Sun-Times Mar. 8, 2001 - Dec. 25, 2001
March 08, 2001 - Dec. 25, 2001
George W. Bush has never been judged by the usual standards. His admission to Yale, to Harvard, to the National Guard, to his oil dealings, his participation in baseball ownership, were all brought about by special circumstances, primarily the circumstance of birth. But, it appears, the most important bit of inheritance he has received is his Cabinet, which he inherited the lion's share of from his father.
The public judges a new president in various ways and one is how quickly and competently he puts together his governing team. Bill Clinton stumbled badly during that period, but Bush, thanks to his father's legacy, had one ready to go. He only had a bit of a problem with his choice for Attorney General, but all the heat was directed not at Bush, but at the appointee himself, John Ashcroft, and that opposition proved to be not very effective.
Now, most everyone is praising Bush's budget address of Feb. 27th. I will agree that he has learned to read a TelePrompTer. And, I will admit, Bush's charm is finally becoming clear, even to me. It is as if America has electorally elected (and found) its inner-child.
Bush's speech was filled with childish glee. He often looks pleased with himself and happy with what he has just done. He laughs at his jokes, even if they aren't funny. His talk, which recycled many campaign lines, was particularly juvenile in parts, especially its main tax-cutting theme, which comes from a children's story, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. "Some say my tax plan is too big, others say it is too small. I respectfully disagree. This tax relief is just right."
Of course, we are not talking about porridge, or chairs, or whatever else Goldilocks found "just right," but Bush touches the child in us all. Earlier he had referred to Yogi Berra ("'When it comes to the fork in the road, take it.'"), so I was already prepared for more cartoons, having thought of Yogi Bear.
Bush winks with both eyebrows and his boyishness complements his amiability. He continues to be the velvet glove that masks the hard fist. Last week, after his speech, he was off again to elementary schools to continue "ginning up" support for his tax cut and education "reforms".
But, as for "reforming" Social Security, Bush claimed in his budget speech, "Without reform, this country will one day awaken to a stark choice: either a drastic rise in payroll taxes, or a radical cut in retirement benefits."
Of course, that isn't the choice. Payroll taxes don't have to be raised drastically, especially for middle-income people, those with incomes less than the Social Security cap of $81,000. But, that cap could be raised and the well-off would then continue to contribute to the system, instead of being max-ed out. Bill Gates maxes-out on his Social Security payroll tax less than an hour after midnight into the new year. And, why don't we ask individual tax payers if a 1% increase in Social Security taxes would be too onerous to preserve the system into the late 21th century? As it is, given the surpluses, the date for the system's supposed inability to pay full benefits keeps getting pushed forward. It is now 2037.
George W. also said, "I want to work with you to give our economy an important jump start by making tax relief retroactive." If Bush wants to give the economy a jump start (though you don't have to give a car a jump start if it's already going), he could give us all a flat-tax rebate. Give every working, tax-paying American a thousand dollar rebate each year for the next eight years.
That would cost less than the 1.6 trillion he wants to dispense over the next eight years, most going to the rich, and it would be fair. And it would certainly be spent, whereas who knows what the super rich will do with their windfall, except perhaps spend it on trips abroad or foreign-made cars, or buy a plant in Mexico, or some other diversion provided by the global economy.
At least four times during his speech, George W. let his guard down, puffing up his cheeks and blowing out air, as if he just had finished running a mile. It is doubtless a strain and a trial to get through such an occasion.
But, in the main, the speech most resembled the one he gave to the Alfred E. Smith dinner in New York City during the campaign. It was full of sly jokes and good cheer. He had been at ease with that crowd of millionaires (he called them "my base") and he was comfortable with the assembled millionaires of Congress and his cabinet. That comfort zone is yet one more inheritance he received, thanks to his father.
As the leading compassionate conservative, George W. Bush has trouble showing compassion. Bush was positively tongue-tied when asked for his reaction to the school shootings in Santee, California. He finally got out a few words, including these (which got heavily edited in many publications)"When America teaches her child right from wrong, teaches values, values that respect life, America will be better off."
He did seem to brighten when he could use a phrase ("values") from campaign boilerplate. And his public reaction to Dick Cheney's emergency angioplasty certainly lacked warmth, so fearful Bush was, it appeared, to imply any weakness or incapacity on the part of his veep. "I'm not a doctor," Bush reminded us, "but I don't think he needs to cut back on his work." And, to press that point home, George W. said of Cheney, "He's plenty strong and plenty capable of carrying the workload that he's been working in the past."
Bush might have offered some plain sympathy to Cheney and to his family, but political expedience once again trumped compassion. Though, it is clear, George W. has more time in his schedule for exercise than his over-extended vice president.
The contrast between Bill Clinton's spontaneous remarks after the Columbine shootings, which were a tribute to reflection and concern, and Bush's petulant reprimand of parents and children, was enormous. And, one can only imagine what Clinton would have said on the occasion of his vice-president's second heart-related hospitalization.
But, George W. comes from different stock, one full of eastern elite reticence, mixed with Texas laconicism. Bush may be a sentimental man--he shed a tear during his inauguration--but he isn't an expressive one. As president, it is business over blubber.
And, once more, Cheney got the bum's rush out of George Washington Hospital. The entry-site wounds on Cheney's upper thigh had barely healed from his November procedures and now he has fresh ones, but, nonetheless, he practically galloped to his limo, looking for all the world like he had been visiting a sick friend, rather than being the patient himself.
Cheney was back at work the next day, cracking jokes about his wife's poor cooking. He makes every other heart patient seem like a slacker. And there are a lot of us out there. By 1997 there had been over 2 million stents implanted (which cost two dollars to make and were selling for $1600 apiece) and a couple million more plain balloon angioplasties performed (much less the hundreds of thousands who have had by-pass surgeries.)
Since I am one of those statistics, though one who was happy not to be hustled out of the hospital the morning after the procedure, I marvel at how quickly Cheney was able to do all the physical things required before being released, following a cardiac catheterization and an angioplastylie still for hours with a sandbag over the wounds, excrete all the dye used in the operation, have the plastic sheathes removed, etc. The vice president is nothing if not efficient. Unfortunately, he's become a role-model for workaholics.
Cardiac patients certainly are not invalids, but they don't have to pose as supermen, either. Heart attacks often make a person feel powerless, but Dick Cheney doesn't lack power. Indeed, there has been a lot of coverage about Cheney as the shadow president. For months, jokes have been made about worrying about his health, for if he died Bush would have to be president.
But, George W. does need help from his staff. Someone has to prepare remarks for him to use in certain likely cases: what to say when children kill other children, what to say when submarines sink fishing vessels, what to say when soldiers die, or astronauts and teachers are lost in space, all the predictable calamities that happen while presidents are in office. And, especially, what to say when his vice president is hospitalized.
Because, given the odds, it's likely Vice-President Cheney will be making that trip again and it would be nice if the president finally found something compassionate to say.
The Bush administration is beginning to look a lot like the stock market's recent history. It's going backwards. Bush has reversed himself on his campaign pledge of reducing CO2 emissions from power plants; he ditched the ten-year-planned repetitive motion safety standards; he dismisses prevailing wage standards; he's trying to eliminate union-workers dues being used for political education; he ended family-planning assistance in India and other Third World countries (now there's a visionary program: cease helping poor countries to inform their populations about matters of birth control and AIDS prevention.)
And, of course, there is his tax plan, which would roll back the tax rates of the rich to the palmy days of the Reagan era. In addition, there is his retreat on the separation of church and state with his faith-based initiatives.
With Bush's push to privatize the Social Security system, he's attempting to go back to the days before Social Security. And, he's going back to Reagan's time (and not just with personnel) to construct an elaborate missile defense in outer space, an imaginary Maginot Line in the sky.
Even some moderate Republicans are a little nonplused at all this going backwards. But conservative Republicans couldn't be more pleased. The Wall Street Journal quoted House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R.Texas), exulting, "I wake up every morning with a smile on my face because of all the opportunities before us."
If President Bush keeps going backwards, we will be back soon to the 19th century and Mr. DeLay's smile will grow even wider. We'll be back to debtors' prisons, workhouses, orphanages, and profitable prison labor.
A number of Bush administration big shots are retreating backwards, too, showing inordinate concern for their former employers, especially those in the energy sector. That concern is what made George W. so quickly renege on his CO2 campaign pledge, leaving Christie Whitman, his EPA head, twisting slowly in the wind.
Some (E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Michael Kelly of the National Journal, the latest) are suggesting that George W.'s critics should stop calling young Bush "stupid." I have never called George W. stupid and a search through data banks hasn't turned up many who have (in print, at least.) The word "stupid" is often used, but only a handful actually have said "Bush is stupid." And those few (less than ten) are mainly cartoonists and Hollywood celebrities.
Bill Clinton did lower the bar when it came to presidential conduct, especially conduct in the Oval Office. Indeed, had Americans ever been asked to list, in order, what they did not want to occur in close proximity to the president's desk, oral sex would have been at the top of the list, though, of course, no one would have thought that could ever have been a possibility, so it would never have made the list.
Once you lower the bar, in any way, a lot of things can hop over it. Many readers have reminded me that Bush is not stupid (though I have never called him stupid), pointing to his Yale and Harvard degrees, while claiming that Al Gore "flunked out" of two graduate schools.
Though, it is clear that President Bush has limited intellectual curiosity. But, it is also clear that he has a few rules to live by. In that way, he is often compared to Ronald Reagan, who believed strongly a specific number of verities (communism was bad, taxes should be lower, "welfare queens" should not get food stamps, etc.)
Whether or not George W. is making all the executive decisions in his administration is still an active question, but they certainly are to his liking. Most people settle into their intellectual certainties in their twenties and thirties. Those decades usually polish and hone the enthusiasms of the young. But, those decades, in Bush's case, are his lost years and when he finally sobered up in his forties, the ideas he most holds dear may be fewer, blunter and more malleable than one would have hoped.
Nonetheless, George W. has ideas and we are getting to see what they are, day by day, in his presidency. And they are much clearer when you look backward, rather than forward.
Though Bill Clinton has not absented himself from public view, most of the Democratic party seems to have disappeared. As George W. Bush, much to his supporters' delight, erases by fiat and proxy, largely without public debate, as much of the work of the Clinton administration as possible, the Democrats in the U.S. Congress have kept a lower profile than does the new president himself.
It is usual for ex-presidents to stay off the public stage, but not usual for a new president to do so. The Democrats, too, are especially invisible these days, as policies are reversed, regulations ended, the American Bar Association's fifty-year review of federal judgeships canceled.
The disappearance of the Democrats has been blamed on a leadership vacuum--a vacuum large enough to bring forward Teddy Kennedy once again as titular leader of the Democratic party. And if Kennedy is the party's new leader, all hope is gone.
The Al Gore defeat, of course, is responsible for this state of affairs. It mimics the five stages of grief. For many months Democrats have been in the first stage, denial. There certainly were good reasons to be in denial, since Gore won the national popular vote and it is apparent that most Floridians who went to the polls intended to vote for Al Gore.
The AFL-CIO bet the farm on a Gore victory, turning out 4 million more union votes in this past election than in '96. But, it was all for naught. If you want to get under the skin of the AFL-CIO's president, John Sweeney, just mention in his company that Gore "lost" the election. Sweeney quickly and testily reminds the speaker that Gore got more votes.
But whatever happened to the former vice president, he is not currently president. Nor is he the leader, or spokesperson, of his party. What Gore does, though, is bring famous people, such as Rupert Murdoch and Alan Greenspan, to his journalism class at Columbia University to spare himself the trouble of lecturing.
Most of the Democratic party is done with denial. It is now into the second stage, anger, but the Bush administration has found a way to defuse anger.
It rolls out its bipartisanship rhetoric, its pleas for civility, its attempts to set a new tone, the charm offensive, in the person of George W. Bush. He gets to meet and greet and talk to friendly audiences (last week a grateful gathering of cardiologists), doing his humble pie, regular guy routine, while his administration juggernaut continues to roll on, unhampered by any notable opposition.
Except for John McCain. It appears Sen. McCain, though a Republican, has taken on the most public oppositional role. But real campaign finance reform seems unlikely, now that some Democrats and the AFL-CIO have joined the opposition to McCain-Feingold. Nonetheless, Republican PR firms continue to manufacture "grass-root-support" rallies for their turn-back-the-clock policies, as they did during the Florida recount, summoning their troops to pose as workers (hard hats provided!) to applaud the passage of the president's tax bill.
Hillary Clinton (the most prominent new Democrat, though far from being the party's leader) is ahead of the curve again, having reached grief's third stage, bargaining. She voted for the credit-card-championed changes to the bankruptcy laws and rented the most expensive congressional offices in history, a half-million dollars worth of Manhattan real estate, big enough to house all her "volunteers." Her vote echoes her pronouncement during the '92 campaign, that if you were a lawyer you had "to work for banks." And she still does, it appears.
Something called campaign finance reform may pass, though it will have, a good many Americans judge, little effect, since money, like water, finds its way regardless of dams and rechanneling projects. That is why campaign finance reform polls so poorly as an important issue (the fourth stage is depression.) Whatever passes, it will go the way of the famous 1995 photo of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, shaking hands, swearing that they would do something about campaign finance reform. What they (and, apparently, the current Congress) would do about it, of course, is nothing at all. Grief's last stage, unfortunately, is acceptance.
David Horowitz has finally hit a mother lode. To refresh your memory, David Horowitz is the writer who was once a '60s radical, but now calls himself a "cultural conservative." These days, a number of people are calling him a "racial provocateur."
The rich vein of attention that Horowitz has struck is the result of the ad he has tried to place in many college newspapers across the land, titled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea for Blacks--and Racist Too." The ad appeared in the University of California--Berkeley paper and Horowitz had the good fortune to have the student editors apologize afterwards to their readers for running it.
At Brown University the ad ran and the papers were "stolen" and more publicity resulted. It has been snowballing ever since, much to Mr. Horowitz's delight. He has been trying to capture the larger public's eye ever since his conversion experience that turned him into a conservative.
The special zeal of converts is well documented, though I've always been leery of conversion. If one has spent a good part of one's life believing one thing, and then chooses to denounce it all and believe the opposite, one wonders about the capacity for good judgment either position demonstrates. Horowitz was the editor of the radical magazine Ramparts and, in the early '70s, he was wowed by the Panther party in Oakland, Ca. and was wooed by their leaders and had high hopes for them as a political force.
Why Horowitz was so blinded by their charisma is his own concern, though he didn't seem to notice the streak of criminal activity a good many Panthers were happy to indulge in. All of this is related movingly in his 1997 autobiography, "Radical Son."
But, a friend of Horowitz's was murdered by associates of the Panther party and part of Horowitz's turn to conservatism can be dated from that event. A lot of his history that has followed does seem to be an act of expiation for his involvement, however preliminary, in Betty Van Patter's death.
Horowitz co-wrote two well-received biographies and he has tried to stake out a position as a conservative firebrand, with so-so success. He is still a little too liberal (on gay rights and abortion) to be fully accepted by most Republicans.
But, in order for a writer to emerge as a national spokesman, he requires a cause that has large forces standing behind it. And, the anti-affirmative action crowd is just such a force. Many Republicans might not want to embrace David Horowitz, but there's a movement out there that will be happy to use his labor in the anti-affirmative action vineyards. And, the current Jesse Jackson free-fire zone also enhances the anti- tone and reception of Horowitz's inflammatory tract.
So, his ad, and the controversy it has spawned, has been very useful for those who think that African-Americans have gotten too much...what? Social acceptance? Money? Favoritism? Looking around, I haven't been able to detect the abundant fruits of all this supposed largesse. I have, though, seen some small improvement in race relations in the country (though not as much in the criminal justice system.)
Most people aren't aware that there is a pro-reparations group at work, much less an anti-reparation faction to thwart them. That's the benefit of Horowitz ad. I have no problem with publishing it in student (or other) newspapers. It's a judgment call for their editors. Such a decision is a matter of taste.
But, Horowitz sees it as censorship, or political correctness, if anyone refuses to run it. Once, though, there might have been an ad or two that Horowitz, as an editor, might not have run, even if someone had the cash in hand.
Nonetheless, why the publicity bonanza now? Well, the subject of reparations, redressing grievances, is in the air. It follows upon the Swiss banks restitution of monies owed to Holocaust victims, the Pope's apology to the Jews for the inadequate response of the Vatican to Hitler's genocide. And, in America, Japanese Americans who were put in camps during WWII were compensated, though Native Americans seem to have received casinos in lieu of reparations.
But, if a subject suits the powers that be it will have legs. And David Horowitz now reaps the benefit of being thrust into the limelight atop those legs and the terrible history they represent.
Money, money, money. That's all that Washington has been yapping about for the last three weeks. And I don't mean the impassioned arguments over campaign finance spending, the budget and President Bush's tax proposals. I mean the talk about the Bush appointees' financial disclosure statements.
The numbers are staggering. Given their size, it does sound like the debate over taxes and the budget.
