Tilting at windmills.

Author:Peters, Charles
Position:Various items on Washington, D.C., politics, culture - Editorial
 
FREE EXCERPT

The Return of the House Call * Foot Fetishes * FDR's Affairs * Black and White Justice * The Case of the Missing Convertible

Sometimes lawyers do good. I make the concession grudgingly, of course, but here's a case that demands it. You will recall the West Virginia couple whose daughter was killed by a car being pursued by state police at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour. It appears possible that the high speed may have been at least partially motivated by the fact that the police were being filmed by a television crew from "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol"

The state legislature reacted by increasing the penalties for drivers who flee the police. The couple's lawyer correctly divined that there were other guilty parties and sued both the state police and the television show, which is now owned by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. The state police have settled the claim for $775,000, according to the Charleston Gazette. The suit against the TV company is expected to go to trial in October. I hope the lawyer and his clients clean up.

To put Bill Clinton's sins in perspective, it helps me to think of the leader I most admire. FDR is my great hero. I'm even a member of the committee that seeks to have him and Abraham Lincoln honored along with George Washington on President's Day. I'm also an admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. But I have to concede that had they lived in the 1990s, the media would have had a field day with their sex lives. Their efforts to fight the Depression and win World War II would have been obscured by speculation about their friends who may have been more than friends, several of whom actually lived in the White House. During the '30s, Mrs. Roosevelt's intimate friend Lorena Hickok resided on the second floor, the president's secretary and close associate Marguerite LeHand on the third. During the war Mrs. Roosevelt had several close female friends living with her in the Val-Kill cottage on the Hyde Park estate. The president had Princess Martha of Norway as his long-term guest on the White House's second floor. And FDR's daughter Anna acted as an arranger of his reunions with his old girlfriend, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, when Mrs. Roosevelt was not in Washington.

A fascinating story about the failure of a notable experiment in worker democracy recently appeared in the Business section of The New York Times. Called the Bolivar Project, it was an effort, in the words of the Times' Barnaby J. Feder, "to tear down the adversarial walls between workers and management" at Harman Automotive Inc., in Bolivar, Tenn. It enjoyed enough success in reducing the automatic hostility between union and company to be widely imitated. What then was the failure? Workers were given too much control over setting their hours. The less they worked, the less they felt obligated to work, so that "a shortened workday came to be viewed as an entitlement." Soon the company was attracting the kind of job applicants whose first question when they got the post was not "which machine should I run?" but "when can I go home?"

This is similar to a problem I've seen in the federal civil service. Tenure, generous pensions, and excellent health insurance (see Eric Schnurer's article on page 20) attracted too many people who were more concerned with security and benefits than with doing a job.

Joe Califano, the former secretary of health, education, and welfare who is now president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, has a good idea: Give treatment to prisoners who are drug or alcohol addicts or abusers. They number 1.2 million. If they were given treatment, many would relapse, but even if the treatment succeeded in turning only 10 percent into sober working citizens, the treatment would nevertheless pay for itself, making an estimated $8.2 billion in benefits at a cost of $7.8 billion.

The new space station is now $3.6 billion over budget, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times. So NASA is searching for some favorable publicity. Not only is John Glenn going to be sent into orbit, so is a third grade teacher from McCall, Idaho. You will recall what happened to another teacher, Christa McAuliffe, when she got launched in another NASA PR stunt. What are the chances that Barbara Morgan, the teacher from Idaho, will meet the same fate?

According to another story, this one in The New York Times, the risk of catastrophe during a shuttle flight is now 1 in 145. This is better than the 1 in 50 it used to be. But it's a long, long way from the 1 in 2 million risk of a flight on a commercial jet. So why put another teacher's life in...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP