Category Archives: Today on our opinion pages

Today’s column, other stuff on my new blog

FYI, today's column — the long-promised one about Gresham Barrett (a perfectly pedestrian column that didn't deserve such a buildup, but at least it technically fulfills the promise) is to be found on my new blog,

Also, I've posted a nice (I think) note I got from the governor, which I hope you will help me decipher…

Cindi’s very kind words today (and Bob’s last week)

Don't know if you saw Cindi Scoppe's very touching column about me today. I pass on the link in case you missed it.

It means even more to me than you might think because, as she notes, she's not the sort to butter up the boss (certainly not one who's leaving), or anybody else. Cindi refers to herself as the "designated mean bitch" around here, which of course is entirely (or almost entirely) inaccurate. I prefer to think of her as tough-minded, which is what makes her one of the best in the business.

I'll tell you a little anecdote — Cindi was the first person (and just about the only one) to welcome me my first day on the job here. As Gordon Hirsch (a frequent commenter here) informed me, I was regarded as the "Knight-Ridder spy" because I was the first editor to come from another KR paper. It didn't matter that I had left Wichita the way Lot left Sodom. It was a lousy working situation, and I never looked back. But many here were convinced I was the corporate guy, so I got a lot of suspicious looks. (When I explained to Gordon how ridiculous it was, he shook his head and said none of that mattered. Far as scuttlebutt was concerned, I was the spy, so I might as well get used to it.) But Cindi, all of 23 years old at the time, strides through that cloud of suspicion right up to me, sticks out her hand and makes it clear that she, for one, was glad to have me here.

So it's fitting that she should bid me a public farewell. She didn't care who knew she was glad to meet me, and isn't a bit shy to let folks know she's sorry to see me go. And I've appreciated it both times.

While I'm thanking people, I have to apologize because in all the craziness of last week, I never got around to thanking Bob McAlister for the kind words that he wrote on his blog, which we published as an online-only column (online-only because we had recently run a column of his in the paper, so he was under our "30-day" guideline).

Bob, as I recall, regarded me a good deal more warily than Cindi, upon first meeting me. He was the communications chief — later chief of staff — for Gov. Carroll Campbell. It was his duty to be suspicious. But over the years we've fought a few battles together and become good friends. Bob is one of many such friends who have reached out and offered to do whatever they can to help in recent days, and in his case has actually taken action to ease my transition to … well, to whatever comes next.

Anyway, I wanted to be sure to thank both Cindi and Bob for thinking so kindly of me, from their differing perspectives.

Looking ahead to 2010: Are we hopeful yet?

Editorial Page Editor

the current occupant has sort of put the whole
being-governor-of-South-Carolina thing behind him — nowadays you have
to track national media to know what he’s up to — let’s follow his
lead, and look forward to the time when he no longer holds the office
even technically.

    In the spirit of getting us to that point as
quickly as possible, I spoke last week with the one declared candidate
for the 2010 gubernatorial election, Sen. Vincent Sheheen.

    If you
don’t know the 37-year-old Camden attorney, you might know his daddy,
former Higher Education Commissioner Fred, or his uncle, former House
Speaker Bob
. He is like them in his dedication to public service, yet
very different. His uncle was the last Democrat to run the House, while
the nephew has been shaped by having to get things done in a world run
by Republicans. It’s made him a consensus-builder, and he thinks that
has prepared him well for this moment.

    Not only does he think he
has a good chance of gaining the Democratic nomination among those who
have been mentioned — and his close allies who might have drawn from
the same base of support, Rep. James Smith and Sen. Joel Lourie, are
not running — but, “at this point in the state’s history, I have a good
chance in the general election,” whoever the GOP nominee is. Why?
“Because people are not satisfied.”

    He can identify with that: “I’ve reached this point out of frustration and hope.”

have been stuck in a rut for a long time,” he said, and “I am not
seeing things changing at all. And that’s very frustrating.” He senses
a similar frustration in the electorate. He thinks voters realize that
“if we keep… not doing anything, then we’re not going to improve.”

    So what does he want to do?

  • “Get
    real again about job creation and economic development.” He says the
    state needs a governor who will treat that as a priority, playing an
    active part in recruiting business, and working to see that the whole
    state, including the rural parts, benefits.
  • “Pulling
    South Carolina’s governmental structure into at least the 20th century,
    and maybe the 21st century.” Some of what he wants to do is what the
    current governor has said he wanted to do. But the plan that Mr.
    Sheheen has put forward (parts of which he explains on the facing page)
    actually has some traction — enough so that Mark Sanford mentioned it
    favorably in his State of the State address this year. Sen. Sheheen
    believes the time has come to move restructuring past the starting
    line, and he thinks he can do it: “I’m not knocking anybody; I’m just
    saying it’s time to have somebody who can build consensus.”
  • “Change
    the way we spend our money.” As he rightly describes the process, “We
    budget in the dark.” He wants to see a programmatic budget, followed by
    the legislative oversight that has been missing, to make sure the
    spending does what it’s intended to do.
  • Combine
    conservation with economic development. He thinks we need to move
    beyond setting aside just to conserve, but convert what is conserved to
    benefit “the humans in a community.” He points to the ways the Camden
    has been used to promote tourism.
  • Change
    the way we fund education. Make funding equitable, based on pupils, not
    districts, so that “a similarly situated student will have the same
    opportunities … regardless of where they live.”

    When I ask
whether there’s anything else, he confesses: “I’m a geek. I could keep
going, but … I’ve got to think of something that’s politically
catchy. I’m supposed to do that.”

    At which point he proves his
geekhood by mentioning comprehensive tax reform, which he’s been
advocating “since my first day in the House.”

    But while that
issue might not make voters’ hearts beat faster, he speaks again of
what he sees as “a growing consensus that we need to do something.”

he thinks the high-profile, counterproductive “contention between the
current governor and the Legislature” has created an opportunity for
someone who wants to move beyond that.

    But how would a Democrat
fare in that task in a State House run by Republicans? Quite well, he
says. He calls Republican Carroll Campbell “one of the most effective
governors,” a fact he attributes in part to the “constructive friction”
between him and the Democratic Legislature that his Uncle Bob helped

    Ironically, Vincent Sheheen seems to be suggesting that his
party has become enough of an outsider in the halls of state power that
a consensus-minded Democrat could be less threatening to, and more
successful in working with, the GOP leadership. “Someone who is not
jockeying for position within their own party could actually help to
bring together some of the different factions.”

    As a
representative of “swing counties” — Chesterfield, Lancaster and
Kershaw — he sees himself as having the ability to be that Democrat.

far — perhaps because he’s the only declared candidate in either party
— he wears the burden of this campaign lightly. At one point he asks
me, “Am I making you hopeful?” — then chuckles when I decline to answer.

I will say this to you, the reader: He’s talking about the right
issues, and he’s talking about them the right way. That’s a start.
Here’s hoping that the candidates yet to declare, in both parties, do
the same. Then perhaps we can have a gubernatorial choice, for once,
between good and better.

