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Tilting at Windmills.

Fleeing Fort Detrick * Dancing at Fort Blossom * Sir John and Lady Bracknell New Perspectives on 10 Percent * The Flush Factor * Prime Time Pataki

IS 10 PERCENT 10 PERCENT? It all depends, as our leader has pointed out, on how you define it. Among the more creative definers are Texas public school officials. Confronted with a requirement that students must rank in the top 10 percent of their graduating class to be automatically admitted to a state university, Westlake High School in Austin has decided that 10 percent really means 12.8 percent. But Lyndon Baines Johnson High School found that definition too narrow. With an imaginative approach to fact worthy of the man for whom it is named, Johnson High School decided that 15 percent captures the essence of 10 percent even better.

AS MANY OF YOU KNOW, I THINK history will be kinder to Bill Clinton than the pundits of today are. This would not be unusual. In my lifetime, only Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy left office highly esteemed. Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan--even Nixon--are more valued today than at the end of their presidencies. Truman and Reagan are close to canonization.

ONE OF MY HOMETOWN'S truly great sons died in May. Dr. Bert Bradford was not only an excellent physician, he was a community leader, a hero in World War II, and a man of infinite kindness. He lived for 90 years. "I have loved helping people over the years and I feel that has contributed to my good health," he once told a group of medical students. "Staying active through gardening, fishing, cooking, hunting, and tennis has given me great joy. I have found myself much more content in these activities than in driving fancy cars and living in expensive homes."

GEORCE W. BUSH has proposed deeply cutting the number of U.S. nuclear warheads and removing some missiles from hair-trigger status and said that he would do this unilaterally if necessary. Sounds bold but there's a slight catch. It seems that in 1995 his fellow Republicans in Congress enacted legislation prohibiting the president from removing more missiles from constant alert or from unilaterally eliminating nuclear warheads below the 6,000 level set by the START treaty.

So here we have another area like education where whatever good ideas the governor may have are unlikely to be supported by congressional Republicans. They are not going to be happy with him until he hairs over and reverts to his Bob Jones self.

As I READ A REVIEW BY ANNA Kisselgoff that appeared in The New York Times of June 3, it occurred to me that I may have been insufficiently attentive to recent developments in the world of dance. In case you too have been guilty of not following this art form as closely as you might, let me bring you up to speed with a quote from the review:

"Thus a provocative image of fully clothed men pulling their penises and women jiggling their breasts to the beat of James Los score suddenly looks playful."

That sentence described a piece called "Excessories" Next comes "Fort Blossom," of which Kisselgoff writes:

"The contrast between the clothed women and nude men is furthered by the delineated movement of the women and the more spontaneous look of the men's wrestling style. In their implied coupling, the men sandwich a plastic pillow between their bodies as they lie on top of each other. The women's courtship is more subtle: they lie face down and one woman's foot imperceptibly crosses over the other's calf. The merging of the two pairs in a martial arts finale results in an abrupt ending. `Fort Blossom' suggests an uninhibited search for a new direction, not yet defined."

I WAS TROUBLED TO LEARN that The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal had all agreed to a deal offered them by a United Airlines publicist that did not, to put it gently, seem to be in the public interest. The three papers were to get exclusive details on the $5 billion merger with US Airways so long as they agreed not to seek comment from outsiders. This virtually guaranteed that the initial stories would be free of the negative comment that might come from consumer groups and competitors. I'm sure the news organizations would have ultimately printed these critical comments but the first impression is important and it was going to be positive to neutral and definitely not negative under this deal.

This is, unfortunately, not an isolated case of a misjudgment in favor of business. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, one-third of journalists say they have sometimes let their news judgment be affected by the business interest of their organization or an advertiser.

IN CASE YOU HAVEN'T BEEN following the low-flow toilet debate, on one side are the dedicated water conservers who favor the 1.6-gallon flush and on the other are those who object to the increase in stopped-up toilets that low-flow flushing produces.

There is a neoliberal solution to this problem recognized by one of our readers who recently visited Australia. Down Under, he reports, "All the toilets I saw had a two-stage pull handle that when pulled to the first stop flushed at low-flow the liquids and light stuff. There was also a second pull stop available that gave a big flush to the really big loads. Thus, water was conserved 90 percent of the time."

RECENTLY A LETTER ARRIVED at my house at 5025 V. St. Washington, D.C. It was addressed to 5025 Campstool Rd. in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The zip code was 32007. Mine is 20007. The addressee was the Sierra Trading Post. The only addressees here are Charles and Elizabeth Peters. The only thing these addresses have in common is the last three digits of the zip-code and the street number 5025. Can anyone out there explain how this could have happened?

THE NATIONAL COMMISSION on Terrorism has proposed that we monitor the activities of all foreign students in the United States. Exactly what would we be looking for? Well, the commission says, the student may change his major from, say, "English literature to nuclear physics." I must say that seems to me to be more likely to produce bad grades than terrorist bombs.

