Friday, May 26, 2006

Social Security and Medicare D


For weeks, I've been mulling over the profound differences in approach to government-provided insurance between the Social Security Act of 1935 and Medicare D, the program to provide prescription drug coverage to seniors which passed in 2003 and went into effect this spring, with it's enrollment deadline occurring only a few days ago. Why these striking differences? Is Medicare D a case of learning lessons from the evident failures and shortcomings of an obsolescent program passed seventy years ago and correcting them? Or, on the other hand, does Medicare D represent a reckless disregard for the bases for Social Security's stunning success, a willful repudiation of the tried-and-true? Should the Bush administration have consulted the New Deal "brains trust" in formulating its prescription drug program, or might FDR, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and Henry Mogenthau have benefited from the counsel of modern-day policy analysts at the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and produced something significantly better than Social Security, conceded even by its admirers, then and now, to have its very real flaws?

Let's begin by placing Social Security in its most favorable light. At a stroke, it provided unemployment compensation, old-age insurance, and aid to families with dependent children, among other things. As glowingly described by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his classic The Coming of the New Deal,

"Facing an administrative challenge of staggering complexity, [Social Security] operated with steady intelligence and competence. No New Deal agency solved such bewildering problems with such self-effacing smoothness. The old-age insurance program went into quick effect... No government bureau ever directly touched the lives of so many millions of Americans---the old, the jobless, the sick, the needy, the blind, the mothers, the children---with so little confusion or complaint. And the overhead costs for this far-flung and extraordinary operation were considerably less than those of private insurance."

This estimate, of course, ignores what we nowadays call "the downside" of social security, of which more toward the end of this essay, but it is on the whole a just assessment, and we cannot but note the comparatively unfavorable light in which it seems to place the Bush drug prescription program. Medicare D is much more complex than Social Security because of the public sector-private sector collaboration upon which it is based. Why, critics ask, not make the whole thing single-payer and leave the insurance industry out of it, just as it is left out of Medicare itself? Why not make the administration of the program entirely in-house? Why not give Medicare the power to negotiate the terms of drug purchases directly with Big Pharma?

These are all good questions, and they deserve persuasive answers. At first glance, and even at second, it must be said, the Bush approach seems to carry with it severe disadvantages. It seems, to put it bluntly, to be no more than a giveaway program for the insurance industry, a program by which industry profits are needlessly subsidized by the government, and hence by the the taxpayer, and a program, too, through which enormous profits are simply guaranteed to the pharmaceutical industry for the lifetime of Medicare D.

Isn't it the case, critics ask, that every dollar of profit realized by the insurance industry, its managers and shareholders, represents one dollar less available to the beneficiaries in drugs? Then, too, we must reflect that with as many as eighty insurers offering 1,400 plans competing for sign-ups (the current estimate), a good many of them are bound to fail, for, after all, one purpose of free market competition, and its certain result, is the ruthless weeding out of the less fit. Beyond that, there is the inevitability of fraud, for the temptation to cut corners and line pockets can never be completely suppressed in the best regulated of markets. Realistically, the overhead costs must be immense. The regulatory bureaucracy in Medicare, Health and Human Services, and the Justice Department--the paperwork examiners, auditors, and attorneys--will run into the many thousands if there is to be any chance of maintaining even rudimentary standards of honesty and competence.

What possible benefit, it will be asked, can justify the risks and hazards outlined above? And how can seniors possibly make any sense of the myriad plans proferred them, as many as forty in each state, with differing and sliding monthly fees, co-pays, deductibles, and pharmacopoeias? President Bush faced these issues squarely recently and gave his blunt response: "We have changed Medicare for the better," he said, "but sometimes change creates anxieties. The more choices you have, the more likely it is you'd be able to find a program that suits your specific needs. In other words, one size fits all is not a consumer-friendly program."

There you have it. Choice. It is, as one might say, the First Amendment of the Consumer's Bill of Rights. It is the American way. I recently visited a supermarket and wandered into the oral hygiene aisle, and there on the shelves I counted thirty different brands, flavors, and sizes of mouthwash! This gloriously varying array of products jostling one another for my dollar raised this question in my mind: would any of us really want a world in which we all had to buy Listerine?

