Adam Ash

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Garrison Keillor on what history will say about our President

The little man -- by Garrison Keillor

The headline of the AP story was "Bush Urges Confidence in His Leadership" -- which is like "Author Says Memoir Is True" or "FEMA Offers Contingency Plan" -- and I didn't bother to read further. The Old Brush Cutter never got the knack of urging, and whenever he tries, he looks small and petulant, like a cartoon of himself. He photographs well in formal situations, and he is good at keeping a low profile when necessary, which is a key to survival in politics, as in boxing, but when it comes to the hortatory, he gets all hissy and squinty.

As a preacher, he is not in the top 50 percentile, and if his name were J. Ralph Cooter he would be hard put to find work in any of the persuasive professions. But there he is, giving the State of the Union, more or less in charge of the shop, or on a first-name basis with those who are, and so long as he refrains from perjury and tax increases and doesn't wear a dress to the Easter Egg Roll, he will probably slide along OK.

Of greater interest than the president's remarks to Congress was the report of the Office of Personnel Management showing that the federal government continues to grow under Republican rule. The executive branch now employs 1.85 million at an average salary of $63,125. In our nation's capital, the average is a handsome $80,425. Of course, the hiring of screeners at airports raised the total, but screeners' average salary is around $27,000 a year, which pulls down the average, which means there must be many happy folks in the higher ranges, assistant pooh-bahs and panjandrums and dukes of earl who are adept at taking a small acorn and weaving a seven-hour day around it, for which they enjoy job security, 13 paid holidays and 21 vacation days, and retirement at up to 80 percent of salary.

Not a bad gig, considering. There are mature gifted musicians scuffling for less than screeners earn, and farm families scraping along despite prayer and hard labor, and genius comedians scrapping for spare change. So a young Republican lady or gent could be tickled pink to land a job as assistant secretary for compliance assurance and get an 18-by-24 office with a window looking out on the Washington Monument and spend the day in meetings after which you will write memos of ingenious persiflage and obfuscation, like a cat smoothing the litter box.

Republicans believe in smaller government and deregulation, but it takes more and more of their friends and loved ones to not regulate us, and who can blame them? Washington is the perfect place for the slacker child who flubbed his way through college and flopped in business and whom friends and family kept having to prop up -- find him a government job. Government service is a broadening experience. It certainly has been for Mr. Bush. He has traveled to China and Europe and other places that never interested him before. He has come into contact with the poor people of New Orleans in a way that never would have occurred to him in his earlier years. He has met opera singers and jazz musicians and journalists. This is all good.

And he has met the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and visited with young people horribly wounded in the war, which would be a soul-searing experience for any commander. To see a beautiful young woman who must now live without an arm as a direct result of decisions you made -- who could see this and not scour the depths of your conscience?

And to suffer pangs of conscience even as you exhort the public to have confidence in you -- this has to be an interesting experience. Your mistakes are responsible for terrible suffering, but you stand among your victims and urge public support for your policies as a sign of support for the people those policies have injured. This is a plot worthy of Shakespeare.

So why does he still seem so small, our president? In his presidential library, he'll be portrayed as Abraham Lincoln after Chancellorsville and FDR after Corregidor, but to most of us, the crisis in Washington today stems from a man intellectually and temperamentally unequipped to rise to the challenge. Most of us sense that when, decades from now, the story of this administration comes out, it will be one of ordinary incompetence, of rigid and incurious people overwhelmed by events in a world they don't dare look around and see.

(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

THAT WAS an exercise in resignation. Here's one in exasperation, about the same subject.

Bush the Incompetent
The war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Medicare Part D -- incompetence may describe this presidency, but it doesn't explain it.
By Harold Meyerson

Incompetence is not one of the seven deadly sins, and it's hardly the worst attribute that can be ascribed to George W. Bush. But it is this president's defining attribute. Historians, looking back at the hash that his administration has made of his war in Iraq, his response to Hurricane Katrina and his Medicare drug plan, will have to grapple with how one president could so cosmically botch so many big things -- particularly when most of them were the president's own initiatives.

In numbing profusion, the newspapers are filled with litanies of screw-ups. Yesterday's New York Times brought news of the first official assessment of our reconstruction efforts in Iraq, in which the government's special inspector general depicted a policy beset, as Times reporter James Glanz put it, "by gross understaffing, a lack of technical expertise, bureaucratic infighting [and] secrecy." At one point, rebuilding efforts were divided, bewilderingly and counterproductively, between the Army Corps of Engineers and, for projects involving water, the Navy. That's when you'd think a president would make clear in no uncertain terms that bureaucratic turf battles would not be allowed to impede Iraq's reconstruction. But then, the president had no guiding vision for how to rebuild Iraq -- indeed, he went to war believing that such an undertaking really wouldn't require much in the way of American treasure and American lives.

It's the president's prescription drug plan (Medicare Part D), though, that is his most mind-boggling failure. As was not the case in Iraq or with Katrina, it hasn't had to overcome the opposition of man or nature. Pharmacists are not resisting the program; seniors are not planting car bombs to impede it (not yet, anyway). But in what must be an unforeseen development, people are trying to get their medications covered under the program. Apparently, this is a contingency for which the administration was not prepared, as it has been singularly unable to get its own program up and running.

Initially, Part D's biggest glitch seemed to be the difficulty that seniors encountered in selecting a plan. But since Part D took effect on Jan. 1, the most acute problem has been the plan's failure to cover the 6.2 million low-income seniors whose medications had been covered by Medicaid. On New Year's Day, the new law shifted these people's coverage to private insurers. And all hell broke loose.

Pharmacists found that the insurers didn't have the seniors' names in their systems, or charged them far in excess of what the new law stipulated -- and what the seniors could afford. In California fully 20 percent of the state's 1.1 million elderly Medicaid recipients had their coverage denied. The state had to step in to pick up the tab for their medications. California has appropriated $150 million for the medications, and estimates that it will be out of pocket more than $900 million by 2008-09. Before Jan. 1 the Bush administration had told California that it would save roughly $120 million a year once Part D was in effect.

California's experience is hardly unique. To date at least 25 states and the District have had to defray the costs to seniors that Part D was supposed to cover. What's truly stunning about this tale is that, while officials may not have known how many non-indigent seniors would sign up of their own accord, they always knew that these 6.2 million seniors would be shifted into the plan on the first day of the year. There were absolutely no surprises, and yet administration officials weren't even remotely prepared.

No such problems attended the creation of Medicare itself in the mid-1960s. Then, a governmental agency simply assumed responsibility for seniors' doctor and hospital visits. But, financially beholden to both the drug and insurance industries, the Bush administration and the Republican Congress mandated that millions of Americans have their coverage shifted to these most byzantine of bureaucracies.

This is, remember, the president's signature domestic initiative, just as the Iraq war is his signature foreign initiative.

How could a president get these things so wrong? Incompetence may describe this presidency, but it doesn't explain it. For that, historians may need to turn to the seven deadly sins: to greed, in understanding why Bush entrusted his new drug entitlement to a financial mainstay of modern Republicanism. To sloth, in understanding why Incurious George has repeatedly ignored the work of experts whose advice runs counter to his desires.

More and more, the key question for this administration is that of the great American sage, Casey Stengel: Can't anybody here play this game?

(Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.)


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