Tilting at Windmills

November/December 2012 Woodward’s folly … Romney’s hardship … Finishing what Clinton started

By Charles Peters

President, dictator, whatever
In the long parade of books on the topic of what Obama could or should have done, which began with Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, the silliest of all has to be Bob Woodward ‘s The Price of Politics. The problem with all of these books is that their authors are beholden to unreal expectations, and have little or no idea of the diffculty of getting sixty votes in Mitch McConnell’s Senate, or of the near impossibility of dealing with the right-wing Republican majority that has ruled the House since 2010.

Woodward expected Obama to “bend Congress to his will.” Think about those words. Their hint of macho bombast becomes more obvious when you change the object of “bend” from a group to an individual. Say, a woman. Would Woodward say “he should bend her to his will”?

So, in the end, he got what he wanted
By the way, the issue under discussion in the Washington Post excerpt of Woodward’s book is whether Obama could avoid a two-step solution to the debt crisis, meaning that Congress would authorize a one-time increase of the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 but the country would have to address the issue again this year during the heat of the fall campaign. The remainder of the excerpt sounds like the effort was a total failure. Only in the penultimate paragraph do we learn that a few days before the deadline “House Republicans dropped their insistence on the two-step plan.”

Mediconfusion
In a recent article in the New York Times, “Despite Democrats’ Warnings, Private Medicare Plans Find Success,” Robert Pear wrote that “private plans have helped hold down costs and have satisfied most beneficiaries.” Just how these private insurancee plans have cut costs remains a mystery, however. And the mystery deepens seven paragraphs later when Pear at last discloses that Medicare has actually “paid private plans more than it would cost to care for the same patients in the traditional government- run Medicare program.” In other words, private plans have cost the government more, not less.

The wrong reward
Last month, I praised Michael Grunwald’s for telling the positive story about the stimulus program. I noted that he also told what was wrong with it. The story of the Department of Energy’s Claire Johnson illustrates both the good and bad, and in telling it, Grunwald displayed knowledge about how government works that is rare among Washington journalists, whose high sophistication about politics is often accompanied by abysmal ignorance of bureaucratic culture.

The Obama stimulus program gave the Department of Energy’s Office of Weatherization $11.3 billion for the weatherization of low-income homes and related efficiency efforts. The trouble is that the George W. Bush administration had little interest in the office’s work and had therefore used it as a dumping ground—what insiders call a turkey farm—for marginal or incompetent but hard-to-fire employees, hoping to get rid of them by budget cuts or program elimination, the only efficient way of removing unwanted civil servants.

The office, thus ill-equipped to carry out its new mission as part of the stimulus program, was limping along weatherizing homes at the rate of 30,000 a year when Claire Johnson took over. She managed to inspire the remaining good employees as well as enough of the marginal ones to raise the rate to 30,000 a month. In the process, however, she annoyed the timeservers who refused to be inspired. They leaked emails to the department’s inspector general, showing that Johnson had cut corners in hiring her deputy. The hiring process, she explained, was “just too slow.” Of course she was telling the truth; it is far too slow and is one of the major problems of government. Nonetheless, she was fired.

Contract killers
I have complained that the Obama White House’s ignorance of the federal bureaucracy is equal to that of Washington journalists. But there are signs the White House is doing better. I was heartened to see two recent reports in the Washington Post that suggest the White House may be catching on to the Beltway bandits who have been picking the government ‘s pockets for years. The titles of the articles are as follows: “Purge of Consultants Beats Goal as Obama Seeks Cuts” and “Suspensions, Debarments Jump 73 Percent in Federal Contracting in 2011.” If you doubt that such actions are needed, consider that in the last decade, the amount of money devoted to government contracts has doubled and the number of contracts that are for consultants has quadrupled.

Wonder why …
“Concerns Raised About Student Loan Defaults” was the headline in a recent issue of the Washington Post. The accompanying article by Nick Anderson reported that the leading factor in an increase in defaults was loans to students attending for-profit colleges. Interestingly, the article did not mention that Kaplan Education, a Post subsidiary and long a cash cow for the entire company, is a major player in the for-profit college business.