For links and more, please go to

Joe Biden, prophet

Charles Krauhammer made the point most clearly, in his column for today:

The Biden prophecy has come to pass. Our wacky veep, momentarily inspired, had predicted last October that “it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama.'' Biden probably had in mind an eve-of-the-apocalypse drama like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, Obama's challenges have come in smaller bites. Some are deliberate threats to U.S. interests, others mere probes to ascertain whether the new president has any spine.
   Preliminary X-rays are not very encouraging.
   Consider the long list of brazen Russian provocations:
   (a) Pressuring Kyrgyzstan to shut down the U.S. air base in Manas, an absolutely cru-cial NATO conduit into Afghanistan.
   (b) Announcing the formation of a “rapid reaction force'' with six former Soviet re-publics, a regional Russian-led strike force meant to reassert Russian hegemony in the Muslim belt north of Afghanistan.
   (c) Planning to establish a Black Sea naval base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, conquered by Moscow last summer.
   (d) Declaring Russia's intention to deploy offensive Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if Poland and the Czech Republic go ahead with plans to station an American (anti-Iranian) missile defense system.

But you know what? I didn't use the Krauthammer piece on today's page. After all, you sort of expect Charles Krauthammer to say stuff like that. Folks like bud are more likely to be persuaded by Joel Brinkley, who is the kind of guy who writes stuff like this:

    Even with all the anti-American sentiment everywhere these days, most people worldwide know America to be a decent, honest state. For all the justified criticism over the invasion of Iraq, the United States is now beginning to pull its troops out. For all the international anger and hatred of George Bush, the American people elected a man who is his antithesis.

Set aside the silliness of saying Obama is Bush's "antithesis" — I point you to all the evidence of "continuity we can believe in," such as here and here — and consider my point, which is that Joel Brinkley is decidedly not Charles Krauthammer. Anyway, here's some of what Mr. Brinkley said, in the column that appears on today's page, about how Obama is being tested, although he managed to say it without being snarky about Joe Biden:

    America’s competitors and adversaries are certainly not greeting President Obama with open arms. During his first month in office, many have given him the stiff arm.
    Pakistan made a deal with the Taliban to give it a huge swath of territory in the middle of the country for a new safe haven.
    North Korea is threatening war with the South.
    Many in the Arab world who had welcomed Obama are now attacking him because he did not denounce Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
    Iran launched a satellite into space, demonstrating that it has the ability to construct an inter-continental ballistic missile to match up with the nuclear weapons it is apparently trying to build.
    There’s more, but none of it can match the sheer gall behind Russia’s open challenge to Washington.

Just to give you yet another perspective that I did NOT use on today's page, here's what Philly's Trudy Rubin had to say about that deal that Pakistan cut with the Taliban:

       The deal was cut with an older insurgent leader, Sufi Mohammed. Supposedly, he will persuade tougher Taliban, such as his estranged son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, to lay down arms. Pakistani defense analyst Ikram Sehgal told me by phone from Karachi, "They are trying to isolate the hard-core terrorists from the moderate militants. I think it is a time of trial, to see if this works."
       Critics say the deal is a desperation move, made by a weak civilian government and an army that doesn't know how to fight the insurgents. "The Pakistani army has been remarkably ineffective," said Dan Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said the army, which is trained to fight land wars against India, lacks the counterinsurgency skills to "hit bad guys and not good guys."
       As a result, many innocent civilians are killed, leading locals to accept the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. (That may account for the warm welcome Sufi Mohammed re-ceived in Swat after the deal; poor people are desperate for the violence to stop, whatever it takes.)

So wherever you are on the political spectrum, if you follow and understand foreign affairs, you know that Obama is indeed being tested. Big-time. And it remains to be seen whether he passes the tests. I certainly hope he does.

Worrying about the stimulus

Editorial Page Editor

    “This is your bill; it needs to be America’s bill.”

            — Sen. Lindsey Graham,
         addressing Senate Democrats

worries me, after all the rhetoric, exhortation, accusations,
counter-accusations, fault-finding and blame-laying, is that the
stimulus bill that spent the week staggering its way through the U.S.
Senate might not work anyway.

     There was always
that very good chance. Several weeks back, Paul Krugman — who as a
Princeton economist is a Nobel Prize-winner, but as a political
columnist is a partisan automaton — said as much. He said it wouldn’t
be enough to give the economy the jolt it needs to overcome the lack of
activity in the private sector. He made a persuasive case.

last week, Mr. Krugman wrote that this bill just had to pass, that
those blasted Republicans opposing it were “putting the nation’s future
at risk.” Obama’s mistake, he now said, was trying “to transcend
partisanship” and work with the Republicans at all.

    I believe the
exact opposite to be true. I believe the chances of the bill doing any
good declined with each step into the thicket of partisanship.

never won so much as a Cracker Jack prize for economics, much less a
Nobel, but there’s one thing I think I understand: Whatever Washington
does in the way of stimulus — and it needs to do something (with the
private sector in paralysis, this is a job for the Keynesians) — it
won’t work unless America can believe in it.

    Just as Mr. Krugman
is right about some things, so is Phil Gramm. Remember how indignant
the Democrats got when the McCain adviser said, in mid-campaign, that
we were experiencing a “mental recession”? Well, he had a point. While
it doesn’t make the real-life pain any less, the mechanisms that get us
into a predicament like this have an awful lot to do with what’s going
on in our heads.

    When businesses think they have a chance to
grow, they invest and create jobs. When they’re scared, they freeze up.
When buyers and sellers believe home values will keep appreciating, the
real estate market is hot. When they start to doubt values, buying and
selling stop. When everyone believes a stock’s value will keep rising,
it does keep rising; when they don’t, it crashes. When you think the
lousy economy is threatening your job, you stop spending and stuff your
earnings, literally or figuratively, into a mattress, and the workers
who depended on you to buy what they produce lose their jobs, which of
course increases everyone’s pessimism.

    No, it’s not all in our
heads. At some point, certain things have real value. But we’re not
going to start buying and selling and hiring and investing and taking
risks at the levels needed to pull ourselves out of this tail-spin
until we reach a consensus that things are getting better, or about to
get better.

    You can argue about the specific provisions in the
stimulus all you want, and Democrats and Republicans have been doing so
enthusiastically. But I don’t think I’ve seen a specific idea yet that
couldn’t be argued both ways. Even the worst idea pumps some juice into
the economy; even the best one is no silver bullet.

    With private
sector leadership — especially on Wall Street — having failed us so
spectacularly, we need something intangible from our political
leadership every bit as much as we need infrastructure spending and/or
tax cuts: We need to look at what Washington is producing and believe
that it actually is for the good of the country, and not for the good
of the Democrats or the Republicans or this or that politician.

he entered office, I thought Barack Obama had what it took to lead us
in that direction — to pull us together and help us believe that we can
solve our problems. To persuade us, as FDR did, that we had nothing to
, that we were going to get through this, together.

    I still
think he can. But last week, I saw him stumble. I’m not talking about
the Tom Daschle business. As the stimulus package faltered, he reverted
to campaign mode, blaming Republicans who wanted to cling to those
failed policies of the past eight years we heard so much about in 2008.

him in this counterproductive effort were such Republicans as our own
Jim DeMint, who most certainly was clinging to the ideologies that have
failed his party and the nation — such as the stubborn idea that tax
cuts are the only kind of stimulus anyone needs.