On the good news side, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has made money while holding on to his Alcoa stock for a few months after the election. It was valued at $100 million at the end of 2000, but it was worth nearly $40 million more a week after O'Neill announced (on television!) that he was going to sell his stock after all, in order to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.
In other words, during the first two months of his labors as treasury secretary, O'Neill has been making more than $250,000 a day of what used to be called "unearned income," but which Republicans now prefer to think of as the product of blood, sweat and tears.
For other members of the Bush Cabinet, the news has not been so rosy. Not only has Colin Powell been forced to sacrifice his enormously lucrative lecture fees for, at times, a mere 20-minute college address, but his stock portfolio, rich in high-tech stocks, also has plummeted in the current bear market.
Why Powell, the first high-level pick of Bush, didn't sell off his stock holdings in December, when he knew he had the secretary of state job, is his business, but Powell took it all with him into the new administration and lost a bundle. What was once valued at $18 million to $65 million was worth between $8 million and $24 million in January.
Other Cabinet members are in the same boat--though their boats are almost as costly as the Titanic. OMB director Mitchell Daniels and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans are reported to be selling off stocks in the six-digit range.
Now, it is pretty clear why there is so much heated rhetoric and fast action by the Bush administration to lower those high tax rates the top 1 percent has to pay. And that oppressive "death" tax certainly has to go, if not now, later, about the time Bush's administration begins to die off.
Close to 100 percent of Bush's Cabinet is in the top 1 percent of wealth holders. There are a few exceptions, but even those are in the top 3 percent of wealth.
Bush is looking out after his own, those willing to make temporary sacrifices to serve in government. And the new president continues to get good marks from the press for his self-deprecating charm, which was on display in his recent remarks to the annual Radio & Television Correspondents' dinner, an audience full of 1-and 3-percenters.
The president made fun of all his "Bushisms," his language-twisting pratfalls. He actually quoted from a published compilation of them. He was terrific--though no one handing out praise paused to wonder for a moment if George W. actually had written the speech he just gave.
But at the other end of the financial curve, the good news (or bad, depending on your point of view) is that welfare caseloads have leveled off after a sharp six-year decline. The consensus is that people who can work have found work.
Only the truly unemployable are left behind. The welfare rolls are fewer than 5.8 million, but the "working poor" is the fastest-growing group in poverty.
Given Washington's overweening concern for the big-money people--either those employed by the government, or those giving money to candidates--Congress might now give some thought to raising the minimum wage, since everyone, it appears, who can work does, even for whatever bottom-feeding low wage is offered. Isn't such a work ethic, arguably as strong for them as for Secretary O'Neill, worth another 50 cents an hour?
Since the landmark of Bush's first 100 days is visible down the road, a bit of looking back is in order. It appears the Bush administration has taken to heart a lesson Bill Clinton learned the hard way. The presidency has the most power the first two years in office. A fast start is your best chance to affect real change.
Many of the reasons for this are obvious: no one is paying much attention, the forces of opposition are often in disarray, not geared up to stop the changes. It is not so much a brief honeymoon period, but the first years of a rocky marriage. Two years to do what one really wants, to take chances, to have one's way.
After two years of building up resentment in the spouse (the Congress, the public) for allowing the headstrong mate some leeway, there comes two years of reconciliation. That's the presidential re-election cycle to come, the calming down, the compromising leading up to Bush's run in '04.
The first two years are offense, the second two years are defense. Bush's policies that now appear to be so extreme, those applauded by the right wing, are thought of as pandering to the most conservative people in his party, but they are the people who will be handing out leaflets in the congressional elections of '02. Liberal or middle-of-the-road Republicans aren't the energized base one needs for mid-term elections. The following two years of reconciliation, of seeming compromise, though, will be enough to placate them in order to have their help in '04.
The list of things that Bush has already done to undo the policies of the Clinton administration--ending regulations and programs displeasing to the conservatives--are revealed to be part of the master plan when one looks at the Bush budget priorities. The big losers (a five percent negative change or more) are Justice, Labor, the EPA, Commerce, Transportation, Agriculture, the Corps of Engineers.
It's the difference between public wealth and private wealth. Private wealth wins. Public wealth is diminished. The only boon farmers can hope for is the repeal of the "death" tax, since Bush's high earners want that so badly. Public transportation will suffer, but not those flying in private jets; the environment will get worse, but those who can afford their own rarified air and water will carry on. Ditto public parks versus private playgrounds.
The Department of Justice will doubtless save money with the absence of special prosecutors and the anti-Clinton law firm adjunct department. But, it will also save money from not prosecuting white collar crime and SEC violations. The Department of Labor being reduced is the most expected outcome. It is only surprising it wasn't reduced more.
Given the Bush administration's two-year window of blitzkrieg offense, look for the Supreme Court to lose at least two justices at the end of this year's term. Those battles need to be fought soon, if judges acceptable to the right wing are to be seated. If there is a resignation in the two years before the presidential contest, a moderate may be elevated to the bench.
There is talk now of President Bush being "boring" (replacing the talk of him being less than brilliant.) But, that is part of the strategy. The resolution of our spy plane standoff with the Chinese shows the pattern. It would be hard to find a political family with more China connections than the Bushes. They were even able to tap Henry Kissinger and other Nixon-era figures to intervene, since George W.'s father is a Nixon-era figure.
The White House says Bush was in control. But his role, evidently, was to be boring, while the old hands, along with the business lobby, massaged the Chinese. Condolezza Rice learned after midnight that a release was likely. She waited till after five to call Bush. That was a Reagan-era courtesy to presidential sleep. Imagine Bill Clinton not wanting to be awakened with the news.
It was difficult to watch the halting, semi-impromptu responses of the president during the crisis; without total vigilance, he falls off the rails of prepared remarks, as he did during an Oval Office photo-op with King Abdullah II of Jordan, when he said, "We're making the right decisions to bring the solution to an end." But Bush's solution isn't coming to an end. And it won't for at least the next two years.
It's only appropriate that President Bush, the former governor and cheerleader of the state currently breaking all records for drive-through executions, will preside over the first federal execution in nearly forty years, when the lethal drips start dripping in Timothy McVeigh on May 16th.
McVeigh continues to be the master of his own fate, in so far as he wants to be killed by the federal government. His own death by the government's hands seems to be part of his master plan, the final act, that began with the detonation of the Ryder truck in front of Oklahoma City's Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 men, women and children.
McVeigh is now a celebrity and celebrities get what they want in our culture. And he got to be a celebrity the way it is usually accomplished in our society: by doing something extraordinary.
America has always had a not-so-hidden fascination with criminals. At least criminals of a certain sort. Those that do something that requires good old American virtues: ability, daring, courage, and most importantly, actual accomplishment, results. The type of action that shows what an old friend called "negative genius." Not that McVeigh is any genius, but, like so many other criminals, he certainly wanted to do something that made him stand out, be noticed, feared, all traits that fuel a lot of American successes. The public's response is the flip-side of admiration: amazement. It's the way a lot of people feel about Lee Harvey Oswald.
The criminal world's heroes have filled the screens (both large and small) of the popular culture for decades: Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, gunslingers of the wild west, and, today, the recent film Hannibal has even made a cannibal into something of a good guy.
McVeigh, of course, hasn't become a good guy, just a celebrity who gets what he wants. He stopped his lawyers from continuing his appeals and got the early execution he craved. Now he has the Attorney General, John Ashcroft, sending the event on cable to the good folks in Oklahoma and the overflow crowd down in Terre Haute, In.
Ashcroft, parroting new age psychologists, claims the relatives of McVeigh's victims want, need, so-called "closure." Doubtless they want a lot of things, a number of them contradictory. Vengeance, peace of mind, forgetfulness, remembrance. Ashcroft, one of the most public opponents of abortion, has no trouble with capital punishment. The Dead Man Walking nun, Sister Helen Prejean, could give him a lecture on the seamless garment theory: no killing at either end; no capital punishment, too.
But a lot of anti-abortion people are pro-death penalty. And for them, witnessing executions should be made a lot easier. Where is C-SPAN, formed to broadcast the government's business, when we need it?
If executions were made public, that would hurry along the end of the electric chair, Old Sparky, still used in Bush's brother Jeb's home state, Florida, even though it still combusts an occupant or two. The quasi-hospital setting of lethal injection would end up boring everyone sooner or later. A film of it has even been shown on CNBC's Rivera Live, an execution in South America. Even Geraldo didn't seem much interested.
The cultural background of the Islamic terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center promised a direct pass to paradise if they had been killed during their mission. In our culture, paradise is Hollywood and celebrity-dom, to which McVeigh has been granted direct passage.
Three weeks ago I was standing in D Block, isolation, on Alcatraz Island, once the most feared federal prison, now one of the most popular national park sites, thinking how life imprisonment might feel for Tim McVeigh, or for anyone who would rather die than endure it. I wondered how he was able to enlist the government as a co-conspirator and find the easy way out; then I remembered he was a celebrity.
If we really wanted McVeigh punished, he'd be locked up for the rest of his natural life. But, on May 16th, McVeigh's going to get what he wants, with all the attendant publicity that befits his own exalted view of himself.
Now that all the hoopla of Bush's first 100 days has mercifully ended, it's time to look at the last 100 days of a few other folk, among them Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore.
Al Gore, it's been reported, has gained about forty pounds. No longer the buff candidate, he is now the pudgy professor. Evidently, Gore has had a serious case of the munchies; but, apparently, he is enjoying his journalism class at Columbia.
During a session with the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Gore made a joke that the economic graph of the recession, if it really got bad, would look like a W and Alan Greenspan burst out laughing and high-fived the former vice-president. But since no photographs are allowed in the class, as well as no reporting (leaks are unstoppable), we do not have a photo of that priceless moment.
Sen. Clinton finally had a party at her new Washington digs, though Bill Clinton was nowhere in sight. It was a fund raiser for the new Senator from Washington state, Mary Cantwell, the once-upon-a-time dot-com multimillionaire, now in need of gifts from friends to pay off campaign debts. Sen. Clinton, the new toast of the town, though, has been looking especially tired. If anyone needs a long vacation after the last 100 days, it is her. Al Gore needs a couple of weeks at a fat farm.
Bill Clinton has been, for him, keeping a fairly low profile of late. One of the last sightings was inadvertent. During an L.A. Lakers game, the camera caught the ex-commander in chief in an animated conversation with the actor Warren Beatty, up in one of the gold-plated sky boxes. Beatty looked very composed and reflective. It was Bill Clinton who was gesticulating and manic. The camera lingered on the two famous men, as the color commentators, two other well-known wild men, Bill Walton, former counter-culture basketball star, and the freshly rehabilitated Marv Albert, wondered what the conversation might be about.
Such is life after the White House for the Clintons and company. But, for Bob Kerrey, the former Senator and presidential contender from Nebraska, now the head of the New School University in New York City, the last 100 days haven't been happy, especially the last week.
It appears Kerrey's quitting the senate coincided with the knowledge that the story of his participation in the deaths of civilians in Vietnam was about to come to light. "Women, children, and old men," his description of the victims, unfortunately, is the same as the contents of the ditch at My Lai.
Kerrey's 32-year "silence" on this is startling only because it reveals the extent of just what can be kept quiet for over three decades. This is why conspiracy theorists proliferate, since some things do remain hidden.
Kerrey received the Bronze Star for this mission, though the description of the encounter was mostly fiction. That actually seems to be what Kerrey was covering up, not the fact that his squad of SEALS killed noncombatants, because a clear idea of just who were "noncombatants" never took hold in Vietnam. Kerrey knew that the Bronze Star citation was a fraud, though his war-ending injury which followed shortly after the civilian death episode, and his subsequent Medal of Honor, made it, seemingly, impossible for him to correct the record. So, he didn't. He dropped the Bronze Star from his resume, though now he doesn't want to surrender it, which shows a troubling ambivalence still.
Lt. William Calley, who was courtmartialed and jailed for the My Lai killings, always felt he was the victim of selective prosecution. Certainly, the Vietnam war was full of selective prosecution among all its participants: soldiers, civilians, draftees, war resisters, deserters and protesters. At the time, we were all often reminded of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's most cynical line: Life is unfair.
The current president is an example of that. Bush's state-side service does not help heal the wounds, quiet the divisions, of the Vietnam generation, now reopened by the Kerrey revelations. President Bush has had his first 100 days come and go. The Vietnam war has been over for nearly 10,000 days and it hasn't come and gone yet.
President Bush went outdoors to make two announcements last week, the first about establishing, at immense cost, a safety net in the sky, the second about weakening the safety net of Social Security for all of us down on earth below.
Both schemes rest on the three-legged-stool analogy. Bush's missile plan's three are land-based, sea-based and air-based defenses. Traditionally, Social Security has been the third leg of the retirement stool, the other two being private pensions and personal savings.
Bush's missile shield proposal is thus far only a vague sketch, but he seems to have already decided just what he wants to do with Social Security. The president's notion of reform continues to favor his constituents, the well off, not the general population Social Security was established to protect.
The history of private pensions shows they were first instituted to reward upper management of large firms. It was only after a lot of union bargaining did they begin to trickle down to the rank and file. And when Social Security began, it was over Republican opposition, which, of course, continues to this day.
Social Security is not a mutual fund. It is an insurance program, so speaking of its rate of return is nonsensical (there is no expected rate of return on fire insurance for one's house.) It is a safety net against dire poverty, for those who do not have robust private savings or pensions.
Indeed, unlike Social Security, which covers most everyone, only around 10% of adults have 401(k)s--most with balances under $5000--and a good many of them are raided when disaster (or perceived opportunity) strikes. In a country where the majority of VCR owners do not know how to program them, the idea that everyone is going to be an adept stock broker is ludicrous.
In the Rose Garden, President Bush introduced his new 16 member commission and bad mouthed Social Security the same way he has bad mouthed the economy since the election.
The commission is filled with adamant, pro-privatizers. Its composition resembles a stacked corporate board, not a bipartisan panel. Say what you want about Al Gore or Bill Clinton, but they would have at least listened to other positions, even though they would have maintained a favorable majority. But Bush demands unanimity, fears dissent.
The kindest thing that can be said for the majority of so-called Democrats on the panel is that they are Bush Democrats. One, Estelle James, has spent the last decade going around the globe singing the praises of Chile's disastrous privatization of its retirement system for the World Bank; another, Olivia Mitchell, a well-known academic, favors privatization; and Sam Beard, who once worked for Robert Kennedy, for many years has wanted to eliminate Social Security altogether.
As Bush's new version of Star Wars will help bankroll the major corporations he and his vice-president champion, the "partial" privatization will aid their other targeted friends, those running the funds which will expensively administrate the accounts. Another "Democrat," Robert Pozen, vice chairman of Fidelity Investments, is a member of the commission.
I've heard any number of critics of Social Security complain that if they had only put 30 dollars a month in a bank for the last 30 years they have a half million by now. That is their beef against Social Security. The question is, what stopped them from doing that? Not Social Security.
Again, only slightly more than 10% make use of 401(k)s and the House just raised the tax exemption on them from $2,000 to $5,000. But what about the other 90% who lack a leg or two of the retirement stool? A lot of them are up to their necks in credit card debt, the anti-401(k).
Bush pretends to be an ordinary guy by butchering the language, but there's nothing ordinary about the people he is looking out for. He doesn't want Social Security to be an insurance program. He wants it to be a mutual fund. Given the powerful people who want that too, he might get it. And if that safety net is torn, the arsenic levels in the water will be the least of our problems.
President Bush doesn't appear to have too many big ideas, but he seems to be pushing three: tax cutting, privatizing Social Security, and "education." The last, education, thus far, other than calling for standardized testing, seems to be mostly a rhetorical concern, justifying the endless days Bush spent in grammar and high schools throughout the campaign, though he has begun T-ball instruction on the White House lawn. Baseball, it appears, is never far from this president's thoughts.
The other two, lowering taxes and privatizing Social Security, he has pushed harder. Redoing the tax code is no small feat, especially when it entails changes that benefit the wealthy for the next eleven years. On Social Security, his new commission is biding its time before revealing its preordained recommendations: privatize, privatize, privatize.
Often left out of the debate over Social Security is the "social" part. Social Security, because of its nearly universal coverage, is not just a safety net against financial destitution or disability (and, in the case of premature death, aid to dependents), it is a web that binds together Americans as a people. What privatization attempts to do is break apart that connection. Bush wants to sever the Social link, as well as undermine the Security link. He is very much of the every-man-for-himself school.
Bush claims to bring a new tone to Washington, and political speech, but he also wants his view of the world to prevail. With the privatization of Social Security, personal accounts carved out of the system, he wants the individual to be raised above the community. Let winners win, losers lose.
It is always ironic when a son of privilege espouses such a dog-eat-dog rationale. But it appeals to a lot of conservatives and libertarians. Every man and woman for him and herself.
It does go hand in hand with an eye for an eye and Timothy McVeigh's unexpectedly postponed execution. Of course, the difficulty is that McVeigh can't be killed 168 times.
