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Urban journal 11.02.05

Libby's not the problem


Now that Scooter Libby's been indicted, Bush supporters are yelping for the president to clean house. Clean house? That would do nothing unless the real perps --- Cheney and Rumsfeld included --- were swept out. Fat chance of that. And even if they were, there's plenty of bench.

And Bush himself is staying put.

The problems in the Bush White House go far beyond somebody leaking the name of a CIA agent, as horrible as that is. They go far beyond Scooter Libby lying about (or forgetting about) when and how he learned about the agent and her husband.

The problems are the administration's ethics and ideology, in both domestic and foreign policy. (While Scooter Libby was resigning, the president was proposing that we pay for the Katrina clean-up by cutting domestic programs. Tax cuts for the rich, of course, still stand.)

The Fitzgerald investigation has simply given us one more insight into the administration's push for war against Iraq. Two federal investigations have already found that Bush's justification for war --- that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he had ties to Al Qaeda --- was full of holes.

Some Bush critics are licking their chops, convinced that this is the beginning of the end for the Bush administration. Right.

Until the public sees the administration's war as the scandal that it is, nothing will change. There was plenty of evidence about the dangerous nature of the administration before the 2004 presidential election. Americans re-elected Bush anyway.

Administration supporters are insisting that the Libby indictment has nothing to do with the Iraq war. Agreed. Fitzgerald himself says it's not about the war.

But Libby's actions clearly had everything to do with the war. And he did not act alone.

Fitzgerald has his responsibilities. You and I have ours.

As the American deaths in Iraq climb on past 2000 --- and those in Afghanistan, now past 200 --- it's time to ramp up the heat on the administration. It's time to beef up those anti-war demonstrations, time to deluge the White House with letters and e-mails, on the war and on domestic matters. It's time to outshout the Radical Right. And it's time to insist that Democrats and moderate Republicans find their backbone.

Speaking of which...

Yes, Sam Alito should get his hearing. And maybe we'll find encouraging news in it. But I'm preparing for the worst.

You've read the news reports: Alito thinks women should get their husbands' permission to have an abortion. He doesn't like government regulation of business. He voted against letting a black woman sue when she believed her employer had promoted a white woman over her. He doesn't even want the sale of automatic machine guns to be regulated.

Principally, as numerous commentators have said, the fight over Alito will be a fight over abortion rights. You bet it will. And the moderates in the Senate can't shrug that off. This isn't about partisan politics. It's about women's rights.

We'll learn more in the Senate hearings, of course. And maybe we'll see another side to Sam Alito.

But he's exactly the kind of court nominee Bush has promised from the start. And we have not yet seen another side to Bush.

DC watch

• The land of the rich: One of my favorites of the Biblical prophets is Amos, the great ranter against the abuses of the rich and powerful. What must he be thinking right now? All of us are paying higher fuel and gasoline bills, but the increase is hitting low-income Americans the hardest. And oil profits are up. The House of Representatives is pushing for major cuts in Medicaid --- higher co-pays for the poor among them. But the rich? Well, the rich, the New York Times tells us, are now enjoying a new trend: "lavish care" from "boutique doctors." And in the halls of power, the push for governmental favors for the rich, the greed grab, goes on. (Why, asked Frank Rich in the Times on Sunday, does Halliburton continue to get nice government contracts "even after it's been the focus of multiple federal inquiries into accusations of bid-rigging, overcharging, and fraud?")

• For Bush critics like me, Scooter Libby's indictment made satisfying reading. But that doesn't overshadow doesn't a serious problem with the investigation: forcing reporters to reveal their sources.

Reporters are easy targets, and I don't expect you to feel a lot of sympathy for us. But this is a problem for the public, not just for reporters. And unless you love big government, and trust government implicitly, you ought to be worried.

This is not a partisan issue. It's an issue of democracy, pure and simple. Fitzgerald got some important information, but the damage to reporting is real. The precedent has been set. And there's no question but that this will make important news sources squeamish about sharing vital information off the record.

Fussing over the ferry

Ten years from now --- when, I hope, we'll pay no more attention to daily ferry crossings than to RTS routes --- we may wonder what all the fuss was about. But last week, Our Ferry was back on the front page.