IN ITS OBITUARY OF SIR JOHN Gielgud, The New York Times says that after World War II, "He returned to the United States in 1947 with `The Lady's Not for Burning.'" This omits one of the great wonders of the New York theater--Gielgud's production earlier in 1947 of "The Importance of Being Earnest." Its success with Pamela Brown as Gwendolyn, led to Gielgud's return later that year with Brown as the star of "Burning." Gielgud's New York "Earnest" was different because it cast Margaret Rutherford as Lady Bracknell instead of Miss Prism, the role she usually played in London as she did in the Michael Redgrave film. In the movie, Lady Bracknell was played by Dame Edith Evans, who had often performed the role on the London stage. Rutherford's performance was a triumph. Never have I heard such delighted laughter in a theater. Her reading of Wilde's great lines--"To be born--or at any rate bred--in a handbag seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to"--was much more spirited than Evans'. Similarly, Brown brought more vigor to Gwendolyn than Joan Greenwood did in the film where, like Evans, Greenwood tended toward languor. The result was the brisk pace comedy needs to work best.

This was an incredible era in the theater. Just the three years from 1946 to 1949 while I was in college at Columbia, saw the original productions of "The Iceman Cometh," "Born Yesterday," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Brigadoon," "A Street Car Named Desire," "South Pacific," "Death of a Salesman," and "Kiss Me Kate" Of all of these, none seemed as perfect to me as Gielgud's "Earnest."

REMEMBER RICHARD PRESTON'S The Hot Zone, that nightmarish book a few years back that posed the possibility of some horrible disease escaping from the Army's biological weapons defense center at Fort Detrick, Md.? Well, buried on an inside page of a recent Washington Post was this tidbit: "A review of lab safety procedures is underway at ... Fort Derrick, Md., after a scientist contracted a rare and potentially deadly disease, officials said yesterday."

THIS COLUMN USED TO regularly feature items about the tendency of public officials to find reasons to travel to nice places at taxpayer expense. But after several readers complained that I had beaten this horse nearly to death, I desisted. But I find I can't resist a recent story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the travel records of the city's pension board. Why, one might ask, would the members of a pension board have to go anywhere? Yet, according to the Journal Sentinel, "Six of the eight members have traveled to conferences in locales such as Phoenix, Palm Springs, Orlando, Las Vegas, and New Orleans--with several making more than one trip." The Monthly's answer to official travel abuse is to require that all conferences be held in Buffalo or Toledo.

You MAY HAVE NOTICED THAT financial institutions often ask for your mother's maiden name to verify that you are in fact you before they hand over your money. Well Wired magazine reports that a firm called Geneology.com is now offering a way for anyone who might want your money to find out your mother's name by searching your family tree on its 470-million-name database. So what's going to happen when you decide you need to move further away from Fort Detrick and go to the bank to withdraw your funds? Will somebody else have gotten there first, recited your mother's maiden name, and cleaned out your account?

THE WIDELY SHARED DISMAY AT Al Gore's inadequacies as a candidate should not obscure the many admirable qualities he would bring to the presidency, qualities that are not nearly so evident in George W. Bush. There is little in W.'s life to compare with Gore's long history of deep interest in public issues and of taking positions on those issues that consistently reflect a conscientious and thoughtful mind. Gore's awkwardness on the stump may keep him from being elected, but, if he is, I'm convinced he would be a good president.

He is not helped by the tendency of reporters to focus on style instead of substance. This of course makes Gore look bad but it also doesn't exactly flatter the reporters themselves. Take the recent column by Maureen Dowd ridiculing Gore's long-winded answers to questions by the editorial board of The New York Times. Gore's answers to the first two questions were definitely not impressive. But neither were the questions:

"Q. Your opponent, not so much on his vulnerability on the issues, but just as a candidate, is he--do you find that he has strengths you didn't anticipate or is he competitive down to the wire?"

"Q. We asked you to categorize your opponent. Just drawing on what you've said so far, I think--how about, are you saying the ant versus the grasshopper here, or are you saying wasteful and profligate versus prudent and cautious? Or what labels--how would you do it?"

There may be the faintest hint of coherence in these questions, but not of substance. The reason Gore's answers may have rattled around could be that he was in a state of shock that America's most distinguished editorial board couldn't do better than this. By the way; once the questions focused on substance Gore's answers were pretty good.

ONE OF THE MANY PROBLEMS with money in politics is that it often comes from out of state. Thus a senator can attract more contributions from people who don't live in his state than from his own constituents. Of course, the out-of-state contributors may merely be citizens who are so public-spirited that they contribute not only to their own representatives but also to worthy senators and congressmen from other states. The suspicion lingers, however, that the contributions may be motivated by a desire to gain influence. And it doesn't seem right for non-constituents to have influence. The problem extends to state legislatures. Sixty-six percent of the $100 or more donations to the Wisconsin state senators re-elected in 1998 came from outside their home districts according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. What's even more suspicious is how the percentage grows in proportion to the power of the recipient. Ninety-six percent of the money contributed to Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen came from out-of-district.