This brings us to the notorious "doughnut," or more precisely the doughnut hole, the gap in coverage between the first $2250 and $5100 of drug purchases. What could have possessed Congress to do this, many wonder. The doughnut metaphor is particularly apt, suggesting as it does that the missing portion consists of nothing but empty calories, trans fats, and sugar. Just as the Bush plan offers consumer choice, so it promotes personal responsibility. As she gobbles her way through six or seven generics a day and closes in on that $2250 deadline, the patient must stop and ask herself, "Do I really need 7 and a half milligrams a day of Coumedin, or could I get by on five? Is this Cipro really necessary? Do I have to take all this Ditropan, or might I produce the same results with a change of diet?" She must, in other words, face the fact that in this world there is no such thing as a completely free lunch. It's a timely lesson, even--or perhaps especially--for the over-65s.

As to the profits assured to Big Pharma by Congress's act of forbidding Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which some darkly attribute to the pharmaceutical industry's "clout" in Washington, well, here the story is more complex than some newspaper columnists would have you believe. For one thing, while Medicare may not bargain with the pharmaceutical giants, the insurers are perfectly free to seek whatever discounts they're able to pry loose from the drug companies, and I, for one, wish them all the luck in the world, although, realistically, the heavy hitters like UnitedHealth, Humana, WellPoint, and Blue Cross/ Blue Shield are bound to have better luck here than the small fry.

But the underlying issue is this: are those 18 to 20% profit margins enjoyed by the pharmaceutical giants really "exorbitant," as some critics charge? It is often pointed out that most industries reap far less in profits. Car manufacturers, for example, settle for 5%, when they make any profits at all. But this is to ignore the billions that Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Merck and the rest have poured into research over the last quarter century or so to produce the cornucopia of drugs which have extended and enhanced our lives. Critics allege that the Bush plan puts the drug industry first, the insurers a close second, and the beneficiaries a distant third, but the truth is that in assuring steady high profits for the drug giants, it also assures better health for all of us.

In the U.K. they think otherwise. There, Parliament imposed ceilings on pharmaceuticals' profits, and you may be sure they are far below 18%. What has been the result? That the Brits are a whole lot sicker than we Yanks, in spite of whatever junk science propaganda you may have heard to the contrary from the likes of the New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, or Paul Krugman.

Drug industry breakthroughs in treatment are occuring all the time. Just recently, research by three companies--Merck, Novartis, and Sankyo--established that 57 million more Americans than we had supposed are at risk from high blood pressure. The New York Times reports (Saturday, May 20) that the three spent $700,000 to "wine and dine doctors last year at steakhouses around the country and brief them on the latest news about high blood pressure." A few disgruntled physicians sharply protested this expanded definition of high blood pressure and accused the drug industry of wanting only to "increase the number of persons taking drugs." One recklessly charged that the medical profession was as addicted to drug industry money as Americans are to oil. But the real news here is surely that if not for this industry "heads up," many millions of Americans might have died in their sleep from high blood pressure without even knowing they had it!

Research is not the only drain on drug industry profits. Advertising costs in this highly competitive industry are also very substantial, and were greatly increased when Congress in 1997 for some reason passed and Bill Clinton signed into law a bill permitting the advertising of prescription drugs on television. The salvo of commercials began with Pfizer's introduction of its new anti-arthritic drug Celebrex, and the jingle "Celebrex, Celebrex, come on and celebrate!" quickly became inescapable. The promotion produced at least one indisputable if unintended public good: overnight, the network evening news shows were turned from loss leaders into sources of high profits. Merck soon responded to Pfizer by promoting its own anti-arthritic miracle drug, Vioxx, with the lovely ice-skating champion Dorothy Hamill, thirty years on from her Olympic gold medal but seemingly ageless, thanks to Vioxx, gliding across a pond trailing children to the accompaniment of a reggae-beat "It's a beautiful...MORNING!..."

One oddity of such commercials is that they promoted the announcing careers of fast speakers--those able to read their way through the required warnings with astonishing speed:

genitalsorenessandmildintermittentsphincterspasms. Donotuseifpregnant."

OK, it turned out that all those millions who were prescribed Vioxx would have been a lot better off taking aspirin, but who knew? Not the FDA. Although the aesthetics of these commercials are sometimes pleasant, their clear purpose is to educate and inform, which is why they always end with "Ask your doctor if X is right for you." Sarcastic spirits interpret this to mean "pester your doctor to prescribe X and don't take no for an answer." But really this is quite unnecessary because your doctor or a colleague in the same practice very likely was flown last year to an all-expenses-paid seminar at a thirty-six hole championship class golfing resort on Maui where he learned of the wondrous results achieved by X in five years of exhaustive testing.

