Tilting at Windmills

September/October 2011 The Monkey Wrench Gang… All the take that’s fit to print… Corporate jetting to the Hamptons

By Charles Peters

The hand he was dealt

Liberals’ anger at Obama during the default debate was based on the fact that they actually seemed to think he had the power to do what they wanted him to do. In fact, he did not. The only cards he held were the power of the veto and the Senate Democrats’ ability to reject any Republican legislative proposal. They were no better than a pair of deuces in the poker game he had to play. All he really had was bluff—because to avoid default he had to not merely defeat or veto a bill, but rather get one passed by both houses. To do that, he had to win the support of at least eight to ten Republicans in the Senate and thirty to forty in the House. The votes were never there for a bill liberals would like. The moderate Republicans needed to provide those votes simply do not exist. They are, alas, an extinct species.

If Obama had tried to avoid default by following Bill Clinton’s suggestion that he invoke a never-before-asserted presidential authority implied by the Fourteenth Amendment, his sure and certain fate would have been the same as Clinton’s—impeachment by House Republicans.

The Monkey Wrench Gang

Chuck Todd, NBC’s White House correspondent, recently filling in for Chris Matthews on Hardball, expressed “shock” and seemed to think that it was outrageous for Senator Chuck Schumer to question whether Republicans are “slowing down the recovery on purpose,” so they can win in 2012.

I did not find it at all shocking. In fact, I think it is true of many Republican leaders. You will recall that in October 2010, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, told the National Journal that “the single most important thing for us to achieve is for Obama to be a one-term president.”

When Obama was inaugurated, Rush Limbaugh said, “I hope he fails.” As recently as July 23 of this year, he declared, “Helping Obama hurts the country.” Grover Norquist, the man behind the no-tax-increase pledge signed by 95 percent of Republicans, said this way back in 2003: “We will make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.” And can anyone have any doubt that Eric Cantor, Karl Rove, and Roger Ailes would stop at nothing short of indictable felony to defeat Obama?

Not quite guilty

I will concede there are some innocents who sincerely believe the Tea Party line. But it’s hard to give similar credit to the Republicans who so steadfastly refused to raise the debt ceiling even though they had voted for Paul Ryan’s budget, which, as columnist Matt Miller was first to point out, “[r]acks up over $5.4 trillion in fresh debt over the next decade.”

Status symbol

During the recent embarrassment of Anthony Weiner, I was impressed by much of the praise for his wife, Huma Abedin, but not by Robin Givhan’s in Newsweek: “When Abedin posed for Vogue in 2007, she established herself as a Washington power personality. Last year, she made a return appearance in her wedding gown: a succinct pronouncement that her social currency had only risen in value.”

The drunks still have the car keys

Evidence that the financial industry has not reformed comes from a recent story buried on an inside page of the Wall Street Journal, in which Gregory Zuckerman describes how Morgan Stanley suffered tens of millions of dollars in losses, “in a high-stakes game of chicken over inflation.”

Zuckerman writes, “The trades are a reminder of the risks banks still take, even after the financial crisis.” I wish the Journal ’s editorial page and its ideological allies shared the reporter’s insight.

Massey, still at large

I keep asking when the Department of Justice is going to indict Massey Energy officials like Don Blankenship for their role in causing the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

The latest revelation by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration of the company’s criminal behavior, reported by the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr.: “Massey Energy covered up safety hazards at its Upper Big Branch Mine by pressuring mine foremen and safety examiners not to record methane spikes and inoperable explosion-prevention equipment in official records.”

Quittin’ time

Recently, the survival of Cathedral Pharmacy, a local small business, was threatened after CVS Caremark, the manager of the prescription drug program for many federal employees, suddenly stopped allowing its prescriptions to be filled by Cathedral. Arguing that the move was an obvious attempt by CVS Caremark to benefit its chain of pharmacies by driving a competitor out of business, Cathedral sought a temporary restraining order to gain time to make its case for a permanent
injunction to save its business.

