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 Then he rescinded the rule lowering levels of arsenic in drinking water -- earning extra blunder points by announcing the decision during National Poison Prevention Week.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

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.

The Power of Grieving Parents

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously identified the five stages of grieving as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But things have changed. In our media-driven age, there is now a clearly identifiable sixth stage: going on TV.

No tragedy is real, it seems, until you've gone public with your grief. And this new twist on "bargaining" -- not between you and God but between your agent and TV producers -- is all too easy to mock. But sometimes this new openness can serve a purpose. There is a big difference, after all, between spilling your guts for Stone Phillips on "Dateline" and using your grief to help ensure that whatever tragedy befell your family doesn't happen to others.

A great example is that of Julie and Virgil Horner, whose 3-year-old daughter was crushed to death when a load of kitchen countertops fell from an upper shelf at a Home Depot superstore. The Horners have made it their personal crusade to let the public know about the danger of falling merchandise and to force companies to open their closely held records of accidents, injuries and deaths.

And while it may be easy to ridicule the idea of starting a crusade to protect America from falling countertops, the fact is grassroots movements like this one -- often led by grieving parents -- are frequently the only way to bring about real change and focus attention on underreported problems.

It turns out that nearly 10,000 people a year are injured -- many of them severely -- in these kinds of accidents. But the public doesn't hear about them because, until the Horners, no one was willing to make it their "crusade" and because as a condition of settling these kinds of claims, the stores almost always demand confidentiality agreements. That's one of the reasons it took so long for the Firestone tire blowout problem to come to light. If someone had had the courage to take this issue on as a personal crusade, who knows how many lives could have been saved.

When it comes to product liability, corporate America has a code of omerta Tony Soprano would envy. In the Firestone case, a group of lawyers kept quiet about the defect while close to 200 people died, in order not to jeopardize their clients' settlements.

Kathy Fackler is another parent who has turned private pain into public good. When her son was maimed on a ride at Disneyland, the California mom made it her mission to improve amusement park safety. Later this month, the state will enact a law requiring amusement parks to report injuries and establishing a state-run ride inspection system. Thanks to one crusading mom, Disneyland's Mickey Mouse approach to safety will be a thing of the past.

Again, we may laugh at the thought that we need to be protected from spinning tea cups or runaway kiddie rides -- that we need to ensure that the person operating the ride isn't really Goofy. But, as it turns out, we do.

Down in Jeb Bush country, for example, the Florida legislature has taken special steps to provide cover for the state's biggest tourist attractions -- exempting Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World and other big-draw theme parks from state inspection programs. It will take Fackler's crusade going national to break up the ugly cabal of vested interests and venal legislators.

And while grieving in private may seem more dignified, it's these angry crusaders, refusing to withdraw from the world when tragedy strikes, who have profoundly changed our society.

We all owe a debt, for example, to Candy Lightner, who turned the death of her daughter into a national movement against drunken drivers by forming Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She challenged a prevailing culture that winked at drinking and driving. Because of her willingness to turn her personal anguish into a crusade, we have far stricter drunken driving laws, designated driver programs, "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" ads, etc., etc.

The same is true of John Walsh, who used the pain, anger and frustration he felt when his son Adam was kidnapped and murdered to help pass the Missing Children Act of 1982 and the Missing Children Assistance Act of 1984, which resulted in the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Parents like Candy Lightner, John Walsh, Kathy Fackler, and now Julie and Virgil Horner are what I call latent leaders. They never planned on leading crusades but, after being touched by tragedy, found it within themselves to take action.

Every day we have fresh examples of the lack of leadership from our politicians. These people are shining examples of where the next wave of leaders could come from.

Who Wants More Power Plants?

The recent precipitous drop in George W. Bush's approval rating is by no means the worst news for the White House. After all, presidential approval ratings tend to have more ups and downs than a roller coaster filled with manic-depressives.

No, what should have Karl Rove and Karen Hughes waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night are the recent polls showing not just that the public overwhelmingly supports energy conservation efforts over the massive build-up of new power plants but that Republicans do as well. By a ratio of more than two-to-one.

And a core group of disgruntled Republicans are not just ritually shaking their heads - they're speaking out. "It's a shame that a conservative administration had to be badgered into talking positively about efficiency," says Jim Scarantino, executive director of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

The group rails against the energy plan's "lack of an aggressive energy efficiency strategy" -- a failure that repudiates a Republican tradition dating back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, who put conservation at the heart of his agenda and his legacy.

"The movement for the conservation of wildlife," Roosevelt wrote in 1916, "and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources, are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose and method."

One hundred years after TR took office, a defiantly conservative administration has sent to Congress a plan that is so pathetically indifferent, even hostile, to conservation it does not even address the single biggest and most obvious step we can take to conserve energy: increasing auto fuel-efficiency standards.