In summary, what might the drafters of Social Security have learned if they'd had the privilege of consulting Bush plan advisers? First, choice. It somehow mattered not to FDR's inner circle whether the recipients of Social Security were single or married or were homeowners or renters. They all got the same check. Uncle Sam knew best. Social Security thus clearly failed the Bush litmus test: "One size fits all is not a consumer-friendly program." Second, no requiring of responsibility. If there'd been a doughnut, if, for example, Social Security checks had only arrived nine months of the year rather than in all twelve, it would have been brought home to recipients that they were damned lucky to get anything, and for part of the year would be on their own. Third, Social Security cut out altogether the hard-hit private insurance industry. If recipients had received their checks from Mutual of Omaha, Metropolitan Life, Fireman's Fund, etc., business confidence might have recovered far faster than it did, promoting a more speedy prosperity for all Americans.

Yes, Social Security flourished---in the short run (well, for seventy-plus years). But we have been warned by our president. After winning re-election in 2004, he memorably said, "I've earned capital in this election--political capital--and now I intend to spend it. That's my style." And he spent it telling us that Social Security would be bankrupt by 2018 and that even now all the guarantees of future payments stored in some filing cabinet in Erie, Pennsylvania, were nothing more than a collection of worthless IOUs. We ignored him, and continue to ignore him, at our peril.

Monday, May 22, 2006

J'Accuse Le Parti Democratique

The Irate Codger, the Hermit of 4032, emerges from his cave once more to hurl his imprecations into the wind, raving like Lear on the heath, and it matters not to him whether anyone hears or replies! He will have his say, curse the heavens! He speaks, of course, of the Democratic Party. Just the other day, when the price of gas hit three dollars a gallon and a jubilant Senator Charles Schumer (I refuse to call him "Chuck") crowed that now at last the Democrats had Bush on the ropes, I asked myself, "Is this the nadir? Have we now bumped the bottom, or is it possible to go even lower in cynicism, opportunism, pandering, and the craven abandonment of scruple?"

Can the Democratic Party ever produce a presidential candidate with guts, conviction, and eloquence? Well, here are two guys who in one case might and in the other definitely does want your support, and two party wonk journals seriously proposing that this time they deserve your admiration and perhaps your support. The April edition of American Prospect proposes "The New New Gore," in a breathless essay by one Ezra Klein. This new, new Gore made a thundering speech before a select audience last November, and if you hadn't been there you'd scarcely believe the transformation. Freed from hack consultants and ignored by the media, "Al Gore as presented by Al Gore is infinitely more electric and attractive than the anodyne stiff the media popularized and the voters remembered." He has evolved into "the most articulate, animated, and forceful critic of the Bush administration" we have. Why, in 2002 the guy even came out for single-payer health insurance! And his new movie about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," is a real eye-opener and shows him in an entirely new light. Gore now views global warming as "the biggest challenge this species ever faced."

Hey, wait a minute. Gore published "Earth in the Balance" in 1992, remember, fourteen years ago, and it was all about global warming. He headed the American delegation that negotiated the Kyoto protocols to the Rio treaty in 1997. He ran for president in 2000 and, between Labor Day and November 7 of that campaign season, never once uttered the word "environment," let alone "climate change" or--gasp--the unthinkable, "global warming." An inconvenient truth indeed; so inconvenient that in a presidential campaign it couldn't even be whispered, lest his opponent ape his father and pin on hapless Al the jeering epithet "Ozone Man."

What accounts for the emergence of the new, new Gore? His epiphany came with Howard Dean's campaign in 2003. Hell for leather, no holds barred, fuck the consultants, comfortable in his own skin and all that. Joe Trippi, Dean's..ahem..consultant (fired, as I remember, after the Iowa caucus) tells the wide-eyed Klein that Gore "looked and saw that, Holy Shit, those guys are running the kind of campaign I wanted to run." (I bet he wasn't so vulgar as to say "Holy Shit" around Tipper.) "Wanted to run," note. What prevented him? Oh, yeah, those consultants, Joe Klein's whipping boys. So, unleash the real Al Gore!

Not persuaded? Well, the Nation has another suggestion. How about "The New Kerry"? (May 29 issue, page 5. In an anti-war address at Faneuil Hall in April, writes an admiration-addled Ari Berman, on "the thirty-fifth anniversary of his stirring testimony before Congress as a representative of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry was invoking a theme downplayed throughout his 2004 campaign and confronting the issue that bedeviled his candidacy: the war in Iraq." "Downplayed." He didn't downplay it; he stifled, strangled, and buried it. He said, "Just as I defended my country as a young man, I will defend it as president." He murdered his younger, braver self, the coward. Of course it was futile.

