Sun-Times Jan. 1, 2002 - Dec. 31, 2002

Jan. 1, 2002 - Dec. 31, 2002                          

 

1/01/02

January 1st is famous as a time for predictions, resolutions and remembrances.  I, like most everyone, have a few of each.

Predictions are the trickiest. Last year, no one was apocalyptical enough to forecast anything like the September 11th attacks. Though, there was a government report, largely ignored, that expressed fears of global terrorism. But crystal ball readers need to be specific.

Given the number of people at the start of 2001 who were predicting a downturn in the stock market, especially in tech stocks, one wonders why so many people lost money hanging on to them till the third quarter. Bad advice is followed as often as good advice, doubtless.

This year I have only one safe prediction: Notre Dame will have a football coach in 2002. And he will be male.

Of the many memorable sights of the last year, amongst the strangest are the various videos that have turned up. After September 11th one was sure somewhere someone was privately celebrating what they saw as their great triumph, the destruction of the World Trade Centers towers and one side of the Pentagon.

But, I never expected there would be a tape of such celebration. Now, all sorts of strange things are recorded: arsonists, serial killers, all sorts of criminals take obvious pleasure in filming their deeds. But, the oddness of the taping, the nonchalance of bin Laden, as if he didn't care or realize he was being recorded, is still dumbfounding. As actors do on the so-called reality shows, bin Laden carried on as if all was normal. Perhaps, it is normal for him. The video has a number of internal contradictions (there is talk about people rushing to bin Laden's cause, despite little evidence of that, and bin Laden himself appears to already have moved on past our bombing of Afghanistan.) The location is as bare as an interrogator's set, betraying nothing about its time or space.

Bin Laden boasts of his knowledge of construction, saying he thought the buildings' "iron" would melt and the floors above where the planes struck would collapse, but that was all they had hoped for, which revealed very limited knowledge, indeed.

The Hannah Arendt's Nazi-inspired concept "the banality of evil" comes to mind, but this is way beyond banality. It is not meaningless from overuse, but ordinariness transformed into horror. We prefer adversaries to be extraordinary. It is even more terrible to look and see what the ordinary can do to us.

The other video, coming to light at the same time, is that of the CIA operative Mike Spann's interrogation of John Walker, inside the fortress used as a Northern Alliance prison, shortly before the uprising that resulted in Spann's death.

Though American press coverage has been checked, the public still gets to see, because of money and happenstance, first hand sights only the most dedicated war correspondents used to see during World War II--even Vietnam.

In this tape, Spann and his buddy "Dave," another CIA agent, are playing a variation of good-cop, bad-cop with Walker. Spann tries to get Walker to talk, "Dave" tells Spann, in a voice meant to be overheard by the trussed-up Walker, that he (Walker) will likely be killed, if he doesn't start cooperating with them.

We never hear Walker's voice on this tape, but both Spann's and Dave's sound as if they are under enormous stress, as if they do know they are nowhere safe at all, that the so-called prison is nothing but a corral full of restless killers.

The tape ends, or at least the part ABC and CBS paid 80 thousand dollars for.

It is probably a safe prediction that in 2002 a few more such strange and revelatory videos will surface.

And, it is almost a certainty, that the war on terrorism will not be over in 2002, since, as President Bush has assured us, that will be a long war, one that perhaps will never end, given that terror is the most effective means of waging war for the ordinary.

I do think President Bush understands that, which fulfills one of my resolutions for 2002. To say something nice about President Bush, as so many readers have exhorted me to do. There, I have done it. Happy New Year!

1/8/03

One under-reported story of 2001 was the death of the author J.H. Hatfield.  Hatfield, whose 1999 George W. Bush biography,Fortunate Son, was yanked from bookstores immediately after it was published, deemed "furnace fodder" by its original publisher, St. Martin's Press, after it was disclosed that Hatfield was an ex-con and had likely fabricated the book's tale of then-candidate Bush's alleged youthful cocaine arrest.

Hatfield was found dead last July in a motel room in Springdale, Arkansas, having overdosed on prescription drugs, leaving behind notes for family and friends. A felony arrest warrant for him had been issued earlier in the week for financial fraud. Beyond stories in the local paper, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a very short AP dispatch, that was that.

Hatfield's book ended up being a gift to the Bush campaign. After its lurid account appeared and was denied and discredited, stories about the wild side of Bush's life disappeared from campaign coverage. The bar had been raised for proof required even to air old accounts and that bar was only reached the weekend before the election, when Bush's 1976 DUI arrest became news, because a copy of the police report finally surfaced.

Hatfield's suicide makes his book's claims even less credible, given the instability it reveals. But, the fact that Bush's DUI arrest had been suppressed for many years (and it was talked about and looked for during Bush's first governor's race) leaves the matter still unresolved. Yet, because of events since 9/11, Hatfield's fate might seem now just a squalid footnote to a sordid footnote, except, of all the things September 11th changed, it is important to note that one will be the way political campaigns in the near future are conducted.

The take-no-prisoners style of modern political campaigns will be even less palatable to the public than it has been in the past. When we are attacked from without we are less tolerant of attacks from within.

Even Democrats hope that the past presidential campaign will not be revisited--by not having Al Gore revisit the Democratic nomination in 2004. Since the country will still be on a war footing, this year's Congressional and governor races will avoid contesting international issues and concentrate on local ones.

Scandals and past character flaws will be overlooked, or down played, with, possibly, the exception of Gary Condit, though even his reelection is not out of the question. Actions, not failings, now reign supreme.

An example of the absolution being dispensed is the case of Rudy Giuliani, who left the New York City mayor's office as King of New York and Time's Person of the Year. His masterful public performance post-9/11 elevated him to a person beyond criticism. Mayors can be faulted for messy personal lives and conflicts of interest, but rulers can not. Majesty has its rewards, but such benefits only accrue during times of national crisis.

President Bush, too, has been elevated by the events of September 11th, even without displaying the same sort of public charisma. And, the lofty heights he has attained in the polls will likely last, certainly through the coming year, perhaps even until the next presidential campaign.

Bush's father's Gulf War popularity waned quickly and did not lead to his reelection. But the first President Bush only liberated Kuwait from the forces of Saddam Hussein. The second President Bush has the task of liberating Americans from the threat of terror, which was visited upon us so dramatically on September 11th. And the coupling of the current economic recession with fears of attack is a potent one. Our present situation is profoundly different and his father's eventual fading popularity (economics trumping military success) is unlikely to be repeated. And Democrats in Congress shouldn't rely on replaying the tactics used against Bush's father to succeed.

The invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent war was no national trauma. September 11th was, which is why (like Rudy Giuliani) the older, paternal figures of the Bush administration, principally Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have attained such high public regard. When attacked we want to be protected.  Lesser failings are forgotten--as completely as the death of a disgraced author such as J. H. Hatfield is forgotten.

1/15/02

The present Supreme Court, once again, shows that it has nine lives. During the 1996 presidential campaign, a hot issue was the three or four resignations that would be coming in Clinton's second term. But, the second term came and went and no one resigned. That may have been because the whole court felt responsible for letting the Paula Jones suit go forward, which resulted, ultimately, in Clinton's impeachment, thereby leaving them with an unhealthy conflict of interest.

In the 2000 race, the probable resignations of three or four justices (most often mentioned, Rehnquist, Stevens, O'Connor, Ginsburg) was once more a critical campaign issue. Only who would go first was in question, but the ax would fall, we were all assured. Well, a year into George W. Bush's first term has seen no resignations and, because this is an election year, it is likely that none will come till after November, lest possible replacements and the hearings involved cause the Bush White House political problems.

Why no justices have yet resigned can be credited to the Senator from Vermont, the new Independent Jim Jeffords, whose switch of affiliation soon after Bush gained the White House (but not until Jeffords helped pass the wealthy-friendly tax cut) gave control of the Senate to the Democrats. Confirmation to the highest court immediately became trickier business.

The Rehnquist Court is now living through its own version of lame-duckness, but with a vengeance. There is no need to hide its various partisanships, after Bush v. Gore, and the decisions that have come down (such as the recent shrinking of the Disabilities Act and certifying that images of the Three Stooges are still worth a buck) and will be coming down, will only magnify the political stripes of the Court. They are as vivid as the gold stripes the Chief Justice has sewn onto his robes.