When I saw that this seemingly modest request was denied by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, I was curious, so I read the entire Washington Post story about the case. One of the few clues I could find was this quote from Judge
Leon: “It’s after 7, the air conditioning in the building is off, it’s 78 degrees in here, and I’ve heard all I need to hear.”

All the take that’s fit to print

The report of President Obama’s July 10th press conference in the New York Times illustrates how even the highestquality journalism tends to emphasize the reporter’s “take” on the facts as distinguished from the facts themselves.

With the headline “Obama Grasping Centrist Banner in Debt Impasse,” it begins, “President Obama made no headway in an attempt to forge a crisis-averting budget deal, but he put on full display his attempt to reposition himself as a pragmatic centrist willing to confront both parties and address intractable problems.”

The reporter, Jackie Calmes, began her fifth paragraph, “Mr. Obama’s remarks were among the clearest expressions yet of a repositioning effort that has been underway since the midterm elections last November,” and her sixth with, “Seeking to shed the image of a big government liberal …”

Not only is this too much “take,” it merely parrots the conventional wisdom of the moment—which, by the way, I happen to think was wrong. From the very beginning Obama has sought to present himself as a president of all the people. Remember his campaign speeches? And the effort he made trying to win Republican support for his attempts to reform Wall Street and health care and stimulate the economy? All of these programs were inadequate in the eyes of most liberals.

Follow the money

“Profits thrive in weak recovery,” reports another headline in the Wall Street Journal. Yet, as you know all toowell, the resulting corporate wealth is not being invested in ways that create new jobs. Where is all the money going? One clue is provided by a New York Times survey of what happened to executive salaries in 2010: “the final figures show that median pay for top executives was $10.8 million, a 23% gain from 2009.”

The top earner, Phillippe Dauman of Viacom, took home a nifty $84.5 million.

Living on a jet plane

And when those executives went home, it was in style. A review of FAA records by the Journal found that “between 2007 and 2010, dozens of jets operated by public companies made 30% or more of their trips to or from resort locations. Many were places where the executives own homes.”

For example, the jets of one company, Leucadia, racked up 181 arrivals in the Hamptons and 366 in Jackson Hole.

Damage reports needed

When the budget cuts have been made, I hope reporters will take a look at whether the agencies that protect us from things like dangerous financial practices and unsafe food and pharmaceuticals have been left with enough money for effective fact finding and enforcement. Will agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and the National Transportation Safety Board be adequately funded? What about the programs most likely to produce jobs? Answering all of these questions should rank high in journalists’ priorities.

The importance of shop class

One danger that I had not been aware of was reported by Motoko Rich of the New York Times, who has discovered that the Obama administration wants “to shrink the small amount of federal spending for vocational training in public high schools and community colleges.”

My son, who teaches in a public high school, has been telling me for years that one of his big concerns is the shortage of vocational education opportunities for students whose interests and ambitions do not include higher education in the liberal arts. Rich describes one such student, Matthew Kelly of Greensborough, North Carolina. “Kelly regularly skipped homework and was barely passing some of his classes,” Rich writes, yet “tests showed he had a high intellect.”

Rich continues, “Then his guidance counselor suggested he take some courses at a nearby vocational academy for his junior year. For the first time, the sloe-eyed teenager excelled, earning A’s and B’s in subjects like auto repair, electronics and metals technology. ‘When it comes to practicality, I can do stuff really well,’ said Mr. Kelly.”

Rewards of legal education

How do law schools get away with it? That’s the question you have to ask after reading Monthly alumnus David Segal’s recent article in the New York Times revealing that they have raised tuition and fees “four times faster than the soaring cost of college.”

Law schools have become profit centers for universities, generating the cash to subsidize other departments, and many are adding students, “even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.” New York Law School increased the size of its 2009 class by 30 percent, even though its students pony up more than they would have to pay at Harvard for a legal education “that ranks in the bottom third of all law schools.”