And his support of Bush's war and his vote for it, a vote he "stood by" not only through the campaign, but for a year and a half afterward? "After years of vacillation, he has found his voice on Iraq....Of all the votes he's cast in the Senate, Kerry told Tim Russert on Meet the Press, his Iraq vote is the one he'd most like to take back." Pity he didn't say that in August 2004 in Boston in his acceptance speech. Imagine how those delegates, eighty per cent of whom were anti-war and dying for words of courageous defiance, would have greeted that! It would have been like TR in Chicago at the Progressive Party convention in 1912: "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord." Pandemonium. Instead he gave them that ghastly, phony Swift Boat Veterans patriotic love-in. Oh, and he's now for "healthcare for all Americans." Maybe that means single-payer, but very probably not. "The presidency is never very far from his mind," Berman tells us. For the definitive word on all this, see Ellen Goodman's "Don't Run, John Kerry," in the Boston Globe, April 28.

New Gore, new Kerry. Those with very long memories may recall the origins of that. In 1960, a hack journalist named Earl Mazo wrote a famous piece in the New Republic, and a book, called "The New Nixon." In the next decade and a half, the term became an endlessly repeated joke. Ezra Klein and Ari Berman remind me of Lucy holding the football; they must think we're all Charlie Brown.

And then there's Hillary. Gore and Kerry are far from being tragic figures, for their defeats were cowardly, but there was pathos in the downfall of each. They are decent, thoughtful, principled men who went into politics to do good, and their models, Albert Gore Sr. and JFK, were worthy of emulation. It's just that when it came to it, courage failed them, and they'll spend the rest of their lives living with that bitter truth. HRC is different. There are no--that awful term--"core convictions" there. She's moved from Lani Guinier, Marion Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund to Bill Bennett and Sam Brownback, from "It Takes a Village" to "The Book of Virtues." Every position taken is discardable. In 1997 she went to the West Bank, "prematurely" called for the creation of a Palestinian state, and decorously bussed Mrs. Arafat on or near the cheek. When she ran for the Senate in 2000, she knew what had to be done. She kissed the ring fingers of the New York rabbinate (figuratively, of course, as in "kow tow"), proclaimed her belief that Jerusalem was the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jews whatever the Oslo accords might say to the contrary, and ever since has been elbowing Charles Schumer over which of them is AIPAC's most dependable champion in the Senate.

And of course she's been famously "reaching out" to the Republican right, assuring the pro-lifers that she hates abortion almost as much as they, siding with the Republicans, along with Joe Lieberman, on Terri Schiavo, teaming up with Robert Bennett of Utah on a bill to make a crime of flag-burning when the intention is to "intimidate" someone (she compared it to the Klan burning a cross on a black couple's lawn), and joining Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback in a bill to crack down on the violence and sexism of video games. Santorum is a reactionary Catholic. Brownback, formerly a Southern Baptist, was recently converted to the faith of Mother Church by the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus (misidentified in my last missive as Neustadt--sorry). Santorum, along with Justices Scalia and Alito, is rumored to be a member of Opus Dei. Watch out for Hillary to condemn "The da Vinci Code" in no uncertain terms!

The other day she addressed the Chamber of Commerce and scolded young people nowadays who seem to think that work is a "four-letter word." Well, it is. She thought it was high time "we started to think some very old-fashioned thoughts." The pandering was so risably blatant that both John Stewart and Stephen Colbert ran clips on their satirical shows, alongside John McCain in cap and gown at Fallwell's Liberty University.

What else is there to say of this woman? She has been unflinching and unyielding in her support of the war she voted for without a qualm or moment of reflection in 2002; tried to get to Bush's right by going to Baghdad to rally the troops, seize a mess tray, and get in the chow line; and proposed a year ago that the active duty armed forces be increased by 80,000, in increments. Other pro-war Dems then in the Senate have dropped by the wayside: Rockefeller, Biden, Edwards, Kerry. She never will. If she becomes president, our stratospheric defense budget will go even higher. And, oh yes, health insurance. Al Franken, on his talk show on Air America Radio asked her if she would now endorse single-payer. Dumb question perhaps to the woman who with Ira Magaziner concocted that success-proof scheme thirteen years ago, but anyway, for the record, she replied, "No, we require a uniquely American solution."

But, we are told, the nomination of HRC is almost a done deal. Unheard of heaps of campaign cash. No real opposition. Steely resolve. But something funny is going on. Most of the people talking this way seem to be Republicans. "Hillary Clinton's political future is both unpredictable and unlimited. She has..a political network second to none. And money will never be a problem. Senator Clinton would be a formidable opponent for Republicans in 2008 as the nation remains closely divided." Who said that? Why, the aw-shucks boy-Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, in an appreciation of HRC in Time ("I have found common ground with her on improving health-care benefits for members of the National Guard and Reserve.") Yes, the former boy-Representative who in 1999 was one of the six Republican "impeachment managers" who framed the articles to bring down Hill's hubby. Ah yes, politics and strange bedfellows.