During last week's arguments before the Court concerning the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's "taking" suit (the Rehnquist Court is really opposed to the government "taking" anything, private property especially, regulatory action subsequently), the Chief Justice was heard muttering, disparagingly, "So it should all be a park?," referring to the land around the formerly blue Lake Tahoe basin that had been embargoed from development.

So, unless death intervenes, it's likely that the present Court will remain intact until after the November elections, and then the often cited three or four can jump ship.

Antonin Scalia, who leads the property-rights charge on the court, may, or may not, want to be Chief Justice then, after the expected Rehnquist resignation is received, depending on whether Scalia's son, Eugene, finally gets his permanent appointment to be solicitor general in the Department of Labor, though his record is decidedly sour on the pro-labor side. Tom Daschle, the Senate Majority leader, has been playing the old Trent Lott role, promising a vote and overlooking the fact that it never comes to the floor to be acted on.

Though Republicans blocked any number of Clinton appointees to a variety of posts, for a host of strange reasons, they have complained mightily about the treatment of Eugene Scalia. So much so, President Bush used a recess appointment (as Clinton had been forced to do at times) to put young Scalia in the job temporarily, bypassing confirmation now and hoping for it later.

Depending on how many appointments to the Supreme Court George W. Bush is able to make, Military Tribunals may not look like such a bad thing after all, given the possible lack of difference in the attitudes of both.

And, given the news that the military is building a new prison at our Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba for captured al-Qaida members, congress, in the spirit of private-property non-taking, should open that sunny bit of government property to the prison-for-profit entrepreneurs and build more jails there for our homeland population. We could turn our corner of Cuba into a regular Devil's Island. That should make Castro mad, something that President Bush could only applaud.

I doubt Chief Justice Rehnquist would be heard muttering then against those who would rather turn the whole thing into a park.

1/22/02

A fitting memorial commemorating the collapse of Enron would be the repeal of President Bush's not-yet-engaged tax cuts for the top tier of American households, set to take effect in 2004. But don't count on it happening. President Bush has been warning the public of nefarious tax-raisers lurking about, but, as a few Democratic politicians (Ted Kennedy foremost among them) have begun to say, suspending tax cuts not yet implemented isn't "raising taxes."

President Bush, during his presidential campaign, and his father before him, derided the language of "class warfare" being introduced into politics. And, last week, the Bush Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller (D.-Ga.), voiced a similar complaint. But, all of them needn't worry that pointing out the growing gap between rich and poor in America will result in much action. The public, it turns out, likes inequality of income.

Or, so three economists at the American Economics Association's annual meeting held recently in Atlanta contend. Their main finding to the question, "Inequality and Happiness Are Europeans and Americans Different?" is a big "yes." Inequality, their data showed, has a large effect on happiness in Europe, but not in our country. The researchers (Alberto Alesina, Rafael Di Tella, Robert MacCulloch) found that Europeans prefer more equal societies, whereas the majority of Americans, overall, are not made unhappy by inequality of incomes.

The economists discovered that only one small sub-group in the U.S. is made unhappy by inequality "rich leftists." That, unhappily, makes perfect sense, though some academics at the convention thought the study's results bizarre. Nonetheless, the American Dream has been well sold here in the states. The idea that anyone can succeed, acquire wealth, unlikely as that may be, is deeply believed. Upward mobility is our country's strength.

The inequalities of the Enron debacle crash against this stone wall, this bedrock belief, made out of hope for windfalls and spectacular advancement. Americans think there should be winners and losers. Most count on being winners. So, the fact that the top Enron executives cashed out their winnings, whereas thousands of employees were left with little or nothing, doesn't bother them all that much. Indeed, the newly-busted Enron employees had all thought they were winners, until they discovered otherwise.

The Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O'Neill, is certainly a cheerleader for winners and losers, announcing blithely on Fox News that "Companies come and go," adding, that circumstance was the "genius of capitalism."

Enron's case, however flamboyant, does sound distressingly familiar to most Americans. The bosses win and the workers lose. Where's the news?

And, similarly, the fact that various Bush appointees, Republican politicians, and their spouses, have financial dealings with Enron, entailing luxurious back-scratching regulations and rewards, is old news. Even the admission that John Ashcroft, the attorney general, has to remove himself from the Justice Department's "investigation" of Enron, because he banked its generous check, is a story heard often, too often to be shocking.

Indeed, though Enron's fall could resuscitate some mild version of campaign finance reform legislation, all the talk about the need for such reform over the years has only inured the population to all the lurid tales of payoffs and favoritism dispensed to high-roller donors throughout the land, Republicans and Democrats alike.

And, if even Ted Kennedy only wants to "postpone" the tax cuts for the super-rich, instead of repealing them altogether, why should anyone be surprised by the conduct of Enron's upper echelon. From President Bush on down, there will be much chest-beating by politicians, but little action, over the injustice of it all. But the rich will keep their tax cuts to come and they, like Enron's executives, will continue to make out like bandits.

Remember: Inequality doesn't make most Americans unhappy, with the exception of a handful of rich (and a few not rich) leftists. And who gives a hoot about them?

1/29/02

Given the recent news photos of a glamorized Chelsea Clinton, it is difficult to tell whether her new role model (in fashion and appearance, at least) is her mother, or Monica Lewinsky. A bit of both, doubtless. Nonetheless, Chelsea could be the third Clinton in line for high office, thereby surpassing (for now) the Bush family dynasty, if her mother does run for president some time in the future. And Chelsea, like George W. Bush before her, will have to age 40 to work out her wild oats.

If Hillary Clinton does make a serious run for the presidential nomination in 2004 (or, more likely, 2008), the longest-serving woman Democrat in Congress, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D.-OH.), could give her a run for the money.

But, only figuratively, not literally. Rep. Kaptur pointed out recently that to run even for the governorship in her state would cost in the neighborhood of 8 million. But, that is relatively cheap, considering running for governor in New York might reach 100 million. Rep. Kaptur, a twenty year veteran in the House, was discussing the hesitations that are fostered in any independent and unbought politician contemplating such a race. She did not bring up Hillary Clinton, though Kaptur did say that both parties were searching for celebrities, rich people, sport figures or film stars, who could either raise huge sums, or fund themselves the current costs of outrageously expensive campaigns.

Only a decade or so ago money didn't seem to be able to buy you a seat in the United States Senate. In 1993, Michael Huffington spent nearly 30 million of his own fortune in California, but lost to Dianne Feinstein. Huffington, though, was a decidedly ineffectual candidate, one hobbled by too many secrets.

His loss, at the time, showed that money wasn't everything. And, the two presidential campaigns of Steve Forbes, showed that too, though Forbes himself was no more an effective personality than Michael Huffington.

But, in the Senate, millionaires have been having a good run lately. Peter Fitzgerald was not held back by his fortune, nor was Senator Jon Corzine in New Jersey. Though not a seat in the Senate, the new mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, spent even more than Corzine, over 70 million, to gain the office.

If Marcy Kaptur doesn't run for governor of Ohio (or the presidency), because it requires consorting with the heads of, and taking money from, the likes of Enron, Rep. Kaptur should be considered for the vice presidency, running with whichever Not-Al-Gore the Democrats end up nominating, since she would be a powerful presence on the ticket in that spot, one of the few jobs that doesn't take millions up front to get.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton and Chelsea. The rumblings about the former first lady running for president have already begun and one reason they are being heard is that Senator Clinton could raise enough money to make a serious bid.

She is a celebrity and a millionaire and a Senator, a person who attracts additional support. Not to mention that her husband's chief former money-raiser, Terry McAuliffe, was put in charge of the Democratic Party's elaborate political machinery.

Americans have a high tolerance for unlikely occurrences, since they seem to happen every week, if not every day, such as the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, taking Osama bin Laden's place as the trophy prisoner, becoming the scapegoat a lot of the population has chosen to hate and want dead, since bin Laden continues to elude capture. If Osama turned up, dead or alive, Lindh could thankfully become the bizarre footnote he is.

Hillary Clinton capturing the Democratic presidential nomination also would be bizarre, though not, unfortunately, unbelievable.

In an age where money talks and everybody else walks, and high political office is largely for sale, as long as you don't appear to be a dead man walking, there is no reason to doubt that Sen. Clinton might be heading the ticket sooner or later. In that case, a true progressive reformer like Marcy Kaptur, alas, won't be considered for vice president. Big money politics, exemplified by Enron, will continue to rule and our country will look less like the democracy it is supposed to be and more like the plutocracy it is.