    A far more
sensible position was taken by our other senator late Thursday. Lindsey
Graham grabbed headlines by saying “this bill stinks,” but he had
smarter things to say than that

    You know, my problem is that I
think we need a stimulus bill. I think we need to do more than cut
taxes. But the process has been terrible. The House passed this bill
without one Republican vote, lost 11 Democrats. Nancy Pelosi said, We
won, we write the bill…. (W)e’re not being smart and we’re not
working together, and people want us to be smart and work together, and
this has been a miserable failure on both fronts.

    As I wrote this
column, much remained unsettled. By the time you read it, something may
have passed. But as I wrote, I was sure of this: If the Congress gave
the president a bill that was pleasing only to the Harry Reids and
Nancy Pelosis, it wouldn’t help the president inspire the kind of
confidence that the whole nation needs to recover. (The same would be
true if Jim DeMint got all he wanted, but there was no danger of that.)

if the president has a bill that Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Ben
Nelson of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine all voted for, the nation
would have a chance of moving forward together. And together is the
only way we can recover.

For more, please go to

Letter II: Writer gets it about DHEC

While I'm at it, allow me to call your attention to another letter on today's page, which makes a good point worth considering about the crying need to restructure government on the state level:

Aughtry big fan of current DHEC setup

I applaud Bo Aughtry’s call for a discussion on the structure of the Department of Health and Environmental Control (“DHEC professionals, board don’t bend to politics,” Sunday).

But it looks as if he doesn’t want to lead it, since all involved in it are very good and adept at what they do. Everyone is doing their best — considering they don’t get paid (as we’re reminded).

But I was wondering: How would the votes fall when developers are wanting to build, build, build, and taxpayers want to attach conditions to building permits to protect their community? The “home builder/developer,” “the attorney in the land business,” the one in “the land business” and the “real estate developer” might be conflicted — it’s only human. (Remember we are not paying them, so why would they hamper the very industry that is providing them a paycheck?)

I could be accused of being cynical, but it seems that lately those in positions of power and responsibility are simply saying, “Mistakes were made, but don’t quote me.” Who can say, “The buck stops here”?


Excellent point about the makeup of that board. Allow me to elaborate: The DHEC board could well be as wonderful and public-spirited and as interested in protecting our health and environment as Mr. Aughtry maintains, in spite of the appearances raised by their lines of work.

But we don't know that. Why? Because we don't know them, and had no role in choosing them, much less any chance to vet them. Quick, name the members of the DHEC board. Yeah, some smart-aleck will do so, either by virtue of being an insider or having cheated by going to the Web site. But most of you don't know, and couldn't begin to tell me or anyone else how they have voted on issues or what overall influence each of them has had on policy, for good or ill.

The fix is to put someone we know and have elected in charge. No, that doesn't guarantee that things will be hunky-dory. But it at least gives the electorate a chance to demand results, and have some hope of being heeded.

Letter I: Riley a stumbling block to reform opponents

One point I'd like to make with regard to this letter on today's page, which takes exception with our advocacy of a strong-mayor system for Columbia, most recently articulated in our Sunday editorial:

City’s government should remain as is

I read
The State’s Sunday editorial, “City should change system, not hire
another manager,” with dismay concerning your recommendation that
Columbia change its form of government.

Choosing a strong-mayor
form over the council-manager system could have dangerous consequences
for the city. These involve the likely emergence of a cult of
personality and abuse of power by individual council members.

in the 20th century, the council-manager system was formulated (some
say for the first time in Sumter) to bring professionalism to city
administration and to distance politics from the daily operation of
municipal functions.

Overall, the hiring of professional managers
to carry out council policy has been successful. Even cities as large
as Dallas have city managers. Philadelphia has a strong-mayor form of

Selecting the strong-mayor form would be ill-advised
because a less-than-stellar mayor (after all, how many Joe Rileys are
there in South Carolina?) could make matters much worse.

is now seeking a professional manager and then should work to ensure
that he implements goals of efficient and effective government while
letting council set policy.

West Columbia

There is one thing that opponents of strong-mayor always have to confront when they try to dismiss the idea: Joe Riley. They always have to say, "There's only one Joe Riley," or "Joe Rileys don't grow on trees," or "Joe Riley isn't going to move to Columbia."

Why do they have to say that? Because, when they look around for examples to support their point, if they were to say, "Why, look at the only other major city in South Carolina that has a strong mayor," they would immediately have to say, "No, DON'T look at the only other major city in S.C. with a strong mayor," because in that city, the system is a generally acknowledge success. And by generally acknowledged, I mean that Charleston gets all sort of national recognition for being a well-run, well-led city. And while Mr. Riley always has opposition (which you would expect a Democrat to have in a city with so very many Republicans in it), he wins re-election time and again with about three-fourths of the vote.

No, Joe Riley is NOT going to move to Columbia (he decided that for good when he decided not to run for governor in 1998, which was a terrible shame for our state). But let me tell you something just about as certain — if there is another Joe Riley out there, he isn't going to run for mayor of Columbia unless we make the job worth running for. And right now, it isn't.

Yes, folks, I know that council-manager was considered a "reform" when it came along, an alternative to bossism and the like. So was, in its day, the city commission form, which I had the opportunity of studying up close and personal in Jackson, TN, long ago.

But look around you: This system is NOT WORKING, and it has not worked under the last several city managers. The city is a mess, and no one can be held accountable for fixing it. Each member of the council (including the mayor, who has no more say than any other member) can point to the other six and claim, quite truthfully, that he or she lacks the power to do anything without a majority.

So everybody skates when we have the kind of mess we have now, except for the city managers that come and go.

This needs to change. And the first step is putting someone accountable to the voters in charge.

How many ‘Carnegie units’ do kids need?

Somehow, in all the discussions I've engaged in over the years, I don't recall running across the "Carnegie unit," until I read the piece we had on our page today from a 20-year teacher, who said in part:

     I am in my 20th year of teaching, and I can tell you that our educational system is not working the way it should, not in South Carolina, not in the nation. We have tried several types of “fixes” that have not worked. We still have an abysmal drop-out rate.
    At fault is the foundation of our system, the Carnegie unit, which was developed in 1906 by the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to “standardize higher education.” To earn a Carnegie unit, the student must be in a classroom for 120 hours. S.C. students must earn 24 of these to graduate from high school….

This teacher is saying, based on her experience, something that I have thought (since my own school days) based on my own intuition: That we place too much emphasis on TIME spent in the classroom, with the widespread assumption that more time is better.

For me, the subject usually comes up in connection with proposals for year-round school, or when we see the school year extended to make sure kids get the holy 180 days in the classroom (which apparently applies to home-schoolers and private schools as well as public). This brings out memories of being bored to death in school as a kid. If my attention hadn't wandered — to reading on past where the class was in the book, or passing notes or pulling pranks or otherwise misbehaving — I would have gone totally nuts. Of course, some of you would say I DID go totally nuts, but that's a matter of opinion. I mean, if you had told me the first day I walked into a class that I would have to spend 120 hours there, the temptation to jump out the window would have been strong.