ANOTHER INDEPENDENT counsel has failed to indict a Clinton cabinet member. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman has been cleared by independent counsel Ralph I. Lancaster Jr. How false a picture the press has painted as it depicted the Clinton administration as scandal-ridden. No indictment of Bruce Babbitt. No indictment of the Clintons in Whitewater, Filegate, or Travelgate. The only charges that have stuck concern lies by Bill Clinton and Henry Cisneros about sex, not about their public duties.

ONE OF THE MOST MADDENING aspects of our test-mad culture is that the tests don't evaluate some of the most important human traits--judgment, wisdom, and character. At last someone's trying to do something about this problem. The University of Michigan Business School is, reports David Leonhardt of The New York Times, designing a test to measure practical intelligence or common sense. The test, according to Leonhardt, "aims to gauge who is able to learn from mistakes, handle changing situations and cope with less-than-perfect information."

But even this test should not eliminate the need for thorough personal interviews of the applicant and, whenever possible, his references to determine if he has the aforementioned qualities plus, what is probably most important of all, a sense of humor.

THE CLEVELAND CLINIC HAS one of the best heart surgery records in the country. Robert Bazell of "NBC Nightly News" recently looked into the reasons for that success. One factor is volume. The Clinic heart-surgery team knows what it's doing because it does 4,000 open-heart surgeries a year. Another is teamwork--like the New York Yankees or the Cleveland Indians, says the chief surgeon, Dr. Toby Cosgrove: "You have to have chemistry that works together, and people who are going to get along." All the people on the team work not on the basis of a fee for each operation, but for a salary.

"The situation that we have here is we're all employees of the Cleveland Clinic," says Dr. Cosgrove. "I have never sent a bill. I don't know whether patients are wealthy or whether they're poor. I look after them regardless."

From the time I was in an army hospital during World War II and received excellent care from doctors and nurses who were also on salary and who also didn't know whether I was rich or poor, I have believed that this is the way medicine should be organized.

IF NEW YORKERS CONFUSE Gov. George Pataki with a television star, it's understandable. The governor is all over the tube. This is not because of excessive coverage of his official activities by news organizations. It is because state agencies have made him the star of five different television campaigns. In one ad for which the state has spent $8 million, Pataki is shown surrounded by happy children of all races next to the state health commissioner, who as Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times puts it, "happens to be one of the few women, and the only Hispanic, among the administration's top officials." In recent years I have noticed other governors use taxpayer-financed ads, often purporting to promote tourism, as a means of self-promotion. But Pataki has clearly taken this hustle to new heights.

CONSIDERING THE OVERALL moral decay of the American legal profession, it is laughable that Bill Clinton is being singled out for disbarment. Compared to some offenses that have gotten other lawyers disbarred recently--from selling crack, to hit-and-run, to hiring a hitman to murder an ex-client--Clinton's lie about Monica Lewinsky seems almost trivial. That being said, I'm still appalled that the President's attorney is using the defense that Clinton's denial of sexual relations with Lewinsky was technically accurate. David Kendall has an often deserved reputation as a brilliant attorney but this defense is just plain wrong. The only proper defense would admit that Clinton lied but explain the very understandable reasons for the lie. This is essentially what Dale Bumpers did on the floor of the Senate. It was persuasive then and it would be persuasive now to any judge who is also a human being.

THE LATEST CRIMINAL justice outrage: The suspected killer of five people at a New York Wendy's was free on bail at the time of the murders. He had confessed to armed robbery but was let out of jail on bail of only $3,500 even though prosecutors had requested $100,000.

IN AFRICA, SOME 300,000 people are infected with sleeping sickness each year. It's a disease that may sound benign, but its victims suffer horribly before they die. They hallucinate and their skin becomes so sensitive that they cry out at the touch of water. The drug that is the most effective treatment for the disease is no longer available because its manufacturer determined that it was unprofitable.

This, points out Donald McNeil Jr. of The New York Times, is a grave problem for Africa. Pharmaceutical companies have no reason to produce drugs that don't make money. And the vast majority of Africans can't afford to pay for the drugs that they need.

The drug companies devote their research to products that can sell. They would, their critics contend, "rather find a cure for a bald American than a dying African." When McNeil asked a spokesman for a French pharmaceutical company if this statement was true, the spokesman replied, "That's not completely wrong. We know what's happening in the third world, but we don't act. We're an industry in a competitive environment--we have a commitment to deliver performance for shareholders."

This is another reason I'm driven around the bend by those who believe that the solution of the world's health problems can be left to the private sector. Obviously, it is going to take the intervention of governments and of international organizations to solve this problem. The profit motive just isn't going to do the job.
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Author:PETERS, CHARLES
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Words:3097
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