IF IT FEELS GOOD, BUY IT: You know what the problem is with some Washington journalists? Under a headline like “An Idea Worth Stealing” they write paragraphs like this:
“Call it grand larceny, if you will, but it’s still grand.
“I am referring not to Enron but to President Bush’s enthusiastic embrace of community and national service for hundreds of thousands of Americans as a way to answer the question repeatedly asked since Sept. 11: What can I do to help?”
That’s from David Broder, the respected dean of D.C.’s big feet, doing his belated best to keep up with Dan Rather, though in the name of something considerably less macho. Broder wants to do what he can to endorse the president’s embrace of the same nice-sounding but cynically implemented ideas that gave us Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps and its oxymoronic paid volunteerism. Not that Broder seems even remotely aware of this side of the AmeriCorps story. What he likes especially about the Bush proposals are the possibilities it offers for further oxymoronic labels, such as requiring America’s high-schoolers to perform even more forced volunteerism if they are to graduate.
That’s the danger of writing high atop the national stage. Pretty soon you’re believing and thinking become indistinguishable from the those of the posturing pols you’re supposed to be covering with jaded eye. Even as you ignore the immense problems with the program, you wind up praising John McCain, say, for not only coming around on AmeriCorps, but also recognizing its “potential” and insisting it “should grow.” And if you can no longer analyze soberly, you begin to sound like an Education bureaucrat, as when Broder writes about the “broad consensus” out there “on making community service an integral element of school and college curricula.” Where would we be without integral elements?
WHY NOT THE BEST? Luckily, not every veteran political columnist comes off as mushy as David Broder. Of course, you might not find him in the same venues. For my money, one of the best out there is the Sacramento Bee‘s Dan Walters. Unless you follow California politics, his beat, you may not know about him. But you should. Several days a week he files sharply reported and clearly written copy without a single flabby idea or faux sentiment. He offers professionalism of the highest order, and he thinks for himself. Better than anyone, for instance, he cut through the post-Enron hysteria by raising a most interesting question: Why isn’t wild-spending government subjected to the same accounting standards as Enron? A case in point is California’s deficit-riddled state government led by embattled Gov. Gray Davis. Walters’s analysis is as delicious as it is enlightening:
” As Enron was constructing its hollow corporate shell during the late 1990s, California was building its own fiscal house of cards, making billions of dollars in long-term spending commitments based on a short-term spike in income taxes. When those revenues vanished, the state was left with a $12 billion-plus hole in its budget, and Davis now wants to paper it over with some gimmickry that only an Enron executive could love.
“Davis wants spending reductions to cover just a fifth of the budget gap. The remainder would be bridged, if he has his way, through borrowings, direct and indirect, low-balling spending projections and maximizing forecasts of revenues over the next 18 months, including more than a billion dollars in federal aid that’s nearly pure fiction.
“Davis even has a version of the off-the-books partnerships that Enron used to hide its liabilities: He wants the Public Employees’ Retirement System and the State Teachers’ Retirement System to forgo state contributions for a year in return for catch-up payments later. And he’s borrowing heavily to cover the state’s own questionable, semi-secret dealings in the energy market.
The governor is, in other words, minimizing liabilities and maximizing assets to paint as rosy a picture as he can, and just as Enron did it to buoy its stock price, so Davis is doing it to maintain his political standing in an election year.
“The indirect loans from the pension funds and other proposals are clearly part of a multibillion-dollar deficit financing scheme, but Davis insists that it’s a ‘responsible, prudent, balanced budget.’ Yeah, and Ken Lay insisted to Enron employees that company stock was still a good deal for their retirement nest eggs even after he knew the firm was riddled with losses and was dumping his own holdings.”
Didn’t I tell you?
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