Whenever I invoke that, and say "Let kids have their summers," someone will tell me that I was not typical, that most kids struggle to retain what they learned the year before and need excessive review, etc. And I grumble and shut up. I know that a lot of things about school (testing, for instance) came easier to me than other kids, and that going on about how bored I often was (when behaving) sounds like bragging. (I say "when behaving" because I don't want to make you think I disliked school; I was frequently able to find it entertaining.)

So it was interesting to see this teacher playing to my own particular prejudice on the subject. I don't know whether she was right, and I'm not terribly impressed that when she asks kids themselves whether they want to go at their own pace — of course they answer in the affirmative; who wouldn't when asked whether they want school personally tailored to them? And while SHE believes she'd have no trouble teaching 20 kids at 20 different levels, I wonder how achievable that is for most teachers (I'm pretty sure I couldn't do it; but then I doubt I could teach).

But I found the piece interesting.

Change the system? ‘Aw, never mind …’

JUST IN CASE you were wondering, or knew and had forgotten, this is the way the political culture pushes back against change in South Carolina: Not with a bang, but with an “Aw, never mind.”
    Remember last week’s column, in which I offered, as a rare sign of hope, the gathering consensus that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control should be made more accountable by placing it directly under the elected chief executive? Well, ever since then, there’s been some backtracking.
Actually, it started even before that. While I was writing that column, I heard from my colleague Cindi Scoppe that Manufacturers Alliance chief Lewis Gossett was sending us an op-ed clarifying his position after The State’s Sammy Fretwell had reported that he and S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Otis Rawl were supporting legislative efforts to put DHEC in the governor’s Cabinet.
    Not having received that op-ed (and we still hadn’t received it a week later, when this page was composed), I just wrote around the business leaders, and focused on another Fretwell story that reported that the chairman of the DHEC board, Bo Aughtry, was supportive of the Cabinet idea. “It is worthy of serious consideration because I believe it would take some of the political influence out of decisions that really should not be political,” he had told Sammy.
    This was important because the board Mr. Aughtry chairs would be the very entity that would be surrendering power if the governor were in charge. I thought it reflected very well upon Mr. Aughtry.
On Wednesday, however, I began to worry when someone shared with me a memo that DHEC Commissioner Earl Hunter had sent internally on Friday, Jan. 16, which said in part (you can read it all on my blog):

On another note, several stories have been reported in The State newspaper and other media outlets recently regarding our agency being placed in the Governor’s cabinet. Two business organizations, the SC Chamber of Commerce and the SC Manufacturers Alliance were reported as being supportive. Information I have received from both of those organizations contradicts those storiesæ.æ.æ.æ. In addition, an article this week reported that our board chairman was also supportive. Chairman Aughtry has e-mailed and called me to let me know and let you know that he was misquoted. His statement to the media was simply that he felt that any change that would take politics out of the equation is worthy of consideration. He also let the reporter know that he was 100% supportive of the agency and its staff. As usual, however, that statement wasnt included in the report….

    Then, on Thursday, we received the op-ed piece from Bo Aughtry that you find on the opposite page. Please read it.
    He writes that “moving the agency into the governor’s Cabinet may be appropriate,” although “this is not my current position.” He does believe that “any move that will make DHEC decisions less subject to political pressures is worthy of consideration. Is this best accomplished by a move to Cabinet status? I do not know, but the objective is sound.”
    If that’s a denial, it’s a mushy one. But he delivers another message that I hear a lot more loudly and clearly: Earl Hunter is a great guy. His staff is very fine, too. The same is true of the folks on the governing board.
    And you know what? I agree. I don’t know all of those people, but I know Earl Hunter, and he is a great guy. He goes to my church. I truly believe he is a sincere advocate for the state’s health and environmental quality.
    But you know what else? This isn’t about how I feel about Earl Hunter. It’s about the fact that we have a system of government in this state that does not allow the public will to be expressed clearly and effectively through this or any other agency that does not report to the elected chief executive.
    Too often, the need for such accountability is expressed in punitive terms: A governor could fire an agency head who isn’t getting the job done. But an agency head who has the governor and his bully pulpit behind him will have a lot more political leverage for doing his job. Which is better: having the unelected board chairman “100% supportive of the agency and its staff,” or having the same support from the governor and his bully pulpit? As things stand, Mr. Hunter has no one at his back with any juice, but he does have to keep his board and 170 legislators happy, which is not a recipe for bold reform; it’s a recipe for caution.
    What I want is a system that gives South Carolinians someone to hold accountable for the fact that we take too much of the nation’s waste and are not as healthy as folks in other states. Such a system would also give the good, dedicated people at DHEC the political leverage to change the political dynamic in this state as it affects their mission.
    We’ve been here before. When this newspaper started pushing hard for a Cabinet system back in 1991, we ran smack into the fact that the then-commissioner of DHEC was also a terrific guy, named Michael Jarrett. He was enormously respected in state government circles, and rightly so. He spoke out strongly against making DHEC a Cabinet agency. He did so as he was fighting cancer, which took his life in 1992. Lawmakers listened, and did not make DHEC a Cabinet agency.
    We don’t need another reform debate based in how lawmakers feel about those serving in the current system, because in South Carolina, the reform argument always loses such debates. Once it becomes about ol’ so-and-so who has the job now, forget about change: Aw, never mind.
    The thing is, if Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aughtry were replaced tomorrow — something I am not advocating — it would not change one bit the fact that voters have no one they can hold responsible for improving our public health and environmental quality.
    Mr. Aughtry was right the first time, and he’s still right: Reform is “worthy of consideration,” because “the objective is sound.”

For more, please go to

Charles Austin calls it quits

Two days after our editorial "evaluation" of Columbia City Manager Charles Austin — in which we gave him a failing grade — and the same day as our editorial hitting his bosses, the city council, for their part in his failures, Mr. Austin announces that he will retire at the end of March. Here's what our colleagues down in the newsroom have about it:

Embattled City Manager Charles Austin announces retirement

From Staff Reports

Columbia City Manager Charles Austin announced his retirement today, effective March 31.

the past weeks, especially over the holidays, I have had the
opportunity to reflect my plans for the future," Austin said in a
statement. "After many discussions with my family and a great deal of
thought about this stage of life I now am in, I have decided to
announce my plans to retire as city manager on March 31.

"I have enjoyed my years of service with this great city and wish city council and staff my best."
Austin has been publicly criticized for more than a year for his handling of both the police department and city finances.

Council members would not comment but released this statement: "Today
the city manager informed us of his intention to retire at the end of
March. We appreciate his many years of service to our city as police
chief and city manager and accept his decision. We stress that it was
his decision with which city council concurred."

Austin took over as interim city manager on March 15, 2003, after City Council fired former city manager Leona Plaugh.

was fired for targeting certain high-ranking employees for demotion or
marginalization. She was sacked after it discovered she created a
four-page document that described employees as "hatchets," "beavers,"
"alligators" and "moats." It also listed them under categories
"destroy" and "conquer."

Plaugh lasted for 18 months.

Her predecessor, Mike Bierman, was manager for four years before walking out in frustration during his evaluation.

Miles Hadley managed the city for eight years before retiring.

And Gray Olive, Columbia's first manager, was in office for 19 years.

Steve Gantt will be the interim city manager.
More to come

That's all I know; just thought some of y'all would be interested.

