Sun-Times Mar. 8, 2001 - Dec. 25, 2001

March 08, 2001 - Dec. 25, 2001                              

3/8/01

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.

3/13/01

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.

3/20/01

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.

3/27/01

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.

4/3/01

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.

4/10/01

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?

4/17/01

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.

4/24/01

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.

5/01/01

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.

5/8/01

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.

5/15/01

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.

5/22/01

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.

5/29/01

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.

6/05/01

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.

6/12/01

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.

6/19/01

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.

6/26/01

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.

7/03/01

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.

7/10/01

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.

7/17/01

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.

7/31/01

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 LeP