Who says she can't be stopped? Dick Morris, for one, that endearingly brazen Machiavel (I loved the bit about phoning Bill in the White House from a hotel bedroom in downtown Washington, talking hardball politics while sucking a prostitute's toes), Morris, that Inside the Beltway Iago who might as well wear a smiley-face sign saying "Treachery is My Middle Name." And now, bankrolling a fundraiser for her is Rupert Murdoch ("He is a constituent of mine," she pointed out.) Why are all these Republicans so interested in giving Hill a shot at the Big Prize? Because they salivate at the prospect of having that huge balloon of a target floating lazily over their heavy artillery in 2008. I think the Hillary Clinton campaign is a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Even with Bush's approval ratings in the low thirties (and in one poll, 29), the Democrats are almost bereft of "campaign themes." Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Congressional Democratic Campaign Committee, is about to come out with a book called "The Plan--Big Ideas for America's Future," and Ted Kennedy has written something called "America Back on Track," but these big ideas for getting America back on track are exceedingly feeble: increase the minimum wage, tuition tax credits for college students, increased federal contributions to public schools, promotion of "energy independence" by cracking down on big oil company price gouging, and the creation of a Homeland Security system second to none, in which every container entering the United States would be inspected. Currently, 95% of them are not. For why inspecting all containers is a very dumb idea, see below. And Iraq? Here it's the Basil Fawlty strategy: Whatever you do, don't mention the war. Nothing on the Republican theft from middle and low income earners to reward the rich, nothing on higher CAFE standards for motor vehicles, nothing on lowering carbon emissions, and. of course, nothing on averting global warming. The Bush-created hysteria over Iran's "nuclear ambitions"? We don't go there.

The only Democratic forays of late have consisted of demagogic lunges to Bush's right. In February it was the Dubai Ports World furor, begun by Schumer and HRC, equally horrified at the prospect of kaffiyeh-wearing Ayrabs complete with beards and sunglasses taking over our ports. It was pointed out that two of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers came from the United Arab Emirates! Schumer and Clinton introduced a Senate bill to prohibit any foreign country from managing any fraction of a US port. Awkward that China and Singapore have for years owned companies that manage loading and unloading from Long Beach to Oakland. The UAE owning anything in the US was "utterly unacceptable," Schumer said.

Bush was blindsided and bewildered. He threatened to veto any legislation repealing the Dubai deal. Schumer knew he was bluffing. "I smell the scent of victory," he said. But were he and Clinton and Barbara Boxer, who also took up the hue and cry (she feared for Israel's security) so dumb as not to know that if they got to Bush's right, the Republicans--Hastert, Frist, Duncan Hunter, James Sensenbrenner et al-- would get to their right quick as a flash, as they did? When it comes to playing upon American credulity, chauvinism, and Islamohysteria, they're the masters. It's their franchise, goddammit. Nevertheless, Howard Dean trumpeted the repeal of the deal as a Democratic success. In the Democrat's weekly radio address on Saturday, March 11, Dean said, "America had a great victory this week in the war on terror" thanks to the alert action of "key Democratic senators and representatives."

There were two prominent Democrats who distanced themselves from this triumph, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom said Dubai ownership of the former Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company posed no threat whatsoever to American security (Clinton had earned a nice chunk of change from an address in Dubai stressing Arab-American cooperation). I bet Bill was commanded to sleep on the couch the night after he said there was nothing to the whole scare.

[Oh, as to why inspecting every container to enter an American port makes no sense: Here is Edward S. Walker, Jr., president of the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt, and the UAE. "By the time a container has entered one of our ports and been off-loaded for further processing, it is probably too late to avert a nuclear or biological attack.... The Container Security Initiative is the critical piece in the port security puzzle. The UAE was the first Middle Eastern state to join this U.S.-sponsored initiative. Under its provisions, customs and border protection officers are permanently located in UAE ports to inspect containers before shipment to the United States... In short, we already depend on the cooperation of the UAE and its management company to ensure the security of U.S. ports, regardless of this proposed contract." "Ports Deal Fearmongering," March 6, Tom Paine.Common Sense.]