The Bush plan merely recommends further "study" of the issue -- traditionally the junkyard for change and innovation -- sidestepping the need to require SUVs and pickups, which now account for nearly 50 percent of the vehicles sold in America, to meet the same mileage requirements as cars.

Instead, in an effort to soften his hard-earned "let them drink arsenic" image, the president has taken to photo-op environmentalism. Like his recent wide-eyed walk through a Department of Energy showcase of energy-saving devices, including a state-of-the-art cell phone charger.

"When you multiply the number of chargers plugged into people's walls all across America," the president enthused, "one can begin to realize significant savings all across the country." By golly, one certainly can. One can also recommend "further study."

After the tour, Bush grandly announced over $85 million in grants aimed at encouraging the development of technologies linked to renewable energy. Sure it sounds good, but the problem is the grants simply restored the $85 million in funding for renewable energy the president had previously recommended cutting.

The other problem is that $85 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly $1.36 billion in tax incentives, credits and deductions handed out to his buddies in the coal, oil and gas industries. These, apparently, did not need further study.

And to put in perspective just how frivolous the size of the grants are, California alone has set aside 10 times as much, $850 million, just in monetary incentives for consumers who purchase energy efficient appliances.

As Alan Nogee of the Union of Concerned Scientists put it: "Energy efficiency and renewable energy could replace nearly 1,000 of the 1,300 new power plants that President Bush says are needed to meet increasing energy needs. America does not face a shortage of energy supplies, just a shortage of vision, leadership and determination to provide clean and affordable energy."

Despite the Bush administration's highly effective effort to conserve its very limited supplies of vision, leadership and determination -- and despite widespread skepticism about whether there really is a power shortage -- the public has responded beyond all expectations to the call for conservation.

In California, ground zero for the current energy crisis, conservation efforts have reduced demand for electricity for the second month in a row. Electricity use in June was down over 12 percent from last year, following an 11 percent drop in May.

Not surprisingly, Gov. Gray Davis -- who has spent much of the last few months dithering while the energy crisis burned -- rushed to take credit for the drop in energy usage. As if he's been running up and down the state, turning up thermostats and turning off light switches.

Of course, the alternative to being a one-man switch-flipping brigade would be finding a way to spark the public's imagination -- but when it comes to sparking the public's imagination, Gray Davis is no Gary Condit.

While there's no doubt consumers are looking to avoid mammoth power bills, the fervor with which they have embraced voluntary conservation efforts can' t be explained solely on grounds of self-interest. In fact, it demonstrates the depth of the American people's untapped reserves of commitment to the public good, even when their leaders are clearly entirely tapped out.

It is truly ironic that one of those on the cutting edge of consumer conservation is W himself, whose ranch in Crawford, Texas, has been described as "an environmentally sensitive showplace" designed with "state-of-the-art energy efficiency." The house is filled with energy-saving devices, while the ranch's lawn and fruit orchard are irrigated with recycled water. He's acting locally, he just can't think globally.

One can't help but wonder: Is this a deeply felt personal commitment of W's that, at the national level, is overwhelmed by his even more deeply felt commitment to his friends and donors in the energy industry?

Isn't it time that Bush starts preaching to the nation what he practices back at the ranch?

The Drug War Goes Private

When long-time drug warriors like Congressmen Dan Burton and Mark Souder start blasting American anti-drug efforts in Latin America, you know that something is rotten in Peru. And Colombia. And Washington.

That's exactly what happened last week when representatives of the State Department, the DEA, U.S. Customs and the drug czar's office appeared in front of the House Committee on Government Reform to discuss the United States' role in the midair murder of an American missionary and her infant daughter last month in Peru.

Well, not exactly "discuss." More like equivocate and pass-the-buck. Just another day on the hill for drug warriors. It was as if these apparatchiks had all morphed into a famous character from that other war: Sgt. Schultz from "Hogan's Heroes." They knew "noth-ing!"

How many planes have been shot down over the years? They didn't know. Who had ultimate authority over the CIA contractors who fingered the plane? Nobody could say. How many different contractors are being used in the drug war down there? Dunno.

Their continual stonewalling made Burton pricklier than that mean woman on "The Weakest Link." "When Americans are killed, why does it take so long to get an explanation?" fumed Burton. "It seems like we're pulling teeth to get it." Souder was equally apoplectic: "We're conservative Republicans who have carried the ball for the drug war, but you're making it very difficult for us."

But at least these guys showed up. The CIA, the key U.S. player in the Peruvian shoot-down, didn't even bother.

So why all the secrecy and obfuscation? Just what is it they're trying to hide?

Perhaps it's the fact that our government is funding a war being conducted by hundreds of American citizens working for private security companies, with innocuous sounding names like DynCorp, AirScan and Military Professional Resources Inc.

