The Right Questions
In November 1942, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles learned authoritatively from the U.S. legation in Switzerland that Hitler had ordered the extermination of all Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe. Welles confided this information to Dr. Stephen Wise, the country's foremost Jewish leader, who in turn called a press conference in Washington. The horrifying news was widely reported, even if it was not a major story in any of 19 leading newspapers. But, as David Wyman revealed in The Abandonment of the Jews, it apparently didn't occur to any White House correspondent to put a perfectly professional question like this one to Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Mr. President, Rabbi Wise says the government knows authoritatively that the Nazis intend to exterminate the Jews in the occupied countries. Is this true, and if it is, what will you do about it?" FDR normally held press conferences twice a weekÑan extraordinary frequency. Had he been forced to grapple publicly with such a question, many innocent lives could have been saved. After all, it was pressure from within his own administration that led him belatedly to create the War Refugee Board, which saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. Instead, Wyman writes, "The first clear comment [from FDR] on the mass killing of Jews came on March 24, 1944." That was 16 months after Wise's press conference. Notwithstanding their defects -Ñ growing concentration, shrinking staffs, celebrity mania, loony news judgments and the rest -- publications and airwaves are filled with facts that could give rise to all manner of tough, essential questions for present and would-be officeholders. Particularly in the television age, merely posing a question can enlighten viewers. But reporters ask such questions all too rarely. President Bush, for example, was never asked if deregulation had contributed to the savings and loan debacle, even though Vice President Bush had led the President's Task Force on Deregulation for eight years. In May 1988, the surgeon general announced that cigarettes "are addicting in the same sense as are drugs such as heroin and cocaine." But neither then nor after the nominating conventions were the presidential candidates asked if they agreed with the report, and if they did, how they would justify taking campaign money from tobacco interests. The 1996 election campaigns offer reporters priceless opportunities -Ñ in interviews, briefings, and press conferences -Ñ to serve the public by exploring a wide range of issues that matter greatly but are ignored nonetheless. To help ensure that these opportunities will not be squandered, here is a sampling of the kinds of questions, accompanied where necessary by brief summaries of the facts they spring from, that should be put to presidential, Senate, and House candidates. FOR ALL CANDIDATESThe principal rationale for continuing Cold War military budgets is that we must be able to fight two major regional wars at the same time. The Pentagon wants to spend $1 trillion for a new generation of jet fightersÑabout $10,000 for every household in AmericaÑalthough we already have the world's best. Q. What is the threat that justifies continuing military spending at Cold War levels? Q. On what basis do you accept or reject the two-wars-at-once rationale? Q. How will the country be better served by spending the equivalent of six times the budget deficit on jet fighters, or $30 billion on B-2 bombers the Joint Chiefs of Staff say they do not need, rather than spending that money on, say, health care, infrastructure, or education?The common law defines bribery as "a receipt of anything of value where the intent is to influence" someone "in his official capacity." Q. Is it bribery to make campaign "contributions" intended to abort, procure, or defeat legislation? Q. Does the existing system of campaign finance nourish bribery? Q. Does the system favor the wealthy over the poor? Last year, the two biggest contributors of "soft money" to the Republican and Democratic party committees were the cigarette companies Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco. Together, they invested more than $2 million. In the past 10 years, tobacco PACs invested nearly $10 million in congressional races. Meanwhile, tobacco-related diseases are the largest single cause of preventable death in America. Q. Would you, or why do you, take money from the producers of these products? Q. Given that our excise taxes on tobacco are the lowest imposed by any of 13 industrialized countries, and that experts predict a tax increase of $2 a pack would avoid 1.9 million premature deaths, do you favor or oppose increasing the federal excise tax on cigarettes?The Congressional Budget Office says that Congress could cut federal spending sharply by denying the mortgage interest deduction to the wealthiest Americans. Limiting the deduction to loans of no more than $300,000 would save $34.8 billion in just five years. Q. Should middle-class home-owners and renters who can't afford to buy a house in the first place continue to subsidize mortgage interest deductions for buyers of the most expensive homes? Q. Will you seek to cap the mortgage interest deduction?Social Security payments totaling $15 billion annually go to households with retirement incomes exceeding $100,000, while payments totaling $60 billion go to households with retirement incomes of more than $50,000. Q. Should Congress cap Social Security payments to households with high retirement incomes?Even though most families had begun to rely on an additional wage earner, the period from 1979 to 1994 saw the annual household income of the poorest fifth of Americans decline 3 percent, to $7,800. Income for the next fifth declined 4 percent, to $19,200; in the middle fifth, the decline was 2 percent, to $32,400. Yet, because wealthier Americans saw their incomes increase, total household income grew by $1.1 trillion. Q. Would you do anything to reverse this trend? What?The corporate tax rate was 31 percent during the prosperous 1950s and is now 15 percent. Returning the corporate tax rate to 31 percent could increase annual revenues from that source by 250 percent. Q. Do you favor or oppose such an increase in the corporate tax rate?The pay gap between CEOs and workers has grown wider in the United States than in any other industrial democracy. Q. Do you favor or oppose a limit on the corporate tax deduction for executive compensation in excess of, say, $3 million a year?United Nations agencies estimate that the U.N. sanctions on Iraq have caused