2/05/02

The scariest thing about President Bush's bellicose State of the Union address was that he might be giving the same speech in 2003 and 2004. Unlike his father's war, young Bush's war does not have to end. Indeed, not ending is its key to victory.

President Bush spoke of "tens of thousands" of trained terrorists out there somewhere ready to do "civilized" countries harm. And, beyond the amorphous mass infiltrating in the dark, there is the "axis of evil," Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, threatening us with weapons of mass destruction, which we will not permit. Bush came close to declaring war on those countries, which could be considered scary, even if it was just rhetoric.

But, the World War II vocabulary was obviously not lightly chosen by Bush's speech writers. Whether or not the rulers of those countries are shivering in their boots, their populations, if they ever get the message, are doubtless concerned.

Harking back to WWII serves another purpose (as does the term "homeland security" it lets us know we are all in this for the duration, and, as in the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American people don't like to remove a war-time president while the fight is still going on.

The president's political advisors are all aware of the permanent campaign; what they have succeeded in doing is matching it with a permanent conflict, the war against terror. And they won't let us forget it.

One terrorist unmentioned in the speech was Osama bin Laden. That Bush's wanted-dead-or-alive poster hasn't produced a corpse, or the man, is a sore point. As is the fact we have returned Afghanistan to a country where its politicians are called "warlords," and the White House visit of its temporary "interim leader," Hamid Karzai, only showcased the newly minted prime minister's call to build a national army out of the gangs loyal to these regional warlords, who could then be turned into a WPA of sorts, and put to building roads and such. And that's Karzai's best hope, besides his hope for a lot of money to flow his way, the sooner the better.

Giving speeches used to be Bill Clinton's chief test of character, in so far as he had to give many surrounded by an atmosphere of personal scandal and derision. But, he always passed those tests, to the satisfaction of the public at least.

Though George W. Bush has now given two well-received speeches, his first State of the Union, and the address to Congress after Sept. 11th, speeches may not be enough for this president.

Actions will have to matter, sooner or later. President Bush, through none of his own doing, has found himself in a desirable position: circumstances have made him temper his ideological extremes. He no longer can publicly denounce big government, since only big government can wage a war against terrorism. And Enron's collapse allows him to speak against corporate abuse, even though his party represents all the abuses Enron championed: the end of regulation, corporate taxes, oversight--the free market unchained.

In other words, Bush can talk the talk and not have to walk the walk. He can say he wants a prescription drug plan, but not make clear what sort (recall his "discount card" proposal early in his term) and promise pension reforms ("We must make Social Security financially stable and allow personal retirement accounts for younger workers who chose them"), not admitting that, illustrated by Enron's collapse, stability and personal accounts are contradictory ideas already dismissed by most Americans.

Given the cover of the endless war, with the concomitant shrinkage of freedoms a lot of Americans are willing to give up in exchange for simple protection, he will be able to triangulate (talk center, govern right) better than even triangulation's champions, Bill Clinton and Dick Morris, could have dreamed.

Bush even took Clinton's maligned AmeriCorps program and renamed it the USA Freedom Corps, thereby making it part of the war on terror. "Security" is the administration's buzzword, now attached to everything: retirement, the economy, national service. And security for Bush's tenure in office.

2/12/02

A still-bearded Al Gore, looking more Civil-War-like than Talibanesque, reentered the public arena a week ago, but that news has caused few ripples, given the flood of Enron revelations and the release of President Bush's domestic program slashing and military procurement swelling, deficit-digging budget.

Gore chose a hair-shirt setting for his reintroduction to political life a low-cost ($25) reception for a thousand Democrats held back in Tennessee, which Gore lost in 2000, a costly personal rebuke, paid for by the Bush campaign, which outspent Gore in his home state. The speech was delivered in Gore's familiar campaign timbre, full of forced fervor and enthusiasm. "I intend to rejoin the national debate," he declared, dressed in an informal dark blue shirt, more Yankee in color than Confederate.

But, it is a hard task for Gore to emerge from the doleful shadows of his unique predicament. The man who most Americans voted for in 2000, but who nonetheless lost the presidency, has become a permanent victim of that troubling circumstance. It has turned him into an oddity, almost a freak of nature.

Indeed, it would have been easier for Al Gore to reemerge to a fresh political life if he had just simply lost to George W. Bush. A large part of the American electorate treats his singular case as an embarrassment, something unsavory we would like to avoid, not confront, and be done with. The recount battles of Florida are such a sore spot in the body politic that no one much wants to poke that old wound.

But, Gore himself is not sure he is done with. He was, in his not-too-charming way, coy about whether he would run in 2004, asserting, "I don't yet know." He will deal with that after November's elections. A further oddity in American politics may be in store: he actually might run again and win the nomination.

That unlikely prospect will continue the unhealthy twinship he shares with President Bush. Gore may eventually capture the nomination the way--and for the same reason--Bill Clinton did in 1992, thanks to the first President Bush's enormous popularity after the Gulf War, which scared away strong contenders like Mario Cuomo and left the field open to second-tier candidates, which let the governor of Arkansas stand out and emerge the eventual victor.

The young President Bush's current war-induced popularity may cause most Democrats to wonder if he too may be unbeatable in 2004 and the crop of candidates who hunger to offer themselves up to the travails of running for president might be smaller and thinner than most think. The names thus far mentioned are not startling for their star power: Senators John Edwards (N.C.), Tom Daschle (S.D.), John Kerry (Ma.), and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.). Gore's former running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is interested, too, as long as he can run and keep the job he still has, though he may defer to Gore if asked.

Why Hillary Clinton's name keeps coming up is not because she is likely to walk away with the nomination, but that the others lack instant recognition and don't stimulate the passions she does.

Amidst the crop of available candidates Al Gore does stand out, though Lieberman, who would be in his early sixties in 2004, may be ready to run, even expecting to lose, because of the historic precedent his nomination would set. But, given the mixed feelings Gore now generates even amongst Democrats, he, because of his frustrated frame of mind, might be the person most willing to be sacrificed.

That Terry McAuliffe, the DNC head, has pushed through a front-loading of primaries, is also in Gore's favor. For better or worse, Gore will be the quickest one out of the publicity box.

The Republicans, obviously, are hoping Bush is able to follow Ronald Reagan's example once again: to cruise to a second term because of weak competition, presuming Bush's commander-in-chief popularity remains high. Democrats should be concerned about the same thing: Reagan's first-term, tax-cut-inspired deficits continued into his second, and the still widening gap between the rich and poor took off. And, like a race between Bush and Gore, it can happen again.

2/19/02

Though the recent Enron hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce received less coverage than the parade of prosperous males taking the Fifth in the competing Senate show, the testimony of Cindy Olson, Enron's executive vice president for human resources, was certainly more entertaining and illuminating.

Ms. Olson did look equally sharp for her House appearance. Evidently, she wanted to demonstrate that she had nothing to be ashamed of, even though she admitted sheepishly that she had sold her Enron stock for $6.6 million before the price went south.

Though other Enron top executives, especially those, including Kenneth Lay, Enron's former CEO, who took the Fifth and refused to testify, did the same thing, Ms. Olson's stock dump might be even more embarrassing, if not potentially criminal, or, at least, unethical, since she is a member of Enron's 401(k) Plan Committee and therefore has fiduciary responsibility to look out for the health of the plan and the assets of its members.

But, when Ms. Olson learned in August of 2001, via Sherron Watkins, that the company might soon "implode," Ms. Olson kept that information to herself and cashed out.  Her 401(k) plan, which once reached $800,000, was not entirely decimated like so many lower Enron employees accounts, but only halved. This circumstance, Ms. Olson claimed, was brought about because she had been prodded by an independent financial adviser to "diversify." Unfortunately, she wasn't prodding the employees to do the same prudent thing.

Her testimony brought immediate calls for her to be removed from her post, given her apparent lack of due diligence.

After a long day of testimony, Ms. Olson was asked by Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.) if she had ever heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Ms. Olson disconsolately shook her head "no.'

Had she ever heard about it, Ms. Olson probably wouldn't have been sitting where she was, since the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is one of the landmarks of labor history.

Rep. Rivers sketched the facts for her. In 1911, 146 women were killed in fifteen minutes in the worst factory fire in the history of New York City. The owners of the factory had locked the doors to keep the women at their sewing machines. The executives of the company escaped, since they weren't locked in.

The parallels to the behavior of Enron executives and their treatment of their employees was clear, even to those in the committee room who didn't know the history Rep. Rivers was citing.

But, as bad as all this is, the loss of money and retirement security of the Enron employees pales in comparison to those in the steel industry, especially those who worked long and hard for LTV.

Like Enron, LTV made financial promises to its employees shortly before it imploded, offering early retirement to many of its long-term workers, promising increased pension benefits to its employees in 1999, in lieu of higher wages.

A few thousand employees did retire after 30 years, a decade or more before they turned 65. Now, those retirement benefits are imperiled by LTV's bankruptcy and will likely be greatly reduced, when the federal government, which insures private pensions, begins to pay them.

USX has seen an opportunity in the recent bankruptcies of many steel companies and has proposed to become a super steel company by taking over weak ones and those that have gone under, if it gets the help of the government.

That deal is being overseen by Vice President Cheney, from an undisclosed location, though it is not likely that President Bush will go against his free-market impulses and impose the import quotas and tariffs required to restore the health of the nation's steel industry.

Nonetheless, on Feb. 27th LTV will complete its "auction" of its plants, now simmering on 'hot idle." If they are not taken over and kept running, they will become instant scrap metal. And, if President Bush lets the markets decide, thousands of steel workers will have their jobs, pensions and health plans scrapped, too.

2/26/02

In all the ink spilled because of Enron, few accounts have blamed its collapse on the culture of Texas. This stands in stark contrast to all the print expended on Whitewater, and other Clinton family scandals, which placed a good bit of the blame on Arkansas and the culture of Little Rock. Indeed, the voluminous Whitewater coverage was often cartoonish, lampooning the amusing rustics populating the state.

One reason why Texas and Texans have escaped the various calumnies heaped on Arkansans is that any criticism aimed in that direction would also hit President Bush, who shares the same gung-ho, young-man-on-the-rise spirit so many Enron executives personify, especially those who have become famous recently for taking the Fifth.

Kenneth Lay set the tone. What kind of CEO owns four houses in Aspen, Colorado? The sort who wants to be rich, but not square, conservative, but not backwoods, powerful yet popular.

Lay loaned his corporate planes to the Bush campaign and you need multiple homes to house important associates, friends of a certain type rich, successful, and, most important, well connected.

Which, of course, describes the president. Though Bush spent a good bit of his youth in a variety of far-flung dwellings owned by his family, he keeps reiterating his intention to go back "home" to Texas, but there are few photographs of the home he lived in before he became governor, only the ranch he bought just before he began his run for president.

That's "home," built a little more than a year ago, from profits from cashing out his interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team (14.9 million from a $606,000 investment, a case of Enron economics.) Baseball may have been good to Bush, but back in Houston, the owners of the Astros are desperate to change their ballpark's name, from Enron Stadium to almost anything else.

The Clintons had to endure eight years of Arkansas derision, but, during his campaign, Bush warned everyone not to pick on Texas and, by and large, the press hasn't. And the national consensus, which the press reflects, is to lay off (so to speak) the president while he exercises his role as commander in chief, to avoid anything that sounds like a personal attack.

So, Enron and Houston's post-modern cowboy culture gets a pass. Administration officials prefer to speak of Enron's collapse as a colossal "business failure."

Campaign finance legislation may be a small token of penance, if Bush doesn't veto the Shays-Meehan bill along the way, but Enron did not need to buy influence, since what it wanted done was what the president wanted to do, in any case.

When President Bush and Vice President Cheney let "Kenny Boy" Lay review potential presidential appointees, that was just taking advantage of their friend and fellow Texan, a guy who shared their values and vision.

When Bush administration officials claim they weren't corrupted by Enron money, they are doubtless speaking the truth. They're peas in a pod. The large amount of cash passed around was just a kind of gift exchange among friends. You don't need to buy people who already agree with you. That's how it works in the wealth culture.

Early on, President Bush was praised for skillfully running the government as a corporation, not shirking the role of the CEO, delegating power, but reserving for himself the tough decisions. Unfortunately, the business model he follows is Enron. Enron considered bank loans it received to be assets; Bush's budget believes tax cuts for the wealthy cure deficits. And the administration's penchant for privacy has turned into a national joke, with Vice President Cheney's "undisclosed location" becoming an often-used punch line. As in Enron, critical information is kept from the public (see Cheney's Energy Task Force stonewalling) and shared only with insiders at the top.

Arkansas hillbilly culture was often portrayed to be at the root of Bill Clinton's failings. What is less debatable is that Enron's corporate culture and the Bush administration's culture are undistinguishable.

3/05/02

Why Enron still captures so much of the public's attention, unlike many financial disaster stories of the past, is a consequence of the two-decade-long publicity campaign of the rabid pro-privatizers of Social Security. Bad ideas often have random good consequences. The privatizing lobby has trumpeted the growing participation in stock market, claiming that most every American owns stock.

Well, not every American, but estimates show that 54% of American households own some stock, mutual funds, or retirement accounts, up from just over a third in 1989. And when there is ownership there is interest. With any luck, the Enron debacle may produce some healthy legislation and accounting reforms, much to the distress of business sector, because of this growing participation and concern.

Of the 54% who own stock, slightly over three-fourths of the total amount is held by the top 10% of income earners. Of that 78%, 42% is owned by the top 1%, according to Edward Wolff, a New York University researcher.

Everyone else below the top ten percent owns around 21%. And 46% of the country owns no stock, money market funds, or retirement accounts. Except for Social Security--which President Bush, and the administration's foot soldiers of money market managers, still wants to privatize.

The lure of the stock market is enhanced by the get-rich-quick crowd, exemplified by Enron's top executives, who turned their company stock into millions of dollars. What they appeared to be running was a huge pyramid scheme and them that got there first got out wealthy.

The public has seen a decade of that sort of instant riches; the dot-com world of the '90s produced dozens of millionaires and thousands of bilked and busted investors.

In the past, stock brokers felt they had done well if their holdings matched, or beat by a point or two, Treasury bonds. The sort of astronomical winnings of the Enron brass and the dot-com few, nonetheless, was the carrot that brought so many people to the market. Many Americans are used to playing state lotteries and the odds of cashing in big are not too dissimilar.

Though not likely to happen during Bush's first term, the long march to Social Security privatization is not over by any means, demonstrated by the president's cheerleading pro-privatization remarks to the annual retirement summit held last week in Washington. There is too much money at stake for those who want it to happen and that includes a great many of the folk who surround Bush.

The growing gap between rich and poor continues to serve up egregious examples. Bar bills of $62,000 for one night's dinner libations rung up by bankers at Barclay's in London raise a few eyebrows these days, whereas the millions spent on the Olympics is deemed well-spent, even though it cost nearly a million dollars an athlete to put on, and the corporate sponsorship was unstinting, beginning with the bribes the folks in Utah had to shell out to get the games in the first place. At least that was a show, a circus for the whole country to watch, not a dinner for a few in a fancy London restaurant.

One would hope that Enron put an end to the campaign to privatize Social Security, but Bush still hopes parlay his war-on-terror popularity to the patriotic "reform" of Social Security. If the growing participation in capital markets proves anything, it shows that if people want to speculate and invest in equities they can do so on their own. But President Bush still describes Social Security as a mutual fund, not the insurance program it is.

Rep. Clay Shaw (R.-Fla.) chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Tex.), want to send recipients of Social Security a letter saying that their current benefits will never be reduced. That may sound like a good, reassuring thing, though what that wasteful mailing is meant to do, is to convince Americans that it is safe to proceed with privatization, since the government will set a floor below which benefits will not fall. Let's hope that the majority of Americans do not fall for it.

3/12/02

Well, the media will no longer have Gary Condit to kick around and, if the defeated California congressman's prediction is correct, Chandra Levy, too, will fade completely from the public's consciousness, until and unless she, in one form or another, shows up.

Condit will wander off into the shadows of history, which, unlike Vice President Dick Cheney and the rest of the shadow government, is a place few emerge from intact.

Monica Lewinsky, consort of the last president, alas, has not yet become a shade, a ghost, even though she was largely shown on an HBO documentary recently in black and white.