It racked up a $4.2 million loss after sailing for only two months.

Late last week, City Hall was insisting that things are under control, and that there's a lot to be happy about in this "first-quarter report." And that the media, as usual, are going for the sensational --- "near obsession" said the mayor.

You've got blinders on, folks. You're creating the problem, not the media.

You've got a public that wanted the ferry. And now that we've got it, even the harshest critics want it to succeed. The Spirit does seem a bit jinxed, what with the accidents, delays, technical problems, and fuel-cost spikes. But any rational person understands start-up pains. That's not the problem.

Nor, frankly, is the loss, scary as it is.

The problem is secrecy.

This is our ferry, for pete's sake. Don't look at the public's interest in its health as a negative. (And it is the public that's interested, not just the media.)

Secrecy is deadly. It taints everything. It makes it look as if you've got something to hide. And yet from the getgo, the ferry board has been secretive. This after the damage created by the previous owners' secrecy.

The eagerly awaited first report on the ferry's operation is 13 pages long. But it's 13 pages of big-type, Power Point fluff. And it simply reeks of spin.

Yes, the bad news is there. On one page. Page 10. Revenue from February 28 to August 31 was $1.8 million. Expenses were $5 million. "Operational start-up" costs were $2 million. Total loss: $4.2 million.

Some of the other pages contained good news. According to a survey, 74 percent of the folks who rode the Spirit would ride it again. Ninety-six percent of the trips left within five minutes of the scheduled time. Even though there was virtually no advertising --- an enormous mistake, by the way --- ridership grew substantially in August.

But there's almost no other information in the report. And there's absolutely no context for the data. The average number of passengers per trip was 402 in August. How does that compare to the projections? What was the revenue compared to the projections? How many of the passengers were riding at discounted rates?

Asking those questions isn't "obsessing." It's performing due diligence.

And yet when I asked for those figures last week, I was told they weren't immediately available. Surely members of the ferry board know them. (If they don't, we are in very big trouble.) In its reluctance to let the public in on the numbers, the ferry board is saying, "Trust us." And as soon as you say that, you've killed the public trust.

Obviously, the numbers aren't good, for understandable reasons. But the ferry board seems afraid that if the numbers are made public, it'll hurt the ferry's reputation.

Nope. What's hurting the ferry's reputation is the secrecy and the defensiveness.

Here's some advice, City Hall, and you don't have to pay me a dime for it.

1) Cut the secrecy. Lay out the facts. If you'd have been smart, you'd have drowned the media in facts. The eyes of many reporters would have glazed over. A few of us would have done our analysis, written our story, and viewed the positive parts with far less suspicion.

2) Change the ferry board's membership. This is an insider board, few of whom have experience analyzing business operations --- and few of whom will raise tough questions. Four of the nine members are city employees who report to the mayor and could be expected to do what he wants. Three more are members of City Council. And who oversees the ferry board? City Council!

There is, in other words, no impartial oversight of the ferry or the ferry board. That does not inspire public confidence, particularly when the ferry's having problems.

3) Promote the thing --- and put money in the budget for it. The city's original business plan projected spending a miniscule amount of money on advertising in the first year. That's irresponsible. The ferry came with an enormous negative reputation. It was essential for the city to overcome that. And it'll be even more important next year. City officials have talked about getting I Love New York money for advertising, and "partnering" and "leveraging." All of those should be add-ons. They're not guaranteed. A sensible business plan for this ferry would include hefty promotion --- and the money to pay for it.

4) finally, face the facts and tell us the truth: that the ferry will probably have to have a public subsidy. There is no ferry operation anywhere that isn't subsidized. My hunch: this one will have to be. It deserves it. The ferry can benefit the economy of the entire region. Yes, the entire region should help subsidize it, but that's a different issue, and a fight for another day.

Taxpayers are subsidizing Frontier Field and the Convention Center. We're building a soccer stadium for a private entity. I was happy to hear ferry board chair and City Councilmember Ben Douglas say he would approve of a public subsidy. "It's absolutely worth subsidizing," he told me on Friday.

Splendid. Now let's have the next mayor agree and move forward.