Capital punishment gains popularity during times of peace. During the Vietnam war, thanks to the Supreme Court, there was a period of no state executions. It was as if the thirst for killing back home was quenched by all the state-sanctioned killing going on elsewhere. But, when the war was over, the Supreme Court let capital punishment return big time.
Timothy McVeigh wanted to attack the "government." He thought killing 168 people was a way to do it. And the government, in the person of a few FBI officials, has tried to make the occasion even more grotesque, given the withheld documents, leading to McVeigh's current stay.
But the "government" isn't an entity, it is the people, a collection of individuals, bound together by common cause and purpose. As they are in Social Security.
The killing in Vietnam, brought again to the public's consciousness by the Bob Kerrey revelations, wasn't the anonymous sort most people hope it to be when asked to contemplate it. From all the Kerrey coverage came a number of disquieting facts, one being how much throat-slitting there was, especially by Kerrey's Navy SEALS. Though Kerrey, himself, described it as firing into the dark, at some great distance.
War is war, war is different, we are all being reminded lately. But it is murder allowed by the state, by us; capital punishment is the same, except on a much smaller scale. According to polls, most Americans, as of last week, thought McVeigh should be executed; and a Gallup poll reported that 22 percent of those who opposed the death penalty thought McVeigh should die.
Perhaps that contradiction comes about because many Americans see McVeigh's crime as an act of war. Some who are anti-death penalty are not anti-war.
But, since President Bush came into the White House trailing a long history of presiding over state executions, despite his often-repeated claim of being a compassionate conservative, it is clear that his world view is eye for an eye, every person for him or herself, sink or swim, win or lose, pass or fail. And his big idea of chipping away at Social Security, starting it on the road to privatization, is yet another form of his own brand of self-reliance.
Why no California newspaper has run its own version of the famous New York Daily News headline of the Ford administration era ("Ford to City: Drop Dead") puzzles me. "Bush to California: Sweat" seems to be Bush's energy policy toward the slightly dimmed Golden state.
Bush has been stingy with his presence in the large and populous state he lost to Gore, but he has sent them a message: turn up the thermostats in the federal buildings. And he has used California's corporate-created, botched energy predicament to shill his latest round of gloom-and-doom rhetoric: the "energy crisis." Bush has been spending a lot of time criticizing the economy, the Social Security system, and now America's use and abuse of energy.
A short time ago most Americans weren't aware that any of those crises were snarling at their doorsteps. But they all need to exist in order to justify the president's major proposals: tax cuts for the wealthy, privatizing Social Security, and, the latest, building refineries and power plants, including nuclear facilities, in everyone's back yard.
Bush likes to reward his friends; how much he wishes to punish his enemies has yet to entirely play out. Vice President Cheney's White House task force proposals will keep the veep's former employer, Halliburton, a petroleum industry construction and engineering company, and others, hooked up to the government cash pipeline for decades to come. It's a WPA program for the flush and well-placed.
Now, according to the president, the tax cut is necessary to pay for higher prices at the pump. The Bush/Cheney administration is looking like a clearing house for income redistribution, but most of it is being redistributed to the holders of energy company stocks. The administration did bring 22 docile union representatives to the White House with the promise of jobs for their members, an offer they couldn't refuse.
It's back to the 50s Bush/Cheney style: nuclear plants a-building, coal power plants spewing pollution, wilderness areas being drilled. The good old days.
On the intellectual energy front, Bush continues to reward his friends. A large portion of his post-election Florida legal team has found government employment and Ted Olson, who was instrumental in Bush's Supreme-Court-aided ascent to the presidency, is going forward as Bush's nominee for Solicitor General, a post once held by Thurgood Marshall, despite Olson's Clintonesque, less than candid, confirmation testimony.
Olson was one of the chief thorns in Bill Clinton's side, a star of the conservative legal movement, an advisor to Paula Jones's legal team, a champion of the get-Clinton forces at the American Spectator magazine.
By appointing Olson to the post of Solicitor General (an antechamber away from the Supreme Court), Bush continues to remind the public of Clinton's faults, as well as reward Clinton's attackers, given that Olson was a prominent member of Hillary's vast right-wing conspiracy. Olson's wife, Barbara, is the author of a slash-and-burn Hillary bio, entitled Hell to Pay.
The president, though, has been showing more energy himself of late, spending the last week traveling, state-hopping campaign style, to promote his veep's energy plan, stopping at Notre Dame and Yale to pick up honorary degrees along the way. Each university had small contingents protesting the high honor conferred on the rookie chief executive, but the administrations of both schools were pleased as punch to have the new big guy around.
One smaller guy going out the door, Louis, hear-no-evil-see-no-evil, Freeh, departing head of the FBI, leaves behind a wounded organization saddled, it's been claimed, with a "cowboy culture"--though one shouldn't blame cowboys for Ruby Ridge, Waco, the McVeigh records, or Robert Hanssen.
The White House, though, is demonstrating it has a wildcatter culture. Clinton's administration was often compared to the television show "Dallas" for its soap-opera sex high jinks. The Bush administration, though, more resembles the 50s film "Giant." The same state figures in both, but "Giant"'s characters gloried in oil and the money and power it bought them. Indeed, Bush's energy policy is nothing but wildcatter power on parade.
The presidency is an office full of symbolism, but until now it hasn't been a position filled by a man who is more symbol than substance. George W. Bush began his recent commencement address at Notre Dame with his, by now, obligatory self-deprecating anecdote (how long these self-effacing tales will litter every speech remains to be seen.) He said he had been on the campus once before, in 1980, the year his father ran with Ronald Reagan. "I think I really won over the crowd that day," he continued. "In fact, I'm sure of it, because all six of them walked me to my car."
What a difference twenty years makes. Though, what was striking, was what little difference it appeared to make in Bush--except for being president he would have attracted a crowd of six. Attending a luncheon with the Bushes before the graduation exercises hosted by Notre Dame's president, Rev. Edward "Monk" Malloy, I kept forgetting President Bush was in the room. But I would notice the husky Secretive Service personnel scanning the crowd and recall why they were there.
Bush's lack of personal charisma, or presence, may well be part of his attraction to those who voted for him. (Though he was for all practical purposes invisible during the Jeffords defection.) Bush's cultivated ordinariness made him something of a blank slate that many could paint as they wished. And it let his actual background go, in one of his favorite words, fuzzy, causing his eastern elite roots to wither, to be replaced by the persona of regular guy from Texas, though one with a ranch larger than the portion of the National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska he wants to drill.
Bush is making a big push for the Catholic vote, which he lost to Al Gore by three percentage points in 2000. But he did win with white Catholics and that made up most of the crowd at Notre Dame. His speech, focusing on his faith-based initiative proposals, was reminiscent of last summer's Republican convention, which adopted so much Democratic rhetoric and quoted so many Democratic personages, that its theme appeared to be It Takes a Village.
At Notre Dame, Bush quoted both the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, and the legendary coach, Knute Rockne, covering all bases. Though the local Catholic Worker house does not accept federal funds and one of its principal supporters, Professor Valerie Sayers, was amongst the protestors outside the convocation center chanting, "Catholic Votes Are Not For Sale!"
But, inside, one wasn't so sure the sale hadn't been made. Monsignor George G. Higgins, the devoted and dogged labor priest, this year's recipient of the Laetare Medal, Notre Dame's highest honor, followed Bush's remarks with his own.
Monsignor Higgins, looking pointedly over the well-off throng, said, "One fears that today when many, but by no means all America Catholics are more prosperous than their immigrant forebears, we may fail to realize that poverty is still endemic in our society especially, but not exclusively, among minorities."
Indeed, Bush's faith-based initiative is in its own way largely symbolic. Bush had reminded the audience that the federal government already channels money to faith-based-affiliated groups, such as Catholic Charities. "Should this be prevented?" he challenged them. No, they responded, with alarm.
What Bush does want to do is provide more tax relief for the giving that is already given. A new report, Giving USA, shows that the amount of charitable giving has remained flat during the recent boom years and is likely to continue to be.
Bush, though, wants to empower corporate America to give more to faith-based organizations. But that too would entail changing the laws, including the tax code, that attempt to keep boundaries between church and state.
Bush's faith-based initiative can have real positive consequences for him. It allows Bush to claim on the stump he has done something for the poor, as well as for the rich. And it gives him inroads to grass-roots organizations which will help get out the vote in 2004.
It's a twofer: the deductions will reward his constituency, the big givers, and it will engender gratitude in those small organizations which get money, however limited the amounts. It does not matter that George W. Bush doesn't light up a room. The policies he pushes turn on the business interests he represents.
The Republicans have come a long way. Back in Ronald Reagan's day they needed a complicated, if discredited, economic theory to get a tax cut. A theory George H.W. Bush, at the time, famously called "voodoo economics."
But George W. Bush didn't require a crowd of supply-side, trickle-down hucksters; all the plain-spoken president needed by 2001 was to say, It's your money and we're giving it back. Tax "relief" is the new coinage of the realm. What there will not be any relief from for a decade is yearly congressional tax wrangling.
Except, the way President Bush is first giving Americans back their money is positively Democratic. Rebates. Most Americans are getting nearly the same amounts, $300 hundred for single filers, $600 for couples. Rebates are practically socialistic in their even-handedness. I think it's terrific that Mr. and Mrs. Bill Gates are getting a check for $600.
Rebates are a progressive method of federal income tax "relief." But, in Bush's case, his rebates are bribes. They are the honey to make the medicine go down, the acidic medicine of all that tax relief for the super rich that is yet to come.
The rebates are chump change, but the whole tax package is for chumps. Lower- and middle-income folk get something, but not much, next year when the rates start to go down, but, nonetheless, they are willing to go along with the fact that upper income and the top 2% will get large benefits, real money back, whereas the majority of federal income tax payers get token reductions. And the 25% of families that don't earn enough to pay any federal income tax will get no relief from the state and FICA taxes they do pay.
Somewhere at the heart of a progressive income tax is the notion of fairness. It has been so buried of late under the anti-tax rhetoric of the past two decades that it is hardly noticed. Indeed, it is only noticed by Republicans when it serves their purposes. Take Hillary Clinton's spectacular profits in the cattle futures market, a $100,000 for a thousand, much discussed during the Clinton years. Many anti-tax Republicans objected to that haul, claiming it was not she who worked for it.
Corporations in the past have been taxed for "windfall," or excess, profits. That specter has been raised during the present California energy crunch. During the past decade, dot com instant millionaires were a common phenomena, their sudden wealth being the stuff of windfall. Somewhere in the minds of most Americans is an equation of labor equaling value. We all like the idea of becoming over-night millionaires, but we all know that happens to the few, but never the many. Hence, the progressive tax system, which attempts to achieve equality of sacrifice.
The startling thing is not that the wealthy want to pay the same tax rate as the ordinary working person, but that they often pay less. There is a functional flat tax already in place. Most prosperous people and the upper middle class pay under 30 percent, if they itemize. For instance, the Bushes last year paid a 27% tax rate, $240 thousand on earnings of around $900 thousand, pretty standard for their income, if not their class.
It was Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife who paid more. They took in 36 million, 34 million of which they treated as wages and income. They paid 39%. Now, I suppose it does depend on whether or not you think Vice President Cheney's labors for the Halliburton corporation were worth some 34 million that year. Perhaps they were. But, that is why the tax rate is progressive: the Cheneys paying more is the way to achieve equality of sacrifice. A hundred dollars to them isn't the same as a hundred dollars to a school bus driver.
But President Bush wants the Cheneys' sacrifice to be less and the top tax rate lowered to 35% (though, he had wanted it dropped to 33%.) But the "death" tax is to go, other pain-causing taxes for the top 2% are to be reduced.
The Cheneys, by the way, gave some 41 thousand dollars to charity last year, one tenth of 1% of their income. I'm not sure how much of that relative pittance went to faith-based charities, but if Bush wants charity to take over the burden of helping the poor, he better have a talk with his Vice President.
Sen. Jim Jeffords' (Vt.I) "independent" defection to the Democrats' side is the straw that may have broken the back of President Bush's governing strategy, his "the winner will take all" mandate pretense, the "don't-behave-as-over-half-the-voters-voted-against-you, act-as-a-president-with-a-landside-acts" strategy.
The Jeffords switch reminded everyone of how George W. Bush got to the White House. TV and newspapers uncovered the shallow graves of the pre-inauguration coverage. What they found there wasn't a pretty sight. If the Senate had flipped even a year from now (because of the death of an ancient senator or two), it wouldn't be as gruesome. Now the hastily buried remains are still fresh.
Jeffords' transformation, coming on the heels of Bush's first hundred days, mimicked the history-setting election itself. Never before has the act of changing party affiliation by one senator transformed the body, put so many staff people out of work and returned so many people to jobs once held. It did have the effect of a mini-election, which is why so much language of the "coup" sort has been employed by aghast Republicans.
It's as if the historic firsts of the 2000 election beget other historic firsts. We all are reminded of what democracy means: not that everyone agrees, but everyone has agreed to disagree. Hence 5-4 decisions by a Supreme Court being stomached by the public, why losing the popular vote and being sanctioned by justices as the rightful winner of the presidency is accepted with such general aplomb by the electorate.
We don't need unanimity, just accord. But, as the space between opposing positions within the country become razor-thin, red vs. blue America, the tied Senate, the narrowing split in the House of Representatives, political rhetoric becomes sharper.
President Bush tried to ignore that during the campaign and early in his administration, papering over the differences by calling for a new tone, a new kind of bi-partisanship. It was an audacious ploy, urging bi-partisanship at a time when the divisions in the country were growing more acute.
It is hard to be a uniter if your presidency is the result of dividers.
The junior Senator from Vermont took advantage of the Senate's 50-50 split. When everything is even, everyone is equally powerful. But, it's been widely demonstrated that Bush and Company ignored that truism. But Jim Jeffords didn't. It's not often one man can change so much, so quickly. It was a temptation he couldn't resist. And it was entirely for Jeffords' own benefit. It's rare for anyone to gather so much praise for an action so full of self-interest.
At least, great praise from Democrats. President Bush at last has had the election "stolen" from him (as some right wing pundits charged Al Gore with attempting to do down in Florida.) In this one way, perhaps. Bush has to pay a tax he won't find easy to cut. A tax levied late, a payment for not winning the mandate he pretended he did. For not seeing that his election, if anything, was a testament to the country's central ambivalence, its traditional division between promoting self-reliance, while acknowledging a need for government interventions to cure inequities in our democracy that the free-market can't, or won't.
Americans, it is often claimed, are comfortable with divided government. It echoes the checks and balances the founding fathers placed at the center of our government's structure.
Newt Gingrich's conservative revolution of 1994 was never the complete victory, in his time, he wanted it to be. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was still commander in chief. But the revolution was completed on January 20th, 2001, when George W. Bush ascended to the presidency, presiding over a Republican-controlled Congress, but it lasted barely five months. The Jeffords switch was a case where it was more than one man, one vote One man, one vote, a new political world.
We'll see if President Bush and his single-minded lieutenants have learned a lesson. When you win by a whisker, you can't act smug as a fat cat.
Though early to contemplate, it seems George W. Bush has already chosen what he wishes his presidential legacy to be. His two chief items have to do with money. Changing Social Security and altering the tax code to favor the rich permanently.
Our recent president, Bill Clinton's most prominent legacy, beyond the blue GAP dress and the current Bush administration, is the projected budget surpluses Clinton never spent. During the 2000 campaign, a charge that stuck to his vice president was, "Where is the seniors' prescription drug plan?" Why weren't such bold programs put forward?
The quick answer was because of the resistance of, at the time, the Republican-controlled Congress. But the charge was potent. After Hillary's health care plan went down, Clinton didn't match the brazenness of his private behavior with equally flamboyant public policy initiatives. Clinton's legacy shadow is not long. And Al Gore, now that the shadow has evaporated, can't even be found standing where it once was.
Gore's former running-mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, never thought to be a viable presidential candidate for '04, has begun to act as if he is. Some think him ungrateful because of that, but Lieberman wouldn't be sending out feelers except for the fact that Al Gore is not to be found anywhere in the public realm.
But President Bush doesn't lack boldness. His tax relief for the rich and super rich is the opposite of the trickle-down economic theory, where giving money to the wealthy supposedly flows down, by means of investment, to the lower layers of workers. Current research reveals it is not so much trickle down as drying up. When you lower tax rates for the top earners you reduce the pressure for tax-exempt medical insurance plans that cover everyone; you decrease the tax incentives for philanthropy and charity; you alter the private pension system's breadth and depth. As the separation between the rich and poor grows wider, the economic roots that connect them are being cut.
Beyond that, Bush's planned-for legacy of a changed Social Security system is even more troubling. He and the right-wing think tanks that have been supporting privatization for the last two decades have convinced the public that some privatization is inevitable. That has been a good trick, to pretend that the only question now is how to do it, not whether it should be done at all.