Fame may be fleeting, but some people try to hold on more desperately than others. Ms. Lewinsky is irrepressible, which has always been her strong point, but, her appearance in black and white, sitting alone on an empty stage, brought to mind Lenny Bruce, the 50's-era comic who lives on in documentaries, mainly in black and white, a profane but perceptive entertainer, who also was hounded by American law enforcement for flaunting taboo sexual behavior and language.

Monica is seldom witty, but she does have a winning smile. As does Clinton's other eager suitor, Joe Klein, the former "Anonymous" author, who wrote the best campaign book of the '92 presidential race, Primary Colors, though it was marketed as fiction. Klein, appearing on any network that will have him, has just published his own apologia for his romance with Bill Clinton. It, too, is in black and white (though that is just the print on the page) The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. Though, given all that has been written about Clinton and his presidency, it may be just Klein who misunderstood.

But, Bill Clinton is fading fast, too, despite the release of Independent Counsel Robert Ray's sour-grapes-filled, I-could-have-been-a-contender-and-convicted-him, final Lewinsky report. Clinton's actual shadow, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-NY), is far more substantial than the former president. Indeed, it is Hillary who now appears on the covers of supermarket tabloids, whereas the former president only gets smaller photos inside, usually sharing them with some young woman or another.

It isn't just personalities from the news that are fading, it is the news itself. The head mouseketeers from Walt Disney who run ABC are looking to replace the venerable news show "Nightline" and replace it with funny man David Letterman, moving him, and his homespun brand of Indiana humor (stupid pet tricks, etc.), from CBS to the same time spot on ABC, which will complete Letterman's travels among the three old, large networks.

Cokie Roberts, the co-host of ABC's This Week, is going to fade from her show, too, but Sunday morning still might be the only time slot left for network news to huddle in, since those somber hours, thanks to organized religion, are still thought of as a time of reflection. But, the Disney corporation does have a lot of cartoons that could take the show's place. Sam Donaldson, Cokie's co-host, may or may not stay on. He is 68, which is close to the age of most of President Bush's senior advisors, the holdovers from his father's reign and before. Donaldson does not appear to be alarmed at the thought of leaving.

That, of course, is not the case with the folks in the shadow government, which might not be so troubling if the executive branch had bothered to tell the Congress about it. After all, the fourth hijacked plane on 9/11 was heading for the capitol building, which was the big fat target, not the White House, which would have been much harder to hit.

A short three years ago many businesses set up parallel facilities and computer capabilities because of fears generated by the millennium doomsayers at the time. After 9/11 those hitherto redundant facilities were a godsend to some companies.

The Bush administration, which is so good at controlling information, should have found its own way to announce its parallel facilities and not let them be branded a "shadow" government. Because, given the wishes and policies of so many of Bush's top people, there is already the fear that a shadow government is what Bush and company have wanted all along.

3/19/02

There has been a lot of coverage of former Clinton administration veterans vying for public office. Robert Reich running for governor in Massachusetts, Janet Reno ditto in Florida, Erskine Bowels, Bill Richardson in other contests, Rahm Emanuel here locally. Howard Kurtz, the press critic of theWashington Post, has been keeping track of the many columns devoted to their ambitions. What has gathered less attention is the former members of Republican administrations who are running.

One reason is that many of them have been candidates before, most often unsuccessfully. And, among those contesting, running for president has been a great favorite, though it is clear they ran not with the expectation of winning, but to raise their public profile and hence their marketability.

The two most prominent are Elizabeth Dole, the former First Nurse, and Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor and two-time candidate for the presidency. The second time around, Alexander dropped out very early, placing sixth in the Iowa straw poll. Upon entering the race for the actor and former Watergate counsel Fred Thompson's (R-Tenn) soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat, Alexander was quoted saying, "This is an unexpected course of action for me.  I've been happy as a private citizen."

But, Lamar wasn't the happiest of candidates in the '96 presidential campaign.  Though he wore almost constantly a populist red-and-black lumberjack shirt, when asked, he didn't know the price of a gallon of milk, though he did send a campaign aide to find out.

And, as it will doubtless be resurrected, Lamar was the recipient of Enron-like stock profits from companies while governor of the state and head of the University of Tennessee, which, back then, looked like smart business sense, though now it looks like something else.

Liddy Dole, in the '96 presidential race, ran as the First Nurse, coming off her controversial tenure as head of the Red Cross. Since this round of elections comes after 9/11, in the North Carolina Senate race she is again stressing her role in dealing with disasters, though the one disaster she didn't deal with was the problems of the Red Cross, which came to light after she left it, and culminated in all the complaints about how it handled the outpouring of donations it received after 9/11.

One Republican administration newcomer to electoral politics is Robert Ray, the successor to Kenneth Starr, who has recently resigned as the Independent Counsel, even though his final, final report on those land dealings back in Arkansas somewhere in the late Twentieth Century has yet to be released.

Ray is contemplating a race for Senator in New Jersey, where he will test his combative, pugnacious personality in that rough ring. Like Dole and Alexander, Ray has some baggage to deal with, the latest being why he continued to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on his superfluous labors as Independent Counsel, long after Congress dumped the position. There's a fellow who believes in government make-work programs.

Unlike many of the Clinton folk who are running, the Bush administration practices a different sort of on-the-job training. It takes formerly successful politicians and turns them into barely competent administrators. Tom Ridge, of the many-colored terror spectrum, the air raid siren updated and colorized, has left his prodigious political skills behind, as has Tommy Thompson, now a hapless Heath and Human Services head.

The press-conference-addicted Attorney General, John Ashcroft, the former one-term Senator from Missouri, is a different case, since every time he loses an election he is appointed to a better job, though his chief talent seems to be composing and singing patriotic songs, while managing to scare more Americans than al-Qaida terrorists with his actions and pronouncements.

Nonetheless, running for high office is often opportunistic and Clinton veterans aren't shy. The governorship of Massachusetts has been a subject of ridicule the last two years, so Robert Reich joins the fray. And, Janet Reno is either the most famous, or infamous, person in the state of Florida. In each and every case, voters will decide whether the Clinton connection matters.

3/26/02

It is still not clear which is more troubling: Andrea Yates sane, or insane. The Texas jury found her sane enough to convict her of murdering her children, but not sane enough to execute her, something Texas juries are not shy about doing. Women who kill their children, if they are white and, at least, middle class gather sympathy and attention, and often provoke a great deal of discussion and concern.

If Andrea Yates is insane, as her husband and family and many health practitioners all claim, it isn't a pretty picture imagining her getting well. Which, of course, would have been her fate if found not guilty by reason of insanity. She would have been treated by the same profession that failed her so dramatically before.

But, if she would ever recover, how would she remain sane living with the knowledge that she killed her five children? The guilt of that monstrous deed would drive most sane people insane. That is the paradox of these crimes.

In our society, murderers do get let out; even serial rapists and child molesters are often set free, eventually. Andrea Yates most likely, though, will spend the rest of her life incarcerated. That, given the circumstances, isn't the worst place for her to be. Indeed, it was the theatrical nature of her killing, so many victims, so ritualistically staged, that made her case so infamous.

Yates isn't the classical Medea figure, who kills her children as an act of revenge against a husband. Marilyn Lemak, the Naperville mother, was more straightforwardly that sort, since she killed her three children when her former husband began to court another woman. Doubtless, Andrea Yates had a good bit of hostility against her husband, a man most often described as "controlling," but her behavior seemed a most terminal act of a passive aggressive personality. Such crimes are thought to be not pleas for help, but a form of suicide. Though, in Yates' case, her actions were passive against herself, aggressive towards her children and husband.

Yates' imprisonment is in keeping with her religious delusions. In the past, the fate of an infamous and criminal woman of the upper classes would be banishment to a nunnery, to live the rest of one's days in prayer and abasement.

Yates' husband, Rusty, may have played his own role in creating his wife's peculiar form of liberation--from him, from motherhood, from society in general. He certainly has no gift for saying anything but inappropriate remarks, claiming that he was "offended" that his wife was prosecuted, that she was a loving mother, that everyone and everything failed her, except for him. Perhaps he is playing the fool, in order not to make himself seem sinister. In that case, he is succeeding.

There does seem to be a method in Andrea Yates' madness and everyone has cooperated. It isn't inconceivable that she has gotten what she wanted to be free of responsibilities, to be looked after and cared for. Trying to "cure" Andrea Yates may be a waste of time.

