Politics

Capital Letters: Intergenerational Work

In which our man in Washington engages Social Security, searches for interns, and contemplates incriminating stains

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Subj: Social Security on the Potomac
Date: Thu, Jul 30, 1998 3:35 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

While much of D.C. and America was focused on Friday's shooting at the Capitol, your humble correspondent and his summer sidekick stuck to our more mundane policy beat Monday. After meeting in the office and fueling up on Au Bon Pain (oh what a pain) Guatemalan-blend coffee, which strives for the burnt taste of Starbucks but, like its price, falls a little shy, and a sourdough (hey, it's not New York) sesame-seed bagel, we hopped in a cab to the FDR Memorial.

We weren't sightseeing on company time. (One of the advantages of Washington is all the history and Americana one can absorb in the course of a daily routine. I play softball by the Vietnam Memorial; jog past Theodore Roosevelt Island, voted most underappreciated monument by The Weekly Standard's editorial staff; and lunch in Lafayette Park across from the White House, where my mind's eye speculates on what actually happens at intern central, and then recoils at the sight.) We were headed to a Save Social Security rally sponsored by the National Council for Senior Citizens, a group which, last I heard, was 96 percent funded by the U.S. government, with the other 4 percent rumored to come from the Kremlin. The world hasn't gone their way of late: They've suffered a 4 percent budget cut.

It's no secret that supporters of the current Social Security system are worried that they got caught flatfooted as right-wing think tanks, a Harvard professor, and their own Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan started to seduce the public with the prospect of actually amassing wealth, rather than promises from government, with investment-based Social Security. Catch-up requires a massive miseducation campaign aimed at captive audiences, meaning editorial boards and union members. We were about to witness an event featuring the latter.

The rally was underway by the time we arrived (the bagel took longer to eat than I expected). I took my last swill of coffee and headed into the center of the crowd with my notebook and tape recorder--the tools of ignorance, as my old man used to call my catcher's gear--ready to record the events. A gray-topped lady appeared to be kicking off the rally. She assured the audience, which was composed of people who didn't need to take vacation days to pursue their political activism, that all the speakers were screened for certain criteria. "They have to know what life was like before Social Security, and they have to have fire in the belly," I think I heard her read rather quietly.

The AFL-CIO's John Sweeney was up next. Now here's a man who cares about Social Security. He cares about it enough to launch directly into class warfare with Jesse Jacksonesque rhyme, if not cadences. The theme of the day, expressed appropriately on just about everyone's head, was "Raise the Cap, Close the Gap," which is an allusion to the fact that Americans pay FICA taxes--yes, Sweeney called them "taxes," not contributions--only on the first $64,000 or so of their income. Privatization, according to Sweeney, is the "greedy few attempting to take from the deserving many." And the greedy few don't confine their malevolent avarice to destroying Social Security, nor does Sweeney confine his rhymes to retirement themes. According to Sweeney, the right wing--which may mean anyone with a nonunion job--wants to "voucherize, privatize, and pauperize education."

I bounced around the crowd, seeking shade, distance from the speaker blaring Sweeney's wisdom, and people to interview. Sweeney's exhortations to action weren't eliciting much passion. Part of the problem was the location. The FDR Memorial, like your humble correspondent's abode, is in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport's landing path. So every few minutes, Sweeney would stop ranting as the welcome sound of jet engines displaced his wisdom in my ears.

There weren't enough landing clearances, as far as I was concerned, to adequately disrupt the next speaker, introduced to the crowd as the Independent--but known to REASON editors as the socialist--congressman from Vermont: Bernie Sanders. Bernie, happy to be in front of an audience that shared his pre-World War II view of the world, blathered on for quite some time. He inveighed against the injustice of forcing people to shell out a $5.00 co-payment for home health visits and assured the audience that the Social Security Administration, if nothing is changed, could write checks for another 34 years, which extended further than the planning horizons of most people in the audience.

By this time, your humble correspondent was working the crowd, attempting to figure out where people came from, what they did, and why they were here. A retired nurse from Philadelphia knew what she wanted: "no privatization." Don and Dot Davis, recently transplanted from Michigan to South Carolina, said the "fat cats on Wall Street have enough money." They were especially concerned about their "fat cat" representative, Mark Sanford, who they claimed is one of the people who pay no taxes and are pushing for privatizing Social Security. They were planning to discuss it with him later in his office, although they didn't expect it to help.

