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May 1999 - Volume 31 Issue 5



with Charles Peters

Bewildered Paratroopers... Blind Truckdrivers... Rampant Nepotism... Paula's Nice Mortgage... "The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck"...


The airlines pay $2.45 for the average food serving on a domestic flight. This, as you have surely guessed, represents a reduction from the $3.63 spent five years ago. Instead of being angry at the airlines, however, I feel sorry for them. They're obviously being robbed by their caterers. What I've been served on recent flights isn't work anything near $2.45.

On the whole, we like and admire Hillary Clinton and would support her for the Senate. But we agree with George Stephanopoulos that her great weakness as a public figure is her dislike of the press. If her decision to stonewall on Whitewater was the administration's worst mistake, the second worst, at least in terms of the media, was the decision to close the door between the White House press room and the press secretary's office. This decision, at the beginning of Clinton's first term, got relations between the press and the president off on the wrong foot. It too was made by Hillary Clinton. She explained, according to Stephanopoulos' new book, that the president wanted "to be free to walk around without reporters looking over [his] shoulder." By closing the door, she made sure they would look over his shoulder and do so with hostility and suspicion.

When I went to public school I can only recall a handful of kids who were dropped at the door in the morning, and picked up in the afternoon by their parents. Today, if you drive by a school around 3 p.m. you're likely to see a long line of cars and vans waiting to pick up Jennifer and Jason.

Why? It must be more trouble for parents in an era when both are often working. The Milwaukee Journal, which recently ran an article on the phenomenon, quotes one authority on child care, Marguerite Kelly, saying, "Part of the great adventure of going to school is getting there and back without having their parents hanging around." I'm sure there really are some children who need protection from danger coming home from school or who live too far from school to walk. But on the whole, as one who walked a mile or so to and from school, I agree with Kelly - except on freezing cold mornings.

Tom Bethell, David Ignatius, and I worked together here at the Monthly during the mid-1970s and we have remained friends to this day. So you can imagine how distressed I was to find that they both believe that it was the Earl of Oxford who actually wrote plays attributed to William Shakespeare. How could two such splendid fellows fall into such grave error!

To persist in their folly, they have to ignore one man: Thomas Heminges. He more than any other person was responsible for collecting Shakespeare's plays and publishing them in the First Folio in 1623. How would he have known, you may ask, that he was publishing Shakespeare and not the Earl of Oxford? Because, dear reader, he had been a member of the Chamberlain's company since it was formed. It was the company for which Shakespeare wrote his plays and for which he worked as an actor. "Heminges saw each just as it was finished," writes Marchette Chute in Shakespeare of London. "He had discussed the scripts with Shakespeare, worked over the casting and the staging, and had acted them with him." Another member of the Chamberlain's company, Henry Condell, joined Heminges in publishing the First Folio. Ben Jonson, who wrote a preface for the First Folio, had also known Shakespeare as both actor and writer.

Bethell doubts that Shakespeare, without a university education, could have written "The Comedy of Errors," since he claims the Roman play from which its plot was taken wasn't translated from Latin until after Shakespeare's play was written. This ignores Ben Jonson's statement that Shakespeare did have "small Latin," and, more importantly, that the works of Plautus were widely known during the 16th century. "Plautus and Terence became a regular part of the curricula and were often performed by schoolboys," write Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert Hamilton Bell in A Short View of Elizabethan Drama. The specific play of Plautus' on which "The Comedy of Errors" was based was "The Twin Menaechmi." Its popularity was such that, according to George Duckworth's The Complete Roman Drama, at least three other 16th-century plays had been based on it before Shakespeare wrote "The Comedy of Errors." So even if Shakespeare hadn't actually read "The Twin Menaechmi," the chances that he would have heard of it or its plot about twins and mistaken identity, either from schoolmates or from friends in the theater, are very strong.

I would never accuse my friends of snobbery, but I fear that most of their fellow Oxfordians are motivated by the conviction that a common man could not possibly have risen to Shakespeare's literary heights.

You can enjoy seeing an undraped Gwyneth Paltrow and still be a little taken aback to learn that 686 million adult videos were rented last year, according to The New York Times. Not R-rated movies but real hard-core X-rated pornography. That's three dirty movies for every person in the United States. You might take comfort from the fact that the 1998 figures were down slightly from 1997. But this is probably because of the increased access to pornography on the Internet.

Remember how physicians were almost unanimous in their opposition to Canadian-style single-payer health system? Experience with HMOs is changing that attitude. In a recent survey of 2,162 medical students, residents, and faculty members reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, 57 percent said they supported single-payer.

Have you ever been guilty of an act of rudeness or inconsiderateness on the highway? I have. And I have often wanted to apologize immediately but I haven't known what to do. Although there are many widely recognized gestures of anger on the road, e.g. the shaken fist or the extended middle finger, I don't know any way to say "I'm sorry." I've tried bobbing my head down or waving a hand but the meaning simply isn't clear. Too bad. I'm convinced a lot of road rage could be nipped in the bud if the original offender only knew how to say, "The mistake was mine."