Kathy Boudin, the '70s radical, a member of the violent Weather Underground, did not kill anyone, much less her child, though, since the early '80s, she has been serving a 20-years-to-life sentence because her associates did, including murdering two police officers. Boudin has become a model prisoner and a great help to other inmates at the Bedford Hills correctional facility. But she was recently denied parole and is not likely ever to be released on parole. Killing law enforcement personnel guarantees one no leniency, unlike killing one's own children.

Forgiveness is a spotty thing in our culture. The Rev. Billy Graham would like to have it, claiming he never believed the anti-Semitic things he uttered in the '70s, which, given the evidence of his own recorded Oval Office remarks, is unbelievable.   

Judge Charles Pickering, recently blocked by Democrats from the federal appeals bench, much to President Bush's displeasure, wanted to be forgiven for his early racist enthusiasms, including urging bans on interracial marriage.

To err is human, so goes the saying, to forgive is divine. But forgiveness is also selective, capricious, and, often, unfairly dispensed.

4/2/02

Writing against Social Security privatization always prompts a good bit of rancorous reader response, 99% of it from men. I would say 100%, but, over the years, one protest by a woman might have slipped by. The fact that women do not seem to be exercised in the same manner, or as eager for privatization, as men, reveals Social Security's strengths. Women understand the value of the program, since they are often the recipients of it, especially its insurance and survivor-benefits side. Indeed, over one-third of elderly women rely on Social Security to keep them out of poverty.

Many of the males who respond critically make the same points, ask the same questions, and hurl the same insults. Here are a few of the most repeated claims

1. The "return" on their tax money is far less than it would be if it was invested in the stock market.

The Social Security system is not a mutual fund; it is an insurance program. No one talks about the rate of their "return" on fire insurance. Social Security gives a young worker (married, 2 children, average income) a death and disability policy worth about $250,000. Irate readers point to studies showing the stock market returns are historically higher. That, of course, is true, if you can pick what year you are born and what year you retire and, in addition, never make a mistake investing.

2.) The whole system is not to be privatized, just a portion of it.

Even the Cato Institute, which was created to advocate a privatized Social Security, agrees that the President's Commission, charged with "Strengthening Social Security," estimates large transition costs that could reach 3 trillion, requiring benefit cuts, for even a partial privatization. Indeed, the report was so depressing that even the ideologues who put it together did not want to trumpet its findings and a good many Republicans running for office asked the president not to bring it up until after the 2002 elections.

But, President Bush still desires to privatize the entire system, since the example he gave at the 2002 National Summit on Retirement Savings last month was based on complete privatization. Bush claimed, "Someone retiring today after 45 years of work would be entitled to a monthly benefit of $1,128 a month from Social Security. If that same retiree, if those Social Security taxes had been invested in the stock market over the last 45 years, during the same period of time, that person would have a nest egg of $590,000, or income of more than $3,700 a month." Regardless of the fuzzy math errors, the president thinks that's the direction the system should take.

3. Why shouldn't Americans be given the chance to create wealth by investing in the stock market?

Who is stopping them? Indeed, the federal government already pays ordinary Americans for investing in the stock market, by providing tax breaks for 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and a variety of IRAs, to the tune of over 50 billion dollars. Given the number of administrative difficulties these programs generate, just imagine the problems running mandated, individual stock accounts would prompt.

One reader protested the 1993 tax code change that taxed Social Security income for couples earning above $32 thousand a year ($25 thousand for individuals.) What that law showed was the cowardice of politicians who, faced with a need for revenue for Medicare, went through the back door to get it, instead of just proposing a raise in taxes, or hiking the cap on Social Security taxes. Such behavior is bipartisan.

The Social Security system is progressive--low income workers get nearly 80% of their pre-retirement income, the well-off get 25%, a far lower rate of return (the average is 44%)--which is why so many libertarians and Republicans hate it. The go-it-alone crowd wants everyone to sink or swim on his or her own merit. Social Security is a safety net for the society as a whole. Those who want it privatized already have private investments. They just want more. The program can be "fixed" with a few small changes. Next week's column, the solutions to the Social Security "crisis."

4/9/02

The push to privatize Social Security has been, in part, a noisy diversion, a flanking movement to prevent the steps needed to be taken to "fix" Social Security for generations to come. The intent has been to damage the program, describe it in the most dire terms, in an attempt to end it. As one proponent of privatization wrote, "This is about Liberty, not money." Exactly.

The recent unheralded report by the trustees of Social Security has taken some of the steam out of the crisis-mongering by privatizers. It shows, without any changes, Social Security will pay out full benefits through 2041, 3 years longer than predicted last year. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and the rest of the Bush administration, tried to downplay the good news, claiming, "This reprieve provides little comfort." But this is the fifth year in a row that date has been extended.

Rather than the costly and unnecessary course of initiating "private" equity accounts, a few small adjustments could be made.

The boldest step would be to raise taxes just under 1% for both workers and employers--that would solve all the problems, but would require courage on the part of Congress. Post 9/11, such action would be patriotic, in so far as it would tap the generosity of all Americans for all Americans to come. What privatizers have been counting on all along is selfishness, rather than a sense of civic responsibility. "Let's roll!" could be a slogan for protecting Social Security, not just thwarting airline hijackers.

But, even smaller steps would satisfy the need.

One would be to raise the cap on Social Security taxes. Currently, Bill Gates stops paying Social Security taxes (the maximum is now slightly over $80 thousand) before New Year's day is over. When the Social Security cap was set it was presumed that 90% of the people would be under that base. Given the fact that the rich are getting richer, only 84% are under the base. It could be adjusted to bring it back to 90%. And, speaking of caps, lifting in on employers alone, taxing them on a worker's entire salary, would take care of half the projected 75 year deficit.

The few states that have been grandfathered out of Social Security could be brought in, thereby gaining more revenue for the system.

And, the Social Security trust fund could gradually move partially into the stock market, thereby resembling most private and public pension systems, which would certainly benefit younger workers (given the low administrative costs involved) and would gain higher returns, improving the benefit/contribution ratio.

Rather than finding ways to lessen Social Security benefits--reducing the cost of living adjustment, raising the retirement age--one should find ways to raise Social Security benefits. But, the hidden agenda behind "reforms" that cut benefits is to make Americans work longer in order to down hold wages.

We have become a debtor nation, rather than a saving nation. When credit cards became universally available, everyone could be Alan Greenspan and print money. Then home equity loans allowed people to eat their houses. The economy, of late, has been driven by consumption, hence the final step beckons. Let Americans gamble with the stock market and the security of Social Security. Let them "buy" retirement, rather than save for it.

When readers write and claim Social Security has "failed," I do wonder what world they live in. They claim it is nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Well, Ponzi schemes are only Ponzi schemes if they stop paying. They complain the "government" owns the money, not the people. If we do believe the government isn't the people there is an obvious problem, one far more serious than whether Social Security pays full benefits for nearly 40 years and falls into slight deficit in 75, if nothing is done.

What, clearly, shouldn't be done, what should be stopped, is the constant attack on one federal program that has succeeded and will continue to succeed, until those who oppose it get their hands on it.

4/16/02

Three great world religions are currently convulsing. In Israel, Palestinians and Israelis are slaughtering one another, with nationalistic and religious furor. Even the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has been under siege. In Pakistan, Daniel Pearl was beheaded by Islamic fanatics for being a Jew, not a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. As Ariel Sharon has said, "This is a battle for survival of the Jewish people." Yasser Arafat's term for suicide bombers is cloaked in piety martyrs.

And, here at home, the Catholic Church is roiling, with scandals of the most distressing sort, charges of pedophilia and the seduction of the young and inexperienced. Though, the deviant acts of desiring and exploitive men have not been so much the source of outrage, as much as the conduct of the hierarchy, the continuing revelations of decades of covering up and condoning.

It's the cover-up, Father, church leaders need to be reminded, not so much the crime, though the behavior itself, grievous as it is, is not unfamiliar, since it has cropped up often throughout the Catholic Church's history.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who, with any luck, will not remain too much longer in his job, despite his Friday letter declining to resign, has revealed overly solicitous concern for a number of his criminal brothers. He has shown so much sympathy for Fathers John Geoghan and Paul Shanley, and doubtless others yet unknown, that one can only presume Cardinal Law has too much personal insight into these troubled priests' predilections and predicaments.

During the weeks of our bombing of Afghanistan there were many tales of the horrors of the Taliban, the Islamic religious extremists, concerning their treatment of women. Many commentators spent time worrying over whether the Taliban, or other autocratic, male supremist Islamic countries, could be brought around. The word "civilized" was often employed and progress toward democratic institutions was offered as the only solution.