The answer to why students do this is, for a few, grounded in a genuine passion for the law. For the rest, it is a combination of at least two of the following factors: they can foot the bill through loans or thanks to a family willing and able to pay; they can’t get a job, at least not one they want; or—and this was true of many of my law school classmates—they are simply marking time as they try to figure out what they really want to do with their lives.

It is this larger group that I want to address. You should know that any decent law school is hard work, and, for those without the passion, it is often quite boring. The combination of difficult and dull means you will be in a constant struggle to focus on the material as you desperately search for new ways to keep yourself awake. It would be much better to spend that time in the Peace Corps or find some other kind of useful work—or just read books and have fun—until you’ve made up your mind about your future.

Give or take a year

One aspect of law school I hope Segal will explore is whether its third year makes sense, other than for providing more revenue for the institution and more delay in facing real life for the student. The basic principles of the law and learning how to think—something that liberal arts colleges often fail to teach and that a good law school does provide —are largely imparted in the first year and completely by the end of the second. And by that time, it will be clear whether the student has the combination of aptitude and passion necessary to enjoy actual practice.

A couple of inconvenient facts

Two common Republican accusations against President Obama are that he wasted vast sums on the stimulus and on the bailout of the financial system. Yet, according to the CBO, as reported by Alan Blinder in the Wall Street Journal, the stimulus produced “at least 1.3 million net new jobs and possibly as many as 3.3 million,” and, according to Fortune’s Allan Sloan and Doris Burke, taxpayers are “coming out ahead” on the bailout by “at least $40 billion and possibly as much as $100 billion eventually.”

Hiding in the hedges

Hedge funds manage $1.5 trillion. They promise the investor Madoff-like returns. Yet they have been unregulated until June of this year, when the SEC finally required them to make at least a few disclosures, like their size, ownership, auditors, and potential conflicts of interest. Even those modest requirements do not apply to family funds (including huge ones like George Soros’s) and only got approved by a 3-2 margin, which both Republican commissioners opposed. Despite these disclosures, we still will not know how these funds go about making money, even when they are doing things that drive prices up or down, distorting true values, or threatening the whole financial system by making huge bets that subprime mortgages are just dandy.

Take two

Back to my objection to what I regarded as the author’s excessive “take” in the story by Jackie Calmes. Newspapers began to get into the “take” business back in the 1970s because they felt their readers were getting their facts the night before on television. Now, of course, television (especially cable) and the Web are dominated by opinion. So the importance of the role of newspapers like the Times in supplying the facts has gained renewed importance.

Still, I should make clear that though I want front-page news stories to emphasize the news and not the “take,” I do think there should be room on the front page for opinion and analysis pieces, if so labeled, as the Washington Post does occasionally with a “Take” heading. I have often felt that the New York Times editorial page was making important points the average reader of its front page alone would not be aware of or understand. For instance, the Times’s editorials would leave no doubt that the single greatest obstacle to a reasonable budget deal was Eric Cantor’s gang. I don’t think the front page made that clear, but it could have been done in a properly labeled sidebar to news stories on the deficit. Indeed, reporting what the facts mean is an essential role of journalism that should not be confined to the ghetto of the editorial pages. Just don’t try to do it by imparting a snarky, wiseguy tone to the only stories that tell what the president and other leaders are saying.

Tactical disenfranchisement

If you had any doubt about the motivations of all those Republicancontrolled legislatures that have been making it more difficult for minorities to vote, Karl Rove should have removed it through his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, by pointing out that “even a small drop in the share of black voters would wipe out [Obama’s] winning margin in North Carolina.”

Showing they can do it

I’m delighted to report that the District of Columbia’s public schools are now auditioning prospective new teachers. This may seem like common sense, but I can assure you that it has been rare in this country. It at least gives a clue as to whether the applicant can perform in a classroom, bringing life to the raw materials of education. Paper credentials alone can result in the hiring of too many boring teachers.