I rise to Al Gore's defense in the matter of his supposedly luxurious boyhood at the Fairfax Hotel. The latest example is a column by Michael Kelly that refers to the hotel's "Louis XV furniture" and its "Embassy Row" location. It was and is on Embassy Row. And it is a luxury hotel today, but back in the '50s and '60s when the Gores lived there, there was no Louis XV furniture and nothing remotely luxurious above the first floor Jockey Club restaurant. I know because Al's sister Nancy was a friend and my wife and I visited the Gores' apartment. The Fairfax was, in fact, a moderately priced residential hotel. Among its tenants was a young journalist named Meg Greenfield who wasn't making enough money in her job at the Reporter magazine to afford anything fancy.

What is happening to PBS? Two hours for a show called "The Courage to Be Rich"! Not to mention all the hours devoted to appraising antiques, based on the hope that that thing in Aunt Maude's attic may turn out to be worth a lot of money.

If you're terrified of those big trucks as I am, here's a little tip about how to avoid tangling with them on the highway: If you can't see the truck driver's mirrors, the driver can't see you. So if you're so close to his rear or to his sides that you can't see the mirrors, you're in danger. Also, when you're immediately in front of a big rig, the driver may not be able to see you. And remember, it takes a fully-loaded truck going 65 miles an hour about 350 feet to stop. And truck drivers don't like to hit the brakes because of the damage it does to the tires.

And just in case you aren't terrified, here are a few figures that may inspire a prudent regard for the hazard these trucks present. In 1997 alone, the crashes in which they were involved killed 5,355 people and injured 133,000.

Those statistics are for trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds. A new passenger vehicle, Ford's Excursion, is going to be almost that big. It weighs 8,600 pounds and is nearly 19 feet long. It is the latest entry in the SUV market, which now accounts for more than half of new vehicle sales. You don't want to tangle with the things anymore than you do with trucks. "With a vehicle that size, it's going to crush any other vehicle it crashes with," says Clarence Ditlow, president of the Center for Auto Safety. As for the Excursion's contributions to air quality, the Sierra Club estimates that it will emit 130 tons of carbon dioxide over a 120,000-mile life.

Frostburg, Maryland, is losing 100 telemarketing jobs. Why? It seems that folks there are just too friendly. According to one official of Unite, the telemarketing firm that made the decision: "The culture and climate in Western Maryland is one of helping your neighbor and being empathetic and those sorts of things. The folks we encounter here do not prefer to be that type of assertive, aggressive sort of sales person."

The Pentagon has approved a $1.4 billion second phase of a contract to build 85,000 trucks for the Army. This despite the fact that, according to Newsday's Patrick J. Sloyan, "The first 8,000 trucks have been plagued by safety and mechanical defects and skyrocketing costs. A series of truck rollovers, crashes and other accidents has resulted in Army-wide speed and load limitations on all the new trucks, which cost an average of $100,000 each." Also despite the fact that the trucks' manufacturer, Stewart and Stevenson, had pleaded guilty in 1997 to defrauding the Air Force and been fined $7 million. And, finally, despite the fact that Stewart and Stevenson had never made a truck before.

Did you hear about Paula Jones's mortgage? She bought a house in Cabot, Arkansas for $152,000 but only had to pay $2100 up front. The rest of the cost was covered by a mortgage of $149,900. That's 98.6 percent of the total. There seem to be two possibilities here. One is that her banker shares the President's taste in women; the other that lending practices are becoming reckless. It would be interesting to discover whether requiring such small down payments from the buyer has become widespread. To support that suspicion, there are the advertisements offering home equity loans at 125 percent of value which we cited a few months ago. The trouble with such practices is that when real estate values shrink the bank's loan is no longer secured by the value of the real estate. One of the big things that went way wrong during Japan's recent crisis was a similar drop in real estate values, which left the banks in trouble. Similar drops also caused financial institutions to fail during the Great Depression of the early '30s and during the savings and loan scandal of the '80s.

If I were in Al Gore's shoes, the single fact that I would find most dismaying is this: Although far more Hispanics are Democrats than are Republicans, George W. Bush leads Gore by 45 to 35 percent among Hispanic voters.

In October more than 100,000 of the District of Columbia's drug abusers will become eligible for treatment. But the tragedy is that this was so long coming. Last year, for example, only 9 percent of the drug abusers got treated.

Similarly, the federal government has announced that it will start measuring coal dust levels in underground mines on October 1. (If you're wondering about the significance of October 1, that's when the new fiscal year begins.) Until now, management of the dust level has been left to the coal companies and if you're from West Virginia, as I am, you know this means a lot of lying, which is exactly what the Louisville Courier-Journal found when it looked into the situation.

Along the same "Why hasn't this been done before" lines is a report in The Washington Post that "Maryland is moving to become the first state in the nation to force poultry companies to assume responsibility for pollution caused by chicken manure." Shouldn't Maryland and every other state have been doing that already?