George W. Banks, a retired international representative of the United Steel Workers, hit on an ingenious theme for why we need Social Security: It's not, in REASON Contributing Editor Jack Pitney's formulation, about gray socialism; it's about baby blue socialism. [See "The Colors of Socialism," June 1997.] Said Banks, "We have many children who are sick and injured who would be dropped out of the system if it was privatized." He shared a bus with 40 Ohio citizens who shared his concern for children.

The crowd wasn't all elderly. Three students--Logan Jones (ninth grade), Lakia Rutherford (12th grade), and Elan Fenderson (eighth grade), were down from Boston, where they were spending the summer doing "intergenerational" work funded by a private grant secured through their church. "Intergenerational work," I thought to myself. "Hell, pick up a phone and call your grandma. If you want to be an activist, go visit her."

Now your humble correspondent has always had an interest in both the old and young, thinking there is much to be learned from both, which is why this event interested me. We didn't confine our conversation to Social Security. Logan wants to attend Florida State University, where he plans to run track. I was concerned about the humidity, but it doesn't seem to worry him. Lakia, eschewing Harvard because "there's too much pressure," plans to head to Atlanta for college at the urging of her mother. It's too early for Elan to pick a school. They planned to visit the White House, for which Lakia said her friends called her "crazy." And despite Friday's tragedy, they were counting on heading over to the Hill before boarding a bus back to Boston on Wednesday.

These kids take Social Security seriously. Lakia, the triumvirate's oldest and most articulate, analogized the stock market to gambling, although that's where she plans to put her extra money. And she understands Social Security isn't perfect. She complained that her grandmother, who's on Social Security and needs the money, is shorted by the system because "they take out so much money that she really doesn't have much money to do with it at the end." Lakia told me, "I want to get more money."

Well, Lakia, the "they" is the government, and the money it takes we call "taxes." She's well on her way to being a libertarian.

Speaking of intergenerational work, while I headed back to REASON's D.C. headquarters just a block away from the White House, my summer sidekick followed the rally to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the NCSC was holding another rally before turning its 44 busloads of seniors loose to lobby the Hill. He filed a report for Citings.

P.S. As a purely political matter, I can see how these seniors are influential. They are wonderful to talk to and genuine in their concerns, reminding me of the folks I used to run across at the after-church social hour as a kid. Hell, if I had a choice between hanging out with any of these folks or [Americans for Tax Reform's Social Security expert] Peter Ferrara, who nearly chopped my lovely wife's arm off last night as he foraged feverishly on a buffet at The Polling Company's open house, I would take the socialist seniors. The reception, BTW, was well worth the stop. Diana, who leaped in front of me when Ferrara threatened to crowd her out of the line, and I shared some Caesar salad, meatballs, and chicken, as she sipped on Chardonnay and I a Coors Light. Philip Morris had obviously donated a truckload of cigarettes, so she was able to abscond with a pack of Marlboro Ultra Lights, her favorites.

Subj: Girls with Guns
Date: Mon, Aug 10, 1998 3:42 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

Spent a couple hours last Thursday afternoon at the National Rifle Association's firing range with four female interns and two permanent staffers from Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. A woman from the Small Business Survival Committee, whose office is near ATR, was also present.

A couple of things prompted your humble correspondent to head out of his office at 4 p.m., hop into his car, and fight traffic on Highway 50 (I couldn't use the more convenient I-66, since it was HOV-restricted) to get to the NRA world headquarters just outside the Capital Beltway in northern Virginia. The obvious, of course, is the pure salaciousness of the operation. The clichés are obvious: girls with guns; short skirts, long barrels; babes with arms; etc. But I was also seduced by the intern angle.

Washington's legions of interns are always worthy of observation and comment, but more so this year than any other. After the Lewinsky story broke, I opined that such mentor-mentee relationships were quite common across fields. Virginia disagreed, claiming that, power relationships being especially acute in Washington, there was more misbehaving in Chuck Freund's hometown than in America's other major metropolitan areas. I set out to get the story, calling Hill contacts to dish me dirt. I was unsuccessful, even when pleading, "It's not your boss that I want. Tell me about the slimes on the other side of the aisle."

