journalists who are truly concerned with better government to do enough homework to ask the right questions.
Who said “monster”?
Oddly enough, I think that Democrats in the 2012 election will have a similar problem with truth telling. It seems to me that their most likely road to success is to oppose any change in Medicare or Social Security and to wholeheartedly embrace the public employees unions that are among their major sources of funding and campaign workers.
For the conscientious among them, the challenge will be to find a way to tell the truth without sacrificing their electoral heads.
I had a recent experience in the difficulty of doing so. In our last issue, in the course of describing the selfishness and greed that had increasingly dominated this country in the last thirty years, I noted that the selfishness even extended to the non-greedy, giving as an example “those teachers who are more concerned with protecting their tenure than educating children.”
I then received an otherwise thoughtful letter from a reader who began, “Who are these monsters? If I were looking for a highly paid sinecure, it would not be in a classroom.”
Of course, I had not called anyone a monster, and I had specifically stated that I was talking about the non-greedy. And of course I was not describing all teachers— after all, my son is one—but only those “who are more concerned with protecting their tenure than educating children.”
Don’t be Mediscared
For Democrats who were not convinced by the 2010 election, in which Republicans exploited seniors’ anger over Obama’s attempt to rein in Medicare costs with the Affordable Care Act, the recent congressional election in upstate New York has probably clinched the case that any discussion of Medicare is hazardous to their political health. Yet I cling to the hope that a way can be found to raise issues like Medicare costs and teacher quality without immediately inviting reactions like that of my reader.
My hope is shared by two of the Monthly’s contributing editors who are now columnists—Joe Nocera of the New York Times and Matt Miller of the Washington Post—who have recently urged Democrats to face the problems with Medicare. But I think we critics have a responsibility to help find the magic combination of words that will enable politicians to grapple with the real issues while preserving some reasonable hope of winning an election.
The patient can suffer from more than one illness, you know
The cause of tenure reform, which seemed to be gaining traction with Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman, has recently become the subject of a strong counterattack led by Diane Ravitch. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have recently published pieces by her and others that question the wisdom of tenure reform. The argument these people emphasize—take, for example, “Five Myths about America’s Schools,” by Paul Farhi in the Post—is that there are many other problems, like poverty, that adversely affect the quality of education. Of course there are. But this does not mean that tenure itself is not a serious problem, keeping bad teachers in the classroom, absorbing too much of the education budget with their higher salaries, and, when budget cuts are necessary, requiring that talented young instructors be fired instead of their less competent elders.
The old boys still run the show
One of the oddest articles in this counterrevolution was a front-page piece by Sam Dillon of the New York Times, which seemed to find sinister— and, according to one source, “Orwellian”— purpose in Bill Gates’s support of grassroots advocacy “aimed at focusing the presidential candidates on issues like teacher quality and education standards,” or “revealing that existing evaluation systems tended to give higher ratings to all teachers,” or “arguing against seniority-based layoffs.”
Dillon’s fear is that Gates money will dominate the education debate. My fear is that, even with Gates money and a lot more, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the schools of education will continue to prevent any significant reform in public education. If you have any doubt about the power of these groups, read Joel Klein’s account of his attempts to effect reform in New York in the June Atlantic.
To give you an idea of how the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the two Bushes have enabled the Republicans to dominate the federal judiciary, thirteen of the sixteen judges on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals—now in the news because of the NFL lockout case—were nominated by one of them.
The “election fraud” fraud
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