Our evaluation of Charles Austin

Since Columbia's increasingly indecisive, divided city council is struggling (once again) to come up with an evaluation of City Manager Charles Austin — I believe the council is supposed to try to get back to it today — we thought we'd help by offering our own on today's editorial page:

Columbia’s woes
should earn Austin
a failing grade

COLUMBIA CITY Council is taking its time evaluating city manager Charles Austin, and there’s no telling what conclusion the divided body might reach.
    But as we consider the poor management of two key departments over the past couple of years, the picture is not good.
    Mr. Austin has done good things since being hired in 2003. With city administration in turmoil at the time, he restored a measure of public confidence and boosted employee morale. He took charge, streamlined meetings, removed small items from the council’s plate and attempted, unfortunately unsuccessfully, to stop council from meddling in daily operations.
    We had high hopes that Mr. Austin would draw on his successful 11-year stint as police chief and grow into the job of city manager. That hasn’t happened. He’s faced considerable challenges as the police department fell into disarray and the finance department proved dysfunctional and unaccountable.
    At one point, the once well-respected police department went three years without a chief, a position Mr. Austin appoints. Once a chief, Dean Crisp, was hired, he lasted three years before abruptly retiring. The department’s reputation took a big hit when officers were said to be cheating on an online recertification test. Mr. Crisp disciplined 21 officers by suspending most of them for two to five days, demoting several and putting all on probation. After Mr. Crisp’s retirement, interim Chief Harold Reaves reversed the suspensions. Inexplicably, Mr. Austin, who had signed off on Mr. Crisp’s decision, went along with Mr. Reaves’ reversal.
    In addition, a report last March by a five-member citizens panel said the department lacks adequate manpower and equipment and does a poor job of recruiting, training and retaining officers.
    The city has had worse problems in the finance department, which fell two years behind in closing its books and getting necessary audits. The council had to build budgets without knowing what the city had taken in or spent the previous year. The capital city has had to call on outside consultants and auditors as well as the S.C. Municipal Association for help. One audit showed the city lacked some internal controls to keep track of its money, failed to follow some of its own procedures and didn’t report financial information in a timely and accurate manner.
    Mr. Austin is trying to turn things around. He’s hired a permanent police chief, and the council has approved 14 new officers and a pay and retention plan. He has reconfigured the finance department, hired new staff and begun implementing new procedures. A search is under way for a finance director.
    But each forward step is matched by revelations of general sloppiness punctuated by outrageous blunders. Last week, we learned the city paid some bills at least twice for at least four years, didn’t regularly reconcile bank statements and lost millions due to poor investment decisions.
    Mr. Austin had never been a city manager when he took the position, and this often shows. Meanwhile, the City Council is utterly ineffective in holding him accountable. Unfortunately, the buck stops nowhere in the city’s council-manager form of government, with responsibility divided among the unelected manager, the weak mayor and the six other council members, four of whom represent single-member districts.
    But the fact is the city is in a mess, and it’s Mr. Austin whose evaluation is under discussion. He deserves a failing grade.

If I recall correctly, the last time around — in late 2007 — the council had trouble coming up with a written evaluation, and when it did, it was hand-written on a legal pad. Here's hoping for something a little more professional this time. But we're not holding our breath. Seven bosses with separate agendas can't hold one employee accountable, just as voters have no one to hold accountable, because they merely elect the seven (and of course, no one voter gets to vote for more than a minority of the seven). The structure of city government is made for this kind of confusion.

Today’s Gaza editorial, with other views

Keeping with my rule about making the most of anything I write, here's a blog version of the Gaza editorial I wrote for today's paper:

Ending the killing
is natural goal for
both U.S., Israel

THE DEATH OF INNOCENT women and children among the 40 Palestinians who were killed by Israeli mortar fire outside a United Nations school on Tuesday is a tragedy that should appall decent people everywhere, as it has done.

    Apart from the personal devastation that spreads from the loss of any human life, each death of a Palestinian noncombatant strengthens the terrorists of Hamas and their sponsors in Iran, and damages Israeli security by undermining what few vestiges of concern remain in foreign capitals for Israel and its legitimate interests. It’s a lose-lose-lose proposition for anyone who hopes for a day when Israelis and Palestinians coexist in peace.

    But what were the Israeli Defense Forces shooting at? Well, they were shooting back at the Hamas fighters who were firing mortars at IDF troops from the school compound. Why were the Hamas fighters shooting at the Israelis? Because the Israelis had entered the Gaza strip to attack Hamas. Why? Because Hamas was firing as many as 60 rockets a day into Israel with the intent of killing as many innocent Israeli civilians as possible. Why? Because Hamas and its Iranian sponsors are dedicated to the idea that Israel should cease to exist. Anything that furthers that goal, from killing Israelis to baiting Israel into killing innocent Palestinians whom Hamas fighters use as shields, is what Hamas will do.

    The best thing for Hamas, with its nihilist aims, is for the killing to continue. The best thing for Israel, and for its chief ally the United States, is for it to end as quickly as possible. At the same time, the deaths that have occurred on either side in recent days truly would have happened for naught if Israel does not achieve the realistic military goal of reducing Hamas’ ability to fire rockets from northern Gaza into Israel.

    Does this mean that foreign governments are wrong to press Israel for a cease-fire — that is, for a cease-fire that lasts longer than the three-hour one on Thursday? No, for the simple fact that Israel is the only combatant in this conflict that is susceptible to international pressure. It’s the only party that can be expected to respond rationally — “rationally” in a conventional modern, civilized sense — to diplomatic pressure.

    That’s why the United States must and will work not only for an end to this battle, but for an end to the overall Arab-Israeli conflict, which has morphed into a conflict between Israel and Iranian surrogates. But not even a short-term resolution to the battle for Gaza seems likely to come on the Bush administration’s watch.

    Speaking of that, the simple explanation for Israel’s incursion into Gaza is that it is doing so while it still has a staunch friend in the White House. As with most simple explanations, there is truth in that. At the same time, anyone who thinks the United States will no longer align itself with Israel’s long-term interests just because the president’s name is Barack Hussein Obama is as deluded as someone who assumes that this country will be vehemently anti-Palestinian because Rahm Emanuel’s father belonged to a Zionist insurgent group that fought (sometimes using terrorist tactics, for those of you with an inexhaustible appetite for moral ambiguity) to establish the modern state of Israel.

    Peace and security for Israel will continue to be a top priority for the United States under President Obama. And nothing will further that cause better — or frustrate Hamas and Iran more — than working through every diplomatic means to end quickly the killing of innocents on both sides.

Beyond that, as you know, we have no op-ed pages on Fridays these days. I've tried to compensate for that somewhat by choosing a syndicated op-ed piece to run in what would normally be the staff-written-column slot at the bottom of the page (unless we have a staff column that just has to run that day).

The two best such columns available to me yesterday were both about Gaza — this one from Nicholas Kristof, and this one from Charles Krauthammer. The argument in favor of the Kristof column is that it was leaned a little less pro-Israel than our editorial thereby providing some sort of "balance" to the editorial (not the sort of "balance" that frankly pro-Palestinian folks such as our own Michael Berg might offer, but more the kind you get from the mainstream of liberal thought).

