TCS Daily

Petty Politics and Pettiness

By Duane D. Freese - May 16, 2003 12:00 AM

A lot of people have weighed in on the president's landing on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. They should have paused and weighed the evidence.

First, West Virginia's 85-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd thundered from the Senate floor, "War is not theater, and victory is not a campaign slogan. I believe that our military forces deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and not used as stage props to embellish a presidential speech."

Then, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., demanded that Congress' General Accounting Office perform an audit of the trip to find out how much it cost. "This was a deliberate and intentional use of the military for campaign purposes," he said. "Of course, the president should greet the troops. The question is misusing the Navy and Air Force and taxpayer dollars to kick off a reelection campaign."

Staff members for Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, even calculated that the visit delayed the ship's arrival in San Diego by at least a day and cost as much as $1 million in extra fuel costs, plus $100,000 in additional sea duty pay for the crew.

Penny pinching is no sin, and solicitous concern about the well-being of the crew is something to be endorsed. But before the critics began trying to rain on the president's visit, they might have tried first to ascertain what happened and what the crew felt about the president's visit.

As Rear Adm. Stephen R. Pietropaoli, the Navy chief of information, told The Washington Post, "From the get-go, the White House staff was very sensitive to the Lincoln's schedule and wanted to accommodate the president's schedule to the Lincoln's schedule."

Pietropaoli noted that the ship had an arrival time for 9 a.m. the next morning, which it wasn't going to change. "We're not doing the families any favors by tricking them and coming in sooner," he said.

As for the crew?

"There were like goose bumps: The president is on the ship," Petty Officer 3rd Class Seth Hoover told a San Jose Mercury reporter.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer recounted how Operations Specialist Seaman Stephanie Baroni "skipped like a schoolgirl ... across the hanger bay" and blurted out, "Oh my God! I'm going to cry! He shook my hand two times."

Byrd may have been "loathe to think of an aircraft carrier being used as an advertising backdrop for a presidential slogan," but Baroni merely expressed delight, "He's real! He's real." And Josh Vogel, a 22-year-old helicopter rescue crewman, put this spin on the visit, "I liked the part when he said that it's an honor to be your commander in chief. We don't hear that enough. It gives you an overwhelming sense of accomplishment."

And as for the non-delay, delayed return to port, the critics might have taken some solace from the tail of Lt. J.G. Bryan Taylor whose flight back from the carrier was truly delayed when after boarding a Prowler to carry him home from the ship he had the bad luck of discovering his harness was loose, thus forcing him to get off the plane which went to shore where his wife was waiting for him.

"It was a huge disappointment," Taylor told the Seattle paper. But then he got to sit in on a pilots' briefing and talk with president. "It was a wonderful experience - almost surreal," said Taylor. "Talk about a roller coaster of emotions. I'm flying high!"

Not so those who have tried to submarine the president out of political pique.

The Washington Post put almost the right cap on the story: The Democrats' "real gripe with Mr. Bush is that he looked great; the president pulled off his 'Top Gun' act as much as Michael Dukakis flubbed his spin in a tank."

Perhaps, though, Bush "looked great" mostly because he wasn't trying to act like "Top Gun." Instead, he was showing respect for the crew and their work that the critics failed to demonstrate in firing pot shots so quickly - in the end shooting only themselves in the foot.

Petty politics is, though, still politics. Some pettiness is just small-minded, "marked by narrowness or meanness."

The attack upon William J. Bennett, former education secretary, drug control chief and author of The Book of Virtues, demonstrates all the small-mindedness that one can imagine.

Bennett gambles. He does so legally. He does so in large amounts. Does that make what he has to say on other moral matters meaningless? By the same logic because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, what he said in the Declaration of Independence is meaningless.

What those who dislike Bennett's messages about drug abuse, the family and other matters have tried to dress this issue up as is that since Bennett gambles, or sins, then whatever they desire is permissible.

For example, because Bennett gambles, and isn't put in jail for it, then drug use - particularly marijuana use - ought to be legalized, or at least, "decriminalized."

That's the gist of the commentary of John Ridley, the Hollywood screenwriter, on National Public Radio, whose tongue in cheek support for Bennett concluded that he was guilty of only a "victimless vice like growing your own pot and smoking it in your own home."

That is something Bennett opposes and something Ethan Nadelmann, who runs the Drug Policy Alliance apparently supports, at least according to Washington Post columnist William Raspberry.

Raspberry on Monday wrote that the "heart of Bennett's hypocrisy" is "his assigning of some 'sins' for public punishment while he exempts others as none of the public's business."

In particular, Raspberry writes that "Nearly half a million Americans are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses on the theory that the threat of prison is the only way to keep them away from drugs and in their rehab programs. Says Nadelmann: 'Bill Bennett wouldn't choose the threat of jail to keep himself away from the casino. You can bet on that.'"

