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2001 Political Blunders

Politically, it's been a very weird year. In fact, 2001 was really three weird years wrapped in one.

From January to May, we all watched nervously (come on, admit it!) as our new president cheerfully pedaled about on his training wheels.

From May to September, it was the summer of the pseudo-scandals: Gary Condit, shark attacks and overage Little Leaguers.

Then, from Sept. 11 on, it's been "All Terror, All the Time."

And throughout all three seasons, there was a bumper crop of blunders. Memorable goofs, gaffes and lapses in judgment that left us scratching our heads and wondering: What were they thinking?

For instance, there was John Walker choosing to enlist with the Taliban just six months before it incurred the wrath of the greatest military power in history. Oops!

And who can forget (try as we might) Al Gore's beard, Condit's highly damaging damage control interview with Connie Chung, or Jerry Falwell's post-Sept. 11 rant pinning the terrorist attacks on pagans, abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, the ACLU and People for the American Way?

Of course, the biggest blunder of the year was made by our political leaders, who collectively overlooked the multitude of warning signs pointing to our vulnerability to a terrorist attack. In fact, "blunder" scarcely does justice to their epochal failure.

They knew there were massive holes in U.S. security. They knew our intelligence-gathering capabilities -- particularly in the Mideast -- had been seriously degraded. They knew Osama bin Laden had turned his murderous eye on America, vowing to hit us "where it hurts most." But they also knew that only 0.4 percent of the American people considered terrorism their top concern, so our leaders fiddled while al Qaida schemed.

The biggest political blunder had to be the White House's ham-fisted handling of Sen. Jim Jeffords, who ended up bolting the GOP, turning over control of the Senate to the Democrats. President Bush may have nicknamed Karl Rove "Boy Genius," but it doesn't take a Mensa member to realize that, with a 50-50 Senate, humiliating one of your own is a pretty dumb move.

Another big Bush blunder was his commitment to assaulting the environment.

First, he broke his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Then he rescinded the rule lowering levels of arsenic in drinking water -- earning extra blunder points by announcing the decision during National Poison Prevention Week.

This was followed by his flip-flop on the testing for salmonella in hamburger meat served in school lunch programs. After all, what's a little intestinal bacteria among friends?

Moving to the other side of the aisle, the Democrats certainly had their fair share of political pratfalls. Hail to the Chief among them was Bill Clinton pardoning Marc Rich, loading up the moving van with White House property, and picking out that pricey office in midtown Manhattan -- an early season blunder triple play.

The biggest bipartisan blunder had to be the government bailout of the airline industry. $15 billion to the airlines, but not a penny for the hundreds of thousands of industry workers laid off in the wake of Sept. 11.

And speaking of beltway blunders, how about Tommy Thompson assuring us that the mail was safe -- one week before 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren died as a result of cross-contaminated mail?

But as bad as all these blunders were, in the world of politics, even the most egregious mistakes needn't prove fatal. Embellish your resume and you can't coach football at Notre Dame, but American politics is filled with second and third and even fourteenth chances.

Rudy Giuliani is a classic example of how, given the right circumstance, you can recover from almost any political blunder. It's hard to remember now what a miserable time he was having of it earlier in the year when his divorce and relationship with "very good friend" Judi Nathan were front-page news and his political star was falling faster than the NASDAQ. Things really hit bottom when Giuliani tried to prove that he hadn't committed adultery because treatment for prostate cancer had left him impotent. It was the Prostate Defense.

Bob Dole had made erectile dysfunction respectable -- dare I say, even heroic. But it turns out that Rudy didn't need Viagra -- he just needed a crisis to rise to.

A Child Left Behind

Ecstatic hosannas were being sung in Washington as the new education bill emerged from a House-Senate negotiating committee Tuesday. You'd think Christmas had come two weeks early.

In the great Capitol Hill tradition of giving bills grandiloquent names, this one has been christened the No Child Left Behind Act. Sadly, it's yet another case of Congressional false advertising -- a lump of coal wrapped in shiny tinsel.

To show how misleading the self-serving moniker is, let's take a look at how the legislation would actually impact one of those kids it's supposed to rescue. Let's call him Johnny, a poor black first-grader at Lousy Elementary in South Central Los Angeles.

The centerpiece of the new bill is its requirement that all children in grades three through eight be tested annually in reading and math. In the name of parental empowerment, it also requires that parents be given a report charting the progress of their child's school. So Johnny's parents learn that the school has failed to adequately teach its students.

The good news is that the new bill offers parents of children attending failing schools the chance to move their kids to a better public school. The bad news is a school has to fail for two years straight before this option kicks in, so Johnny's folks will have to let him languish in a substandard school while they wait and see if the school can "turn things around."

This is like a doctor telling you that you have cancer but you can't start chemo for two years. The school may have two years to waste but Johnny doesn't.