Warfare state

I urge you to read Warfare State by James Sparrow, an important, if flawed, new book. It corrects conventional history by showing that big government was more the child of World War II than of the New Deal. You can, by the way, see how this happened in the 1943 comedy The More the Merrier, which plays from time to time on Turner Classic Movies and shows the overcrowding that the war brought to Washington.

Sparrow points out that many of the attitudes and values that persisted after the war had their roots back then. The patriotic willingness to pay taxes at much higher rates than we do today lasted through the 1970s. And the assertion of rights encouraged by Roosevelt’s embrace of the four freedoms—of speech and religion and from fear and want—combined with wartime agencies like the Fair Employment Practices Commission exploded in the 1950s and ’60s, first as the civil rights movement and later as the ones for women and homosexuals.

A major factor in Washington’s amazing growth during World War II, Sparrow believes, was the rapid expansion of what has become today’s enormous national security bureaucracy. I agree. But I do not share his belief that antisubversive hysteria had its origins in this period. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover launched his career overseeing the “Red Scare” deportation cases in 1919 for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, a man who makes Joseph Mc- Carthy seem like a civil libertarian. Anti-red sentiment was so extreme at the time that the socialist leader Eugene Debs was imprisoned simply for opposing American involvement in World War I.

Sparrow suffers from not having been there. He says, for example, that the soldiers and sailors of World War II had a “sense of entitlement” to the G.I. Bill. I was one of them and, like most, had only the vaguest awareness of the bill’s provisions until after the war when I was both surprised and grateful to find out how generous they were. Sparrow also gives undue significance to what he calls “the Army mutiny of 1946,” which his publisher’s press release says belies “the widespread assumption ‘the greatest generation’ was braver and more stoic than today’s youth.”

These were peaceful demonstrations, not mutinies in which officers were shot, overthrown, or set adrift like Captain Bligh. They had absolutely nothing to do with bravery. They happened in 1946, after the battles were fought and the war was over. They were simply an assertion by soldiers, who had done their duty and won the war, that they wanted to go home and were upset by the Army’s constant changing of the rules governing discharge.

Civil society

When Susan Ford Bales asked Cokie Roberts to deliver the eulogy at her late mother’s funeral, she told the Washington journalist, “Mother wants you to talk about the way things used to be.” What the Fords meant, Roberts explained to the Washington Post, was a time when Republicans and Democrats were friends, “when their families were all friends.” Roberts’s father, Congressman Hale Boggs, a Democrat, was one of Republican Gerald Ford’s pals. Both were willing to really listen to one another. That’s why Susan used the words “the way things used to be.”

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

  • POed Lib on September 22, 2011 9:28 PM:

    OK, they would have impeached him. And, so? In many ways, that would be the very best thing that could happen. There is nothing more clarifying than when the Repukeliscum pull the velvet glove off and just do the naked power play. They would have lost HUGE for 2012.

    Don't throw Obama into that briar patch, you repukeliscum!!

  • Steve on September 26, 2011 4:10 PM:

    I'm with @POed Lib here.

    What we have is nothing more than a slow-motion impeachment circus anyhow. I find it hard to believe that thing could get any more stupid.

  • Craigie on October 05, 2011 11:41 PM:

    Since the federal Grad PLUS loan was introduced in July 2006, law schools have had no incentive to restrain annual increases in their gross sticker price. Unlike with Stafford loans, the Grad PLUS loan has no annual maximum borrowing limit, except cost of attendance minus any other financial aid (generally zero at law schools).

  • Reference Librarian on October 10, 2011 9:16 AM:

    Impeachment? On what grounds? The Constitution is quite clear: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." Obama should have said "Look if the House thinks protecting the full faith and credit of the United States and insuring that laws requiring spending are duly executed is a "high crime" they're welcome to bring their case to the country."