One reason why the Catholic Church's current scandals are having so much resonance throughout the country and, especially, with members of parishes everywhere, is not because abusive priests keep coming out of the woodwork, but that the institution of the all-male priesthood looks a little odd in 2002, given recent history and the critical examinations other religions have been undergoing.

Unlike a lot of Islamic countries, we incontestably live in the 21st century, with a democratic system of government (absent a few electoral oddities.) So, it is not strange that the rigid structures and male domination of the Catholic Church would come under scrutiny in the present atmosphere.

Unfortunately, Cardinal Law and his fellow leaders of the Church have not acquitted themselves well in the present crisis. Unlike President Bush, who raised his status generally when faced with our common national adversity, no one in the Catholic Church hierarchy, including the ailing pope, has been praised as an effective leader.

Indeed, three bishops have quit because of their own past histories and Cardinal Law needs to quit, given his role in the cover-up, an involvement that if not actionable in a court of law, is certainly a grand display of mismanagement and ineptitude.

All religions have peculiarities. And most of them remain unquestioned, until there is a crisis. The 9/11 hijackers and the Taliban were a catastrophe for Islam.  They focused a huge spotlight on their religion and their cause, which has overlapped onto the other Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, which hitherto had been able to bask in its rich shadows, its medieval ways scarcely noticed.

Likewise, the pedophilia scandals and decades of cover-up have brought a lot of unwelcome light to the Catholic Church's inner workings. And Israel's recent military response to the terrorism it has suffered also shines a harsh light on it, as it crushes ancient buildings and shells historic sites, killing the innocent as well as the guilty along the way. None of these great religions looks particularly sacred today.

4/23/02

Two Clinton Administration veterans didn't do well at the state Democratic Party convention in Orlando, Florida, held two weeks ago. Janet Reno, the purported front-runner in the Democratic primary for governor, was upstaged by the less well-known (at least nationally) candidate, Bill McBride. And Al Gore's appearance drew more negative reaction than positive, more calls for him not to run, than to run, and was followed by articles pleading for Sen. John McCain to run for president as a Democrat in 2004. These are desperate days for Democratic presidential hopefuls.

But a Gore candidacy in '04 appears inevitable. For moral reasons, if no other.

As psychologists say, there are some unresolved issues that need to be worked out here, both Gore's own and the country's. Al Gore, evidently, is in a state of political shock and he needs to be brought out of it. Because of 9/11, the country has buried most of the discontents left over from the contested 2000 election, the unhealthy fact of Gore winning the popular vote and being denied the presidency by the Supreme Court's untimely intervention.

The former heavyweight champion, and current ex-convict, Mike Tyson, keeps bouncing from one venue to another, hoping for another chance to box, to free himself from his bouts of rage and irrationality, to mount one more purifying fight to prove he is contender, a man to be reckoned with.

Al Gore needs a rematch, too.

Who knows, as an underdog, as Gore (or any Democrat) will surely be, he might find some sense of self that would rise to the occasion. It is often said that George W. Bush has been made more serious by the events of 9/11, and has grown in stature because of them. Al Gore, with a real battle on his hands, could step up a notch, too.

Of the many miscalculations Gore made in the 2000 campaign, one of the most glaring was not to realize that he was in the fight of his life. It is clear he expected to win and he played the entire campaign on defense, not offense.

In 2004, whichever Democrat ends up contesting, he (and it will likely be a he--Sen. Hillary Clinton isn't, despite evidence to the contrary, eager to be a sacrificial lamb) will have to go on offense and never let up.

As most any sensible Democrat will tell you, Al Gore shouldn't run because the 2000 election was his to win and he didn't win it--or win it enough. The criticisms lodged against George W. Bush--primarily his lack of experience, the suspicion that he wasn't up to the job--have become less pertinent.

Such claims will be a hard sell in '04 even if one believes them. That leaves the race to be fought over, not simple competence, but issues, such as the growing tax cuts for the wealthy and the growing deficit for the rest of us, prescription drug plans for the elderly, environmental degradation, Social Security preservation, etc…

The 2004 election may be a replay of the 1996 race, which pitted a popular Bill Clinton against an out-gunned, and out-of-the-loop, Bob Dole, a race notable for invective, not inventive debate. And, it is doubtful that the country will have emerged from the trauma of 9/11 sufficiently by November 2004 to want to change horses in the war on terror mid-stream. That, of course, is what the Republicans are counting on. Indeed, victories in the 2002 midterm elections might end up a decidedly mixed blessing for Democrats. If they regain the House and keep the Senate, there will be even less inclination on the part of the American public to let them have the White House.

But, the election could be a period of education for the country, where the bitter 50-50 division, a map of red and blue states, that showed itself in 2000 could be addressed, and, if not healed, at least made less stark and more understood.

In this time when many hope to bring warring sides together in fruitful negotiation, most especially the Israelis and Palestinians, but others, too, it would be good if a presidential election gave us the chance to discuss our differences in a productive way, let red and blue America work together as red, white and blue America. And that requires not a new candidate, but GORE IN 'O4!

4/30/02

The protective shell that descended around George W. Bush after 9/11 seems to be cracking. The departure, for family reasons, of the chief steward of his public image, Karen Hughes, is the least of it. Hughes may be returning to Texas for the sake of her and her husband and son's homesickness, but, in a White House that values loyalty above all, exiting after only 15 months doesn't appear the act of a fervent loyalist.

President Bush was, apparently, powerless to change Hughes' mind. It's humbling for an America President to understand the limits of power and lately Bush has been learning that lesson again and again. Gone is the president's bold talk of Most Wanted posters emblazoned with the face of Osama bin Laden. Friendly fire deaths in Afghanistan have been receiving more publicity than unfriendly ones. Afghan warlords and impresarios of the heroin trade are returning to their old ways, and Pakistan continues to harbor Islamic zealots and members of al-Qaida, including, it has been alleged, bin Laden himself.

Ariel Sharon consulted Bill Clinton's dictionary to find the meaning of "without delay" after the president charged him to pull out of the occupied territories and Colin Powell's meandering visit to the Middle East brought even less results than the earlier trip by Vice President Cheney.

The public, meanwhile, has become more or less inured to Homeland Security alerts, the news that terrorists want to blow up neighborhood banks, malls and supermarkets, while gauging the level of John Ashcroft's disapproval at frequent press conferences (green, yellow, orange?), such as when he denounced the Supreme Court for declaring thought policing of computer-generated images of virtual children, no matter how repellant, unconstitutional.

Saddam Hussein, the axis of evil's chief villain, has been rattling gas cans, trying to match President Bush's saber rattling directed at him, though Saudi Arabia, in penance for its nurturing almost all of the 9/11 hijackers, agrees to step up oil production to replace Saddam's curtailment.

Terrorism doesn't speak truth to power, it reveals the limits of power. Though the 9/11 hijackers were fantastically lucky, their audacious acts revealed our vulnerabilities. Even the Pentagon turned out to be defenseless.

We can respond as we did, by bombing a country (though hardly altering its landscape), by removing a government of rag-tag religious despots (replacing it with a hodge-podge of tribal chieftains), by imprisoning detainees in cages in Cuba, by making a spectacle of a young American from Marin County, extracting a confession out of him after trussing him up naked in a metal container for three days, all of which shows power of a sort, but not the kind that reassures a nation.

Power may come out of the barrel of a gun, but it would be better if power could also be exercised by persuasion and reason, too.

Now that Afghanistan is subdued, if not under control, the Taliban and al-Qaida hobbled, if not eliminated, American displays of power will likely return to the conversation and persuasion level, the things President Bush has had the most trouble with.

Which is why the departure of Karen Hughes, the ghost-writer of President Bush's autobiography, may eventually loom large for the Bush administration.

If the war on terror becomes mostly a war of words, the president may well find a way to spend more time in Texas himself, seeking out Hughes' counsel and company. Or, the possibility, now so remote, of becoming, like his father, a one-term president, may grow.

Which is why Saddam Hussein, doubtless, has something to fear and why he is happy to pay the families of Palestinian suicide bombers such high bounties for the lives of their children. Hussein has helped turn President Bush's Most Wanted imagery on its head, leaving the walls of Palestinian towns plastered with laudatory "martyr" posters. As long as Israelis and Palestinians are at each other's throats, Hussein imagines he is safe from the war President Bush wants, and evidently needs, to wage against him.