Without any other choice, Johnny's parents cross their fingers. Who knows, maybe the school will improve. Maybe the cancer will go away. After all, the new bill requires states to have a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom. But it doesn't spell out how that admirable goal is going to be achieved. As it is, 14 percent of California's teachers are uncredentialed. And the numbers are even grimmer in neighborhoods like Johnny's, where students are five times more likely to have underqualified teachers.

Johnny and his folks grit their teeth and tough it out for another year. At the end, they are given another failing report: The school still stinks. Johnny's parents are extremely concerned. But at least now, thanks to the new act, they can leave Lousy Elementary and enroll Johnny in a better school. That is, if there's room at this better school. Which there isn't. Schools in California are bursting at the seams.

Indeed, it will cost $30 billion to build all the schools the state needs to properly house its students. Compare this to the bill's total price tag of $22 billion, and you see how ludicrous the claims being made in Washington are. Parental choice is meaningless if parents don't actually have any schools to choose from.

So, for Johnny, it's back to Lousy for yet another year. And, once again, the school fails to meet its academic goals. But all is not lost. After a student has been in a failing school for three years, the No Child Left Behind Act makes federal money available to the child's parents for "supplemental education services" such as private tutoring. The idea, I guess, is: "If our schools can't teach your kids, maybe you can find somebody who can."

Failing students in California will be given $800 a year for a private tutor. At current rates, Johnny will only be able to see his tutor less than once a week -- hardly enough to make a serious impact. But he gives it his best shot.

Another year passes. Johnny is now at the end of fifth grade, and all remedial avenues provided by the new bill have proven to be dead ends. But the bill does call for him to keep being tested and tested and tested again so that each year Johnny and his parents will be painfully reminded just how badly he's failing -- and being failed.

And that's pretty much the extent of the difference the No Child Left Behind Act will have on the lives of Johnny and the millions like him.

But at least the Washington establishment can head home for the holidays, satisfied that they've "done" education.

On Flying High And Lowered Expectations

Skip the appointment with Madge the Manicurist. Put the squeeze on Mr. Whipple. Say good-bye to the Budweiser Frogs. Who needs those guys when you've got the 43rd president of the United States as your TV pitchman? He's got high name-recognition, comes with his own wardrobe, and, best of all, he's willing.

Making like a star-spangled version of Paul Hogan, the president can now be seen shilling for the U.S. travel and tourism industry in a new TV commercial. Uncle George wants you to enlist in a home-front battle against terrorism by shipping out on vacation. And bring the kids and charge cards, soldier!

The 30-second spot, part of a $20 million media blitz, features excerpts from a rousing speech the president gave in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, intercut with shots of travel industry employees speaking the impassioned words along with him.

"Greatness is found," the president, a waiter and a rental car agent inform us, "when American character and American courage can overcome American challenges." Challenges like enduring the endless lines at Disney World's Space Mountain ride, I suppose.

So a patriotic presidential speech has now been repackaged as a commercial come-on. Imagine FDR's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" being used to tout home security systems or Winston Churchill's "Blood, toil, tears and sweat" to sell Handi Wipes.

But it's not the unseemly blending of the political with the profitable that's the real problem, it's the message being sent: That the truest manifestation of patriotism is -- as the president and his new kitchen cabinet put it in the ad -- to "enjoy America's great destination spots."

In previous wars, sacrifice meant, well, sacrifice. Maybe even the willingness to die for one's country. Now we're being called on to show our willingness to fly for our country. To relax our way out of this recession even as we are told that we must remain on "high alert."

The president -- and the rental car agent and the waiter -- are right when they say greatness can be found in overcoming challenges. But we must challenge ourselves to overcome more than our reluctance to fly. Indeed, isn't it irresponsible to encourage people to take non-essential flights when the vast majority of suitcases are still not being inspected and the vast majority of airport security workers are still hazardously unskilled?

The truest expression of American character has always been found in our ability to give of ourselves -- not to amuse ourselves.

I was reminded of this last week when I saw a video of "Pay It Forward," the film featuring Haley Joel Osment as a kid who tries to change the world by encouraging people to respond to good deeds by "paying them forward," thereby creating a human chain letter of compassion and service to others.

Since the film was released in October 2000, thousands of people have taken up the "pay it forward" philosophy. "I was afraid," "Pay it Forward" author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, told me, "that after Sept. 11, people wouldn't want to embrace optimism. But it's been just the opposite. People are saying we need this now more than ever." In fact, Hyde has been on a whirlwind speaking tour, meeting thousands of students who are longing to respond to the challenge of 9-11 with something more substantive and lasting than a vacation or a shopping spree.

This same spirit is evident in the Call to Service Act, introduced in the Senate last month by Sens. John McCain and Evan Bayh. The measure would make it possible for 250,000 volunteers a year to become part of the AmeriCorps program -- half would assist with civil defense needs, half would provide social services.