The argument in favor of the Krauthammer piece (which was pro-Israel and then some), was that it was fresh and new. The Kristof piece had run in The New York Times that morning. The Krauthammer one was embargoed until Friday, and therefore would appear in The Washington Post at the same time it appeared in The State, and would appear nowhere else before that.

I have a prejudice toward fresh, especially when it's for a special spot such as this one, even more than for a run-of-the-mill op-ed appearance. (Add to that the fact that I'm still figuring out this business of putting syndicated pieces in a place normally reserved for staff opinion. The op-ed page is clearly a place for alternative opinion, especially that which differs with the editorial board's view — as is the Letters to the Editor portion of the editorial page, by long tradition, as is the cartoon space; Robert Ariail is NOT a board member. But when the column is running in a space normally reserved for board member's personal views, is it more logical and consistent to have a differing, "balancing" view — especially since there's no op-ed that day — or one that is closer to the board position? As I say, I haven't decided that. But in this case, the freshness argument was enough for me.)

But rather than deprive you of the Kristof piece, I put it online, and put a box in the paper letting you know it was there. My little way of having it both ways. Yours, too.

Today’s Will column, with links

The George Will column I put on today's page is one of his oblique ones — the closest thing to a point in it is what I said in the headline, which is that in a National Endowment for Humanities project, of all places, Mr. Will seems to have found what he regards as "A government program worth the money."

But the column caused me to look up some of the artworks he describes, and I enjoyed doing that. Of course, I couldn't reproduce them on the page itself, but I can run the column here with links, to make it easier for you to look at them yourself. Enjoy:

The Washington Post
In Winslow Homer’s 1865 painting “The Veteran in a New Field,” a farmer, bathed in sunshine, his back to the viewer, his Union uniform jacket cast on the ground, harvests wheat with a single-bladed scythe. That tool was out of date, and Homer first depicted the farmer wielding a more modern implement. Homer then painted over it, replacing it with what evokes a timeless symbol of death — the grim reaper’s scythe. The painting reminds viewers how much Civil War blood was shed, as at Gettysburg, in wheat fields.
    Homer’s painting is one of 40 works of art that the National Endowment for Humanities is distributing, in 24-by-36-inch reproductions, with teaching guides, to all primary and secondary schools and libraries that ask for them. About one-third of them already have done so, according to Bruce Cole, the NEH’s chairman.
    So as Washington’s dreariest year in decades sags to an end — a year in which trillion-dollar improvisations that will debase the dollar have been bracketed by a stimulus that did not stimulate and a rescue that will prolong automakers’ drownings — at the end of this feast of folly, consider something rarer than rubies. It is a 2008 government program that costs next to nothing — $2.6 million this year; a rounding error in the smallest of the bailouts. And “Picturing America” adds to the public stock of something scarce — understanding of the nation’s past and present.
    The 40 works of art include some almost universally familiar ones — John Singleton Copley’s 1768 portrait of a silversmith named Paul Revere; Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 “Washington Crossing the Delaware”; Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze relief sculpture “Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth Regiment Memorial” on Boston Common. But “Picturing America” is not, Cole takes pains to insist, “the government’s ‘top 40.’ ” Forty times 40 other selections of art and architecture could just as effectively illustrate how visual works are revealing records of the nation’s history and culture, and how visual stimulation can spark the synthesizing of information by students.
    The colorful impressionism of Childe Hassam’s flag-filled painting “Allies Day, May 1917” captures America’s waxing nationalism a month after entry into World War I. And it makes all the more moving the waning of hope captured in Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother.” This haunting image of a destitute 32-year old pea picker, a mother of seven, is a springboard into John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.
    One of the 40 images in “Picturing America” is more timely than Cole could have suspected when the project was launched in February. It is a photograph of Manhattan’s Chrysler Building.
    Built between 1926 and 1930 — between the giddy ascent of the ’20s stock market and the Crash — this art deco monument to the might of America’s automobile industry is decorated with motifs of machines and streamlining. There are winged forms of a Chrysler radiator cap; an ornamental frieze replicates a band of hubcaps. The stainless steel of the famous spire suggests the signature of the automobile industry in its salad days — chrome.
    To understand the animal spirits that drove New York’s skyscraper competition — the Chrysler Building was the world’s tallest for less than a year, until the Empire State Building was completed 202 feet higher — is to understand an era. Two eras, actually — the one that built the building, and ours, which has reasons to be reminded of the evanescence of seemingly solid supremacies.
    After seven years of service, Cole, the longest-serving chairman in the 43-year history of the NEH, is leaving to head the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge. America has thousands of museums, including the Studebaker National Museum (South Bend, Ind.), the Packard Museum (Dayton, Ohio) — yes, Virginia, there was a time when automobile companies were allowed to perish — the Hammer Museum (Haines, Alaska), the Mustard Museum (Mount Horeb, Wis.), and the Spam Museum (Austin, Minn.) featuring the sort-of-meat, not the Internet annoyance. There is, however, no museum devoted to the most important political event that ever happened, here or anywhere else — the American Revolution.
    Cole says there will be one, at Valley Forge. It will be built mostly by private money, for an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the sum of public money currently being lavished on corporations. Perhaps a subsequent iteration of “Picturing America” will feature a thought-provoking photograph of the gleaming towers that currently house, among other things, General Motors’ headquarters. Looming over Detroit’s moonscape desolation, the building is called the Renaissance Center. Really.

Write to Mr. Will at

Accidents WILL happen

Don't take that headline as me brushing off the seriousness of the problem. Just take it as an opportunity to quote Elvis Costello.

We'll have a correction on tomorrow's editorial page for the second day in a row. I can't remember the last time that happened.

When I first came to editorial in 1994, I thought it a bit much that ALL editors in the department read proofs every day. It didn't seem efficient. By the time I became editor in '97, I had come to value the process for two reasons: It kept everyone plugged in and gave them ownership of what was on the pages (the great danger in newspaper work, since so many things happen at once, is to be so caught up in what you're doing that you miss the overall picture). And it made the editorial pages the cleanest in the paper.

The value of it is underlined in circumstances such as this, when one person is both doing the initial pre-production edit of the copy, and is then the only one reading proofs. The error in Sunday's editorial (corrected on today's page) is sufficiently complicated and esoteric that I can't say I would have caught it myself even if fully staffed, although the initial writing error — the conflation of two projects in the town of Lexington; one public, the other private — is almost certainly the product of the writer working at quadruple pace to crank out editorials to leave behind.

But today's error simply would not have happened if — as was the case not too long ago — there were five senior editors reading proofs. Instead of just me, and I'm the same one who read it on the front end.

Yes, thank you — I know Harvey Peeler introduced the roll-call-voting proposal, not his brother Bob. I know Bob's not in the Senate. I know both guys, and know the difference between them. Got it. Nobody else needs to call to inform me. (Someone just came into my office to tell me while I was typing this.) Thanks. The correction will be in the paper tomorrow.

Now can I get back to doing my best to put out the rest of these pages without errors?

(And oh, yeah — I still feel like total crud, Ferris. I've got a call in to my doctor to see if he'll call in an antibiotic. My chest hurts from the congestion. Oh, didn't I mention that? Yeah, the stomach crud became respiratory crud over the weekend. Still running low fever each night, coughing all day. Taking all sorts of drugs for the symptoms — Oh, look, it's time to take them again — yippee!)

