Presidential Prevarications and other Washington Whoppers
Every so often The Washington Post cedes pages of its "Style" section to Sally Quinn for a Big Look piece on Washington. Author, Georgetown matron-hostess, and wife of legendary Postie Ben Bradlee, Quinn is eminently qualified to speak for the permanent ruling class of Washington. During the Monica mess, Quinn produced a beaut assailing Bill Clinton for having tainted the otherwise sterling reputation of Washington and its denizens.
Now she has weighed in with an article that observes that even though politicians routinely campaign against Washington as "the source of corruption and scandal and big money and elitism and everything that is wrong with our country,'" it really is quite a decent spot. The proof: So many of those critics who come to Washington end up staying here.
Quinn quotes D.C. notables who maintain that the capital is a city where politicians work hard and do their best to serve the public interest. Washington's bad rep, she suggests, is in part due to the handiwork of political consultants who encourage their client/candidates to bash Washington as a tactic to reach Washington. She also casts blame on good-government reformers by citing former Senator Bob Kerrey, who huffs, "[Ralph] Nader says everybody is on the take. Nader is such a liar. People aren't running around taking cash. Washington is cleaner now than it's been in 25 years." The article does not allow Nader to speak for himself. Nor does Quinn quote any of the other obvious critics of Washington's less-than-honorable ways and means.
She does, however, cite David Gergen, an aide to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, who believes Washington deserves to be pilloried, but Gergen holds Clinton responsible. "There is so much more emphasis now," he asserts, "on winning rather than doing good. What has almost vanished is the feeling that one belongs to a large community dedicated to the public good as opposed to being in a warrior class trying to defeat others." In other words, when he was toiling in the Reagan White House, Washington was ruled by do-gooders devoted to noble ideals -- not power-players serving their own ambitions and special interests. That only came to pass in recent years. Well, isn't it pretty to think so?
Assuming the responsibility of explaining Washington -- that is, her Washington to the world beyond Georgetown -- Quinn uses friends and commentators to suggest that Washington is much too easily caricatured as a den of iniquity where the corrupted squabble endlessly. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tells Quinn that Bush hopes to alter such an image by changing "the manner in which we comport ourselves. If we tone it down it makes it easier for others to tone it down."
Now, I like Washington fine. It is a lovely town, easy on the eyes, full of interesting folks, some of whom -- in government and out -- do try to do the right thing. And during the Clinton years, the restaurants got a lot better. But so much of the output of official Washington -- particularly what's seen in the papers and on television -- warrants scorn.
Quinn barely bothers to assess whether the caricature of official Washington -- a government too often influenced by special interests -- is rooted in reality. (She couldn't get time with John McCain?) Nor does she explore the possibility that citizens outside the city's environs are right to be enraged or put off by the endless torrent of self-serving spin that flows from D.C. -- and that, at times, might even be shaped by regulars at the Quinn-Bradlee soirees.
Let's consider one of her expert witnesses -- Ari Fleischer. It's nice -- damn nice -- that he, following the boss's orders, wants to encourage a better "tone." But does that mean the people will get more truth out of this White House?
Three days before Quinn's article appeared, Fleischer was conducting his daily press briefing, and Russell Mokhiber, the editor of Corporate Crime Reporter, tossed him a straightforward but challenging question. Noting that The New York Times had the previous day published a front-page piece reporting that experts could find no instances when a family farm had been lost because of estate taxes, Mokhiber asked, "So what did the President mean when he said, we are going to get rid of the death tax to keep farms in the family?"
This is how Fleischer replied: "Well, one of the reasons for that is that farmers have to go through a tortuous process just to keep the farm in family hands. And there is no reason that farmers, or anybody else, should have to go through these tax avoidance schemes, should have to get financial planners. You shouldn't have to get an estate planner just because you work the land....If you abolish the death tax, people won't have to hire all those planners to help them keep the land that's rightfully theirs."
This was a stunning example of Washington double-talk. A "naked lunch" moment -- that's what Jack Kerouac called a point when you see exactly what is on the end of the fork. Fleischer's commander had prevaricated when he had said it was necessary to end estate taxes -- a move that will only benefit the wealthiest Americans -- to save family farms. That turns out to be completely false. ("Even one of the leading advocates for repeal of estate taxes, the American Farm Bureau Federation, said it could not cite a single example of a farm lost because of estate taxes," the Times reported.)
So now Fleischer was saying that the reason to abolish the tax -- at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars in loss revenue -- was to save farmers from the pain-in-the-ass of estate planning. With a straight face, he was spinning as fast -- and smoothly -- as possible. In a pleasant tone, of course.
How can you take official Washington seriously when such an occurrence is routine? Fibbing goes on relentlessly. It is not the exclusive domain of one party or another. Senator Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, looked ridiculous in claiming victory when the Senate recently sliced Bush's tax cut from $1.6 trillion to $1.2 trillion in the Senate. The odds are strong that the tab will rise when the Republicans of the Senate and the House negotiate a compromise. (The House budhget measure contained Bush's full tax cut.)
Only months ago the Democrats were adamantly opposed to what Al Gore repeatedly called Bush's "risky scheme." Does a reduction of $400 billion remove the risk? A tax cut of this size will still suck up resources that many Democrats wish to see applied to social needs and still threaten future deficits. As Vice President Dick Cheney noted in an interview, "Remember where the Democrats were a year ago. They didn't want any tax cut at all. And then they went to $250 billion, And then by Election Day, they raised it to $500 billion. After the election, it was $800 billion from Tom Daschle. And in January, they got up to about $900 billion....So we will end up with the most significant tax cut in a generation...and that's what's important." Cheney was correct, the Democrats were mischaracterizing the outcome in order to make themselves appear stronger -- but validating the general premise that now is a good time for a large tax cut.
Moments later in that interview, Cheney told his own whopper. In defending the Bush Administration proposal to drill for oil in the wilderness of Alaska, the Veep maintained, the "key fact to get across, the ANWR -- the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- 19 million acres, roughly the size of South Carolina; the amount of land that needs to be disturbed on the surface to develop that resource, 2000 acres, roughly half the size of Dulles Airport. The notion that somehow developing the resources in ANWR requires some sort of vast despoiling of the environment up there is just garbage. It's not true."
Cheney's statement was not true. The 2000 acres are not contiguous -- as is the acreage at Dulles Airport. According to a 1999 report of the US Geological Survey, the oil located in this region is in at least 35 discrete sites spread across a wide swath of coastal plain. To extract the oil, drillers would have to construct roads connecting the far-flung sites and a 20-inch pipeline across 135 miles of wildlife habitat and rivers. And the particular portion of ANWR eyed by the oil companies happens to be the biological center of wildlife activity for the refuge.
Why would the Vice President -- an intelligent, civil and hard-working (look at his ticker!) fellow who is part of the team that wants to improve the tone of Washington -- purposefully misconvey this crucial fact in a vital public policy debate? Would beyond-the-Beltway bumpkins be wrong to wonder if it was because of his ties and those of the Administration to the oil industry?
Quinn has her eye on the wrong hors d'oeuvres tray. The opinions of Washington's elite on Washington's image problem are not as important as the doings of Washington's elites that lend credence to the darkest and nastiest views of Washington. "Why Do They Hate Washington?" the piece was headlined, referring to both the pols who crusade against her town and that part of the public that buys their soap. Maybe it's because of the manner in which Washington is run by Quinn's neighbors and sources.