More than anything, though, McCain and Bayh are aiming to inspire a generation to look beyond their narrow self-interests, much like John Kennedy did when he proposed the Peace Corps. JFK didn't say he was going to make it easier on us. He said it was going to be harder.

President Bush should keep that in mind the next time he takes a commercial gig. "Ask not what your travel agent can do for you, ask what you can do for your travel agent" isn't exactly a sentiment for the ages.

The Gary Conditization Of The Terror Story

We interrupt our regularly scheduled column for the following fast-breaking public safety alert: Watching the news may be hazardous to your health -- and may be damaging the well-being of our entire nation. In much the same way that the terrorists hijacked our airplanes and turned them into flying bombs, they are now on the verge of successfully hijacking our airwaves.

What we are witnessing is the Gary Conditization of the most important story of our time.

We all know the recipe by now: Take 10 minutes of actual news, mix in heaping portions of breathless reporting, rampant rumors, baseless speculation, twitchy, nerve-racking crawls and hours-old "breaking news," stir repeatedly, overheat for as long as possible and, voila, there you have it -- enough toxic filler to feed the 24-hour news beast. Broadcast immediately (definitely don't let it cool). Serves 280 million.

After a slow news decade during which the media became addicted to overhyping trashy, insignificant stories, they now have an unprecedented opportunity to inform and enlighten us on a truly significant one. Sadly, they can't seem to wean themselves off the tactics they resorted to in the dark days of stained dresses, shark attacks and, yes, Gary Condit.

Take the anthrax story. Last week, we were told so often about the 31 people -- now down to 28 -- in the Hart Senate Office Building who had "tested positive" for exposure that you couldn't help but wonder if these were the same 31 folks or a fresh batch. You also couldn't help but wonder how many Americans were clear that "testing positive" did not mean "infected."

The correct military and diplomatic response to terror can -- and, I assure you, will -- be debated endlessly, but the correct media response is beyond dispute. The news outlets have a patriotic duty not to fan the fires of terror and spread bio-panic across the country just to fan their own ratings.

As Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said last week, anthrax "is not a weapon of mass destruction, it is a weapon of mass confusion." And if the news media mandarins don't curb their appetite for sensation, mass confusion can easily become mass hysteria.

After their commendable performance in the days immediately following the attacks, the media are falling back on their old, familiar, monomaniacal ways. Like a binge drinker who gives up booze but takes up chain smoking, the media have traded their addiction to Condit for an addiction to terror.

The same media that neglected the terrorism story for years are now acting like there's nothing else to report -- or to be concerned about. But, of course, there is. For instance, while we've heard endless details about the cutaneous infections suffered by Tom Brokaw's and Dan Rather's soon-to-be-once-again-fully-healthy assistants, there has been almost no coverage of the victims of the sharp increase in violent crime since Sept. 11 in many cities across the country. Philadelphia, for example, has seen a 28 percent increase in homicides while the murder rate in Washington, D.C., is up 35 percent. And Baltimore has had 19 homicides so far this month.

"Police can only be in so many places at the same time," explains Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University. Fair enough -- but what's the media's excuse? They, it seems, can only be in the same place at the same time.

Their newly minted obsession with all terrorism all the time has also exacerbated the media's already-troubling habit of running with the hot, new story. "1,000 civilians have been killed" by U.S. air strikes, CNN repeatedly reported last week, while adding that "there's no way to verify that 1,000 number." Then why report it? Just because there is airtime to fill?

Paradoxically, with All Terror TV, the more you watch, the less you know. A kind of news tunnel vision sets in. And then there is the hypnotic quality of today's frantically busy TV screens. "Headline News," with its restless news tickers and compressed video screen ("News! Sports! Weather! Anthrax! All at one time!"), has begun to look more like the heads-up display of an F-15 than a television show. As the frenetic factoids race across the bottom of the screen, the impression you are left with is that there are simply too many important things happening to report by conventional means.

It's ironic that this apotheosis of flash over substance comes at a time when the public is hungering for greater perspective and deeper understanding. When the focus of the coverage has become as narrow and repetitive as it currently is, there is no room left for any reference points beyond the immediate and the episodic.

"It is like the beam of a searchlight," wrote Walter Lippman in the 1920s, "that moves relentlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision. Men cannot do their work by this light alone."

Nor can the American people remain strong, brave and hopeful if our public square remains dominated by a media culture that trivializes whatever it touches and, on a daily basis, weakens our collective immune system with shallow, obsessive, toxic reporting.

Girls and Their Gas Masks

When it comes to matters of the heart, we've been sold the premise that Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Maybe, maybe not. But when it comes to thinking the unthinkable, the sexes are most definitely from different planets.