The civilian elite
I’m glad to see that the very liberal Christopher Hayes, in his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, joins in the growing concern about the separation of America’s educated elite from the rest of the country, with the worst example being its failure to share in military service. This has been a cause of this magazine for more than forty years, one that other journalists and writers have been slow to share—the meritocrats seem to have treated Vietnam as a permanent excuse for not serving in the military. But better late than never, especially coming from a promising young thinker like Chris Hayes.

Too many nukes
The Washington Post’s great Dana Priest recently came up with another revealing report, this one on our aging nuclear stockpile. She points out that the cost of maintaining these weapons has increased 133 percent since 2001 and is destined to soon grow at an even higher rate. I have a solution to the problem: radically reduce the stockpile. Why not cut it to 1,000 or even 500? That’s still enough to devastate more of the world than we could ever possibly want to devastate.

The missionary position
Back to military service. Mitt Romney supported the war in Vietnam, and even took part in a counter-demonstration to the peace rallies that were being held on the Stanford campus when he was a student. But instead of joining the military, he claimed an exemption available to Mormons for their missionary service. This might have been justified had he served in some Third World backwater, but Romney was a missionary in France—not exactly a hardship post. You may have seen the photograph of him lolling on a French beach inside a heart-shaped drawing in the sand.

Finishing what Clinton started
Allowing gays to serve openly in the military is one of Barack Obama’s greatest accomplishments. Now the Pentagon, according to the Post’s David Crary, “says repeal has gone smoothly, with no adverse effect on morale, recruitment, or readiness.” In August, Tammy Smith became the first openly gay general. As with Obamacare, the president did what even politically skilled Bill Clinton tried but failed to do.

The Second Coming of Ralph Reed
Ralph Reed is back. If you thought he had been effectively disgraced by his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal, Jo Becker of the New York Times says think again. She reports that Reed is now playing a prominent role in the Romney campaign, identifying evangelical voters and arranging for them to get to the polls. “At the Republican convention in Tampa,” Becker writes, “he was sought after by party luminaries and accorded the ultimate status accommodation, a room in the same hotel as Mitt Romney.” In case you have forgotten, Reed, painting himself as a pious evangelical and acting as head of the Christian Coalition, sold his services to the infamous Jack Abramoff, agreeing to con his followers into helping Abramoff ‘s Indian gambling clients thwart the efforts of other tribes to build rival casinos. If you want to see Reed’s smarmy persona effectively captured, be sure to see the movie, Casino Jack, in which Kevin Spacey plays Abramoff.

Why the first debate didn’t go so well
Here’s another explanation for Obama ‘s passivity in the first debate. During the day of the debate, cable networks were running a video supplied by the Daily Caller of a 2007 speech at which Obama had come across as close to the angry black man as he ever did. It really wasn’t all that close, but several commentators on Fox News tried to make it appear so. One of Obama’s principle fears has been appearing to be that angry black man—anyone who understands white America knows there’s good reason for that fear. So my guess is that he went into the debate resolved above all not to appear aggressive.

Mischief on Wall Street
The election will be in our rearview mirror two weeks or so after this new issue reaches you. Whichever candidate wins, and of course I pray it’s Barack Obama, we need to renew our vigilance on Wall Street. While the rest of us have been focused on the presidential race, the financial industry and its lobbyists have been busy trying to sabotage effective regulation. They have already succeeded in blocking an effort by SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro to regulate money-market funds. And if you even glance at the business section of the newspapers you will see warnings of more mischief, such as these two from the New York Times: “As U.S. Discusses Limits on High-Speed Trading, Other Nations Act” and “Behind Scenes, Some Lawmakers Push to Change the Volcker Rule.”

The Bain of my existence
The single tax return available to the public shows that Mitt Romney and his partners at Bain Capital claimed their management fees as capital gains, rather than earned income. This saved the partners more than $200 million in income tax and $20 million in Medicare tax. Victor Fleisher, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, is quoted in a story you may have missed because it was buried on page 14 of the New York Times: “If challenged in court, Bain would lose,” he said. “The Bain partners, in my opinion, misreported their income.”