The prolifically witty Stephen Glass, then of The New Republic, had no such trouble, reporting on a watering hole where White House interns congregate. Monica, you see, was a "clutch," which meant something I forget and don't want to waste time checking, since, like many of Glass's good stories, it was probably made up. Worse yet, a few weeks, or perhaps a couple of months, later I met a woman at a Capitol Hill party who knew me only as the guy who called looking for evidence of such transgressive relationships. I was boinking my boss a few years ago, I recall her saying to me, adding that she was in the office when I called. But even then--face to face at a party, with beers in our hands, and deep into a conversation--she wouldn't give me the story, claiming that her dad would kill her if he knew.

So I've been looking for an intern angle all summer.

Your humble correspondent arrived late at the NRA, due to traffic, a missed fork in the road, and, of course, the desire to leave my office at the last possible moment, so as to maximize my day's productivity. The handgun safety course, taught by a fellow named Jim, was already under way. I was greeted and John, another NRA official, asked if I was going to be shooting. I hesitated, but said yes.

I come from a long line of proud gun owners and hunters, including some women in my family. My great aunt, made motherless early in life, once told me of her father's admonition to keep a pistol under the front seat of her car, which she heeded for some time. My grandmother (her sister) preferred shotguns and rifles. And my godmother is known for her markswomanship--always killing her share of the weekend's duck limit.

But although I am a theoretical enthusiast, I've never had a taste for guns. Part of this has to do with the fact that I don't hunt, due to dispositional conflicts with getting up well before dawn in order to freeze for a few hours, all for the pleasure of eating something which others will happily provide. Then, too, my last association with guns--assault weapons, I believe--was in a Washington state forest with two buddies and what appeared to be an unlimited supply of beer. I spent much of the rainy weekend reading P.J. O'Rourke's Holidays in Hell in my car, wishing it were armor-plated.

After we completed our training course, we headed into the NRA's zero-lead-emission firing range, which, Jim pointed out, was a testament to the NRA's deep concern for the environment. Laura, soon to be a Smith College senior majoring in chemistry and French literature, fired first, discharging a Smith and Wesson revolver. Laura popped off five rounds, and her aim was quite impressive. Only four holes pierced the target, since she shot through the same one twice.

The next stall over, Jim instructed Liza, who was spending the summer persuading members of state legislatures to take ATR's anti-tax pledge, on the rudiments of the Glock, a fiercer-looking pistol which sends flames out the barrel and expels spent shells back toward the shooter. "You want to be a stable shooting platform," Jim told Liza. Every young woman's dream.

One intern, Maryanne from American University, found the firing transformative. Maryanne fell victim to the anti-gun conspiracy in her freshman year. Somehow, the economics major found herself under the temporary supervision of Handgun Control Inc., which forced her to handle a weapon--a very large one, she reported--which scared her a great deal. As a result of this trauma, she found herself at the NRA only after much coaxing by fellow ATR associates, who advised her to face her fears.

"It's OK, but I don't want to do it every week," Maryanne responded, when I asked how she felt about her second experience. Good thing too, since time spent firing guns would be time not spent working on the Reagan Legacy Project, which, as Chuck knows, was the power behind the renaming of Washington National Airport. [Washington native Chuck Freund did not cotton to having Congress change the airport's name without consulting the locals.]

If you must know, I fired off five rounds with the Smith and Wesson revolver. The target was a mere 15 feet away, and I envisioned the holes appearing closer to the center of my target than they actually did. John was kind, however, telling me that I shot a tight pattern. But that was probably only because he wanted a quote.

Subj: Local Angle
Date: Tue, Aug 4, 1998 6:45 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

Not sure what the talking heads are saying today about whether Clinton should issue a mea culpa, but the chattering classes in my gym indicate that it's Lewinsky, not the president, who owes us an apology.