Anthony Rizzo recently escaped with a hung jury from a charge of sexually assaulting a child. Would the verdict have been different if the judge had not prevented the jury from learning that 1) Rizzo had been fired for sexually harassing teachers at a school where he was the principal and 2) that he gets a state disability benefit of $38,000 a year based on his claim, according to The Washington Post, "that he has a permanent 'psychosexual disorder' that makes him unable to supervise women without trying to coerce them into having sex'"? All of this goes to show that conservatives aren't always wrong when they rant about lenient judges.

Some Army paratroopers are said to be leery of jumping after reading the new instructions on what to do if their main and reserve parachutes fail to deploy.

"If there is no immediate reserve parachute reaction, the jumper will maintain his good tight body position and hold on the left carrying handle and immediately punch the MIRPS pack tray on the right side with a closed fist. If the MIRPS still does not respond, jumper will pull the right end panel loose from the MIRPS pack tray while keeping his hand away from the front of the reserve."

These instructions are supposed to be followed in the panicky seconds after the troopers realize that both their main chute and its back up have failed to open. Do you blame these guys for feeling queasy?

"The IRS cannot do some of the basic accounting and record-keeping tasks that it expects American taxpayers to do," the GAO's Gregory Kutz recently told the House Government Reform Committee. Some of the GAO's evidence concerned revenue losses - e.g., $17 million in fraudulent refunds - that seem trivial in comparison to $1.8 trillion in revenues the agency collected last year. But there is one failure that clearly merits attention: only $26 billion of the $222 billion in unpaid taxes are likely to be collected because the IRS does not have an effective method of targeting the non-payers most likely to respond.

Ken Starr's hounding of Susan McDougal may be the sickest aspect of his Captain Ahab imitation. She served 18 months - remember those photographs of her in shackles? - for refusing to testify. Then he goes after her a second time for the same refusal. Sounds like double jeopardy, doesn't it? But Starr got away with it because of a technicality: the first charge was civil contempt, the second criminal contempt. The legal distinction between the two: The purpose of civil contempt is to coerce testimony - keep 'em in the slammer 'til they talk - while the purpose of criminal contempt is to punish them for not talking. But common sense says the coercive sentence also punishes. You're in jail. It's not fun. Most prosecutors understand this, so prosecution of the same person for both civil and criminal contempt is rare. It's usually only done, The Washington Post's Edward Walsh observes, in cases involving drug trafficking, murder, or organized crime. But that didn't deter Captain Ahab. He followed one departure from customary practice, in which he brought perjury charges for a lie about sex, with another that was even more shocking. I would very much doubt that there is another case in which refusing to testify about a decade-old real estate transaction became the subject of both civil and criminal contempt. Thank goodness the majority of the jury in last month's criminal contempt trial disagreed with Starr. They voted to acquit Susan McDougal.

Speaking of overzealous prosecutors, I just saw a movie on cable that I strongly recommend. It's called "The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck." Starring Marlo Thomas and Kris Kristofferson, and made back in 1984 soon after the similar but less nightmarish "Absence of Malice," it describes a case in which rabid editors and reporters join with prosecutors hell bent on getting a conviction. Together, they drive a woman who isn't a criminal to commit a crime.

Here's a poll I hope Congressional Republicans will pay attention to: 60 percent of the adults surveyed said they would rather have education and health care improved than have their taxes cut. The poll was conducted not by any of those liberal pollsters whose results are always suspect in the eyes of the GOP, but by Market Strategies, which the conservative Washington Times describes as a "Republican-oriented polling firm."

The Upper West Side isn't chic anymore, proclaims a recent article in The New York Times: "It's neither ritzy nor hip." Of course, it had become pretty hifalutin in the '80s. But when I lived on the Upper West Side in the late '40s, it was definitely not chic. What was wonderful about the era was that chic didn't make any difference. What counted was value. Consider Broadway in the years between 1946-49, which saw original productions of "The Iceman Cometh", "A Streetcar Named Desire", and "Death of a Salesman" among serious plays and "Annie Get Your Gun", "South Pacific", and "Kiss Me Kate" among the musicals. Not only was the quality high - perhaps the highest in the history of American theatre - but the cost was low. A seat in the last row of the highest balcony, where I could be found, cost $1.80. You could get a good Italian meal at Barbetta's or a good French one at Le Champlain or Le Fleur de Lis for $2.00.

It may be that today's West Side is not chic because the West Siders don't want it to be. "As unfashionable as it may be," says the Times article, "they prefer value to vogue." Another good sign is the current revivals of "Iceman" and "Salesman."

Read over the Table of Contents in this issue and you'll find among the authors' names Charles Peters, Ralph Peters, and Christian Peters. I know this must look like rampant nepotism, but it's not quite that bad. Ralph Peters is not a relative, but as his views on military service by the elite suggest, he is a soulmate. Christian Peters is a relative. He's my son and also, as his choice of public school teaching as a career indicates, a soulmate.

~Charles Peters


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