The Wall Street Journal, always happy to spread the good news, reported last week that an "ad blitz" promoting privatization will soon commence, paid for by large investment firms that hope to reap huge benefits from Bush's privatization push.
The president's Social Security panel convened recently and found it had a few problems to solve: how do small businesses keep track of people coming in and out of the workforce? And who does all the bookkeeping on their small stock accounts? A good many private accounts, if they are ever enacted, will be a thousand dollars a year or less. Not many firms want to mess with them, given the high costs of transactions and reporting.
Privatization is fine if you're going to have a stable career and a predictable income all your life. That is why people who have such careers already have their own private mutual funds and do invest for their retirement, in addition to having the protection of the Social Security system.
For those who aren't so well fixed, Social Security has done and does the best job possible, given the vagaries of work history of many Americans. It offers a package of protection that can't be duplicated anywhere at any price.
One of the many conservative slogans is to get government off the backs of the people. But who will look after the people and their small penny stock portfolios, which for years will be eaten up by administrative fees alone? It always looks good to see what one can accumulate after a life-time of work. But what does it look like after five years or so?
If any Americans want to get into the stock market, even with small amounts of money, they can do so today. The idea that a system with huge efficiencies already in place has to be changed, weakened, or, perhaps, destroyed, is too high a price to pay to let George W. Bush have the legacy he craves.
The controversial World War II memorial slated to be built on the hitherto uncluttered Washington mall has unlocked memories of other WWII participants, beyond those Americans it wishes to honor. The monument itself has been a contentious project, though one that appears to be going forward, which is where the new problem comes in.
The construction companies that are to do the initial work on the memorial, at a price of $56 million, Tompkins Builders of Washington, D.C., and Grunley-Walsh Construction of Rockville, MD., are subsidiaries of J.A. Jones Inc., of Charlotte, N.C., which is owned by Philipp Holzmann AG of Frankfurt, Germany.
Holzmann, like a lot of other German companies during WWII, used what it likes to call "forced" labor, but in other circles is known as slave labor. Holzmann and other Nazi-era German concerns have put up $4.4 billion to pay reparations to the remaining slave-labor employees still alive.
Hidden history, when it resurfaces, is often embarrassing, which is why it is so often forgotten, or buried. Indeed, some American companies (Ford, ITT) owned European factories producing Germany's war machinery. The accounts of the slave labor that have been produced are searing, but everyone, it appears, wants to move on.
"Let bygones be bygones" seems to be the order of the day. That was the upshot of former Sen. Bob Kerrey's disturbing Vietnam revelations that finally were aired and may well be the outcome of the recent stories about Joseph J. Ellis, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian, who found it necessary to create, in his case, a fictional warrior history for himself (even claiming to have been at My Lai!) in order to better teach his students about Vietnam at Mount Holyoke College.
Such personal failings are sometimes easier to excuse. That everyone is willing to look past corporate histories is a bit more alarming.
When Vice President Cheney smugly lectures his fellow countrymen that conservation is only a "personal virtue" and that the nation needs to build a power plant a week in order to meet demand, a little history begs to be uncovered.
In the 1970s, after the oil shock and the experience of Americans lining up for gas, a few investigative volumes appeared that told the story of big oil and its checkered past. One important one was John Blair's The Control of Oil. Blair pointed out that for many decades the major oil companies were able to control the price of oil at the source; the price was set as it came out of the ground. The creation of OPEC made that harder to do and big oil decided on a new strategy; the price would fluctuate for crude, but it could be controlled at the production end: at the refineries.
Blair's book appeared in 1976. He predicted it would take between twenty and thirty years for the refinery strategy to finally take hold: that when the major oil companies restricted the supply by controlling the number of refineries they would be able to set the price they wished.
This was not to be a straightforward conspiracy, but just business as usual. It would produce what economists call an "administered" price. Twenty-five years later it has come to pass. When the vice president and other oil men shake their heads and bemoan the lack of building refineries over the last two decades, because it wasn't "profitable," one needs to know that it wasn't the profit on the unit cost of heating oil and gasoline they were talking about, but the oil companies' ability to control across the board the profit they wished to make.
It doesn't do much good to be a major oil company if you can't get the money you want for your product and your "competitors," the other largest oil companies, will need to be making more or less the same amounts. Picture all the large tobacco company CEOs claiming before Congress that nicotine is not addictive. That is how they work together. They all say the same thing. As do the power companies, the energy producers, who say it's so sad that more power plants weren't built in the last two decades. Vice President Cheney knows better, which is why he looks so smug as he scolds the Californians sitting in the dark.
Independence Day teaches a number of lessons in independence. As David McCullough writes in his masterful new biography, John Adams, "Indeed, to all appearances, nothing happened on July 4, 1776." The momentous day of argument and the vote for severance from Britain happened on July 2nd. "Adams, who had responded with such depth of feeling to the events of July 2, recorded not a word of July 4," MuCullough notes. But, as we all know, July 4th it is, or has become.
On the original 4th of July the Continental Congress ordered that the Declaration of Independence be authenticated and printed. But the famous signatures would not be affixed to it for another month. History, even undisputed history, is hard to pin down, much less history in contention.
David Brock, the author of The Real Anita Hill and other books, has once again declared his own independence. In the August issue of Talk magazine, he continues his on-going saga of conversion and confession. In the most recent installment, coming a couple of months before the publication of his own memoir, Blinded by the Right, he reverses course on his earlier reverential treatment and assessment of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and accepts Thomas's critics' low opinions--and worse. Brock claims that Thomas himself passed on, through an intermediary, derogatory information for Brock's use about a woman who was quoted concerning Thomas's taste in wall art in a book about his confirmation controversies, Strange Justice, published after Thomas ascended to the high court.
David Brock's continuing quest for independence is different than Sen. Jim Jeffords leap to independence, though it is connected in one important way. The stir Jeffords' switch caused in the Senate, it is generally credited, let Brock's fellow American Spectator magazine associate and dinner companion Ted Olson slide into the Solicitor General's office without the expected floor fight.
Olson had given slippery answers about his knowledge of the Arkansas Project that the American Spectator ran, searching for dirt on Bill Clinton while he was president. Brock was paid to spread the dirt. It was his article that mentioned "Paula" that led to the Paula Jones case and Clinton's eventual impeachment.
That work (and his attack on Anita Hill) made Brock a star in conservative circles. And his flight from that lofty perch is why people are paying attention to his political and personal transformation now.
As it is, Clarence Thomas remains, and doubtless will remain, on the Supreme Court. His imperfections, whatever they may be, have been paraded before the American public second only to the imperfections of Bill Clinton. Indeed, Clinton gave the most eloquent explanation and defense of Clarence Thomas in the midst of the president's own legal difficulties, in his videotaped grand jury testimony brought about because of David Brock, the Arkansas Project, and the Paula Jones case.
Clinton volunteered, about the conflicts in the testimony of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill concerning their private interactions, "I believed they both thought they were telling the truth. This is what you're dealing with, in some ways, the most mysterious area of human life."
And, given that context, most Americans have already made up their minds about the personal conduct of both Thomas and Clinton.
Beyond the abstract debate topics Block's inflammatory charges have generated (the nature of journalism, just what truth is), his latest stink bomb will have serious consequences, given the change of leadership in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the confirmation hearings to come. Just last week, Sen. Charles Schumer, (D.-N.Y.), a member of the committee, chaired a session called "Should Ideology Matter? Judicial Nominations 2001." Given past history, only ideology seems to matter.
Whatever the ultimate fallout the David Brock controversy creates, it will certainly infect those confirmation battles to come. And we will all pay a price for David Brock's feverish search for independence: more acrimony and distrust and, doubtless, a few shattered reputations of potential conservative nominees President Bush hopes to elevate to the federal bench.
President Bush is up to his neck in health problems: the Senate's enthusiastic passage of the patients' bill of rights, the controversy over stem-cell research, and his vice president's habit of weekend drop-ins at the George Washington Hospital for heart-related tune ups.
The fight in the Senate over health legislation was certainly a battle of the haves. First, you have to have insurance. Then, you had to have a medical problem. And, finally, you have to have a lawyer. As the heart-wrenching stories went out (children with horrendous problems that needed hundreds of thousands of dollars a year coverage) over the air waves, one could only respond: whatever happened to national health insurance?
For, it was just those sorts of stories about medical events, which, if not rare, are certainly infrequent, that call out for some sort of catastrophic national health insurance. As a doctor once pointed out, only 1 in 74,000 of us have the chance of needing a liver transplant at the cost of $300,000. Instead of one person needing that cash, if we all paid four dollars, it would take care of whoever is unlucky enough to need it.
It is a primer on the whole notion of insurance, an example of risk pooling. But instead of one private company trying not to be the one to pay the claim, if all taxpayers contributed the burden would not be great.
But, it appears, we are a long way from national health insurance. As the tax rebates only go out to the haves (those who have paid federal income tax), the ability to sue an HMO (never an appetizing activity) will be available only to those who are in HMOs.
Whether President Bush signs the final bill hammered together from the House and Senate versions may depend on Karl Rove's stock portfolio. Any company the president's top advisor has shares of valued over a $100,000 does well in this administration. Intel recently sent him a letter of thanks. And, in the case of stem-cell research, that might hold particularly true. Does Rove have any biotech stock?
The opponents of stem-cell research are generally life-begins-at-conception absolutists, though not so absolute to raise the same clamor over the creation of blastocysts needed for artificial insemination. If many are needed, but few are successfully implanted, isn't their creation and eventually destruction just as troubling? Isn't science already playing God?
President Bush has to walk his own fine line between constituencies. Some on the Republican right are persuaded of the benefits of such cutting-edge research; others want him to hew to the outer edge of the pro-life position. The odds favor some compromise, which was the position under Clinton. Don't fund the creation of the embryonic cells, only fund the research.
But, the need for federal funds for stem-cell research points out the paradox. We will fund the theory, but not the practice. If federal tax dollars go to scientists and doctors, why can't they go to individuals in medical distress?
The answer, of course, is obvious. The Bush administration wants to prevent businesses from assuming liabilities. It also wants insurance companies to prosper. An administration that wants to privatize Social Security, making trading firms fatter, does not want to take business away from insurance companies by instituting national health insurance.
Bush's vice president continues to be a poster boy for medical efficiencies. Though one reason why Dick Cheney was able to run in and out of George Washington hospital with his newly implanted defibrillator in record time was that the doctors were waiting for him. That's not the usual case, as any regular patient knows.
We all watch the vice president get the best care money (and power) can buy. It is oddly reassuring for the rest of us to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the subject of health.
Dick Cheney takes it for granted. He couldn't wait to get back to his job. It's his boss who has the medical problems and wants a vacation. And Bush's recent unannounced visits to tourist attractions in the nation's capital, attempting to appear relaxed in a white shirt without a suit jacket, doesn't make him look eager to return to work.
Imagine if, during the impeachment process of Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky had turned up missing. What would Abbe Lowell, one of the most effective defenders of the former president, have said then? That Clinton had lied only to protect his family's privacy? (Which, I guess, is what Clinton did say.) But, of course, in Rep. Gary Condit's (D.-Calif.) case (just as in Clinton's) if he had wanted to protect his family's privacy, Condit wouldn't be having affairs with any complaint and impressionable woman he could get his hands on.
The former Illinois State Police Director Terrance Gainer's press conference, following Condit's third police interview, made Gainer sound like a babbling New Age counselor; Gainer claimed the D.C. police had achieved "clarity" in the interview and were now "comfortable" they understood the nature of the relationship between the congressman and the missing young intern.
Following that came Condit's attorney Abbe Lowell's expensive Sunday spinning sessions on many networks, announcing Condit's strong desire for family privacy. In the world of serial adulterers "family privacy" is code for "secret no more."
The flight attendant Anne Marie Smith, somewhat older, but, like Levy, a "good friend" of the congressman, said she refused to sign a statement prepared for him, asserting that no affair had ever taken place between them.
Ms. Smith, it was reported, also said Congressman Condit had called her in early May before the Chandra Levy story was a story, telling her he had a "problem" and he may have to lay low for some time. Why, so shortly after Chandra Levy disappeared, did Condit think he had a "problem"? Levy was just a missing person, as she still is. Only someone with more knowledge of her condition would consider that he had a "problem."
I'm sure Congressman Condit knows the old Washington folklore, that a politician only has a problem if he's caught with a dead girl or a live boy.
The adultery corps in Washington, politics and media division, has tried to put a ho-hum face on all this. Dick Morris, well-known adulterer, prostitute fancier, love-child progenitor, political consultant and Fox News commentator, said congress wouldn't have a "quorum" if adultery was a disqualifier for public service. He ought to know.
The D.C. police have finally searched the congressman's apartment and have requested a lie detector test. Though it doesn't require a lie detector to know that Condit has been lying.
Whether Condit has been doing anything else doubtless will become clearer down the road. If he ends up being the victim of an unfortunate coincidence, it was a coincidence of his own unfortunate making, having a secret affair at the moment a young woman mysteriously disappears.
The courteous official treatment he has thus far been afforded (if Chandra had a biker boyfriend, rather than a Congressman who like to ride Harleys, he would have had a rough ride) is not without precedent.
Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children, was given the light-touch, middle-class, suburban perp treatment, complete with expressions of sympathy and understanding, rather than the rawer sort that usually befalls multiple killers. But, she was "out of her mind."
Not long ago, in my neck of the woods, teenage boys killed some teenage workers at a fast food outlet in a robbery gone awry. All of them attended the same high school. It would be difficult to claim that the young killer wasn't out of his mind, either. But, it does depend on what mind you are out of.
The impact of status is no more apparent than in the reaction of law enforcement. It helps to be a soccer-mom (to be) if you're going to murder your children. Though, the fact that Yates suffered from serious postpartum depression with her fourth child may have been a signal she needn't rapidly have number five, staying home teaching them all on top of it. That appears crazy enough.
Congressman Condit was known as "Mr. Blow Dry." The photographs in his office were not of his family, but of himself. Such narcissism does have a price. Both he and Chandra Levy seem to be paying it.
New reports on the shenanigans during and following the Florida vote and recount bring to mind the Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay)-Sony Liston fight of 1965, when Liston went down, felled by the famous "phantom" punch. Ali was world champion and the fact that no one (including cameras filming the event) saw the punch connect was not going to make any difference.
The latest data produced by the N.Y. Times, following the Civil Rights Commission's report on the high rates of disenfranchisement of minority voters, reveals that ballots from Americans living abroad favoring George W. Bush were more likely counted than not, especially military ballots.
The Texas governor deposed by George W. Bush, Ann Richards, claimed she had informed the Gore campaign that Bush had made special efforts in soliciting overseas military ballots during her race with Bush and he obviously would do the same during the presidential contest.
That the Bush people managed to persuade canvassing boards to waive state election laws to affect the outcome is no big surprise. Though more Florida voters set out to vote for Gore-Liberman on election day, they were thwarted by a superior Republican machine. In other words, Secretary of State Katherine Harris was better equipped and tougher than Palm Beach county's Theresa LePore, instigator of the infamous butterfly ballot.
Jeb Bush may or may not have been involved in the recount, despite his announced self-removal from the process, but since he was governor he wielded the same influence as Mayor Daley Senior did during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential contest in Illinois. Controlling power in a region gives you more than an invisible hand. The Republicans only needed to throw a phantom punch.
Because of it, they won the presidency. George W. Bush gets to have lunch with the Queen of England, rather than spending most of his time down on the ranch in Crawford.
Not that President Bush has had an easy time of it lately. He has had to backtrack and revise his positions. His education bill is not the conservative manifesto his supporters hoped it would be; his incredibly shrinking faith-based initiative was passed by the House with little enthusiasm; his alarmist Social Security proposals are suffering and his energy program has even been mocked, given the fact that during the week its creator, Vice President Cheney, went out throughout the land to sell it to the public, it came to light that Cheney wanted the Navy to pay the entire electric bill for the vice president's mansion, letting none of it come from the vice president's budget. Cheney certainly doesn't want to feel the pain that rising electric costs cause average Americans.
But President Bush doesn't seem to suffer when his programs are revised and rejected. The millionaire-friendly tax cut alone may give him enough cushion to soften those blows. Self-doubt doesn't appear to be in his makeup. Another reason, though, may be the fact that Bush doesn't seem to own his ideas. His background isn't littered with examples of pride of intellectual originality. Indeed, quite the opposite. Bush was president of Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale and fraternities are notorious for sharing class assignments, recycling old papers, not worrying about what former frat brother produced the work. And Harvard's Business School, where Bush got his MBA, is famous for its team projects.
It's part of Bush's charm, his preference for team work, his lack of intellectual snobbery. Bush's often stated ideas (leave no child behind, etc.) are generalities that others will provide the particulars for.
Even Republicans now ask why Bush is not using the bully pulpit of the presidency, why he isn't personally fighting for his programs.
