Tilting at Windmills

March/ April 2013 McCruzyism … Too big to jail … Wake up, Democrats

By Charles Peters

When an exhaustive inquiry into those matters failed to yield any misdeed by the Clintons, Starr asked the same panel, again led by Sentelle, for authority to extend the investigation to Bill Clinton’s sex life. That, in turn, led to what I am sure will be remembered as one of the more absurd episodes in American history: the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about an adulterous affair, as has every single spouse I have ever known who was similarly involved. Sentelle’s reward: a job for his wife in Senator Faircloth’s office.

When the wire service beats the Post
There may be some excuse for the Post not giving the historical context about Sentelle and Starr—neither did the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Associated Press. But the fact that the judges were appointed by Republicans was noted by all but the Post. Indeed, the AP had the most thorough account of the judges’ backgrounds. Which brings me to a suggestion I have for the Post. Now that the paper is suffering from an ever-dwindling staff, why not use the AP for stories that it can do as well or better than the Post? The Post would then be free to use its own reporters, many of whom are highly gifted, to do in-depth reporting about important issues, a rarity in the world of Twitter dee and Twitter dumb.

More than anything we need what I call preventive journalism, stories that inform us in time to fix problems before they become real headaches. The Post itself is providing an example with a series of stories by N. C. Aizenman about potential pitfalls in the implementation of Obamacare.

So a tech geek walks into a bar …
Another comment on the Age of Twitter comes from an article in the Style section of the New York Times about a San Francisco bar called Jones. It seems that Jones has instituted a new policy, proclaimed by a sign in its entrance: “You’re now entering a technology and device free zone.” In order to help its patrons engage in normal human conservation, the bar provides them with a Mason jar labeled “Digital DeTalks,” filled with suggestions on one-liners designed to start conversation, as well as “various analog distractions” to “ward off withdrawal: board games, butcher paper and markers, colored threads for friendship bracelets.”

Afghanistan for Afghans
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a long article by Yaroslav Trofimov about the prospects of the Afghan troops going it alone after American soldiers are withdrawn. The article could not be deemed entirely optimistic, but it did have a quote from an Afghan district governor that struck me: “Before, the Taliban were telling everyone they are fighting to free our country from the foreigners. So now, I will be telling the elders: There are no foreigners anymore, just the Afghan troops, so come on over to our side.’ ”

Turning the corner?
In the decline into selfishness and greed that has been the story of America from at least the early 1980s until very recently—and I may be optimistic in using those last three words—the moment that most clearly signaled the beginning of that era was when California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1979. This was the measure that enabled owners to hold down their property taxes, which provided local funding for public schools. It had great appeal to those who were childless, whose children had left school, or who were affluent enough to afford private school—and who were selfish enough not to care about what happened to other people’s kids.

Thirty-three years later, in November 2012, came what I hope is a turning point. California voters passed Proposition 30, providing for higher taxes that will help finance the public schools. There seems a chance that this country could return to the willingness to share both society’s benefits and burdens that has been characteristic of it at its best.

(Don’t) pay it forward
Just after I wrote the preceding item, I picked up the New York Times and found myself confronted with a story that seemed to suggest my optimism had been premature. Headlined “California School Finance Upgrades by Making the Next Generation Pay,” it describes a financing device called “capital appreciation bonds” that enables school districts to borrow building funds for which they can delay “payment for years, or even decades.” For one loan, the Poway Unified School District has borrowed $105 million that it does not have to begin repaying for twenty years. So I have to face that this is not exactly a clear step in the right direction. Still, it’s better than not building schools at all. And I continue to believe that Proposition 30 is a hopeful sign.

When we watched Ted Cruz’s comment on Chuck Hagel during the Senate Arms Services Committee’s confirmation vote, those of us who are old enough to remember Joseph McCarthy felt we were seeing a ghost. Not only does Cruz look like McCarthy—the main difference is he’s cleaner shaven—he uses one of McCarthyism’s favorite tactics. Here’s what he said: “We do not know, for example, if he received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups.… It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.”

The doubt becomes an accusation, without a shred of proof. In the McCarthy era, people were actually fired from government jobs because they might be communists, without any proof that they were, beyond the accusation.

Fasten your seat belts
One would have thought that after that terrible regional jet crash outside Buffalo that cost forty-nine lives in 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration would have acted to eliminate the causes of the crash. It turns out that the agency did impose some new rules requiring pilots to get more rest between flights. According to Joan Lowy of the Associated Press, however, the FAA still has not acted on proposals to increase the amount of experience required of pilots, to provide pilots with more realistic training, and to have experienced captains mentor less-experienced first officers. The agency has also failed to establish a centralized, electronic database of pilots’ flying skills. Such a database would make it easier for airlines to hire the safest pilots. So why hasn’t the FAA acted? The AP story doesn’t say, but in my experience, the main reason for inaction is that a lobby, in this case that of the aviation industry, has more influence over the congressmen that control the agencies’ budget than any consumer or safety group.

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.