At a dinner party in Los Angeles last week, 12 people -- six men, six women -- sat around a beautifully laid-out table, covered with fine crystal and lush flowers. While the setting evoked an escapist fantasy, the conversation dwelt obsessively on the harsh, inescapable realities of the moment. Which means it centered, as all conversations these days do, on the likelihood of another terrorist attack on American soil -- this time involving deadly chemicals or killer germs.

The Martians -- Alpha males all -- kept pooh-poohing the idea of preparing for chemical or germ warfare. "Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Russia have all been developing biowarfare programs for years," offered one of them, a prominent film executive active in national politics. "And they haven't used it against either Israel or us, have they?" It seemed that none of these masters of their universes could allow themselves to even imagine being in a situation over which they had so little power and control.

The Venusians, meanwhile, were busy setting up crisis networks, discussing the proper way to equip a safe-room, and trading tidbits on the best antibiotics to stock up on. One of the women present, Irena Medavoy, whose husband Mike has been a part of movies ranging from "Amadeus" to "Dances with Wolves," has been organizing an "antiterrorism task force" that sponsors lectures by experts on bioterrorism.

"Traditionally," she explained, "women and children were always the first to be saved. This time they were among the first to be slaughtered -- and the weakest will obviously be most affected by a germ attack. So it's hardly hysterical to try to be as prepared as possible."

The only man who broke ranks with his gender and agreed with her was Arnold Kopelson, the producer of such box-office hits as "The Fugitive" and "Platoon." He agreed because he knew too much not to. Partly because he had produced "Outbreak," the Dustin Hoffman thriller about a rampaging virus. And partly because, prior to Sept. 11, he was eerily in the midst of working on a new film about bioterrorism when reality suddenly became more terrifying than any disaster movie.

To explain his dissent, Kopelson got up from the table, moved to a nearby armchair, and pulled out a copy of "Germs," an utterly horrifying book about germ warfare by New York Times journalists Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad (dinner, needless to say, had come to an end). He slowly started to read. It was like an apocalyptic version of "Masterpiece Theater" -- laced with tales of untraceable killer germs and Nobel laureates devoting their lives to perfecting bioweapons.

"Our research," said Kopelson, "found that the former Soviet Union had manufactured enough anthrax, smallpox and plague to kill everyone on earth -- and that much of it disappeared when the Iron Curtain fell. Even more disturbing, many of the Soviet scientists are now working for rogue states that harbor terrorists."

As the Venus/Mars divide -- or was it the Virus/Mars divide? -- continued to widen, I wondered aloud how the men would have reacted if this were, say, 1938 and we were all seated around an equally elegant table in London and someone raised the specter of Hitler and his master plan to exterminate millions of Jews in gas chambers. Would the "what-me-worry?" Alpha males have been equally dismissive? ("Oh, they've had that ability for years, but they've never used it, have they? Besides, I'm sure Mr. Chamberlain is on top of everything.")

In a telling admission, last week U.S. Army intelligence specialists recruited the creative forces behind such movies as "Die Hard," "Missing in Action" and "Fight Club" to help them brainstorm about what the next terrorist assault might look like. As if only fantasists and special effects whizzes could fathom the violent, chaotic and destructive forces that we face -- forces many of the rest of us (OK ... men) have relegated to the outer limits, not only of our everyday world but of our imagination.

Some people, of course, find it easier to integrate the terrible into their normal lives -- often because their lives have already been touched by tragedy. "When my mother was 17," says Irena Medavoy, "the Nazis invaded Russia. She was captured and sent to a labor camp in Germany. None of the men in her family survived. And many of them had thought, when the war had started, 'Oh, they'll never come all the way to Krasnador,' the village where they lived. So I have no trouble believing that the unthinkable can happen."

If only our leaders had started thinking about the unthinkable before Sept. 11, we would not be as vulnerable as we are today. "None of us," said President Bush this week, epitomizing the prevailing failure of imagination, "could have imagined what was to come, the scale of the emergency, the enormity of the danger, the magnitude of the evil."

Why not? How could anyone who has lived in a century that included the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulags and the killing fields of Cambodia say that?

For the good of the country, the Alpha male leaders we've entrusted with our national security should all have a long talk with the women in their lives (if, in fact, there are any still speaking to them). In the meantime, hand me my gas mask and pass the Cipro.

Is Normal the Best We Can Do?

President Bush wants us to take our kids to Disney World. The Secretary of Transportation, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, and former presidents Clinton and Bush all took commercial flights last week in the hope of encouraging travel-leery Americans to return to the formerly friendly skies. And the president, who usually prefers a quick bite at home and an early bedtime, made it a point to have dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Virginia in order to set a good example of eating out.

But our pre-Sept. 11 lives weren't just about fun, flying and fajitas. There were other things going on to which it's also important to return our attention. So, in the same patriotic spirit, I'd like to remind us of a few of them:

The so-called missile defense shield. We need to return to vigorously fighting the development of this pricey boondoggle. It was a lousy idea on Sept. 10, and it's a lousy idea now.