What the 1 percent think they deserve
The self-pitying and irresponsible entitled come not from Romney’s 47 percent, but from the 1 percent at the top, contends the Washington Post ‘s Steven Pearlstein. He captures their mind-set in a recent column entitled “I Am a Job Creator: A Manifesto for the Entitled”:

I am a corporate chief executive … I am the misunderstood superhero of American capitalism, single-handedly creating wealth and prosperity despite all of the obstacles put in my way by employees, government and the media … I am entitled to a healthy and well-educated workforce, a modern and efficient transportation system and protection for my person and property, just as I am entitled to demonize government workers who provide them. I am entitled to complain bitterly about taxes that are always too high, even when they are at record lows. I am entitled to a judicial system that enforces contracts and legal obligations on customers, suppliers and employees but does not afford them the same right in return.

There’s a lot more to the column, all in a similar vein and all equally pointed. Read it.

The persecuted elite
The perfect companion to Pearlstein ‘s manifesto comes from Chrystia Freeland in the October 8 issue of the New Yorker. In her article, “Super-Rich Irony,” she explains why billionaires feel victimized by Obama. One, Anthony Scaramucci, told her, “The president has a philosophy of distain toward wealth creation.” It reminds me of how Franklin Roosevelt was treated by the very capitalists he was rescuing from the catastrophe of the Great Depression. In fact, Obama has expressed the deepest respect for entrepreneurs who create wealth by starting businesses that create useful products and other jobs that pay decent wages. Does Scaramucci expect Obama to express equal regard for those who make money merely for the sake of making money?

Leon Cooperman, who has come to be known as the pope of Wall Street’s anti-Obama crusade, says that what outraged him was a speech by Obama in which he said the wealthy are paying low taxes now and they’re going to have to pay a little bit more, only about as much as they paid under Bill Clinton, when they all did very well indeed. What’s outrageous about that?

The nightmare of every politician
If you have ever been a politician, as I was once, you will be haunted by Freeland’s description of another reason for Cooperman’s disenchantment with Obama. At a White House reception, Cooperman handed Obama a book of poetry written by his fourteen-year-old granddaughter, saying it was for Sasha and Malia. He was, of course, hoping that this gift would prompt a thank-you letter from the first daughters or the president himself. But no letter came. Finally, he complained to a mutual friend and the desired letter arrived from Michelle Obama, but it was too late. The nightmare of every politician is that the one door he didn’t knock on, the one phone call he didn’t make, or the one letter he didn’t write, will cost him the one vote that would have elected him.

Ink-stained wretches?
One of the reasons behind the greed that has become such a depressing feature of American culture since the 1980s is that people have come to want so many different things that cost a lot of money. Students now need a truck or at least a large SUV to take what they think they need to college. The New York Times recently recommended some Bordeaux wines on the basis that they were a bargain at less than $50 a bottle. And the number of electronic devices that practically everyone seems to require these days appears almost limitless, not to mention the number of rooms people insist upon having in their houses.

The latest example of the need for expensive items that I’ve become aware of is the trend toward custom tailoring. When my fellow journalists appear on television now I notice that they’re all wearing suits that are tailor-made. I can recognize some of these garments because back in the 1950s I actually had two, purchased on Saville Row at the fire-sale prices that prevailed when the British economy was in desperate straits. Back then you rarely saw such a suit in America. And journalists in particular could be counted on to wear off-the-rack suits that almost always appeared to be rumpled. Now the Style section of the New York Times is running an article called “Embracing the Right Fit, ” in which the Times’s men ‘s fashion editor, Bruce Pask, says “the suit should properly contain the body. It ‘s a very empowering thing to wear a jacket that hugs the torso, a shape that you fill completely and appropriately. ” As the Times’s next paragraph suggests, this means “a skilled tailor. ” And custom-made suits start around $2,000 and the prices can go considerably higher depending on the fabric and the identity of the tailor.

The tired, the poor, still
It is ironic that New York City, once the magnet of so many immigrants from countries where the moneyed elite presided over the poverty of the masses, has come to be just like those old countries. The median income for the top fifth of New York City is now $223,285; for the bottom fifth it’s $8,844, according to census figures reported by Sam Roberts in the New York Times. In Manhattan the distribution is even worse: for the top fifth the mean annual income is $391,022. For the bottom, it’s $9,681.