This afternoon found your humble correspondent riding the Lifecycle at level 10, random setting, for 40 minutes while reading Brink Lindsey's latest Cato study, which feeds Chalmers Johnson, Clyde Prestowitz, and James Fallows their pro-Japan-model predictions back to them in bite-sized paragraphs. Interspersed among such morsels as Prestowitz's "Japan has created a kind of automatic wealth machine, perhaps the first since King Midas," my left ear was assaulted with, "Have you seen the short skirts them White House interns wear?"

My mom taught me not to eavesdrop, so I attempted to block out the banter and get back to Brink. Still, I couldn't help but overhear pressing questions such as, "Who doesn't wash their dress for five years?" (is it really five years old?), followed by, "I don't even have a dress from five years ago, and if I do, it's in the closet dry-cleaned," and, "She's keeping a souvenir." This wasn't, of course, a scientific poll, something which I hope provides Chuck with some relief, but more like a two-, soon to be three-person focus group conducted one block from the White House's West Wing.

"What do you think about him lying?" I heard in an elevated tone. I must admit that by this time comments like "Hillary's a lesbian anyway," "I'm just mad it wasn't me," and "Maybe they had a menage à trois" had distracted me from Brink's useful analysis, producing chuckles and smiles deeper than any likely to come from even the most absurd Fallows howler. But I was still a bystander, or cyclesitter. "Shouldn't they just leave him alone?" asked a louder, more persistent voice.

I was obviously being invited to play. I turned my head, noted that I still had 21 minutes to pedal, and engaged. "What if he pressured others to lie?" I asked the woman who was walking a brisk pace on the treadmill. This didn't bother my interlocutor, who reported that when she worked as a civilian on a military base, all sorts of people were committing adultery with their spouses' blessings, and that this was probably the president's case. The other woman, whose name I don't know but whose face is familiar from afternoon workouts, said something about heading over to the White House, still miffed that she was missing out.

Then the subject turned to money. "There's kids going hungry right here in D.C.," said the indignant treadmill trotter. "Why did they need to build that Ronald Reagan building? Have you seen that building?"

Actually I haven't, but I headed off this argument quickly, employing a bit of jobilism. "That big building is going to be filled with workers," I said. "Besides, it was going to be built anyway--they just named it after Reagan." This didn't hold the treadmill-traipsing woman off for long. A woman after Chuck's heart, she shot back: "Why did they need to rename National Airport?" she asked. "You know how much that cost?"

Nobody knew, and we let it drop at that. She thought Reagan should have been investigated. I reminded her that he had been. She retorted that it didn't matter since "his wife, what's her name," ran the White House for the last two years.

Her time on the treadmill was almost up anyway. I noticed her pace slacken as the cool-down period kicked in. She said something about that being the fastest half-hour walk ever and that perhaps she should tackle some personal problems next time. We decided if we ever found ourselves in such a state again, we'd devote a half hour to current events and a half hour to her personal problems, which would include work, so she could get an hour in.

Your humble correspondent looked at his clock. Five minutes to go before I jumped over to her treadmill.

Subj: Lolita
Date: Tue, Aug 25, 1998 11:47 AM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

In my copious spare time, I have been reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which I found on our friends' shelf as I was hiding in the basement from my babysitting duties a few weekends ago. A wonderful read, Lolita is--one that, like a Nick Gillespie article, is expanding my limited vocabulary. (Although I must say that having to cart around Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary cuts down the paperback's portability.) Nevertheless, I came across a gem on pages 164-165 that may be of some interest to us in light of current events.

We find our friend Humbert Humbert concerned that he may be caught in his scandalous affair as he takes leave from his nomadic existence and settles into a house:

"That kindly and harmless woman [Holigan, his maid] had, thank God, a rather bleary eye that missed details, and I had become a great expert in bedmaking; but still I was continously obsessed by the feeling that some fatal stain had been left somewhere, or that, on the rare occasions where Holigan's presence happened to coincide with Lo's, simple Lo might succumb to buxom sympathy [oh, that buxom sympathy] in the course of a cozy kitchen chat. I often felt we lived in a lighted house of glass, and that any moment some thin-lipped parchment face would peer through a carelessly unshaded window to obtain a free glimpse of things that the most jaded voyeur would have paid a small fortune to watch."

A small fortune indeed.