It's a shame that, in the name of "unity," Democratic leaders are now rolling over on this issue. They've already backed away from a sensible provision requiring the White House to get congressional approval for any activities that would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and are ready to hand Bush nearly all of the $8.3 billion he requested to develop the shield. Times like these call for leadership. Unfortunately, it seems to be in short supply on Capitol Hill, and, unlike blood, it can't be donated by the public.

We should also waste no time reaffirming our loyal opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The horrors we saw in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania shouldn't serve as a convenient political excuse for giving away this pristine national treasure to the over-eager oil industry. Especially since the drilling will in no way lessen America's dependence on foreign oil: The refuge only contains enough oil to meet about six months of our nation's needs, and it won't even be available for use for another 10 years.

A far more effective -- and immediate -- plan would be to raise the fuel-efficiency standards of new cars and trucks. But given that the profit would be cleaner air, rather than oil industry dollars, it's not going to happen unless we demand it.

Surely the many choruses of "America the Beautiful" we've heard in the last three weeks should reinforce in the national psyche how essential our wilderness is to the very notion of America. If "purple mountain majesties" are worth fighting for in Afghanistan, then they are worth fighting for at home.

Another cause we need to return to is the battle for gun control. The terrorist attacks have ignited a nationwide surge in gun sales, with firearms dealers reporting jumps in business of up to 70 percent.

It in no way minimizes the horrific toll of Sept. 11 to point out that 33,000 Americans fall victim every year to gun violence. Just as we have declared war against international terror, we should also redouble our efforts to put an end to the homegrown bloodshed that continues to stain America's inner cities. If new Cabinet member Tom Ridge really wants to increase Homeland Security, he should add this threat to his portfolio.

And, as fast as we can, we should return to the battle to put an end to business-as-usual in Washington. We must in particular ensure that emergency measures are not merely the same old pork barrel decked out in newly fashionable red, white and blue. Because, emboldened by the $15 billion government bailout of the airline industry, everyone, from travel agents to cruise ship operators to the folks who make those yummy in-flight meals, is already trying to cash in. Their lobbyists are bellying up to the Congressional bailout bar, hoping to be included in the current funding Happy Hour.

Even groups not directly affected by the attacks -- particularly the energy industry -- have tried to recast their plight in light of 9-11. Same with the congressional snake-oil salesmen pushing, once again, their capital gains tax cut and corporate income tax reduction panaceas. "The fun has just begun," says Sen. John McCain. "There's no train that leaves this station that they don't want to climb on."

If returning to the mall with a wad of cash is now considered an act of patriotism, isn't it even more patriotic to get back to the work of strengthening civil society and preventing critical domestic issues from being buried under the avalanche of bin Laden coverage?

Returning with renewed vigor to whatever causes we were working on before Sept. 11 is much more important to the vital interests and values of our country than going out to restaurants or taking our kids to visit Mickey Mouse. Yes, we should get back to our normal lives. But why stop there? Why not commit ourselves to larger goals and a greater purpose -- to living not merely normal lives, but better ones?

Where Were the Lobbyists for the Public Good?

As we continue to dig, both literally and figuratively, through the rubble left by last Tuesday's terrorist attack, it is becoming shockingly clear just how much the powers-that-be knew about our country's vulnerability -- and how little they did to ensure our safety.

It's not like "Dead or Alive" poster boy Osama bin Laden has been shy about his murderous intentions. Less than three months ago, he released a recruitment video in which he vowed: "It's time to penetrate America and Israel and hit them where it hurts most." This video warning was enough to cause the Pentagon to place U.S. forces on heightened alert -- but apparently not enough to get our leaders to plug the massive holes in U.S. airport security.

"We all knew this was going to happen," says former Federal Aviation Administration special agent Steve Elson. "The Congress knew ... the whole government structure knew."

They also knew about the dangerously degraded state of our intelligence-gathering capabilities -- particularly our inability to successfully infiltrate terrorist organizations. What are we to make of FBI Director Robert Mueller's sudden "Help Wanted" ad, looking for people with a "professional level in Arabic and Farsi"? Did it really just dawn on him that having undercover operatives who speak the terrorists' language might prove helpful? Wouldn't it be a tip-off if the new guy in the jihad terror cell only spoke English?

Since our leaders clearly knew we were vulnerable, why didn't they react? Could it be because the public interest didn't have a gaggle of lobbyists patrolling the corridors of power offering cash incentives to Congress and the White House to protect the American people from fanatics and madmen?

If counterterrorism had been an industry doling out large contributions to politicians on both sides of the aisle and hiring powerful Washington lobbyists to plead its case, our political leaders would have leapt into action -- pushing through legislation to ensure our airports were secure and our intelligence operations actually collecting intelligence.