Well, it would be difficult to have a team assembled at the bully pulpit. It is not just a question of the president's intelligence, but of his style of governing. And, in 2004, that will matter, whereas the 2000 Florida vote won't, except for the lessons either learned there or not learned.
Last week's heat wave has produced more casualties, not on football practice fields, or overheated apartments, but in the halls of Congress. It is a dangerous time, the early days of August, if the House of Representatives is still in session. A lot of strange "compromises" get crafted, and a few of them actually get passed.
Desperate for some other legislation to crow about (other than the tax cut for the well-off), President Bush is conducting his own fire sale. Lord knows what presidential and party largesse is heading to Republican congressman Charlie Norwood's Georgia district. He and Bush had a secret meeting (these days, the press in Washington has eyes only for Rep. Gary Condit), and Norwood failed to notify his patients' bill of rights' co-sponsors that a deal was to be struck. They, it was reported, were "stunned"--which is a step-down from heat stroke.
The House also wants to ship oil drilling equipment to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, along with delivering tax breaks to all of Vice President Cheney's friends and advisors in the energy community. It's drill now, conserve later, though the final vote came shortly after midnight, running up the government's electricity bill to boot. The Democratic-controlled Senate does plan to pull the plug on it, the Refuge drilling that is. The SUV exemptions from fuel economy standards benefiting the auto industry will likely continue, though SUVs can't be blamed on Bush. They are the fitting symbol of the Clinton years, fat and sassy, and very irresponsible.
The polling business also seems to be affected by the hot weather. One day the Republican-friendly Zogby poll showed President Bush's approval rating below 50%; the next day the Washington Post/ABC poll had him up to 59%. At the same time, a smaller poll of CNN executives voted to drop Bush from a split screen, the new president giving a speech to law enforcement on one side and the old president, Bill Clinton, praising his new neighbors in Harlem on the other. They went just to Clinton, he being the more "newsworthy," was the explanation given.
The First Lady is even showing the effects of the heat, claiming the media is exploiting her daughters for crass profit. The controversy over "Is it jeans?, Is it denim?, Is it a skirt?" lunch attire at Buckingham Palace does seem largely the product of delirium, but the drinking offenses of her daughters are a bit too close to home to blame on the press.
Though the Bush Administration is taking a strong stance on urging sexual abstinence for the young, slashing family planning and contraceptive programs, while beefing up abstinence-only evangelical initiatives, the President himself isn't promoting Just Say No to alcohol as strenuously. George W. Bush doesn't shy away from comparisons to President Reagan, but I don't think he wants to duplicate Reagan's "Do as We Say, Not as We Do," when it comes to family life.
Bush has been hoping to sign his education bill this summer, when school is out, than in the fall, when everyone will be confronted with the daily reality of America's education system. It is easier to take credit for a bill full of hot air when there is a lot of hot air around. But, it is still tied up in the Senate-House conference-committee, awaiting cooler heads next season.
And the heat is definitely getting to the Chandra Levy story. When the Washington Post reported that the Levy's gardener's daughter had an affair with Gary Condit, it was clear the heat had altered the Post's sense of smell, in so far as that yarn didn't even pass the smell test. Likewise, the media flurry following the "tip" that Chandra Levy was buried under a parking lot on a Virginia military base.
These days, given the overheated political climate, people might be willing to believe anything, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. But, I had thought it strange that in all the Levy's home movies and 24/7 coverage, it appeared that no one in the Levy family had ever alluded to Monica Lewinsky. Now, it appears, it had been one of the first things Mrs. Levy had said to her daughter when she went off to Washington. "Don't you become another Moncia Lewinsky."
This hot summer has not been good to the Levys. Nor has it been particularly healthy for the rest of us, either.
Bill Clinton has seduced the old, but no longer venerable publishing firm of Alfred A. Knopf. To the tune of, at least, 8.5 million, or ten million, or twelve million, depending on how foreign sales go. One wonders if Sonny Mehta, its editor in chief, delivers pizza, too. But it's more money than the pope got, and, more importantly, more money than the junior Senator from New York got.
Paying presidents outrageous amounts for their purported memoirs is an old tradition, though not every president cashes in big time. Ronald Reagan lead Michael Korda, his editor at Simon & Schuster, down the primrose path, a huge advance up front, and small sales later.
But Clinton is one of the most written about of the still living presidents. That is largely thanks to his enemies, who had published a number of attack books on the governor of Arkansas even before he ran for president. Those attack books continued throughout, as well as a lot of other treatments, some more serious and thoughtful than others.
But this outpouring of print may not duplicate itself in an outpouring of reader interest. But Knopf gets bragging rights for its millions and may think all the attention is worth it. And, perhaps, it will be an interesting book, if the former president can reach into himself far enough to produce something that resembles the truth.
It is odd that the comeback kid has yet another chance at a big comeback. He could write a presidential memoir that could be better than his presidency. What a thought!
He intends, it appears, to have the assistance of Robert Gottlieb, a famous editor (at Random House and briefly at theNew Yorker) and the man who stewarded Katherine Graham's memoir to a Pulitzer Prize. But Gottlieb represents the same fashionable, elite part of New York City that Clinton's first choice of office quarters' did. Carnegie Hall and those environs.
Clinton might be advised to do what he finally did and go uptown. He might choose Toni Morrison, the novelist and former Random House editor, to be his guide. It was Morrison who proclaimed famously that Clinton was America's first Black president."
She might be able to get Clinton off his glittery surface, one that he is pulled to, but seems to get in the way of his more authentic impulses. She might be able to get him to probe beneath the surface and write about what really makes him tick, and elicit from him some genuine insights about his behavior, as well as insightful commentary about his life and times.
A president famous for feeling our pain needs, as an author, to be able to express his own, as well as the concerns and actions of his enemies as well as his friends.
Clinton may have the necessary empathy to be a writer of some worth, but it is very far from proven that he has the ability to unlock the secrets of his own motivations and impulses.
The historian Roger Morris took a lot of flak for his biography of Ronald Reagan when he made himself a character in it and fictionalized some of Reagan's thoughts and encounters. Morris found Reagan to be in many ways impenetrable as a subject, as well as too much of an enigma, a man who knew himself too well, or not at all.
Clinton has the opposite problem. We all know him, perhaps too well and the challenge he has is to surprise us, be more than we know him to be.
The Clinton years can be symbolized by the vehicle that was so popular during them: the SUV. SUVs are fat and sassy and very irresponsible.
Toni Morrison may be able to make Clinton stare into the pit of that irresponsibility long enough to make sense of it. Robert Gottlieb may keep him too close to the Carnegie Hall world the president wanted to be embraced by. When he begins writing his memoirs, he should take a look out the window at the neighborhood where his desk sits.
President Bush's well-publicized courting of the so-called "Catholic vote," it is now clear, is more a case of marketing than morality. Bush's stem cell decision highlights the strategy. Since the '70's the religious right has been represented by a handful of conservative evangelical religious figures who commanded popular ministries on cable television.
But, over the years, a number of its chief celebrities brought unwanted attention and scandal to the conservative movement; many splinter groups were brought under its umbrella. The movement appeared to be a mile wide, but an inch deep.
Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist, among others, realized that image needed to be changed. And so the Catholic vote strategy was hatched. But, it was not so much--as has been widely argued--to secure the fractious Catholic vote for Bush, as to create a media buffer between the old, over-used faces of the religious right and Bush himself.
Catholic media stars were few and far between during the Religious Right's ascendancy. Indeed, there was as much friction as fraternity between Catholic hierarchy and evangelicals. Catholic prelates had not appeared (and wisely so) eager for the limelight, post 1950's Bishop Fulton J. Sheen exposure on television and, earlier, Father Coughlin, on the radio. And, generally, Catholics had managed to keep themselves at arm's length from the fringes of the anti-abortion movement and the killing of abortion providers.
During the rise of the Moral Majority and other such groups the Catholic Church was losing priests and nuns and there was no large appetite in America to drive away any more parishioners who differed amongst themselves about contraception and abortion and subjects such as gay rights, favorites of the far right.
But, at the same time, John Paul II was championing the globalization of Catholicism. Like multinational corporations, the pope took his conservative message world wide. Towards the end of the 20th century American Catholicism stagnated. Growth was to be found elsewhere. The pope did not fear any mass exodus of American Catholics because of his old world teachings. And, in time, neither did American Bishops. The Church was ripe for enlistment by the new Bush Administration.
The Religious Right, in the person of Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, had tried in 1995 to co-op Catholics for the Moral Majority, with a new organization, the Catholic Alliance (which has since become an independent group), but it failed miserably. It has taken Bush II to lure the Catholic hierarchy into its public relations web.
The Bush decision on stem cell research pleases the old stewards of the Religious Right (Rev. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson), whereas Catholic conservatives find nothing to be happy about. But yet the Bush administration has been able to pad the shallow histories of the televangelists with the centuries old institutional power and reach of the Catholic Church.
Bush's stem-cell decision has made a few businesses potentially successful beyond reason. By limiting federally-sponsored research to the some 60 stem cell lines now in existence, the entities owning those line stand to make huge profits down the road. It is as if Bush has decided which gems are to be rare and most valued.
And, it may be no coincidence, that HHS Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, is now overseeing the entire project, since it is the University of Wisconsin which is to be one of the largest beneficiaries of the Bush decision. Universities throughout the land have been making deals with the devil, yoking the research done at public universities to private profit shared with business.
It will be interesting to see how long the Catholic hierarchy will lend its prodigious cover to Bush's pact with the Religious Right. And, of course, that is why Bush journeyed to be photographed with the pope, the best face possible for the new Religious Right.
Now that the great federal budget surplus has disappeared as completely as Chandra Levy, it was especially dispiriting to watch the two co-chairs of President Bush's closed-to-the-public, privatizing-minded Social Security Reform Commission, Richard D. Parsons, AOL's CEO, and former Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, demonstrate that the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. At a news conference following the commission's recent closed meeting, Parsons fatuously claimed that Social Security is backed only by a "promise." Moynihan woke up long enough to say that "the promise will be kept."
The "promise", of course, is manifested in the current Social Security surplus, the only surplus left in Bush's budget. It is the money in the much-maligned lock box, the Social Security trust fund, an accounting designation. But there is no "fund," no cache of dollars safe from Congress, there is only trust, trust that the government will fulfill its promises.
The largely Cato Institute-staffed presidential commission owes its existence to the Cato Institute itself. For the last quarter of a century the Washington D.C.-based libertarian think tank has been campaigning for the privatization of Social Security. It owns the website socialsecurity.org, not the government.
The Cato Institute made promiscuous use of a poll which asked young people, "Do you believe in UFOs?" And, "Do you think you will ever get Social Security benefits?" More youngsters thought there were flying saucers hovering over their home towns.
Those results were the Cato's Institute's most repeated sound bite for a decade. Though, when you ask young people if they spend time thinking about retirement, you'll get the same low number. As Adam Smith wrote long ago, if youth wasn't contemptuous of risk, irrationally sure of success, you'd never get them to be poorly-paid soldiers.
Social Security did not counter the years of negative publicity with an equally effective education program, so, even at this late date, pessimism about the program remains.
President Bush still retains a young person's brash defiance. Stuart Stevens, a "political strategist" in the Bush campaign, writes in his insider's account, The Big Enchilada, that George W. was all for privatizing Social Security, not even wanting polling done showing that young people favored changing (because of their low expectations of getting benefits) Social Security. Bush doubtless had already heard about the UFOs.
Stubbornly, the president pushes ahead, regardless of the change in the budget weather, the stock market's march backwards, the tax-cut aided disappearance of the surplus.
What even young people can't buy on the open market is an inflation-indexed annuity, which is what the current Social Security system provides, beyond disability and survivor benefits. Every time a pro-privatizer claims that young people want to invest in private accounts, I say, go right ahead, nothing is stopping them. They are already in place and the government provides tax incentives to use them. But young people (as well as old) more often chose credit card debt over IRAs.
"Reforming" Social Security is more tax policy legislation disguised as retirement planning. If President Bush thinks lowering taxes for the wealthy is a Republican "tradition," as he has been quoted telling associates, his yen to privatize Social Security is just more tax cuts for the wealthy.
The well-off don't complain about Social Security since they are wealthy enough to take care of themselves. It is the middle class that is concerned. Indeed, the Cato Institute (and a lot of Republicans) thinks everyone should take care of themselves, which is why it wants Congress to do away with the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Energy, Commerce, Agriculture, Interior and Education. But, at this point, the Bush Administration only agrees wholeheartedly with its desires to diminish Social Security.
Republican rhetoric is full of the "scare" word these days, that Democrats want to scare the public over the raiding of the Social Security surplus to pay for the tax cut down the road. Of course, it is all taxes. Social Security itself is a rebate, a commitment of one generation to the next. But, sooner or later, young people get older and stop thinking there are UFOs and come to believe they might actually live long enough to worry if their money will run out when they retire.
Though Rep. Gary Condit knew millions of people would be watching his conversation with Connie Chung on ABC's Primetime program, he seemed certain there was one person who would never hear what he had to say: Chandra Levy.
For a man who may be innocent of any involvement in Levy's disappearance, Congressman Condit failed to persuade the public that he isn't capable of doing anything worse than lying. When Ms. Chung asked him if he had killed Chandra Levy, Condit looked at the floor.
Back on the Hill, politicians of all stripes are calling for Condit's resignation, or at least his removal from committee positions, particularly his seat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. And the man who can do something about that, Rep. Richard Gephardt, had unencouraging things to say about the Modesto, Ca. Representative. But, the most startling thing Gephardt said was not about Condit, but about his colleagues, saying that Condit's behavior, "adds to the general perception that politics are no good and politicians are a bunch of bums."
That may or may not be the general perception, but Minority Leader Gephardt claimed it was, at the same time that members of Congress and newspapers throughout the land were falling all over themselves to praise North Carolina's Senator Jesse Helms, who announced he would not seek another term in the Senate.
I suppose if Adolf Hitler had lived to retirement age some people would have found something nice to say about him. Be sure, I am not comparing Helms to Hitler. Senator Helms is very small bore, no world-class madman, just a common provincial bigot, though a man who gets very upset if anyone thinks badly of him. His fellow Senators and others in Washington have spent a lifetime working with him, cooperating with him, cajoling him, and they all felt obliged to say good things about him when he announced his pending departure.
Another long-serving Senator, South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, did not make a televised appearance announcing his expected retirement, since he seems incapable of making a public statement, according to his fellow Senator Fritz Hollings. But, whenever Thurmond departs, there will be many pleasant remarks about him, too, delivered by respectful colleagues.
There are other things, beyond Rep. Condit, that foster what Rep. Gephardt calls the general perception of the public of the bum-ness of Washington politicians.
For one, the fact that campaign finance reform appears to be going down in flames and unmourned by almost everyone in Congress. The hypocrisy of those involved exceeds even that displayed by Rep. Condit. After years of safe votes on the subject, when push finally came to shove, when McCain-Feingold made it appear that something binding would be passed, the members caved.
The passage of George W. Bush's budget-busting tax cut for the wealthy, with the help of a dozen Democrats in the Senate, is another, regardless of the likelihood of some small attempt at rollbacks of the most egregious handouts to the rich that are likely to come.
The watering down of the Patients' Bill of Rights, to keep HMO's protected and shielded from litigation, is yet another genuflection to corporate power. The energy bill, with its tax write-offs to Vice President Cheney's former business associates, is another give away.
What Rep. Gephardt admitted in his statement was that the general impression ("politics are no good and politicians are a bunch of bums") was in place way before Chandra Levy disappeared and the sordid history of Rep. Condit was exposed.
With all the comparisons made between Condit and Bill Clinton, one pertinent one has been left out. It was during the highly partisan impeachment process that the shabby reputation of Congress that Gephardt now complains of was cemented in the public mind.
Congress looked bad then, and, thanks to the wayward Rep. Condit, the same lurid spotlight still falls on the whole body and, as Gephardt laments, the general perception has not gone away.
The destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the devastation of the Pentagon by kamikaze hijackers has marked September 11th as more than a new day of infamy. We have been hurtled backwards through time, to the Middle Ages, to the world of hand to hand combat, just as surely as the two giant towers dropped down, blooming in reverse, two dark flowers, time-lapse fashion, sinking back into the earth.
If these horrendous strikes are the work of Osama bin Laden, or his disciples, as there is reason to believe, we are seeing fanaticism coupled with money being able to make a quantum leap, letting terrorists turn our 21 century civilization against itself, by medieval civilization means: knives, force, and the willingness to sacrifice oneself.
The United States has already tried to kill Bin Laden at least once, but has failed. Doubtless, he is ready to be a martyr himself, as were the hijackers.
President Bush said last Wednesday, "This is an enemy who preys on innocent and unsuspecting people, then runs for cover..." But, of course, the trouble is, the hijackers didn't run for cover, they martyred themselves.
Terrorists seem to want to do nothing but create terror. The Islamic fundamentalist ruling party of Afghanistan, the Taliban, has been creating terror in its own land. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is attempting to erase the past, destroy cultural memory, the country's history.