In February, Dubai, in April, the price of gas. Man, was Schumer in his glory now! On Thursday, April 28, he and Emanuel "stood in front of a mock service station price sign to denounce high gas prices---'High gas prices are going to be the final nail in the GOP coffin,' Mr. Schumer predicted cheerfully---while endorsing an amorphous 'Manhattan Project' to reduce United States dependence on foreign oil." (NY Times, Sunday, April 30)

Whenever there's a spike in gas prices, the out-party is sure to blame it on the administration. In the Spring of 1996, gas went up forty cents a gallon and Bob Dole went to a gas station in Virginia, put on a hard hat and posed filling a tank to make the point that Americans were being crushed by high gas prices. His target was the three and a half cent a gallon uptick in the tax passed by the Democrats in 1993. "Mr. President, repeal that tax!" he said, with all the fervor of Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

At the time, this struck me as so fatuous that I mapped out a GOP ad campaign along the lines of the insurance industry's "Harry and Louise" commercials aimed at the Clinton health insurance plan. A worried guy sitting at the kitchen table, coffee cups and crumpled pieces of paper in front of him. His wife enters and brightly asks "Why so glum, honey?" He shakes his head and answers "I've just been doing the math, Marge, and what with this Clinton gas tax there's just no way we can afford that trip to Yellowstone this summer." "Oh, Jim," she says, "the kids will be so disappointed!"

Well, Dole was a piker compared to the Democrats last month. Three and a half cents? They proposed that the whole federal tax on gas be repealed for sixty days. It was to fend this off that the Republicans brought up their instantly derided idea of a $100 tax rebate to ease motorist through this crisis. But that was paltry compared to Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan's proposal for a $500 rebate, a figure she said was more commensurate with how much gas prices will cost the average motorist this year.

We are at the nadir; we must be! High gasoline prices are, in fact, our salvation, for nothing else will save us from our national addiction to huge fuel-gulping and polluting SUV's. And, as Daniel Gross of the NY Times wrote in "Why Prices at the Pump May Have Little Bite" (Sunday, May 7, Business section, p. 3) only about four cents of every American consumer dollar goes to gas, and this level has been more or less constant for years. The recent spike adds about a penny to that total.

No one in the congressional Democratic Party has the guts to speak the truth. Our national predicament, our global predicament can only grow worse with a leadership such as this. Molly Ivins speaks for all of us: "I don't know about you, but I have had it with the D.C. Democrats, had it with the DLC Democrats, had it with every calculating, equivocating, triangulating, straddling, hair-splitting son of a bitch up there, and that includes Hillary Rodham Clinton." (The Progressive, March 2006)

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Bushite Way of Death

As we await the jury's verdict in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui--will the jurors decide on death, or life imprisonment without the possiblilty of parole?--I brood over an incident at the trial two or three weeks ago. Despite specific instructions from Judge Leonie Brinkema never to do so, a lawyer on the prosecution team had coached four potential witnesses--air-traffic controllers, I believe--on how they should testify in order to ease the jurors' path to a death verdict. So outraged was the judge, it was thought that she might dismiss the case altogether (never fear: she'd been reversed by the Bushite majority on the appellate court before in her attempts to curb prosecutorial misconduct, and wasn't about to be humiliated a second time).

The widow of a man killed at the Pentagon was distraught at the thought that Moussaoui now might escape with his life. She was furious with the prosecution. "I feel as if they've ripped my guts out," she said. "It's as if the government killed my husband all over again." She, of course, yearned for "closure." (When did that awful word take on the meaning it now has? My twenty-five year old Concise Oxford has only one meaning, as in "there's been a closure on Route 99 North due to an overturned semi." But since then the word has spread like kudzu in the world of grief and healing. Oddly enough, however, my 2001 New Oxford American Dictionary affords no sanction to its modern pop usage either ((catharsis? abreaction? delight in another's well-deserved death?))). Whatever, death as closure is what is required. After a parade of prosecution witnesses in the penalty phase of the trial, people who wept describing the horrible deaths of loved ones, Moussaoui was asked if he felt any remorse at all, and--out of the mouth of a madman--came a reply which in its trenchancy and mordant wit might have been uttered by Gore Vidal: "I find it disgusting that people will unburden their grief in order to obtain the death of another."

All this reminded me of an indisputable truth. If the Bush/Ashcroft/Gonzalez Justice Department had been willing to settle for a life sentence, Moussaoui would have been convicted almost five years ago. Think of the money we'd have saved! We'd have almost forgotten him by now, as we have the would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, or Sirhan Sirhan, or George Wallace's would-be assassin, or Squeaky From. But this president, his first A.G. and the current A.G. believe in death. It's the appropriate end for evildoers of all sorts. Death must be served at whatever cost.

