Wednesday, February 20, 2002

“The New Mayor’s Bid for Job Security”

I don’t hold with drinking myself. But my neighbor George Duncan is a hardliner on the subject. He’s the new mayor, and he was having a tough time with the job until a drunk driver smashed into a family of five, and killed them all. Drinking has become the big issue for him—in fact, his only issue. “Anybody who drinks, or who manufactures spirits, or sells them, or serves them, or finances them, or advertises them, or tolerates or harbors anyone who does any of those things, deserves the worst that can happen to them,” he told me.

“Gee, George,” I said hesitantly, “that means almost anybody who works for a newspaper or magazine, almost anybody who work in a grocery or convenience store, anybody who works for a bank or savings and loan, almost all ad agencies, most of my relatives, and most of my neighbors. That could get to be a pretty long list, couldn’t it?”

“When you get serious about fighting evil,” he said, “you can find it almost anywhere.”

“That’s one of the things that worries me, George. I mean, how can you be sure your own motives are pure? Let’s face it. If some of those stores and banks go out of business, you’re in a position to snap them up.”

“I have no intention of ‘snapping them up’,” he said. “I’m not into ‘business building.’ I would simply install new management that was sympathetic to my point of view.”

“Well, what about the old owners and employees and customers and so forth. What exactly did you mean when you said ‘deserves the worst that can happen to them’?” I asked.

“Just what I said. Imprisonment. Death. That kind of thing.”

“George,” I said nervously, “are you sure all of that is absolutely necessary? “Nobody can deny that what happened to the Rosenzweigs was terrible. But aren’t there some less drastic steps we could take? An increased patrol effort? Stiffer fines? Education? Counseling? Funding support groups? Organizing prevention campaigns? Increasing the taxes on liquor? Focusing on problem drinkers? And aren’t you sort of overstepping your bounds? I mean, you were elected mayor, not God.”

“Hey, the city’s with me,” he said. “I’ve got 85% approval ratings. The city council passed new ordinances giving me the powers I need to stamp out drinking, and they increased the anti-alcohol budget by 40%.”

“But they cut the budgets for the library, street paving, building inspections, the emergency squad, and the health department,” I pointed out. “Some people are getting uneasy that the budget is out of kilter.”

He shrugged. “This is a war on drinking,” he said. “It won’t be easy. Sacrifices are required.”

“That’s what I don’t understand,” I admitted. “You talk constantly as if there’s a war going on, but I never noticed that war was declared. And I can’t find anybody on the other side. What the hell kind of war is that, when you can’t even name your opponent?”

“We’ll find an enemy,” he said, “and we’re determined to fight until evil is stamped out.”

“Good luck,” I said. “Christ, Mohammed, and the Buddha couldn’t do that. I guess you’ve got job security.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Friday, February 15, 2002

“The Perils of Campaign Finance Reform”

My buddy Lou, a substance abuse specialist, called and woke me up last night close to midnight.

“What’s up, Lou?” I asked groggily.

“Look, Ace,” he said, “I know you were asleep, but I’ve been called out on an emergency, and I’ve got to catch a plane out of Pittsburgh at 6 a.m. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and I need somebody to feed my cats and water my plants while I’m away.”

“Sure, I’ll take care of your cats and plants,” I said. “Key still hidden under the doormat?”

“Nah, everybody looks there,” he said. “I keep it in the mailbox now.”

“Gotcha,” I said. Then the ace reporter in me snapped to attention. “What’s the big emergency?” I asked.

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about it,” he said. “Addiction is generally a private matter. But in this case…,” his voice trailed off.

“You’re sitting on something big!” I yelled. “Out with it! Or the leaves on your geraniums can curl up and die!”

He hesitated. “It’s Congress,” he finally said. “They’ve got hundreds of Senators and Representatives looking at the prospect of having their soft money supply cut off, and they’re developing withdrawal symptoms. They’ve set up cots in the Congressional cloakrooms, but the numbers are overwhelming. They’ve got members just lying on the floor, shivering, sweating, and trembling uncontrollably.”

“But I heard Tom DeLay say last night on the news that not one member of the House or Senate, not one liberal or conservative, had been corrupted by soft money,” I protested.

Lou laughed. “You’ve got to understand that an addict will say or do anything to keep his fix coming,” he said. “He’ll lie, he’ll steal, he’ll hitch his mother to a dogsled if it will keep that supply coming in.”

“What about a wallet-exchange program, so the disease won’t spread?” I suggested. “They could turn in their dirty purses and billfolds and get clean ones.”

“It’s proven to be effective,” he admitted, “but conservatives won’t stand for it.”

“Have they tried methadone?”

“Not strong enough,” he said. “Money in politics gets you…,” he paused meaningfully, “incredibly high.”

“How high?” I demanded.

“To the top,” he said.

© Tony Russell, 2002

Saturday, February 02, 2002

“Not Even a Blip on the Radar Screen”

My coverage of the Republican National Committee meeting was cut off yesterday by our press deadline. I gave Bob a call first thing this morning to fill him in on the rest of the story.

“Just checking in to wrap up last night’s story, Chief,” I began.

“It’s about time,” he said. “Do you realize how much it’s costing us to have you cover that meeting?”

“Come on, Chief,” I complained. “You put me up at a Motel 6 and furnished me with three days worth of coupons at Hardee’s. You’re getting your money’s worth.”

“You haven’t even begun to justify your salary, Ace, let alone your expenses. Look, what’s been the mood at the meeting?”

“Really upbeat, Chief. They think they’re gonna do well in the midterm elections. This war has been a godsend for them. If they can drag it out long enough, they figure the President’s poll numbers will stay high, and he can carry the rest of the party along on his coat tails. Plus they have their usual huge advantage in money raising.”

“What about that Enron business?”

“They just laughed it off, Chief. I talked to all kinds of delegates—governors, secretaries of state, and so forth. They claim they’ve been checking their mail and talking to their constituents. They all say the same thing: Nobody gives a damn about Enron. It’s not even a blip on the radar screen.”

“How the hell can that be? This is the biggest bankruptcy in American history, involving half the leaders in the administration, including the Vice President. They’ve been Bush’s biggest contributor his entire career, and his administration has done everything possible to line Enron’s pockets, as well as conceal its impending collapse.”

“Look, Chief, I’m just telling you what they told me. They think in a few weeks this will all just go away.”

“Ace, for fourteen solid months we ran from three to ten items a day, counting news stories, cartoons, and editorials, on Clinton’s thing with Monica Lewinsky. We ran daily reports for six months on Elian Gonzalez. We averaged at least three reports a week on some aspect of Whitewater for over eight YEARS, and that was on a measly $100,000 investment. Do you think we’re gonna let this thing just go away?”

“Could be, Chief. There’s precedent for it. How long did we cover the savings and loan debacle?”

© Tony Russell, 2002