Detroit bailout editorial

Here’s the editorial I wrote for today’s paper about the Detroit bailout deal Congress and the White House have been working away on so busily this week:

The more we hear,
the worse Detroit
bailout sounds

CONGRESS IN RECENT days has made two things plain with regard to the Detroit Three automakers (still known as the “Big Three,” although they no longer dominate the marketplace):

• It is determined to do something, and to do it right away.
• It doesn’t really know what to do.

A couple of days ago, the plan seemed simple enough: Give automakers $15 billion or so — instead of the $34 billion they’d asked for — just to delay the inevitable until March. That approach was at least plainly and obviously unappealing. Essentially, we’d be throwing $15 billion into a hole, and accomplishing nothing other than kicking the can down the road.

In the last couple of days, as Democrats negotiate with the White House to try to shape a deal that enough Senate Republicans will vote for — realizing that some Republicans will never go for it — the “plan” has gotten more complicated. Note that we put “plan” in quotation marks, because this seems a dubious application of the word. “Plan” suggests coherence; it implies that we know where we are going. What was shaping up as this editorial was written seemed undeserving of the term.

Oh, but it would all be guided by a “car czar” to be named later — by George W. Bush, who will be out of office next month. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has hinted that the czar would not need to be replaced once Barack Obama is president, thereby leading to speculation that the czar would be someone the president-elect had agreed to, we sorta kinda hope.

Presumably all this would be spelled out more specifically by the time Congress actually votes on it, possibly today (or possibly as hastily as last night; that was unclear as of this writing), but a sober period of reflection before the government takes a huge stake in a collapsing industry seemed not to be part of the “plan.”

Here’s an interesting sidenote: Even as the management at General Motors — management that we are assured by the board would not change, because the board doesn’t think it needs to change — eagerly awaited (temporary) salvation, Ford Motor Co. announced that it would not seek short-term federal aid, because it doesn’t face the same “near-term liquidity issue” as G.M. and Chrysler. That actually makes Ford sound like a better investment than any company that wants a bailout.

We understand that a collapse of the erstwhile Big Three would have a terrible effect on real people and real businesses throughout this country. But we also know — this has been more than amply demonstrated — that the Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers have been locked in a mutual death embrace for some time, operating under contracts that make it impossible to thrive. Meanwhile, we’ve seen foreign carmakers operate here in South Carolina and elsewhere across the South, producing good jobs and weathering the current economic downturn better than the U.S.-based companies.

We wish we were confident that Washington had a coherent vision of how to turn the U.S. auto industry around, making it profitable and putting American automakers back out in the vanguard of innovation, making the cars that we will want (and the planet will need) tomorrow. That would be worth investing in.

But we view with suspicion any deal that spends our money to keep the U.S. auto industry going on its present course, especially when said deal is worked out in a rush between a lame-duck Congress and president.

My fan mail from the governor’s office

Just wanted to make sure you didn’t miss the note of appreciation I received from the governor’s office for my Sunday column. It ran as a letter to the editor today:

Warthen column damages credibility
    When the facts aren’t on some people’s side, they try and change them to help win an argument. Unfortunately, that’s a model growing in popularity among this paper’s editorial writers.
    I’m writing of Brad Warthen’s latest Sunday rant, in which he lashes out at the governor over a recent column he penned for The Wall Street Journal.
    Congress is contemplating spending another $150 billion to $300 billion to “bail out” states. Every penny of that money will have to be borrowed, from places such as Social Security, or our grandkids, or such nations as China (to whom we already owe $500 billion). The governor is arguing that enough is enough, and that we have to quit piling on debt, no matter how well-intentioned the spending may be.
    You’d know all of this for yourself had Mr. Warthen possessed the courage to print Gov. Sanford’s column alongside his, and let you judge both pieces for yourself. Not doing so is the latest example of a growing lack of credibility on Mr. Warthen’s part, from endorsing one senator despite noting his history of flouting the law, to, on his blog, likening a school choice supporter to bin Laden.
    This editorial page was once respected as a voice for good government. Now, thanks to Brad’s childish screeds, fewer and fewer people are reading.

Communications Director
Office of the Governor

Editor’s note: The State published the governor’s column on the Web. To read it and Mr. Warthen’s column again, go to

This letter put me in an awkward spot. It was sent to Cindi, but she’s out this week, so when he got her autoreply to that effect, Joel sent the letter to me. And the problem was that the letter needed editing, and it’s hard to work with the writer of a critical letter when you are the subject of the criticism. As editor, there were a couple of things I needed to accomplish:

  • I needed to make sure it was factually correct, so that when he criticized me or the paper for doing XYZ, XYZ was actually what we did. As you can tell from our letters on any given day, we thrive on being criticized. But I draw the line at taking criticism for something we did not DO, because that would give the readers an incorrect impression of what we went to all the trouble of putting into the paper to start with. For instance, when a writer says, "You were wrong to claim that Sen. Hiram Blowhard is a horse thief," but we didn’t say Sen. Blowhard is a horse thief, I’m not running it. If I DID run it, readers would naturally assume, "Well, they wouldn’t have run the letter criticizing them for calling him that if they hadn’t called him that." Unfortunately, the thing that Joel was misrepresenting about us was fuzzier than that. He was trying to make readers think that we had somehow done the governor wrong by not running his column in the dead-tree version of the paper. He was saying this despite the fact that he knows our standard is NOT to use that precious space for guest columns that have run elsewhere (every piece we run like that is another piece that was offered exclusively to us that we CAN’T run). The average Joe on the street could have made the mistake of saying what he said in the letter; he knew better. He also knew that we went to the trouble to publish the governor’s piece online (you’ll recall that in the past I’ve made the point here that our online version is the perfect place for columns by gummint officials — who send us a lot of submissions — that don’t meet our standards for the paper), promoting it from the newspaper on the day it ran, and providing a link to it in the footer of my column about it (why? because I wanted people to go back and read it). But Joel insisted upon accusing us of wrongdoing on this point, so I eventually shrugged and let it go — and resolved to state the fact of the matter in a neutrally-worded editor’s note (knowing, of course, that lots of readers will think publishing on the Web is inadequate; but at least this way they had the facts before them). There were other factual points that were easier to resolve — such as his originally having claimed that we acknowledged Jake Knotts was "a criminal" in endorsing him; I persuaded him to change that wording. But the business of how we had handled the governor’s piece was too central to his point.
  • Then there was the "courage" thing. I never could persuade him that some other word would make more sense to the reader — "courtesy" would have worked; even "decency" would have worked. I mean, what is the reader supposed to think I was afraid of? I wrote a whole column about the governor’s column, told you how to go read the governor’s column, provided links to it, but I was afraid of it? But I guess he thought I was just trying to censor his criticism of me rather than helping it be a more logical letter. So I let that go, too.

Anyway, we spent so many e-mails going back and forth on those points that I never even got around to such minor things as: When you say "the facts aren’t on some people’s side, they try and change them to help win an argument," and you suggest I did that, what do you have in mind? Name one fact I cited that was wrong. But it wasn’t worth it.