Thus, John Aschcroft at first hoped for death for that traitor John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban." Poor Lindh, that luckless truth-seeker, who found himself swept up in events and then down in an earthen celler for days as Northern Alliance fedayeen poured water down there to drown Taliban fighters like rats. Lindh had never even picked up a weapon! He reminds me of Thomas Berger's Jack Crabbe in Little Big Man finding himself with the hubris-crazed Custer at Little Big Horn, or George Macdonald Fraser's Sir Harry Flashman somehow winding up in the company of John Brown's desperadoes at Harper's Ferry. In the end, Lindh's attorneys talked him into copping a plea, knowing the temper of northern Virginia jurors. Twenty years for aiding the enemy (a statute previously construed to apply to financial aid of some sort; Lindh's aid consisted in his being there).

The first victim of the D.C. snipers was shot in Maryland, I believe. Ashcroft intervened to transfer the culprits to Virginia, where they had also killed. Maryland has no death penalty. Virginia does.
Bush, as governor of Texas, signed off on the executions of hundreds. Alberto Gonzalez, as his AG, never found grounds for reducing a death sentence to life. Remember Karla Faye Tucker? At age twenty and high on meth, angel dust and God knows what else, she participated with her biker boyfriend in a horrendous double murder. Eighteen years later, facing death by lethal injection, she was a wholly changed woman. Model prisoner. Sweet counselor to her fellow inmates, even an inspiration to them. And, of course, like George W. Bush, a born-again Christian. Surely, here was an instance of redemption. He put her to death. Tucker Carlson asked Bush what Karla Faye had said to him. Bush grinned, and, mimicking a whimpering female voice, said, "Please don't kill me."

In their belief in the death penalty the Bushies are wholly in accord with their favorite Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia. In a talk a few years ago at the University of Chicago law school, reprinted in the Rev. Richard John Neustadt's reactionary Catholic journal, Last Things, Scalia explained why Europeans were opposed to the death penalty. It's because European culture is now irredeemably "secular." That is to say Europeans are atheists. They think this life is all there is. But if you are a believing Christian, convinced of the existence of an after-life, then death is "no big deal."

Nor is it a big deal for our newly-found Shiite allies in Iraq. After another Sunni mosque-bombing atrocity, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Neima of the Interior Ministry, surveying the wreckage, said, "The people of this country have grown accustomed to being slaughtered, and we feel proud that we're sacrificing ourselves and getting closer to God." He added, "The suicide bombers have turned themselves into gate-keepers of heaven." (NY Times, Sat Apr 8, '06) Well, that's one way of looking at it.

The new Shiite prime minister, deemed quite acceptable by Condi Rice, Jawad al-Maliki, is even more fervent than Dubya in his belief in death. "In contrast to more moderate Iraqi leaders who have sought to bring insurgents into the political process, Mr. Maliki pushed proposals aimed at the Sunni-dominated insurgency that called for the death penalty not only for those who commit murder but also for anyone, he said last year, found to 'finance, propagate, cover up, support or provide shelter for the terrorists, no matter how involved they are.'" (Times, 4/22/06) Hmm... Come to think of it, that's why Bush wants Moussaoui dead, isn't it, for covering up a crime in which he took no part?

The Bushies are in perfect accord with Scalia not only in their enthusiasm for the death penalty but also in their contempt for international law, which our ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, says doesn't even exist. Say "international norms of jurisprudence" within Scalia's hearing and you'll get a shower of verbal buckshot. When the Supreme Court recently decided that executing people for crimes committed under the age of 18 was unconstitutional in part because other nations no longer countenanced it, Scalia, the originalist, was scathing in his dissent. What were we, a sovereign power, doing seeking to align our practices with those of bunch of foreigners?? "Evolving standards," he said in another venue, are believed in only by idiots.

If you combine the two, belief in death and contempt for international law, you get the trial of Saddam Hussein. Did anyone in the Bush administration ever consider for a moment that the prudent course might be to hand Saddam over to some competent international tribunal for trial? Say the International Criminal Court in the Hague? Of course not. For one thing that would have precluded the death penalty. Bush and the Shiites want Saddam dead. More than that, it would have meant recognition of the ICC's legitimacy, a court which Bush and all right-thinking Republicans detest because the first thing it would do would be to indict Henry Kissinger--or so they fear.