more than 500,000 Iraqi children to die of hunger and disease, a number exceeding the combined toll taken by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and ethnic cleansing in the old Yugoslavia. Q. Should the United States seek the lifting of sanctions? FOR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES A former head of the White House Correspondents Association proposed that the president hold weekly press conferences. The first conference in each month would be televised, the third would be open to the press at large, and the second and fourth would be informal, stand-up sessions in the Oval Office. Q. Would you favor or oppose such a system? Q. Would you favor or oppose a system in which questions were drawn by lottery, rather than by you selecting the questioner? FOR PRESIDENT CLINTON In 1975, the ruler of Indonesia, General Suharto, ordered his armed forces to invade and occupy East Timor. More than 200,000 out of 690,000 East Timorese died as a result. Your administration continues to sell arms to Indonesia even though the human rights situation in East Timor and Indonesia is worsening, according to the State Department.Q. Is it moral for us to do this?Russia's war against Chechnya has cost 30,000 lives. Some 8,000 children have been mutilated by bombs, land mines, and napalm. Pax Christi, a Dutch human rights group, accuses the Russians of "applying terrorist methods against the civilian population." Q. Why have you remained silent on the war in Chechnya?In recent years, about half of the Justice Department's budget has been focused on controlling illegal drugs. Yet in numerous studies in recent years, the General Accounting Office has found that the government's 25-year war on drugs has had almost no impact on the availability or price of illegal drugs. Q. Did you seek any critical analysis of the effectiveness of the Justice Department's war on drugs before calling, in your State of the Union address, for a further escalation of the war?We still have the most expensive per capita health care of any country, yet between 41 and 44 million Americans have no health insurance. Q. Will you pursue health care reform in your second term?The General Accounting Office calculated that a single-payer health care system similar to Canada's would save the American people staggering amounts of money every year -Ñ from $74.5 billion in 1992 to $174 billion by the year 2000, principally by lowering administrative expenses. It would also guarantee health care coverage for all Americans. During the battle over health care reform in 1994, polls showed that the public favored single-payer, and both you and the First Lady have acknowledged it to be the superior system. Q. If you were to pursue health care reform during a second term, would you advocate single-payer or something else?The Justice Department indicted 52,000 individuals in fiscal 1994. Only 250Ñless than one half of one percentÑwere charged with criminal violations of environmental, workplace safety, and consumer protection laws. Yet according to a recent poll, two out of three senior attorneys for 200 corporations said they believed that their companies had operated in violation of such laws in the previous year. Q. Is the Justice Department adequately or inadequately protecting the public interest? FOR SENATOR DOLE The 1993 tax increase raised rates for only 1.2 percent of Americans, gave a tax cut to 15 million poor workers and their families, and, for the typical family of four, resulted in a 1996 tax rate that was lower than that of 1992, and lower than in much of the Reagan years. Q. Are you and your fellow Republicans truthful in denouncing the 1993 tax increase as "the largest in history"?You said in 1983, "When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government." In 1990, you touted your position on campaign finance reform by referring to your efforts in "cleaning up the campaign sewer money." Q. If the phrase "campaign sewer money" no longer fairly and accurately reflects your view of PAC contributions, when, how, and why did you change your position?In the Senate Finance Committee in 1985, you sponsored a successful amendment to hold the excise tax on a can of smokeless tobacco to a mere two cents, which was equivalent to one fifth the excise tax on a pack of cigarettes. It was disclosed last year that U.S. Tobacco, the leading producer of smokeless tobacco, has given $40,000 to your political action committees since 1987, that you've flown dozens of times on UST's corporate jets, and that you have taken many tens of thousands of dollars from UST for your charities and foundations. Q. Was your sponsorship of the amendment in the Finance Committee related to what you have characterized as "sewer money"? Q. Do you regret having sponsored the amendment in light of Surgeon General Antonia Novello's December 1992 report that usage of smokeless tobacco, particularly by boys, was causing 30,000 new cases of oral cancer each year? NO EXCUSES Having been a reporter for 50 years, I expect some of my colleagues will complain that it is up to the candidates to decide what the issues are, and that the job of the press is to report what the candidates say. Certainly the press should report what candidates say. But nowhere is it written that reporters should not raise important issues that office holders and office seekers choose not to raise. Some objections will be pragmatic, even embarrassing: I'm only doing what the boss wants. Or, my big-name guest may refuse to return to my television program. It's also true that real-world settings in which questions like these can be asked are limited, certainly at the White House. Moreover -Ñ and rightly -Ñ no law compels anyone to talk to reporters. And if the president, say, finds that press conferences are doing him more political harm than good, he may decide quite sensibly to stop holding them. So be it: Reporters would be freed to dig out all kinds of useful information that now lies fallow. Besides, whatever the obstacles, reporters still have ample opportunities to ask needed questions of those who do and would govern us. In 1995, for example, Bob Dole appeared eight times on CBS's Face the Nation and five times each on NBC's Meet the Press and ABC's This Week with David Brinkley. Anyone who prepares a list of questions that deserve more press attention is going to draw from his or her point of view. That's inevitable. And clearly, the questions above reflect mine. But can it seriously be argued that the public wouldn't benefit from more exploration by the press -Ñ and explanation by the candidates -Ñ of these issues?