Allen Ginsberg, Part III
In this column recently, I may have seemed to blame Allen for my own phase of intellectual snobbery. But let me clarify. The root of my snob phase lay in my own insecurity as a young student from West Virginia finding myself immersed in what seemed to be the infinitely more sophisticated world of New York. I never saw snobbery in Allen. What may have seemed like snobbery was that he and the other beats felt different from other people. He had grown up with a mother who had severe mental problems. He once told me how she had ripped off her clothes, leaving herself nude, standing in a New Jersey bus station with Allen as witness to the scene. It’s hard to find anything in common with the Leave It to Beaver world when that has happened to you.

When I started to recall these memories about Allen I realized I had seen sides of him that weren’t widely known, like the fact that he kept one foot in the respectable world until at least 1954. Though I saw him on at least a hundred different occasions, mostly in the late ’40s and then after we reconnected in 1967, he never, after that first effort to introduce me to marijuana in 1946, smoked, ingested, or injected an illicit substance in my presence. And when he consumed alcohol it was only in the most moderate amount. Another surprising memory is of the time we made a joint appearance before a college political science class, and he expressed concern about the percentage of the budget that went to paying the interest on the national debt.

In one of my recent columns, I also told of a less attractive side of Allen’s, in which he was acting as a PR man for himself and his fellow beats. The only other thing that troubled me was his acceptance of casual Turkish bath anonymous sex. I once asked him how he could justify it and he said, “Well, it’s fun.” That was an amusing answer, in a way, but it was also harsh and that harshness was unusual for Allen. At his best, a side I saw more often, he could be a saint. The public probably saw this most clearly in the effort he made to persuade antiwar protesters to remain peaceful instead of following the incendiary counsel of the Jerry Rubins and Abbie Hoffmans. I saw it in countless acts of personal kindness.

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

  • Roger Keeling on November 04, 2012 5:34 PM:

    Mr. Peters, you're in fine form this month. Your point about the proliferation of government contractors during the Bush Administration is particularly important, I think. The GOP has claimed this as a way to "privatize" government functions -- that is, gain the economies and competitive benefits of the marketplace for public tasks. But the reality is that it has been nothing more than a backdoor means of reinstating the 19th century spoils system. The public is so sadly ignorant of history that most folks have no idea what a vital reform the establishment of the professional civil service was, and hence no idea how perverse it is for a major political party to try to destroy it.

    And I am so glad the magazine has returned to a format where we can read your column AS a column, rather than as an annoying series of links. I believe quite a few folks (including me) had complained about that, so thank you for listening.

  • berttheclock on November 07, 2012 9:46 AM:

    Hmmm, "Reigning in Wall Street". Yes, many on WS do believe they reign. Perhaps, with the election of Senator Warren, more real "reins" will be put in place to stop many of those rulers of wealth.

  • zandru on November 07, 2012 1:34 PM:

    I second Mr. Clock: it's "reining in". Although in a few years, it WILL be "reigning", and future etymologists will have no clue as to the origin of the phrase.

  • buddy66 on November 09, 2012 7:48 PM:

    I watched Allen G. one day at lunch in the San Francisco State cafeteria, after a speaking/reading/chanting session at that school, surrounded by hangers-on and autograph-seeking students clamoring for his attention. He had more time for helping Peter Orlovsky's severely retarded brother maneuver the intricacies of unwrapping a packet of crackers that came with his chicken soup. Allen's concerned patience was obvious, his kindliness manifest in the moment.

  • Steve on January 13, 2013 12:47 PM:

    I'm not sure why Mr Peters is so gung ho about military service.

    Why would anyone serve in an organization whose sole purpose seems to be to engage in illegal and immoral activities?

    Vietnam was an illegal and unjustified war.

    Afghanistan was largely unjustified.

    Iraq? Don't make me laugh.

    Rather than more serving in the military, I'd rather see fewer.

    As in zero.

    Sheesh.

  • Ed Pritchett on April 18, 2013 9:31 AM:

    I would respectfully disagree. If this country adopted universal service for all after high school for even just two years, and it would have to be for Everybody, no exceptions for class or wealth. Then perhaps we could temper our national blood lust bulleted above a bit since at any moment such decisions would involve the sons and daughters of the decision makers as well. It reserve war making as the last option of policy instead of casually being one of the first.