So, in Iraq, a nation with no judiciary, no tradition of judicial independence, no law but for the inevitable imposition of Sharia, and few lawyers, the Coalition Provisional Authority creates a court out of wholecloth specifically to try, convict, and hang Saddam Hussein. Thus the farcical on-and-off spectacle the world now witnesses. There's another consideration in play here: Dead men tell no tales. The US was his enabler in the Iran-Iraq war. (Note that the present court will never prosecute him for beginning that preventive war.) If Saddam were to be tried by the ICC, and it got to the gassing of Kurds, which this show trial will never get to, and I were a lawyer for the defense, I'd say, "May it please the Court, the Defense now calls its first witness. Will Donald Rumsfeld approach the witness box?"

One day last November I was listening to "Talk of the Nation" on NPR and the subject was the impending trial of Saddam. There was a glib law professor who had been the CPA's lead guy in establishing this special court and an American attorney on the defense team with Ramsey Clark. This guy was understandably rather testy; the professsor was smooth as silk. Neal Conan clearly didn't like the defense guy's manners and seemed deeply impressed by the cogency of the law professor's assurances that the whole thing was on the up-and-up. But Conan, that lickspittle, never asked the professor the obvious question: why not turn Saddam over to an international body? What has the US got against international law?

Maddened by Conan's studied incuriosity, I thought of the summer of 2003 and Charles Taylor, the monster of Liberia. Now, thanks to a miraculous confluence of events and lucky accidents, Taylor is at last in custody in the Hague. How is it that Taylor eluded capture two and a half years ago? A New York Times editorial (Tues, Mar 26, '06) explains that when "Taylor was under siege by rebel forces in 2003, the United States, Britain, and Nigeria arranged for him to get asylum in Nigeria, under the correct assumption that his quick exile would reduce the bloodshed." At some point, if one is to believe the Times, Bush changed his mind about the sufficiency of Nigerian exile for Taylor. Lydia Polgreen writes in the Times of Thursday, March 30, "The loudest calls for Mr. Taylor's arrest came not from his victims but from the United States, which has backed the international court here [in Sierra Leone] financially and diplomatically."

It makes one's head whirl. I remember the summer of 2003, and it wasn't like that. Taylor's forces were under siege by rebel kids wearing Nikes and shooting Kalashnikovs, and all in Monrovia was in chaos for weeks. More and more dead. Liberians pleading for intervention. Bush, grotesquely, was on a whirlwind tour of Africa. He utterly ignored the Liberian mess. I wondered if he, with a BA in history from Yale, was even aware that Liberia was a creation of the American Colonization Society, conceived by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster among others, with President James Monroe as its honorary chairman, and that it might be argued the United States had a special responsibility for what might occur there.

Finally, Bush acted. He ordered an LHA (Landing-Helicopter-Assault) on station in the Indian Ocean to proceed to the Red Sea, Suez, the Med, then the Atlantic and Liberia. I thought at the time, "You mean there's no LHA nearer than that?" More than twenty years ago I taught aboard an LHA, the Belleau Wood. We went round and round in the IO and once put into Berbera, Somalia, but that's another story. LHAs are like aircraft carriers but their flight decks are about 800 feet in length rather than 1100. They carry Chinook helicopters, and several hundred marines (they're all named after battles in which marines fought).

So, this LHA is coming to the rescue of the Liberians. Except it isn't. When it's within about twenty naughts of Monrovia, it parks. And doesn't move for two weeks or more. God, did I feel for those marines! Life for a marine aboard an LHA is lectures, squad tactics, stripping and reassembling weapons, and running and running on the flight deck. When that ship was ordered to Liberia those guys had to be excited. Some action! And in a noble humanitarian cause! For black marines, especially, this must have seemed a godsend, going in there, kicking some ass, and saving the brothers from the bad guys! And there their ship sat, day after day, while Bush mulled his next move.

So as the LHA sat half an hour from shore, things got worse and worse in Monrovia. People were at the US Embassy pleading for the marines to come in. They began stacking their dead at the embassy gates as marine guards looked on, powerless to do anything. Why this cowardly delay, this waste of lives? Because Bush said Taylor must leave before the US would intervene, and then only after the Nigerians had gone in. Why must Taylor leave? Only one answer made any sense at all. If he were still there when the Americans came ashore, they'd have had to arrest him, and that would have meant turning him over to a UN- commissioned court. The Times story that Bush insisted on Taylor's exile first to reduce the bloodshed is the veriest bullshit. The marines were poised to go in weeks earlier, and would have done a hell of a lot better job of it than the Nigerians. Plus, this was one American armed intervention that would have been greeted with flowers and sweets, if the Liberians had had any. Think of the publicity: Bush for once does something decent! All of which raises the question: when and why was Bush suddenly hot for Taylor being delivered up to an international tribunal? I've read nothing in the Times that provides any clues.

At 11:12 PM, the Irate Codger rests. Cheers, all!