Tuesday's attacks not only exposed how vulnerable our airports are but how vulnerable our system of government is when policy priorities are determined not in response to the public interest but in response to the best-funded interest groups.

In the absence of such a flush lobbying group representing the public good, Congress began its 107th session this winter by tuning its fiddle for the burning of Rome with essential matters like the Bankruptcy Act, a juicy French kiss for the finance industry, which had coughed up $66 million in campaign cash in 2000.

With the benefit of hindsight, shouldn't the first order of business have been the safety and protection of American citizens? But there was no Safety and Protection of Americans Inc., spreading around millions of dollars on Capitol Hill to get our legislators' attention. So it took thousands of deaths before the package of vital intelligence reforms that Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., introduced this week made it to the head of the legislative line.

If the primary function of government is to protect its citizens, then what happened last Tuesday was clearly a massive failure of political leadership. A massive bipartisan failure. Nothing will be the same after Sept. 11, we are repeatedly told. But will that include transforming our cash-and-carry political reality?

Add that to your prayers this week, but first indications are not promising. Witness the gargantuan $17.5 billion bailout package being proposed for the airline industry. It seems the estimated $50 million a year the industry spends on lobbying -- and the $6.8 million it contributed to both parties last election cycle -- is paying big-time dividends.

In massive trouble long before Tuesday's devastation, the airlines didn't miss a beat in dispatching their lobbyists to take advantage of our national trauma. Not that this bailout, you understand, will prevent the huge layoffs already announced, including 30,000 by Boeing, 20,000 by American Airlines, 20,000 by United, 12,000 by Continental, and 11,000 by US Airways. Nor will it pay for the much needed strengthening of airport security, which, if the bill that Sens. John McCain and John Kerry are introducing this week passes, will become the responsibility of the federal government.

In the meantime, as we slide into recession, who's going to bail out those who will be most affected by it: the 34 million Americans living below the poverty line, the 11 million uninsured children, the millions soon to be pushed off the welfare rolls by time limits just as jobs are drying up?

As we examine the deep flaws in airport security and intelligence-gathering, why not also look at the fundamental flaws in a system of government that determines its priorities in a bazaar of influence peddling?

Arianna Huffington is a political columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the author of "Overthrow the Government" (Regan Boks, 2000).

The Very Uncurious President

Gather 'round little ones. It's story time. Today's is a scary one. It's about a president utterly lacking in imagination. It's called "The Very Uncurious President."

"Once upon a time there was the curious case of a man who was given the entire world and yet had no curiosity about it. Then he became president. He was the leader of the world, but nothing in it seemed to interest him. For instance, whenever he visited a class of school children he would always, always, always read the same book. No matter how far he traveled or how old his listeners, he never deviated from the tried and true. In fact, he was so reluctant to try another tale, his loyal retainers would sometimes clear the room of all other books, leaving only the president's favorite around. That way, George would never see a book that might make him angry or upset or confused.

"Then, one bright, shiny day, just as the very uncurious president was about to begin reading his favorite book, a young boy stepped up, handed him a brand-new book and asked him to read it aloud.

"The president hemmed and hawed, fretted and frowned, sputtered and stammered. But what could he do -- everyone was watching. So he slowly opened the new book, his eyes quickly scanning the page. It was filled with words. Words he'd never seen arranged in this exact order before. And then -- with a loud 'pop!' -- his head exploded. The End."

True story. Well, except for the part about the president's head exploding. But it's a fact that whenever George W. Bush makes an appearance at a school, as he did last week in Albuquerque, N.M., he always, always, always reads from the same book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." It's the story of a ravenous caterpillar that eats so much he makes himself sick before finally transforming into a beautiful butterfly.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's a wonderful book. Beautifully illustrated and with a nice moral about moderation and redemption. But W has been falling back on "TVHC" since he was running for governor. He's made hundreds and hundreds of school appearances over the years, and it's always the same drill: Anytime he gets within shouting distance of school kids, no matter their age -- whoosh! -- out comes "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."

The book is geared toward preschoolers, but there was the Reader of the Free World in Albuquerque, reading it to a group of second-graders. You could almost see the kids rolling their eyes in unison. But Bush wasn't going to deviate from his historically narrow comfort zone, even though he admitted that his selection wasn't exactly age-appropriate. "These kids are way beyond 'The Hungry Caterpillar,'" he said after he was done.

Then, veering dangerously close to self-reflection, he added: "They read it better than the president could read it." He said it, I didn't.

I wonder what it is about the story that strikes such a cord with the president?

Maybe he sees it as a metaphor for his own life, where he clearly was a voracious consumer of drink -- and lord knows what else -- devouring enough to make himself sick. He then went into his personal cocoon, emerging reborn as a beautiful butterfly. Or, at least, as a moth with enough pals on the Supreme Court to make him President of the United States.