It's a classic end run. When Congress agreed to fund last year's $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia, the approval came with strict limitations on the number of American military personnel that could be deployed in the region (500) and a prohibition forbidding those troops from engaging in combat-related tasks. But these private military contractors -- mostly made up of one-time U.S. soldiers and paid for with our tax dollars -- don't have to abide by any such rules.

It's hard to know exactly how much these corporate soldiers are costing us since many of them are being funded out of the CIA's so-called "black budget" -- but the dollar figure is estimated to be over one billion.

DynCorp alone is being paid $600 million by the State Department to help in drug eradication and interdiction. But in February, DynCorp pilots ended up in a firefight with left-wing guerrillas. Yet the U.S. government is still claiming that we're not being dragged into Colombia's civil war.

"American taxpayers already pay $300 billion a year to fund the world's most powerful military," says Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a vocal critic of the private armies. "Why should they have to pay a second time in order to privatize our operations?" Schakowsky has recently introduced legislation that would ban the government from using these private companies to help fight the drug war.

"Power exercised in secret," said former U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, "especially under the cloak of national security, is doubly dangerous." Now the cloak is the drug war, but the secrecy and lack of accountability are just as dangerous.

Outsourcing the war makes it possible to proceed with a policy without having to defend it in public -- or having to deal with those annoying body bags and flag-draped coffins. As Myles Frechette, the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia put it: "It's very handy to have an outfit not part of the U.S. armed forces, obviously. If somebody gets killed or whatever, you can say they're not a member of the armed forces."

It's a political twist on the old philosophical conundrum: If Americans are blown to pieces in a South American forest but no one hears about it, did they really die? And if they did, would it lead to a privatized Gulf of Tonkin incident?

If, as it's been said, information is the WD-40 of democracy, then suppression of information is the surest way to desiccate the lubricant that keeps the system running.

School Reform Stalls

Let's hope no one even remotely contemplating suicide was watching last week's Senate debate over President Bush's education plan. It was so depressing, C-SPAN's coverage should have been sponsored by Prozac.

The facts being bandied about were bad enough -- crumbling schools, illiterate students, a nation more than ever at risk. But even more disheartening were the utterly pedestrian solutions offered from both sides of the aisle. There was nothing we haven't heard before -- nothing we haven't already tried.

Only one thing was different this time out: the dark tone of the rhetoric. "America's educational problems," warned Sen. Robert Torricelli, "point like a dagger at the heart of our national prosperity -- indeed, one day even our national security." For Sen. Ted Kennedy, the education debate was about nothing less than "the future of our country."

But while the rhetoric has been upped, the response bears no relation to either the magnitude of the crisis or the apocalyptic verbiage. The problems have gotten worse, the prospects have gotten worse, but the "solutions" have stayed the same.

Kennedy, the emblematic Democrat on this issue, accused Bush of "nickel and diming children." He remains convinced that all it will take to solve the education crisis is more money. "We know we have 10,000 failing schools today," he said. "We know that the average cost to bring those schools along and turn them around is $180,000."

He even helpfully did the math for his fellow senators -- "It would cost a total of $1.8 billion to turn around all 10,000 failing schools" -- in case any of them were like the 40 percent of American 17-year-olds who lack enough math skills to hold down a job at a manufacturing plant.

By now there should be nobody who doesn't agree that how much money we spend per pupil makes a difference. But surely there should also be nobody left who still believes that the only reason so many schools are failing is deficient funding.

On the Republican side, the panacea was more testing. "If a test focuses on basic reading, basic math and basic science," asked Sen. Jeff Sessions, "how can anyone complain if a teacher teaches to the test?"

I wonder if these federally mandated tests will include brain-teasers such as: "If a violently ill child with a fever of 103 has his temperature taken every hour on the hour, how long will it be before he feels better? A) one hour B) one day C) one week D) when the doctor finally puts down the thermometer and gives him some Tylenol." In other words, when should those in charge stop assessing the ailment and begin treating it?

When, for example, should we do something about a system that fails to reward good teachers while providing cover for incompetent ones? Of the 78,000 teachers in New York City schools, only around 300 were under review for possible dismissal. The reasons for these reviews included such charges as rape and drug abuse -- but not lousy teaching. In Los Angeles, the story is the same: 36,000 teachers, 234 firings.

In what successful business -- let alone a failing one -- would less than 1 percent of employees face review? And then only because they've run afoul of the law, not because they've failed their students.

As predictably as a school bell, every election our candidates promise to transform our schools. At the start of his second term, Bill Clinton vowed: "My number one priority for the next four years is to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world."

I guess he got distracted: U.S. 12th-graders currently rank 18th out of 21 developed countries when it comes to math and science. And, of course, Bush ran on the idea that he would "reform the system" to ensure that "no child is left behind."