When the Taliban leaders dynamited the towering Bamiyan Buddhas, they did so with no more or no less motivation than those who targeted the equally iconic towers of Western capitalism and American power, the World Trade Center.
Obviously, there are those in the Middle East who want our country to join their world, full of terrorist conflict, broken bodies and torn flesh, to partake of and to share in their abundant hatreds.
But, even though the 9/11 attack came during the anniversary week of the 1978 Camp David peace accords, its intent appeared to be solely punishment, rather than an attempt at persuasion.
The country seemed as unprepared as it was on the first day of infamy, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. On Tuesday, under the sunny blue skies of both cities, New York and Washington, we seemed awash in innocence as well as ignorance.
President Bush was obviously shaken during his first remarks, vowing to "hunt" the perpetrators down, given on a Florida school's stage, where he had been reading to children. It re-enforced the sense of unpreparedness, the childish setting and decorations behind him.
This is a foreign policy problem made horridly domestic. We will all suffer its consequences. Everything becomes more serious. Politics as it has been discussed the last year becomes secondary, almost ludicrous in some of its concerns. Lockboxes, Gary Condit, tax cuts.
It is difficult to be at war without actually being at war, but we all will be getting a taste of that contradiction soon. "Bring the war home" was one of the more off-putting slogans of the anti-war movement of the Vietnam war era.
But, Middle Eastern terrorists have found the most effective way to do that. Yet, war usually has an object, a goal. But, beyond punishment of the Great Satan, beyond making us share their world of rubble and suffering, repression and fundamentalism, it is hard to find a motive. Certainly it is not to help the Palestinians achieve peace with the Israelis.
Timothy McVeigh found a way to turn our modern culture against itself with fertilizer and a rent-a-truck. These terrorists did more with even less investment.
They managed to disrupt the entire country for days. The economical costs are astronomical, the loss of productivity and capital investment approaches a 100 billion dollars. No one ever has gotten more bang for a buck.
President Bush has called the attack "the first war of the 21st century" and assured the country "war" will be waged against terrorism and the states that sponsor it. As the president calls up the National Guard and the Pentagon plots revenge, what we are unfortunately in store for is not a war, but a crusade.
At the end of week two in our post-WTC world, it is clear that the literature on psychological trauma will become all too familiar. Unfortunately, trauma's effects linger.
The stupefying wreckage of the Twin Towers and surrounding structures will take months to haul away. The scar that is there on the face of New York City will take years, if ever, to completely heal.
Like the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the hijackers beat the longest odds. At first, it appeared that the terrorists were four for four in their hijacking attempts. But, logic alone cries out that there must have been other aborted attempts that day, or the terrorists' spectacular beating of the odds is even more phenomenal. That the FBI wasn't on the scene in airports interviewing the deplaning passengers after the FAA grounded all flights, was yet another example of our unpreparedness.
The history of law enforcement preventing national disasters is not reassuring. And past experience doesn't seem to teach them the right lessons.
President Bush's universally lauded speech to Congress had its unsettling aspects. One was his look of satisfaction at how well it was being received. The president told us to brace ourselves for a "lengthy campaign" and one of trauma's legacies is the intrusive reliving of the event.
Heightened security everywhere is a daily reminder of the possibility that the nation will become a police state with a smiling face. The cumbersome new screening at airports makes life more difficult for the 99% of ordinary passengers, but whether it stops terrorists bent on wholesale murder remains to be seen.
The country is in a period of national mourning while preparing for a war, as the president put it, "unlike any other we have seen" and people throughout the nation are still as dazed as those walking the New York streets that Tuesday morning. The stock markets and consumer confidence continue to reel.
Osama bin Laden has been described as transformed when his Mujahdeen beat back the Soviet Union when it attacked Afghanistan in 1979. But, it wasn't just that victory of attrition, it was the vision of the Soviet Union disintegrating a few years later that convinced bin Laden of his unearthly powers. In one terrible way he is a modern man: he knows how to leverage terror.
Now the Reverend Jerry Falwell is running around apologizing for the words and ideas he and Pat Robertson shared on The 700 Club, calling them out of context and insensitive. Though Falwell's original remarks certainly were from the heart. He said that pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, the ACLU and liberals, "all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"
Obviously, Rev. Falwell was suffering some sort of trauma, his inhibitions unchecked, since ranting against secular America is exactly what the Taliban, the Islamic Jihad, and other Muslim fundamentalists have been doing for as long as he has.
Though the great American secular past times have returned, baseball, football, sports in general, they have all come back subdued and chastened, games played under enhanced security. Clearly "globalization" is now more than just a slogan. The disappearance of the WTC has revealed our own elaborate interconnectedness and its cascade of multiplying consequences.
Trauma literature speaks of flashbacks, hypervigilence, depression, avoidance, bursts of anger, conditions associated with post-traumatic stress syndrome. We are all veterans now.
And, if we manage to stamp out those who are responsible, as President Bush vows to do, will we ever have the energy and the wherewithal to eliminate what caused so many terrorists to throw away their lives in pursuit of their objective, to wound us all, succeeding in the process beyond their wildest dreams?
The military will attempt to excise the cancerous growth of terrorists cells that exist here there and everywhere. Such an operation is always traumatic. But it is even more difficult to discover what bred the disease and find its cure. And Falwell and Robertson, if they looked deeply into their own hearts, might even recognize some of the causes and symptoms, ones they share.
Lest we forget, in the pre-WTC world, before everything changed, this past Labor Day President Bush paid a visit to two unions, first a Carpenters Union training center in Wisconsin, in the town of Kaukauna, outside of Green Bay, and then a Teamsters barbecue in Detroit. The two appearances were not accidental, as some have noticed. Bush, regardless of his campaign claims that he is "a uniter, not a divider," picked the two unions as way stations in his continuing strategy to weaken labor across the country.
The Carpenters Union recently disaffiliated itself with the AFL-CIO, labor's national organization. The AFL-CIO had sanctioned the Carpenters Union for raiding other jurisdictions (Article 20 infractions.) The Carpenters had been objecting to paying dues to the AFL-CIO for some time, and ignored the large fines assessed for its raiding violations. Nonetheless, its defection weakens the power of the AFL-CIO and Bush's visit was planned to show his approval of the union's independence.
Likewise, his visit to the Teamsters barbecue, though the attendance was described as "sparse." The Teamsters, over the years, have been threatening to leave the AFL-CIO and Bush would be delighted if they did. He was rewarding the union's support of his energy policy, though he is still trying to cajole their president, James P. Hoffa, to go along with Bush's wish to have Mexican trucks share American highways with Teamster-driven rigs.
The Teamsters, regardless of its high national profile, is a union with a long history of decentralization, creating many independent locals, who don't always follow the national headquarters' line. For years, the Teamster's national office had endorsed Republican candidates for president (though Gore got the nod in 2000), but numerous locals have, in the past, promoted Democratic candidates. Indeed, on Labor Day in Detroit, there were pickets at Bush's appearance with signs of discontent, one reading, "Teamsters This Is Divide and Conquer."
Bush would like to follow in the footsteps, not of his father, but of Ronald Reagan, who hobbled labor so effectively during the PATCO strike in the early '80s. The Air Traffic Controllers Union supported Ronald Reagan, but when they struck for better working conditions after Reagan was elected, he fired them and hired (and commandeered from the National Guard) replacement workers, setting in motion a wave of copycat private-sector labor/management tactics.
President Bush praised himself in Detroit, telling the Teamsters, "Some folks might have thought they took a risk inviting a Republican here, but I stand before you as a proud American, first and foremost." He seemed to not be aware of the Teamsters' history of Republican Presidential endorsements, but, of course, he is aware: he was just being disingenuous. He certainly recalled Hoffa's appearance at the Republican convention in 2000 and the fact that the Teamsters hired Scott Reed, Bob Dole's 1996 campaign manager, as a lobbyist.
Bush had told the Carpenters earlier in Wisconsin, "I'm concerned about working families." And, "Even though people are hurting today, and I know they are, I'm confident of the basic underpinnings of the American economy. I'm confident in the productivity levels of our people."
He should be, since the day before the holiday, it was announced that Americans continue leading the world in hours worked, pulling further ahead of even the industrious Japanese. Bush might take a month's vacation, but most Americans still have to fight to get two-week's worth.
Douglas McCarron, the president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, who took over a union with declining membership, had a number of warm things to say about the President in Wisconsin (after hitching a ride there in Air Force One), including praising Bush's "real interest" in worker training.
Bush, in return, promised that he would always take McCarron's phone calls. And, doubtless, he will take Jimmy Hoffa's, too, or any union president who is willing to talk about leaving the AFL-CIO, such is the President Bush's thirst to continue to divide and conquer and to render the AFL-CIO less of a threat to his re-election than it was the first time around.
Osama bin Laden and the Taliban rail against the unhealthy influences of Western Culture, but the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are hideous examples of just that sort of corruption. What the hijackers carried out was the Hollywoodization of terror.
The cartoonish nature of the attack--Let's hijack planes and fly them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center!--is the same type of fantastic plotting found in scores of international thrillers and the films made from them.
Since the dawn of movies (the 1933 King Kong), continuing through the decades, including 1977's Sunday, where Middle Eastern terrorists steal the Goodyear blimp to crash it into the Super Bowl stadium during the game, film makers have long demonstrated the use of planes as weapons. Hollywood gives audiences more blown-up buildings than happy endings. One reason the country was unprepared for such an outrageous attack was that such suicidal methods have been confined to fantasy and were not thought possible--or even probable--by our various security agencies.
But movies are often nothing more than our collective dreams and a lot of them have been violent and apocalyptic. Though, like children's stories full of monsters, they act to relieve us of our fears. But our dreams have turned against us and they have become our nightmares.
Now people are stocking up on the props found in the many other films of disaster and mass destruction: gas masks, remedies for biological agents, weapons, survivalist gear.
While the public buys as much reassuring merchandise as it can afford, Congress is being urged to cut chunks out of the Constitution and the capital gains tax. A week after the WTC and Pentagon attacks, the Wall Street Journal, still under the spell of years of unchecked Clinton hatred, urged President Bush to make use of this time of national shock to ram rod through Congress all the partisan programs he could. The WSJeditorial called it "a unique political moment."
Following the Journal's advice, Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared before congressional hearings, demanding to rid the Department of Justice of the hindrances of habeas corpus, favoring the British system used against suspected IRA partisans, of detention without trial.
The failure of the Department of Justice, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, to uncover and thwart the WTC and Pentagon attacks, had little to do with constitutional impediments and everything to do with lapses of judgment, intelligence and analysis. Ashcroft was indulging in the most unappealing sort of scapegoating.
Following along, Republicans have been banging the drum for the wholesale gutting of the capital gains tax, so much so Alan Greenspan and former treasury secretary and revered Wall Street personage Robert Rubin felt it necessary to speak out against it.
The Democratic leadership is just beginning to object to the bandwagon rolling over it. Unity brought about by the attacks (the Wall Street Journal crowed, "Americans of all stars and stripes are uniting"), support for a president of a country under siege, can't be used as a blank check for the overthrow of constitutional safeguards and domestic tax policy.
Given the long-term nature of the Bush administration's response to the terrorist threat, with its parallel campaigns of military, financial and political warfare, Congress too has to stop thinking so short term.
Political disagreements that were so heated before September 11th have not gone away, just temporarily put aside, such as the president's push for privatizing Social Security.
Previous to the WTC attack, the conventional wisdom about terrorism went like this: Terrorists could kill some people to make their point, but not too many, lest they bring too much attention, anger and national retribution upon themselves. The destroyers of the WTC have succeeded too well for their own good.
Unfortunately, all hindsight is not 20/20. Looking back correctly is as difficult as accurately predicting the future. There should be both no rush to judgment and no rush to throw out what has come before. What is obvious is those who live within a Hollywood culture are less corrupted by it than those who stand outside it and hate--and believe--what they see.
The many photographs of President Bush with Islamic clerics and other religious figures the past four weeks do not look out of place. George W. Bush, much more than his predecessors, spent the first eight months of his presidency dealing with, and being photographed amongst, ministers, priests and rabbis, principally because of his much touted faith-based initiative.
The vocabulary of religion has never been avoided by the president, especially when he was a candidate. He ascribes his deliverance from alcohol to a rebirth of Christian faith. That Bush is the president forced to deal with religious fanaticism and its murderous aftermath is a pointed historical coincidence.
Doubtless many people, besides myself, have tried to picture Al Gore dealing with our current set of circumstances. It would have been, of course, an Al Gore without a beard.
It has been difficult imagining Gore as president now. Strangely, President Bush has been more of a blank slate for these horrendous events to be played out upon. One thing that is certain, though, is a President Gore would have had to endure an onslaught of hostile criticism from Republicans, who, after eight years of Clinton bashing, could not have checked their knee-jerk reactions. Gore would not have been granted the wholesale retreat from criticism that Bush has enjoyed.
The September 11th attacks had been planned, obviously, without regard to who would be president when they occurred. Though Gore was the Vietnam veteran, the Clinton Administration's residue, Bill Clinton's unease with the military (and its with him), may well have carried over. And, because of that, a more quick and violent retaliation in the Middle East may have occurred than President Bush has felt necessary to carry out.
One has to travel far back in time to find any parallels to the daily hostility that a core of vitriolic Republican zealots heaped upon a two-term president as Bill Clinton endured. And to think Al Gore would have escaped that, even in the present national crisis, is just wishful thinking.
Though, during the past weeks, the Bush Administration has been looking a lot like a Gore Administration might have looked. The delayed, deliberate military response on Bush's part is doubtless what Gore's best impulses would have liked to do.
The instantaneous, generous bailout of the airline companies is the sort of economic policy Republicans would have wanted to strangle Gore for, had he done it. The only Senate vote against the bailout was cast by the millionaire Illinois Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald, and he was assisted by the Democratic millionaire Senator from New Jersey, the former Wall Street tycoon, Jon Corzine, in crafting an amendment making part of the bailout an equity loan, similar to the long-ago Chrysler rescue.
On a past Fox News Sunday, Bush's right hand man, Andrew Card, said a little "Keynesian" economics was necessary now, a remark that would have been a Republican heresy a month ago, though Gore would have found such a policy--big government helping to bailout a recession--entirely congenial. If Bush wants a Democratic economic stimulus, he could stop considering it and urge Congress to raise the minimum wage.
Though, in the short term, this national crisis has been a lift for the president, letting him emerge as a leader as never before, that bloom will fade (as it has with Rudy Giuliani, who needed to back off holding on to the mayor's office beyond the end of his term) as the weeks drag on.
The frivolity of the pre-Sept. 11th press coverage, the 24/7 focus on Gary Condit and other forgotten subjects, has been replaced, for a while at least, with more intense investigation of serious issues. And, some of that eventually will be difficult for the new administration, which, pre-Sept. 11th, enjoyed some respite from the most harsh scrutiny, because of the media's appetite for scandal.
The Bush Administration, though, will continue to try to control the flow of information, especially regarding military strikes. And since it did that so efficiently during the Papa Bush Administration, there is no reason to believe it won't be done well again. But, twelve years ago, the press was just embarking on the 24/7 news cycle. Its appetites are now larger, and, with any luck, more discerning and sophisticated.
The era of big government has returned, as Dick Cheney would say, big time. What hadn't been seen for weeks was the vice president himself, since he gave a gripping account of what went on in the White House September 11th on Meet the Press the following Sunday.
Cheney made it clear his and the president's roles "were reversed" and he said that he told Bush not to return to Washington until he, Cheney, gave the all clear. The program's moderator, Tim Russert, said, not hiding his surprise, "You told him to stay away from Washington?"
Cheney's candor was not appreciated by the president's image makers and he had been kept under wraps until George W. Bush, front and center by himself for weeks, had the first prime-time presidential news conference in six years and took a question about Cheney's whereabouts.
But big government has also been front and center. Leo Gerard, the president of the Steelworkers Union, remarked recently, when the twin towers were attacked "people didn't get on the phone to Bill Gates,@"it was "the unionized workforce of New York that came to ground zero and risked their lives."
Though the hijackers wanted to strike a blow against Western values and capitalism itself--it is called the World Trade Center, not the American Trade Center--they did more damage to ordinary workers and organized labor than to the capitalist system. Reports show that business plans for foreign investment haven't fallen, though they have for U.S. investment.
Privately, union leaders are discouraged, saying no attack could have hurt the labor movement worse; it accelerated the recession and is affecting some of the most heavily unionized industries, airlines, hotels, restaurants. New York City is a union town and added to the general human sorrow was the terrible direct toll the many deaths took on union membership.
Republican rhetoric over the last decade has been full of anti-government fervor. Hostility to unions was one of its chief hallmarks. In the early weeks of his administration Bush's attack on unions was straightforward: reversing the ergonomic standards, suspending the ban on the federal government doing business with companies that flout labor law.