5/07/02

The Roman Catholic Church has a problem with children and it isn't only the children who have been abused by wayward priests and mistreated by scandal-fearing bishops playing parish shell-games with the offenders they were charged with overseeing. It is the children that would be produced by married priests. And, one would think, quite a lot of children, given the Church's stand against anything but "natural" birth-control.

The word celibacy, often heard these days, means, in short, not married, but, through usage and misusage, it is often taken as a synonym for chaste, another state altogether.

The daffiest display of this confusion was broadcast during the dispiriting press conference put on by a handful of American cardinals after the two-day confab at the Vatican on how to deal with the sexual abuse scandal that, it appears, won't go away.

Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said, exasperated, "We believe in celibacy. It's not the easiest road in today's crazy world, but we believe in celibacy." Indeed, the Catholic Church has believed in it since the early 12th century, when the rule was handed down to stop married priests from passing on any property to their offspring. It's an inheritance question, first and foremost. This economic motive has been alluded to every now and then, though little discussed. But the hierarchy has always preferred the money and property to go one way: for priests to give whatever family wealth they might control to the Church, rather than the other way around. After eight centuries that's quite a bit of change.

Hence, the celibate priesthood. There are other arguments for an all-male priesthood and, if not compelling, they are at least interesting. But, they are all strangely familiar, since anyone alive for the last three decades has heard them in relation to the military, the Congress, corporations, colleges, the Elks and the Masons, private clubs--most recently, the Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters is played, which is still a male-only preserve, one that excluded African-Americans until a decade ago, when it admitted a black CEO or two.

When commentators claim that the percentage of pedophiles and abusers of adolescents in the Catholic priesthood is no greater than any other all-male population, one wonders how many reprobates there are rounding the links with young caddies at Augusta on any given weekend.

To introduce a married priesthood to the Roman Catholic Church would empty it of its riches faster than a broken hour glass would spill its sand. The high salaries alone needed to support families would drain Church coffers.

In this "crazy world," to use Cardinal McCarrick's phrase, half of those who have married in our country also believe in celibacy, since that's more or less the rate of divorce, and divorce does lead to downward mobility for the jettisoned spouse and the children involved.

Rather than entertaining the notion of married priests, which is no solution at all, to cure the present crisis, the Catholic Church will have to face the music and contemplate ordaining women priests.

It is a failure of the imagination not to see the benefits of ordaining women, the least of which is to avoid the money-losing complications of married priests. Obviously, it would deepen the pool of potential applicants. Women want to enter the priesthood for the same reason they became nuns in the 40s and 50s, for the status and advancement possible. These days, a new American nun is a rarity; most come from developing countries, where opportunities for women are limited.

But, because the male priesthood is one of the last bastions to fall to the modern idea of the equality of women, one of the final vestiges of pure patriarchy (at least here in the states), such an outcome will happen only when it is absolutely necessary.

And, unfortunately, the present scandal, heart-rending as it is, may not be enough. The American cardinals would rather do almost anything--ban homosexuals from the priesthood, institute a one-strike-and-you're-out policy, or any number of harsh steps (including doing nothing at all)--than confront their horror of letting women in and thereby changing the culture once and for all that allowed the problem to flourish.

5/14/02

Photographs of the Enron traders who wrote the damning Get Shorty, Death Star, Fat Boy, Ricochet memos, revealing how Enron manipulated last summer's California energy crisis for greater profits, are not readily available, but I'm sure they all are what a female economics professor calls "businessman beautiful."  They are in sales, after all, where looks are important.

And Enron certainly was into appearances. During its heyday, Enron ran a stylish TV ad-campaign, featuring an updated tin man, along with a couple of distinguished older men on screen offering serious-sounding, worldly pronouncements, though the two men were never identified.

The Nobel-Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott was one of them and, at the time, I wondered how much he was getting paid to shill, however subtly, for the strangely named company. There wasn't much text in the commercial, other than the often repeated "Why? Ask Why," which echoed over the scenes of the tin man touring the world. One didn't learn from the commercial what Enron did, but it certainly promoted the idea Enron was rich and powerful. It was a high-fashion tribute to selling that which hadn't yet been sold. Hot air? Enron would sell it.

The newly released Enron memos are a piece with the scandalous Merrill Lynch e-mails that appeared early last month (proving, once again, that the e in e-mail stands for "everyone's"), showing that Merrill Lynch analysts recommended to their clients stocks of companies they privately disparaged.

None of this behavior, of course, is new, except for the public airing of the documents that show the firms' perfidy. The conventional wisdom--as of last week--is that the stock market of the '90s was a speculative run-up, the whole tech boom a bubble created by traders, investment bankers, snake oil salesmen of various sorts, but the short-term profits were quite spectacular. For some, that is.

The 1980s was a decade that saw clever businessmen (with nicknames like "Chainsaw") take over, unbidden, established companies, slash their workforce, cease investing in the firms, pocket the profits, leaving them dry husks. After that cycle, pension funds fat with Baby Boomers' savings, along with mutual fund investing and e-trading, helped popularize and diffuse stock ownership in the '90s, which rewarded managers for producing short-term profits. The tech boom took this a step further the stock market itself became the cash cow to milk, as it rapidly produced capital gains for a few that would eventually disappear for most. Financial markets became the "businesses" to be raided, where large profits could be stripped out quickly. A book describing the '80s leveraged-buy-out period was titledBarbarians at the Gate, but, by the '90s, the barbarians were inside, manufacturing profits out of thin air.

But they had help. In 1992, Wendy Gramm, Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm's wife, provided Enron with a decade of no regulatory oversight through her role as chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, delivered by means of a rule change on her way out the first Bush administration's door and onto Enron's board.

The present Bush's Department of Justice has never moved faster than when it hauled Arthur Andersen into court, which, perhaps, the firm deserves. Yet, by doing so, John Ashcroft provided the administration with a noisy diversion from bad Enron news, the frequent reports that tied the Bush administration to it most intimately.

After the Enron memos surfaced, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D.-Ca.) vowed to approach Ashcroft about Enron's possible violations of federal law. By now, the administration may have finally decided which appointees with Enron connections have to be sacrificed (Army Secretary Thomas White being the likely first choice.) But, the more time Bush's crowd can put between itself and any Enron legal action, the better.

Andersen, it appears, had to be destroyed to save Enron. Enron's tin man commercial isn't likely to be resurrected, now that others are asking "Why?", but given the foot dragging on the part of the Department of Justice, asking Why? just might be the end of it. The question is where will the next pot of gold come from, now that the last one has been shown to come from nowhere?

5/21/02

President Bush's problems with ex-presidents continue. Last week, Jimmy Carter palled around with Fidel Castro, getting to know him in that personal way Bush himself usually employs, as when he looked into Russia's Prime Minister Putin's eyes and saw his "soul". During Carter's historic visit to Cuba, he even threw out the first pitch at the island's All-Star game, though one not as well thrown as George W.'s was, when he tossed the first pitch at last year's World Series.

Bush's difficulty with his own father, whom he tries to keep under wraps for a host of reasons (mainly those having to do with being upstaged and outclassed), flared up again when the Saudis came calling down at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, last month. The night after Crown Prince Abdullah met with Bush, the Saudi royalty had a lavish dinner with Bush's papa and cronies, which attempted to avoid press scrutiny and almost succeeded.

And Bill Clinton goes on hogging the media spotlight, even when he turns down jobs, such as the recently floated television talk show position, which generated a lot of buzz. Only Ronald Reagan and Jerry Ford give George Bush no trouble, but they both have medical problems and are largely out of public view.

Jimmy Carter is now the leading ex-prez thorn in his side. George W. threw a tainted scrap Bill Clinton's way and named him a member of a delegation to celebrate East Timor's independence from Indonesia, a country that the former president's conservative critics claimed Clinton had corrupt financial dealings with, involving the Lippo group and Machtar Riady. Clinton, too, had been irritated by Jimmy Carter's travels and meetings with heads of state, thinking the former president was trying to influence world events far too much for a sitting president to bear.

Jimmy Carter seems to have gotten over the fact that Cuba's summer 1980 Mariel boat lift debacle, along with the Iranian hostage crisis and 14% inflation, doomed Carter's re-election bid and put Ronald Reagan in the White House.