Or maybe he just likes the way the book comes, with little holes in it that you can stick your fingers through or play peek-a-boo with. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a caterpillar is just a caterpillar.

The problem is not that W only feels comfortable reading the same children's book again and again. It's what this confirms about him. After all, the essence of reading is encountering new ideas and different viewpoints, and here is a man who has no interest in either of those things.

But though he may see no value in being intellectually curious, he clearly sees value in seeming to be intellectually curious. I just wish he wouldn't try so hard. "I like to read," he told the students in New Mexico. "I read a lot."

Fine, maybe he does, but why do his protests feel so forced? For instance, how many times are we going to hear that the president is spending part of his summer break reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams? The White House spinmeisters have tried to work it into almost every discussion of the president's extended holiday.

Indeed, in a recent TV interview with ABC's Claire Shipman, W almost tripped over himself in an effort to toss out the fact that his "typical" day included lots of time spent reading -- especially that big, fat bio of the second president. I was half-expecting him to point out: "And, y'know, Claire, that sucker is over 600 pages long!" And when he was asked what he thought of the bulky best-seller, he responded: "I like it. It's interesting." Well, there you have it. Literary analysis worthy of the Paris Review.

The next time W visits a school, maybe he should take a risk and leave "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" behind. He could always read that kids' classic "Curious George." But I've got a feeling irony isn't really his strong suit.

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist and author.

6 Million Disenfranchised Voters? Perhaps We Should Do Something

If you believe that the toothless report issued last week by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform will have even the slightest impact on future elections, then you probably also believed Commission co-chair Jimmy Carter's abrupt about-face on his scathing assessment of President Bush.

"I have been disappointed in almost everything he has done," Carter said of Bush 11 days before arriving at the White House for the Rose Garden unveiling of the report. He went on to slam the president's positions on missile defense, foreign policy and the environment.

But just three days before the ceremony -- apparently starry-eyed over the prospect of a grinning photo op with the object of his almost complete disappointment -- Carter issued a statement spinning his Bush bashing as a "transient thing where a mistake was made by me and the press in distorting what was said."

Makes sense to me. As a member of the press, I know how easy it is to distort a statement as ambiguous and open to interpretation as "I have been disappointed in almost everything he has done." Especially seeing how, according to Carter, "all the quotes in there were accurate." Perhaps they were just incomplete. Maybe what he had really said was: "I have been disappointed in almost everything he has done ... with the drapes on the second floor."

"The problem," explained Carter, "was that they just selected a few of the negative things that I said about President Bush and didn't put in the positive." You know, glowing comments like: "Sure he's trashing the environment, re-launching the nuclear arms race, screwing up the Middle East, and kowtowing to right-wingers like Cheney and Rumsfeld -- but, golly, he gives out all those cute nicknames and seems like an awful decent fellow."

Which he does. I mean, you really do have to give W credit. He took ol' Mr. Peanut's barbs like a gentleman -- one who doesn't bother to read the papers. According to reports, when the two met in the Oval Office before the Rose Garden ceremony, Carter launched into an apologetic explanation. To which Bush replied: "Oh, hush. Don't worry about it, man ... I know what the press can do." Cool, man. And very understanding. Compassionate even. Maybe the two of them should consider starting a support group: PVA (Press Victims Anonymous). They could invite Gary Condit, Lizzie Grubman, Robert Blake and Puffy Combs to join.

In fact, what Carter and his commission cohorts ought to apologize for is the Election Reform report itself, which has been grandly entitled "To Assure Pride and Confidence in the Electoral Process." The problem is not with the blue ribbon panel's recommendations, which include worthy ideas such as setting uniform ballot counting standards, upgrading voting equipment, making Election Day a national holiday, and restoring voting rights to felons who've served their time. The trouble lies in the panel's stance that it's enough for Congress to merely encourage states to adopt reform measures, as opposed to mandating the changes.

Since when do we make something as vital to our democracy as the protection of our constitutional right to vote a suggestion? A new study by MIT and Cal Tech found that as many as 6 million Americans were disenfranchised on Election Day 2000 -- yet the Commission wants to leave it to individual states to decide whether, perhaps, they should do something about it?

Why don't we have Carter and Bush convene a commission to rethink the 10 Commandments: "Thou might want to consider not killing." Or: "Perhaps it would be a good idea not to covet thy neighbor's wife ... on the other hand, if you really feel strongly about it, do whatever you think is best."

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has a different plan. Along with Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., he's co-authored the Equal Protection Voting Rights Act, which requires states to meet uniform federal standards for voting, while allocating $3.5 billion to help them ensure that every vote counts on election day.

Even the Appleseed Foundation, an organization that seeks to bring about social change though grassroots community action, has produced a report on electoral reform that unambiguously declares: "Without a commitment of federal funds and a requirement of national standards, many states will not enact fundamental, comprehensive electoral reform."