One reason for the show of bipartisanship recently on display is that the Bush Administration has had to drop so many dearly-held Republican goals. Instead of abolishing agencies, Bush has had to create a new one, installing Tom Ridge with "Cabinet status" to run the Office of Homeland Security (and to prepare Ridge for a possible run as veep in '04.)
But organized labor suffers from the inability to strike without incurring criticism from both the business world and ordinary citizens for being less than patriotic. Yet two weeks after Sept. 11th Oklahoma passed a Right-to-Work Law--a piece of anti-union legislation that hadn't been approved in nearly two decades. The airline bailout aided the shareholders, but not the thousands of union members who got laid off. And China was admitted into the WTO and union protests opposing that were set aside.
If President Bush wishes to embrace more New York fire and police personnel for photo-ops, he should embrace their unionization and curtail his own anti-union activities. Shortly before Sept. 11th, President Bush appeared at a Carpenters Union Labor Day event, rewarding its president, Douglas McCarron, with a ride on Air Force One, for splitting from the AFL-CIO and helping to divide and weaken the union movement.
Extraordinary circumstances have created the current contradictory actions and policies on the part of President Bush and if there is anything good to come from the horrendous events of Sept. 11, it should be the acknowledgment that the old conservative arguments that dominated Bush's early months in office, the endless procession of privatization he championed, the ethos of individualism over all, and his own blaming of Washington and big government for being the problem and not the solution, are flawed and divisive policies.
Unions are down, times are tough. Bush's cease fire of rancor against labor should be made permanent. As the Steelworkers president pointed out, when the twin towers fell, when things are bad, who do you go to first for help?
If it is Middle-Eastern terrorists sending small amounts of anthrax to media outlets and politicians along the East Coast, their understanding of American culture is better than many have given them credit for. First, they slowed down air travel; now they are slowing down the mail, not to mention the government, given the hasty departure of the House after anthrax was sent to the Senate Majority Leader Daschle's office.
If it is some home-grown version of a reclusive bio-bomber, attempting to alarm the country, he or she is working in coincidental, syncopated consort with the September 11 hijackers.
America in the early 21st century is one big china shop, especially our cosmopolitan centers. And it only requires a few bulls let loose to create havoc. But the current mayhem is a strange sort: everything continues to slow down. Not just travel, mail, government, but the usual rapid response to protect the First Amendment is slowing down, giving way to abridgements which may, given the anti-terror bills the Senate and House passed, become permanent.
The air that we fear may be poisoned throughout our country is both literal and figurative: what we breathe and what we believe. Freedom of religion may stop short for fundamentalists, those who appear to shun freedom. Our lives slow down in the smallest ways: now we look twice, at a person, at a package, at a place, or what is out of place.
As the economy continues to slow down, other institutions fall into line. Television networks delay airing their prepared programs. CBS's new series about the CIA, "The Agency," keeps having its episodes yanked because they are too up to date. 24/7 cable news, fixed on the same subject hour after hour, has the paradoxical effect of stopping time. Consumers cut back, their plans are postponed, the ripple effects move outward.
But some things need to be speeded up. In July, 2000, theJournal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published a report that showed that only 5% of the nation's 250 best-prepared hospitals have the training, equipment or supplies of necessary antidotes and antibiotics to treat chemical and biological attack victims.
Preliminary data reveal that there are inadequate supplies of equipment and that medical schools aren't training their students how to treat such victims. The study's co-author, David Ghilarducci, M.D., an ER resident in Kalamazoo, MI., claims the weakest link in the emergency response network are the hospitals themselves.
He points out that most profitable hospitals have just enough capacity to handle a typical daily load of patients. Yearly flu epidemics tax the resources of emergency departments, resulting in severe hospital overcrowding, showing that excess capacity is an investment hospitals have been unwilling to make.
But some excess capacity is on the way. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson wants $1.5 billion to stockpile smallpox vaccines and other drugs.
The hijackers of Sept. 11th understood their actions would be broadcast around the world. Their terror was large and hideously flamboyant. It is hard to believe the same group would have the moxie to scale down a second wave of attacks and calibrate the consequences of mailing for pennies envelopes primed with powder. These bio-terrorists are not hoping for large body counts, but are playing with our heads.
And they are succeeding. The first strikes were dramatic and murderous, the second more subtle and, though not as immediately lethal, more pervasively threatening, harder to defend against.
The Bush Administration continues to wage its new war in Afghanistan in old ways, much like George W.'s father did in the Gulf and Clinton and NATO did in Kosovo. Now special forces are on the ground to aid the Northern Alliance. That, too, has a disturbingly familiar ring.
But the slowing down continues here at home and the speeding up that we need, in preparedness, in resolve, in our collective re-imagining, is a much greater battle and may well take more years than even George Bush has contemplated for his war on terror unlike any other.
The difference between a tourist and a pilgrim is motive: tourists come to see, pilgrims come to pray. I'm not sure where I fall, but I traveled to New York City to look at the ruins of the World Trade Center, not without plenty of mixed emotions.
I went to graduate school in Manhattan when the twin towers were being built; for a number of years, after they opened, I saw them everyday, straight down the end of my street.
My wife had a long-standing meeting with a financial firm with offices at the WTC. She expected it to be canceled, but it wasn't; the firm moved uptown. I went along. I hadn't flown since before September 11th, so I was interested to see all the new security.
Though there were National Guard about (one young lad, with a long rifle slung across his back, was buying a Big Mac at the airport McDonald's in Newark), the major difference was the prohibition about carrying pocket knives and the like aboard the flight, along with the constant display of a photo ID. If the beefed-up security is meant to reassure the passengers, it only did so for about half as many, since the planes were half full. During the summer when I flew there was hardly an empty seat.
The financial firm hadn't canceled the meeting, since it wanted to get "back to normal." The back-to-normal mantra is heard often from the White House, but as my wife, an economist, puts it, President Bush is paraphrasing the famous lines of JFK's inaugural, "Ask not what the economy can do for you, ask what you can do for the economy."
The House Republicans are not asking the same thing of large corporations, though. Their economic recovery bill strips away the normal corporate tax and gives them back a bonanza in rebates. But, the rest of us are to take up the slack.
And New York City's population was attempting business as usual, walking about in a post-Blitz daze, spacey but determined. In the bay window of the West 11th street townhouse, which was rebuilt after American terrorists, the Weathermen, accidently blew it up in 1970, was a N.Y. Yankee's teddy bear holding an American flag.
We went to see the WTC ruins and I was surprised at how few gawkers there were. Wall Street was back to work. Most people seemed to belong, or be employed in the area. Many small business sported signs: We're Back, We're Open. Our Phones Don't Work.
It was a gray day and approaching from the tip of Manhattan, through Battery Park, you first see the large, empty trucks, lined up on the narrow side streets. At a distance the long necks of large cranes are visible, titled over, giving them the aspect of tall birds, peering down at something.
But, when you come closer, the air is acrid and tastes of char. It is as if you've come upon a not-quite-extinct volcano newly arisen in the urban concrete jungle: massive and cratered, still smoking, its rim heaped up with debris, the distinctive ribs of blasted walls protruding.
Everything in the area is raw and primitive. Not just the ruins, but the feelings at large and the people working there, and those guarding the site. It is, after all, a mass grave. Rude signs are spray painted on broken pieces of plywood. They Will Be Avenged. Fort Apache, NYPD. No Photos, No Videos On This Street.
At night, what is seen on TV is the large blister of light that illuminates the site. But, during the day, it is all elemental, everything ground into the monochrome of destruction, gray, wet, descending to a colorless neutral, the only variation being the ubiquitous bright American flags.
A sergeant in the National Guard remarked the rubble was still burning at a thousand degrees. A woman who worked at the WTC, but was at home in Brooklyn, told my wife she saw the second plane hit the tower. "It swallowed it up," she said.
And that is why the City's residents seem so shell shocked. The buildings did swallow the terror. If the two large jets had just crashed into any of Manhattan's neighborhoods, the catastrophe and loss of life would have been huge. The towers, in that way, saved the rest of the city. They took the hit. And in the stunned, stoic grief New Yorkers display, it is clear that they all realize that fact, even if it is left unsaid.
When President Bush announced his unprecedented war on terrorism shortly after the September 11th attacks, what he didn't count on was that terrorists would start a second wave through the U.S. mail a few days later.
Copies of the anthrax-laden threatening letters that have been reproduced do not seem to be in the same prose style as the various Al Qaeda training volumes that have been discovered, or Osama bin Laden's various screeds and pronouncements.
Two of the three letters released by the Justice Department have the line, misspelled, "Take Penacilin Now." It is hard to believe bin Laden's terrorist group would be so conscientious (or so ambivalent about what they were doing), and so medically astute, since the now famous Cipro, it turns out, is the drug preferred for Russian-created anthrax, not the run-of-the-mill sort thus far sent, which penicillin will treat satisfactorily.
Our month-long war in Afghanistan has not yet had notable successes, whereas the Taliban has managed to kill Abdul Haq, the Afghan resistance leader and former head of its national police, one of men the Bush administration hoped would be able to assist in the formation of a new government. The difficulty of blowing up an already blasted and broken landscape is apparent to all and our misfires stand out starkly: the Red Cross warehouse twice bombed and the pictures of dead children broadcast by the Qatar-funded Arab television outlet, al-Jazeera.
Though President Bush and members of his administration have vowed to root out "state-sponsored" terrorism, it is clear that Osama bin Laden has been sponsoring the Taliban, not the other way around.
Most freelance terrorists have been notoriously short of cash, especially our domestic type. Timothy McVeigh's feat of blowing up the Oklahoma federal building was mind-boggling, based on the very limited investment of an infrequently employed young man. We now see what can be done if the pampered son of a Saudi billionaire, one in possession of his own fortune, is so inclined.
In the past, groups trafficking in terror have needed to be successful fundraisers, such as the IRA in earlier times. And, of course, there are terrorist states.
But, bin Laden is a new 21st century sort of terrorist. A rich man, an adept capitalist, a CEO of terror who has many underlings, junior executives and subsidiaries, to watch over and do his business.
One of the most disturbing things about the 19 airline hijackers is that 15 of them have Saudi connections (either visas or citizenship) and one was Egyptian. But we are currently bombing Afghanistan, the country which has been harboring bin Laden (as President Bush memorably said, "Cough him up and his people today we'll reconsider what we're doing to your country.")
Saudi Arabia is not a state. It is a dynasty, a kingdom, ruled by a one clan for nearly a century. Its land is too expensive to turn into training camps and the like, which is why bin Laden has camped out in the cheap real estate of Afghanistan. Our government, along with the Bush family and the other oil men of his administration, has had a long partnership with the Saudis, protecting them from the surrounding regimes, while they provide us with reasonably priced oil. The President understands that deal. His father was once head of the CIA, the organization that has acted as the go-between for the oil companies, the Saudis, and whatever administration occupies the White House.
Such conflicts of interest keep the Bush administration gingerly stepping through the minefield of their past involvement with the oil sheiks as it conducts the war on terror. But, it is equally clear, that if we are committed to dealing with states that sponsor terrorism, we need to turn our attention to Saudi Arabia; though, it appears, as happened in the Gulf War and, later, when we lost American lives in 1995 and '96 when military centers and residences were bombed in Saudi Arabia, we are following their lead, rather than the Saudis bowing to our demands.
Osama bin Laden is a capital-rich terrorist who is camped out in a client state he bankrolls. We are willing to bomb the caves of Afghanistan, because it is too costly to bomb anything else that actually supports him.
It is clear the war on terrorism is hard on all of us. It is even caused New York City police and firemen to fight each other over how many firemen could continue to search for the dead at Ground Zero. The police were following New York City's Mayor Giuliani's decree to cut back on the manpower; the firemen were protesting the reduction.
And the Democrats and Republicans are fighting each other, once again. As Senate office buildings are being gassed for safety sake, the rhetoric on the House floor has become especially gaseous. Lobbyists have succeeded in preventing federalization of the airport security workforce, given the recent House vote, even though the Senate wants the opposite. President Bush at first said either was fine with him, though now he has been reminded of the party line. And House Republicans hope to fashion a bill which stimulates the wealthy to secure more of the country's riches, even though the Democratic-controlled Senate has other ideas for economic recovery.
In a recent Rose Garden impromptu press conference, following a photo op with the President of Nigeria, President Bush announced that he wasn't running the war in Afghanistan--the military was.
He voiced the following unscripted thoughts when asked about curbing military action during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting "I'll let our military speak to that. My own personal attitude is, is that the enemy won't rest during Ramadan, and neither will we. We're going to pursue this war until we achieve our objective. As to the specific times and dates, we'll let the military speak to that. They're in charge of this operation. This is not a political campaign, this is a war. And I respect the chain of command, I honor the chain of command, and I will tell you, our military is doing a very good job."
Those remarks were largely ignored by the press, but in them President Bush was displaying what many feared would be the order of the day in a Bush administration: the president as CEO, delegating power, approving decisions, not taking charge himself. Not that we would want--or expect--a duplication of Lyndon Baines Johnson, personally selecting targets to be bombed in Vietnam. But, it would be preferable if the president claimed to be "in charge." President Bush may know his own limitations, but the American people shouldn't have to guess at them. If Bush respects the chain of command, he is in charge.
But, it is the contrast he used that is especially disturbing. "This is not a political campaign, this is a war." In other words, he might be in charge of unimportant things, like a political campaign, but not serious things, like a war.
Though he was not wasting time running the war, on the domestic security front he also had remained on the sidelines, so much so he finally was brought forward to deliver a flurry of public addresses over the past few days, though his speech writers kept him from using the term "evil-doers," his favorite characterization, one he has repeated more times in a month than all the rest of American presidents combined had used in their lifetimes.
Giving the conflicting messages that had been coming out of the White House, especially during the height of the anthrax threat, people have questioned who is in charge. There appears to be a lot of freelancing going on.
Governor Gray Davis of California tried to put a face on the shroud of unspecific threats the Department of Justice has been throwing out over the country once a week. But the famous suspension bridges of the far west still stand, albeit with National Guard weighing them down, even though the FBI petulantly claims the threats lacks credibility.
The general public, though, appears to be taking on the spirit of Ramadan, cutting back on luxuries, even necessities, flying less, buying less, while those who hold the purse strings on Capitol Hill resist fasting at all. They are trying to clean up, finding a way to put the word "patriot" in every bill they pass.
Tom Ridge, the voice of Homeland Security, has not become the reincarnation of Rudy Giuliani, who managed to sound confident and in charge, even when he didn't know the answer. There are many voices saying many things for the administration and, unfortunately, President Bush sounds just like yet one more.
The calamitous events of the last two months have revealed many things and one of them is the ephemeral nature of Bill Clinton's past presidency--and the huge projected budget surplus he left. Since September 11th Clinton has disappeared from the collective consciousness as much as, if not more than, Al Gore.
With every passing day, Clinton's legacy appears more and more insubstantial. The one thing that does linger from his presidency is his wife's present employment. Sen. Hillary Clinton, thanks to the airplane catastrophes visited upon New York City, appears on television, offering condolences to the citizenry of the beleaguered metropolis and memory is stirred and one asks, who is she married to?
Last week's release of the media consortium's delayed report on the Florida vote does not seem to be breaking news, but breaking into a time capsule and reading about the bad old days. What is proven beyond reasonable doubt, if anything, is that more Floridians who went to vote on that day in November 7, 2000, intended to vote for Al Gore than George W. Bush.
That fact was clear a week or so after the election and that it is confirmed a year later matters little, except in the way all past history matters: lessons learned, or lessons ignored. Indeed, if Theresa LePore had not created her infamous butterfly ballot for Palm Beach county, the political world would be different; but, given the circumstances, that is beside the point.
September 11th has made President Bush a sympathetic character. Originally, he had been the most reluctant of candidates, not appearing eager to run and then not appearing that eager to serve. But, since September, Bush has been forced to confront a world much harsher than the one Bill Clinton left.
Indeed, Clinton exited in the fashion he had come in, trailing scandal and money and pardons, smiling and taking, leaving behind a presidency of failed dreams and missed opportunities, as well as a misused vice president, doomed to a waking half-life of the politically undead.
Clinton survived impeachment and then avoided indictment and settled his own domestic storm by providing his wife a good job in an exciting town. In many ways, Clinton departed and took with him all the luck that came with the office.
Chen Chen, the author of Come Watch the Sun Go Home, a memoir of upheaval and revolution in China during the time of Mao and the Red Guards, recently remarked that, if you believe in Chinese superstition, GW is "bad luck" "Look how many impossible things happened: The Texas flooding, California energy crisis, the Japanese fishing boat, the China spy plane...everything in a very short time, and it simply went downhill, until....He is just bad luck!"
That absence of luck adds to the sympathy Bush now engenders. His self-deprecating humor, which was so cloying when he displayed it pre-Sept 11, now is rather touching, such as when he joked about press coverage during the photo-op "summit" with Russia's President Putin "Whoever thinks that I have the capability or my government has the capability of reining in this press corps simply doesn't understand the American way. I've been trying to tame our press corps ever since I got into politics, and I have failed miserably. They get to express their opinions--sometimes in the form of news."