There are powerful ideas and promising experiments struggling to take root amidst the fire-bombed landscape of our school system. But the weight of the status quo is so enormous, it often crushes them before they can make a real difference.

In San Francisco, for example, a charter school run by Edison that has worked miracles with the test scores of its black and Latino students is on the verge of being shut down by the board of education. Why? Just because its success is an affront to a calcified system that sees innovation as a threat to its survival.

Even a modest and ultimately imperfect initiative like vouchers for parents whose child has been in a persistently failing public school was defeated in the House Education and Workforce Committee and is no longer even part of the Senate bill.

No senator rose to point out the hypocrisy of the fact that 49 percent of Senate members with school-age children send them to private school while denying America's poor parents the same choice.

Whatever watered-down version of the education bill ends up becoming law, it promises to do nothing to make it easier for creativity and innovation to flourish in our schools. So brace yourselves for more grandstanding, more end-of-the-world rhetoric, more depressing statistics and more broken promises by the time the next education debate hits the Senate floor.

Like the old congressional saying goes, "If it's broke, don't fix it."

Economic Chivalry Is Not Dead

Alfred Marshall, one of the founding fathers of modern capitalism, called it "economic chivalry" -- the idea that businessmen have responsibilities beyond the bottom line. "The desire of men for the approval of their own conscience," he wrote in "Principles of Economics," "is an economic force of the first order of importance."

Last week, a group of capitalist heavy-hitters -- including Warren Buffet, George Soros, David Rockefeller Jr. and William Gates Sr. -- decided to put their conscience above their self-interest by coming out against the repeal of the estate tax. Oh, excuse me, I mean the "death tax." Economic chivalry, it seems, is alive and kicking.

Gates Sr. (Bill's dad), in conjunction with Chuck Collins of the Responsible Wealth Project, a group that practices what Marshall preached, has gotten about 400 millionaires to join a campaign in opposition to the repeal, which includes a petition, op-eds and newspaper ads arguing that doing away with estate taxes would "be bad for our democracy, our economy and our society."

Buffet, meanwhile, compared the repeal, and its attendant $300 billion windfall over the next decade for the heirs of the richest Americans, to "choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics ... Without the estate tax, you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit."

As well as an inspiring demonstration of economic chivalry, this campaign is a demonstration of leadership, at a time of a complete bankruptcy of leadership in the political realm. Compare the boldness of the position taken by Buffet et al to the flaccid response of the Democratic leaders: "I do believe that there is plenty of room for compromise," said Sen. Tom Daschle about President Bush's proposal. "We both support estate tax relief."

It's as though a curse has been placed on modern politicians so that the moment they throw their hat in the ring, they're drained of all boldness, creativity and the ability to inspire. We might as well accept that at this moment in our history politics is no longer the place to turn for leadership. But since political life, no less than nature, abhors a vacuum, we'll have to look elsewhere -- and take our leaders where we find them. It's businessmen today; it could be academics, artists, preachers or grassroots activists tomorrow.

Sometimes they will expand the accepted boundaries of the political debate, and sometimes, like the little boy who shouted that the emperor wore no clothes, they will simply state the obvious. After all, speaking out against the estate tax repeal because it will perpetuate inequalities and undermine charitable giving is not exactly a radical stance. Even John DiIulio, who heads the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, came out against the repeal last week on the grounds it would harm his efforts: "I don't want to be the skunk at the picnic. But, no, I don't think the estate tax should be eliminated."

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, on the other hand, clearly thinks the emperor is exquisitely dressed. Stating as obvious an utter falsehood, he asserted that "People don't give to a charity for a tax break. People give to charity out of the goodness of their heart, and we all know that." Apparently "all" doesn't include the president, who has proposed spurring charitable giving by expanding the charitable deduction to the 80 million taxpayers who don't itemize, or the tax attorneys for whom "charity strategies" are an integral part of estate planning.

It was left to Gates-pere to deliver a dose of reality: "The estate tax," he wrote, "affects only the very wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Poverty, on the other hand, afflicts one out of six American children." The reason that the interests of the top 2 percent are a higher priority than the interests of the poorest kids was made clear by Buffet last year when he decried the way political contributions influence policy in Washington. Then as now, the fourth richest man in America sounded the alarm: "We are on the way to becoming a plutocracy. That is not just wrong. It is destabilizing."

But this kind of bold language -- and bold stance -- is frowned upon in a political culture where elected officials quake at the thought of saying or doing anything that might alienate swing voters. So instead we have Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt fumbling with charts and graphs, substituting gimmicks for leadership skills, and our new president boosting his leadership quotient by bombing Iraq and then boasting to the press: "It was a mission about which I was informed and I authorized."

This sums up the shrinking scale of leadership in Washington today: the Leader of the Free World bragging that he was in the loop.

Thank god for the billionaire knights, charging in on their trusty Gulfstream steeds.

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