"The disenfranchisement of 6 million Americans," Dodd told me, "is unconscionable. And the only way to guarantee real reform is to mandate it. The Supreme Court didn't make school desegregation optional in 1954. Congress didn't make the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act optional in 1964 and 1965. I have been going around trying to convince my Republican colleagues that this is not about embarrassing Bush. This is not about the last election; it's about a system that has been cratering over a long time."

The Election Reform Commission report rightly calls Election 2000 "a political ordeal unlike any in living memory." It was an ordeal that has cast a shadow across America's entire electoral system. It's too bad Carter and company didn't see fit to advocate a bite equal to their bark.

Books Not Bars and the Anti-Prison Backlash

The last 20 years have been a boom time for America's jailers. New prisons
have been popping up at a rate even McDonald's would envy, while the number
of people living behind bars has quadrupled: "Over 2 million dissatisfied
customers served."

Particularly troubling is the fact that close to 100,000 children are in
custody and that high school dropout rates are in lock step with the rate of
juvenile incarceration. As a result, many of America's schools have become
preparatory facilities not for college but for jail. Indeed California ranks
first in the nation in prison spending and 43rd in spending on public
education.

Yet this wretched state of affairs and the public policies that have
produced it have, until recently, inspired little public debate. But now,
due to the efforts of a broad coalition ranging from grassroots activists to
criminal justice experts, the tide has finally started to turn. And -- not
surprisingly -- young people are in the lead.

The latest rallying point for the movement against the expansion of the
incarceration industry is the juvenile jail being planned for Alameda County
in the San Francisco Bay area. Dubbed a "Super Jail for Kids," it would
be -- per capita -- one of the largest juvenile halls in America. New York
City, with a population of 7 million, has only 398 spots set aside for youth
offenders; Alameda County officials, serving a community one-fifth New
York's size, proposed a facility with 540 beds. And the criminal justice
system will no doubt rise to the task of filling them. If you build them,
they will come.

Proponents of the super jail argue that it is needed in order to lessen
chronic overcrowding. But as Van Jones, founder of the Books Not Bars
campaign, told me: "We're also concerned with overcrowding. But to address
that problem you can either build bigger jails or put fewer kids in them.
And that's where we part company with the county."

Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation has another problem with the
size of the super jail. "It doesn't seem to be based on any sort of
science," he says. "As far as I can tell, the numbers are from folks in the
juvenile detention construction business. That's like asking Lockheed Martin
how many bombers the U.S. needs to protect itself."

Until a few months ago, the $117 million project was chugging merrily along
with hardly any opposition. That's when Books Not Bars and the Youth Force
Coalition launched a last-ditch effort to try and derail it. Combining
attention-getting, street-smart tactics -- including interrupting formal
hearings with protest poems and rap music -- with an impressively reasoned
case, the young activists achieved some surprising results.

For instance, this spring when 70 of them showed up at a meeting of the
California Board of Corrections -- a meeting that had been moved 500 miles
to make it harder for the protesters to attend -- they helped convince the
board to withdraw $2.3 million in funding for the Alameda project. Even
their critics conceded the eloquence of their argument against the super
jail and in favor of more money spent on counseling, education and job
programs. Books Not Bars, indeed.

"These kids made a difference," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev
Yaroslavsky, a member of the corrections board, told me. "They were prepared
and spoke to the larger issue of whether we should be criminalizing or
trying to socialize kids who get in trouble. I was a protester when I was
young, and I never got these kinds of results."

The battle continued this week at a raucous Alameda County supervisors
meeting, where the protesters scored a minor victory when the board voted to
reduce the new jail from 540 to 450 beds. The activists were hoping for
more -- and nine of them were arrested when they sat down in front of the
supervisors' dais and refused to move. Police ended the sit-in by dragging
them out by their arms and legs. Apparently, and ironically, it takes people
willing to get arrested to stop the prison industrial complex.

The supervisors also voted to approve a study of the county's juvenile
justice system, with an emphasis on early intervention efforts and
alternative options to detention. Even Supervisor Gail Steele, a backer of
the new jail, applauded the activists' efforts. "I credit the kids," Steele
says, "with getting it on the table that you have to do something on the
front end -- that you have to provide services and alternatives to keep kids
out of jail."

But youth advocates say the real fight has just begun. "The county is not
fooling us with these minor concessions and tricky maneuvers," Jones told
me. Whatever the final outcome, the Super Jail protests are another example
of how young people are emerging as the leaders of a resurgent activist
movement taking hold across the country -- especially on college campuses,
where student demonstrators have altered school policies on everything from
selling products made in sweatshops to paying campus workers a living wage.

As for the nation's massive incarceration industry, its real costs are as
hidden from the public as its victims. But young activists have vowed to
continue working to turn a too-good-to-be-true boom into a
too-destructive-to-continue bust.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Happy Holidays!