His presidency has turned out to be more than he bargained for. Bush has had one big turnabout in his life, when he gave up drinking and wild behavior. And not quite a year into his presidency he has had another one: he has had to stop bashing big government, he has had to quit his inclination to go it alone in foreign affairs and become a nation-builder, and economic upheavals have forced him to pay attention to the down and out, both at home and abroad. It is a big change.
One can only hope that Bush will grow because of it (though his quick adoption of secret military tribunals bodes otherwise) and that change will trickle down to the rest of his administration, especially John Ashcroft's rights-curbing Justice Department, and, eventually, to the rapacious House Republicans. If it doesn't, there likely will be fewer House Republicans after 2002.
The anthrax mailer is not bipartisan and that's why he--and it does seem likely he is a he--appears to be a homegrown sort. The direct targets of the mailings have all been favorite whipping posts of the conservative right wing: the gossip tabloids, the anchors of the "liberal" TV networks, East Coast media outlets, and Democratic politicians.
It is unlikely that al-Qaida members or Osama bin Laden's designees joined forces with the Republican National Committee to single out this particular collection of recipients.
The FBI doesn't have a stellar track record in capturing this sort of lone wolf with access to a mailbox. It took the Unabomber's brother to turn him in, not successful skullduggery on the part of the Bureau. Instead of offering $25 million for bin Laden, the government might think of offering it to us all for information leading to the arrest of the anthrax-terrorist. Americans know what that kind of money means.
Twenty-five million is a curious price-point for Osama's head. One explanation given for the amount by a former government official is that it is high enough not to be outbid by bin Laden himself. I'm not sure how that would work. Would bin Laden broadcast to the world at large that he would give 26 million not to turn him in?
I presume 25 thousand would impress most ordinary Afghans, since it is about 5 thousand times the annual per capita income. But, the figure is in the War Lord territory, which, I suppose, the State Department thinks may be a population that knows of bin Laden's whereabouts.
Western culture is creeping back into Kabul, though not necessarily in its most attractive forms. But photos of Indian movie stars are now for sale, along with banned CDs, and some form of cinema. No Harry Potter as yet.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's trusted National Security Advisor, wants women to participate in the formation of whatever government finally rules Afghanistan. Given her own history one sees why, and sympathizes, except that in America's case, her own elevation took about 200 years to bring about, and our country started out with a jump on most of the competition.
But, it doesn't hurt to try. There is a history of women in government in both Pakistan and India and they are at least in the neighborhood.
The recent feel-good energy and arms summit between President Bush and President Putin of Russia revealed the coincidence of both heads of state having two young daughters (besides close family ties to their country's intelligence agencies and oil interests.)
During remarks at a high school in Crawford, Texas, in answer to a question about women's rights in Afghanistan, Bush made a funny slip. Referring to President Putin (though obviously thinking of Putin's wife), Bush said, "She--he is--he knows about women's rights and the importance of them, because he is raging--raising two teenage daughters." Bush chuckled over the "raging" mistake and his audience graciously laughed. "He and I share something in common."
The state of women's rights in Russia came up and Putin, perhaps wanting to bolster his host with odd remarks of his own, after saying "one needs to develop specific gender-oriented programs "for women, he remarked, "But what we should avoid in the course of the implementation of such programs and as an end result of their implementation is that a lady would turn into a man."
One could only recall all the May-Day-parade pictures, and the endless row of men in hats and overcoats photographed standing along the Kremlin's parapet, that for so many years graced the front pages of our newspapers, to know how unlikely that would be in Russia, even today. They, too, are in Afghanistan's neighborhood and if Russia eventually gets to place oil pipelines in Afghanistan, perhaps that will provide some gender-oriented programs for women there.
Such pipelines will cost much more than 25 million. American business has already invested more than 2.5 billion in Russia's Caspian pipeline project. Since President Bush early on invoked the Wild West poster, wanting bin Laden "Dead or Alive," we see how that reward figure, given all the money that is to be spent and is at stake, is but a drop in the bucket.
Rarely does bad news travel slowly, except when it's delivered by an organization paid to be cautious but correct: the National Bureau of Economic Research, the high court of business cycles, has finally declared that the country has been in a recession since March.
Because economists are as fickle as lawyers and will defend the guilty as well as the innocent, a number were found to say the recession was over before it began. Others were more sanguine, claiming the recovery will be quicker because the downturn is "mild." Outright pessimism has become decidedly unfashionable.
Nonetheless, consumer confidence has gone down for the fifth month in a row. There is some wishful thinking in the media these days. The war on terror has curtailed the harshest criticism of the government, given the impulse toward solidarity. And some of that has slopped over to covering the economic battles the country faces.
New car sales have increased, but the auto companies are burning through their cash by offering zero percent interest. Many articles about the recent holiday weekend spending were rosy (Wal-Mart boasted of its increase in sales over Thanksgiving), but if one looks closely another story emerges.
Wal-Mart had a small increase in sales from last year (1.1 billion to 1.25 billion), but it also had opened 100 more stores. As in the airline industry, overcapacity seems to be a problem in the retail sector. Demand for what economists call "inferior goods" may be up, but that is an indicator that doesn't bode well for the economy. World wide, sales of luxury goods are down.
Visiting two up-scale retail districts over the Thanksgiving holidays (the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City and Chicago's own Magnificent Mile) it was easy to get around: the crowds weren't there. In Farragamo's Michigan Avenue store there were more clerks than customers. And the potential shoppers walking past the glittering shops more often than not were speaking a foreign language, mainly German.
Though the recession officially began eight months ago, September 11th solidified it. Never before has one day caused so many parts of the economy to suffer simultaneously. Recessions are usually rolling affairs, things going bad at different times.
But amongst all the layoffs, the economic downturn, the consumer culture stalling, Enron collapsing more quickly than the Taliban, Washington is spending money left and right, despite the fact Bush wants to accelerate his previously passed tax cuts for the wealthy and House Republicans still want to cut corporate taxes retroactively. Deficit spending is back in vogue, though Mitch Daniels, the OMB head, looks forward to reductions in domestic programs (farm subsidies, Medicaid, Medicare.)
Now, there is even talk of a month-long moratorium on paying Social Security taxes. The amount of money may be in the Christmas bonus range (of the free turkey variety) for most Americans, but it will only have the effect of the earlier cash tax rebate, which was little to nothing.
Previous to September 11th Social Security was allegedly running out of money. Now the Bush administration and Congress seem happy to skip a payment for a month (though Daniels wants to cut Social Security, too.) Can't they get their stories straight?
Bush's privatizing-minded Social Security commission is still doing its dark and secret work, though some Republicans are encouraging Bush to back away from it, at least till after the 2002 elections.
But it is a spectacle, especially since one sector's sales has been increasing: while the government is spending like a drunken sailor, it is encouraging the Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, etc.) we are not currently bombing to buy as many advanced weapon systems from us as they can afford, regardless of what peril that puts us and our putative allies in down the road.
A long road, the war against terrorism, as Rumsfeld, et al, keep reminding us, as they try to disarm Afghanistan's Taliban and the members of al-Qaida hiding there, while arming everyone else in the region.
Homeland defense director Tom Ridge has issued yet another blanket security alert for the country, on the heels of Laura Bush's media tour of the holiday-decorated White House. Mrs. Bush hoped for the most publicity possible for the huge gingerbread house baked by White House pastry chef and the 800 pounds of fake snow that was used to make the executive mansion more festive. It was the only chance the public was to have to see the people's house this Christmas season, no matter how many times the President has told people to get rolling and lead a normal life.
Life is not normal at the White House and by canceling tours there, no great display of confidence is shown for the efficacy of security checks in general, either at the president's home, or the nation's airports. Touring the White House ten years ago, I was impressed by the amount of security a person had to endure, just to be one of the curious throng waiting to be guided through.
But now even that level of security, much less a heightened variety, is deemed insufficient. Stopping the tours does end one big headache for the Secret Service and the capitol police. Similarly, John Ashcroft continues to want to reduce the number of headaches law enforcement puts up with because of the Constitution and those pesky rights criminals have when brought to trial.
One can understand the efficiency of military tribunals and the ease with which evil-doers could be dispensed with. Unfortunately, the first Taliban warrior that managed to be quoted saying he supported the September 11th attacks turned out to be an American, a twenty-year-old Californian named John Walker, and therefore doesn't qualify for military tribunals.
If Walker is to be brought to justice, it will have to be back here in the states, where some rights are yet preserved, unless he ends up a victim of some rougher justice at the hands of the new rulers of Afghanistan.
Walker was flushed out of the basement of the Northern Alliance prison fortress after the Taliban forces were routed following its takeover. The Northern Alliance embraces any Afghan Taliban who wants to defect, creating a confusing mix of who's who (which was played out again during the "surrender" of Kandahar), which is why the prison was so easily overrun.
Indeed, our first American casualty, a young CIA officer, Mike Spann, was killed there, made possible by the lax and equivocal security the Northern Alliance had installed. Subsequently, Walker, a convert at 16 to Islam and later the Taliban cause, emerged from hiding and ended up gabbing on CNN.
The CIA has been looking for Americans who speak the native language and Walker certainly qualifies. He may be more of an asset alive than dead.
Needless to say, his parents--his father, at least--were shocked to see their son's condition. Young Walker's case seems a typical California transformation, affecting newspaper heiresses (Patty Hearst), as well as Sara Jane Olson, the woman who can't seem to make up her mind, once a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, now self-convicted of conspiring to plant a pipe bomb under a police car a quarter of a century ago.
Olson keeps on wanting to withdraw her guilty plea, even after making it twice, but a judge in the case finally decreed, no.
John Walker went from being a geeky teenager to a grim Taliban in four short years. Previous to September 11th, our government wouldn't have had much a problem with that. He is not a Robert Garwood, the former marine, the only official American traitor from the Vietnam war, captured by the Vietcong and eventually found guilty of collaborating with the enemy.
Walker is a kid, though a kid no more. If he had been around years earlier, fighting the Soviets as a mujahedin, he would have stood the chance to have been compared to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, since Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union message declared his support for "freedom fighters" from "Afghanistan to Nicaragua," later proclaiming the contras and, by implication, the mujahedin, "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers." Times change. It is not so much the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it is my enemy can become my friend, and vice versa.
Last week we were all treated to a trifecta of bad judgment by three newsworthy subjects: Gary Condit, Enron, and the president's manipulatively misnamed Commission to Strengthen Social Security. All have to do with money.
Gary Condit filed for re-election in his redrawn California congressional district. Rep. Condit, unfortunately, has not been redrawn. He still styles himself the beleaguered victim of the scandal-mongering press, which invented his relationship with the disappeared Washington intern. And, he hopes, unless Chandra Levy is found, his constituents will judge him on his record, not his personal life.
Condit needs a job and he likes being a congressman, a position that comes with a number of costly perks. Not as many perks as the former executives of Enron enjoy, though. They include big payoffs some call "stay bonuses," though, given Enron's bankruptcy, they appear to be retreat bonuses, not the sort of thing the Titanic's captain was obliged to accept. The more ordinary employees of Enron definitely get the stay-to-the-bitter-end treatment. They were forbidden to sell their company stock, which was, more or less, their pension funds, now largely worthless, whereas the bosses were able to dump theirs before Enron's house of cards tumbled.
Regardless of all the time the top executives at Enron, especially its CEO, Kenneth Lay, spent working hand in hand with the Bush administration (given their Texas roots, they make the partners of the Rose Law Firm look like pikers) they still couldn't find the time to testify before Congress when asked.
Enron's auditor, Arthur Andersen's Joseph Berardino, called Enron's collapse a "tragedy," hoping to link it with the WTC's collapse, often termed a tragedy. Neither were tragedies: "crimes" is more like it.
But, the third display of bad judgment is potentially the most costly and devastating. That is Bush's commission's three solutions to "strengthen" Social Security.
The fiction maintained throughout the report is that Social Security is not an insurance program, but actually a potential mutual-fund-to-be, which, somehow, is supposed to cost the government less—eventually--by giving recipients more.
"During the transition to personal accounts program," the interim report states, "tax revenues invested in the accounts would no longer be available to finance traditional benefit payments....Therefore, funds must temporarily be found to finance this investment while simultaneously paying benefits to retirees. Over time, these investments in personal accounts offer financial returns to the Social Security program in the form of either reductions in the rate of growth of system costs, higher expected benefits for retirees, or both."
Say what? Nowhere is that shell game adequately explained, though there are a lot of graphs and hopeful projections. And the buried news that 2 out of its 3 proposals pay for their schemes by cutting benefits. As close to candor as they get is this: "The so-called 'transition costs' associated with personal accounts for Social Security are precisely that: saving and investing for the future, to reduce the need to raise taxes, cut benefits, or curtail other necessary government initiatives." What they are saying, translated, is that we'll have to pay more now ("now" is some 20-40 years) to save a pittance (if that) in the far future.
Strengthening Social Security the commission's way is like giving steroids to growing teenagers. If the commissioners encourage "sacrifice"--as they do--raising the FICA tax between one and two points now would take care of any perceived short fall for another half century.
What Bush is attempting to do is clear: take an existing social insurance program and undo it, in order to privatize it, which, in the short and long run, means cash in the pocket for money managers and other big Republican campaign donors handling the long "transition" and less money for the rest of us. All along, it has been an ideological argument, not an economic argument. As deregulation repealed laws that would have checked Enron's abuses, privatization aims to end the country's commitment to retiring workers. Bush's Social Security commission is Enron squared.
My family (because of my wife's abundant frequent flyer miles) had planned to spend last Christmas in Israel, experience Christmas eve in Bethlehem, but the second intifada began and we canceled. Maybe next year, we thought.
Well, not this year, either. Nor likely the next, or the next. The terrorism recession came early to Israel; last Christmas Bethlehem's hotels were empty. This year one of them is burnt and gutted, the Paradise Hotel, which is on a road leading to Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, built over the stable where, legend has it, Christ was born.
When the Paradise burned in October during a firefight between Israelis soldiers and Palestinian gunmen, I found the photograph I had taken of it, when, in '97, we had visited Bethlehem, under control of the Palestinian Authority since the '93 Oslo accords.
Israel's cities were relatively calm then, though it is wrong to ever call Bethlehem's close neighbor, Jerusalem, "calm". Peaceful is less wrong, but still not correct. Quiet, perhaps. Jerusalem strikes many as one of the most exciting cities in the world. It is, though it pays a high price for its excitement. There is a tension there that is always pulsing, either below the surface, or above. And it is most especially intense in the Old City, since it is kept walled up there.
The three great religions claim their beginnings and their ends within a few blocks of one another--or within a few miles. Bethlehem is down the road. A lot of the imagery in the Old City, and the immediate environs, celebrates death and dying. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is contested territory for different subsets of the Catholic faith. The most spruced up part of it, displaying the greatest riches, if few of the revered artifacts, belongs to the Vatican. It has the money and fully restored its chapel. The other sects haven't found either the cash or the time, though sporadic attempts at improvement occur.
But, of course, issues of control and rights there do not hold a candle to those associated with the Temple Mount. Back in '97, Ariel Sharon wasn't leading the Israeli government, but he was very much in evidence. He and his associates had been quietly buying up property in the Palestinian sections of the Old City; afterwards, at one end of the street leading to the Temple Mount, a large Israeli flag, about three storeys high, was hung for all to see.
Sharon was announcing then that more of the Old City was to come under direct Israeli control. So, it wasn't a surprise, after Arafat rejected (thereby declaring his fecklessness as a peace maker) Ehud Barak's Clinton-encouraged concessions in the summer of 2000, that when Sharon took his body-guard protected tour of the Temple Mount, it served as the pretext for the second intifada, resulting in the last 15 months of Israeli and Palestinian deaths, so many of them youngsters.
Up until September 11th, Americans were largely spectators at these modern versions of religion-laced territorial conflicts, mainly in Israel and Ireland.
To a lot of the Islamic world we were, are, the Great Satan. To Ronald Reagan, the USSR was the Evil Empire. Ideologies can become religions when they rule singlehandedly over any country.
The Christian Right, at its most strident, wants our country to be Christian above all, paying, at best, lip service to other creeds. President Bush's "evil-doer" vocabulary casts the war on terror in religious terms.
But America's separation of church and state is its salvation. Our country is hardly secular; it is full of religions, but none are in control, though all attempt to exert influence.
The Paradise Hotel won't be taking in tourists this Christmas, even if there are a few handful to house. If things have to get worse to get better, they are getting worse. Hamas has been moved to issue a "ban" on suicide bombings, but Hamas has less credibility than Arafat.
The suicide bombers that Israel has suffered recently have been the common sort, young men with few prospects who believe they are martyrs. On September 11th Americans encountered 19 self-styled martyrs, who were men with prospects--educations and abilities. This Christmas, "Peace on earth and goodwill to all," seems more an ardent secular wish than a pious religious one.