A clever use of words - but a gross distortion of the actual facts. The impression left is that 500,000 Americans are in jail for simple possession of marijuana or any other drug. But cocaine smugglers, for example, are "nonviolent drug offenders." Drug dealers around school playgrounds are "nonviolent drug offenders." The real theory is that drug dealing and selling crack and other narcotics to kids is dangerous for the kids and communities.

Now, the argument can be made, as Milton Friedman has done, that decriminalizing drugs generally would allow for more rational ways to deal with drug abuse than current legal restraints. But the argument that Bennett gambles and, ergo, drugs should be legalized or decriminalized - equality of vice - while facile in the making, is facetious in fact.

Bennett's position on drugs is hardly that. He writes:

"When drugs are more readily available, more people try them and more people become addicted. ... Once users are addicted, we must do what we can to free addicts from the grip of drugs. ... To promote truly effective treatment, we must first recognize that treatment doesn't always work and that even the best treatment works only some of the time. ... (O)f those who enter a sound treatment program, we can expect about 38 percent to be cured. ... One clear fact about drug treatment is that success in treatment is a function of time in treatment. And time in treatment is often a function of coercion - being forced into treatment by a loved one, an employer or, as is often the case, the legal system. People who are forced to enter treatment under legal sanctions are more likely to complete treatment programs and thus more likely to get well. If we treat drug use as a purely medical problem, and treatment as something that can be only voluntarily taken up, fewer people will enter treatment - and those who enter treatment are less likely to get well."

Note here, that there is no condemnation of the drug user, just little toleration of drug use as a harmless vice. And for good reason. Drugs can be dangerous, and addictive. They have killed people's wills and then their bodies. And even if decriminalization that seeks to turn drug abuse into a health issue were pursued, controls would be necessary to keep drugs away from kids, at the least. So, even under decriminalization, you'd likely have thousands of "nonviolent drug offenders" put behind bars for dealing to minors or without a license.

Similarly, Michael Kinsley's critique of Bennett seems the most pointedly personal of the raft that have come out: "Bennett has been exposed as a humbug artist who ought to be pelted off the public stage if he lacks the decency to slink quietly away as he is constantly calling on others to do. ... He wants to put marijuana smokers in jail. He wants to make it harder to get divorced. He wants more 'moral criticism of homosexuality' and 'declining to accept that what they do is right.' ...There are preachers who can preach an ideal they don't themselves meet and even use their own weaknesses as part of the lesson. Bennett has not been such a preacher. He is smug, disdainful, intolerant. He gambled on bluster - and lost."

My goodness. Kinsley's argument is absurd on its face. Again, Bennett - as demonstrated above - doesn't "want to put marijuana smokers in jail." Should we thus dismiss the rest of Kinsley's work - all his columns and his writings - as unworthy of our attention for that lapse?

One can disagree with Bennett on homosexuality - and also with the Catholic
Church's position about it. One can have arguments about what Bennett believes about making divorce more difficult. But it would be better to argue the issue than issue personal invective as Kinsley does.

To say that Bennett is a "humbug artist" because of his gambling, who should be "pelted off the stage" for that failing demonstrates a more "smug, disdainful, intolerant" attitude than anything Bennett has espoused.

Indeed, if you actually read Bennett's writing, he tends to provide some understanding of human frailty. In his Book of Virtues, for example, he noted under the first one, self discipline, that "many of us don't handle it very well" and "rare is the person who doesn't desire more. ..." He quotes Aristotle on courage as "by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave." Virtue is not born but bred, in short. And that is why we need teaching and rules - to become mature and responsible as adults.

It is from this teaching that he views - much as the philosopher Karl Jaspers did in The Future of Mankind - leaders to play a special role: "The leader must be whole; he cannot have his public character honest and his private character deceitful."

The question to raise about Bennett - what would make him a true hypocrite - would be if he were deceitful and dishonest. For underlying his harshest criticisms of leaders - in particular President Bill Clinton - was that they were dishonest. Bennett's righteous anger at Clinton was not that he had affairs, but that he had them and lied to the American people and to courts about them. And not only did he lie, but he used the powers of his office to cover up his behavior and destroy the reputation of those - Kathleen Wiley comes specifically to mind - who might make allegations against them.

Bill Bennett's gambling doesn't excuse that behavior, even if that behavior did end up in the mind of most Americans not to reach the level of an impeachable offense.

In the meantime, as Willy Stark said in All the King's Men, "Man was conceived in sin, and born in corruption. There's always something."

Bill Bennett gambled. So, I guess that means that kids don't need to be taught self-discipline, or courage, or compassion, or responsibility, or the value of work, or perseverance, or loyalty, or faith, or friendship, or honesty. Even money says that's false.

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