"Courage" is a word that is often misapplied to what I do. Truth be told, there are people who read a column such as the one Joel was criticizing and praise me for having the "courage" to write it — but that is utterly ridiculous. "Courage" doesn’t come into it, either way. I mean, what do I have to fear besides dealing with hassles such as that above? But I’ve heard that about columns I’ve written about governors going all the way back to Carroll Campbell. People seem to think I’m tempting the gods or something criticizing these guys. I don’t know.

What I DO know is that if you want to see courage, read Dr. Ray Greenberg’s piece on Sunday. Finally, we have the heads of major agencies having the guts to speak out about how we’ve hocked our future by failing to invest in the critical infrastructure of our society. State agency heads just don’t write columns like that, but he did.

And of course, the governor came down on him over it. Oh, he did it politely. His response (which Joel sent me in the same e-mail with his letter, and which I ran the same day as his letter, which makes his complaint about our not running the governor’s last column seem even more off-point — but I digress) was of course more polite than Joel’s. It’s too important to the governor to be seen as above the fray to write anything like what Joel did. At the same time, a public university president who dares to write anything like that motivated the governor to take him down a notch personally. Other uppity agency heads will take note. (The governor can’t do anything to Dr. Greenberg or to most agency heads, but that’s not the point — most of them don’t want to get into a spitting match with the gov; better to lay low.)

A couple of quick points about the gov’s piece about Dr. Greenberg (aside from the fact that his overall point was to defend the bankrupt notion of arbitrary spending caps):

  1. His utterly laughable attempt to be condescending to the MUSC president: "I certainly don’t begrudge him that view. Like any agency head, his
    role is solely to look out for his corner of state government and the
    tax dollars that are coming his way. On the other hand, we in the
    governor’s office have a very different role in looking after the
    entire state." Go back and read the piece by Dr. Greenberg, who runs an institution of higher learning that employs 11,000. Look at the concerns that the doctor expresses, and compare them to the narrow ideological points espoused by the governor, and judge which of them you believe is really thinking about the good of "the entire state."
  2. Second, the governor cites his favorite misleading statistic. The original text of his piece said, "Government in South Carolina costs about 140 percent of the national average, largely due to an unaccountable and inefficient structure." That is not true. I was able to make it technically (although still very misleadingly) true by the insertion of a single word: "State government in South Carolina costs about 140 percent of the national average, largely due to an unaccountable and inefficient structure." What’s the diff? State government in SC costs more per capita than state government in other states because of our almost unique system of the state performing lots of functions that local governments perform in other states — such as road maintenance, and owning and operating school buses. If you look at government overall, adding in our pathetically anemic local governments, we actually spend less than other states do on state and local government — or at worst, around the average (there are different ways to calculate it; some ways we’re right at the average, some ways we’re well below). A very important distinction, but don’t expect to hear this governor acknowledging it; the fiction that we — the state that won’t maintain its roads or guard its prisons or support its colleges nearly as adequately as other states do — spend too much on government is what he’s all about. Anyway, keep these two facts in mind, as Cindi explained in a recent column: We pay less per capita in state and local taxes than most of the country, and we pay less as a percentage of our income than most of the country. 

One last note, and this is one I DO deserve to be kicked for. The governor misspelled Dr. Ray’s name throughout his piece, and I’m just noticing it. Yes, it was the governor’s mistake, but I’m the one who had it last, so it’s my fault for not catching it.

Colombian FTA editorial

Our Colombia Free Trade Agreement editorial today (which, as with the Joe Lieberman piece, you should be able to tell I wrote) was based in so many sources that I thought it would be nice to give you a version with links here. So here you go:

Congress should
pass Colombian
Free Trade pact

WHAT DO The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all have in common? They all agree with The State: All say Congress should pass the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.
    “Pass the Pact,” says The Post. “Seal the deal,” says the L.A. Times. The Journal says the pact offers President-elect Barack Obama a “Lame Duck Opportunity” — tell Congress to agree to a deal with President Bush to link a Detroit bailout to passage of this and other free trade agreements before the end of the year: “U.S. business and the rest of the world would applaud…. President Bush could do the heavy lifting.”
    Perhaps most impressive of all — it’s certainly caused some buzz in the blogosphere — is this opening sentence of the New York Times piece: “We don’t say it all that often, but President Bush is right: Congress should pass the Colombian free-trade agreement now.”
    That puts The Times, uncharacteristically as it notes, on the opposite side of liberal Democrats in Congress — and in disagreement with Mr. Obama’s stated position. But as the broad consensus among editorial boards indicates, pretty much any one who looks at this issue who was not recently elected with the help of Big Labor sees the need to pass the pact.
    Why? It’s common sense. Most Colombian goods already flow into the United States duty-free. This agreement would open Colombia to U.S. products, made by U.S. workers.
    It also would, perhaps most importantly, solidify our relationship with a loyal ally in a region where we have too few friends. Not passing it would give the back of our hand to a country roughly surrounded by nations ruled by people who mean the United States ill.
    It’s ironic that Democrats would oppose this agreement while Mr. Bush supports it. As The New York TimesNicholas Kristof wrote in a column that ran on our op-ed page in April: “For seven years, Democrats have rightfully complained that President Bush has gratuitously antagonized the world, exasperating our allies and eroding America’s standing and influence.
    “But now the Democrats are doing the same thing on trade.”
    So what’s the argument against the pact? Opponents say the Colombian government has been complicit in violence against union leaders in that country. Some point to recent indictments of top officials for colluding with right-wing paramilitaries who have terrorized unionists. But such indictments actually argue for the agreement, demonstrating how President Alvaro Uribe’s government has cracked down on such violence. Last year, violence against union members dropped below the rate for the general public.
    Some, ironically echoing an argument used by John McCain in a different context, say the agreement should not pass this year because Sen. Obama was elected while opposing it and “elections have consequences.” But as we noted in endorsing Sen. McCain, “Few will cast their ballots on the basis of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement,” and indeed, some who disagreed with our endorsement took us to task for even bringing up a topic so irrelevant to their preference for Sen. Obama.
    The president-elect, and congressional Democrats, are perfectly free to re-examine their positions on this issue. They should do so, and listen to the many independent voices that say they should pass this pact now.

Yesterday was a good day, ’cause I got to write about Joe


What with my department being down from four editorial writers (we call ’em "associate editors") to two, I’m having to write more editorials myself these days.

That means more editorials on national and international subjects. It’s best for metro subjects to be handled by Warren Bolton, and state topics by Cindi Scoppe. Those are their areas of expertise. That just leaves the rest of the world to me.

It also means you’ll read more editorials with UnParty themes, because that’s what I’m interested in. Hey, you want editorials from me, I’m going to write them whenever possible on stuff that interests me, Al Franken. Or whoever I am.

Hence today’s piece about Joe Lieberman. John McCain robbed me of the chance to write lots about my man Joe during the election when he picked You Know Who from the frozen tundra. Think what a fine time I would have had.

But this week’s events gave me the chance to write about Joe anyway. And that’s a good thing.

The proper emotion, the seemly sentiment


Yesterday morning, looking for art to go with today’s lead editorial, I picked the photo above. Along the way I had briefly considered the ones back on this post, but this one worked best worked best for my purposes in terms of expression and composition — it worked perfectly in terms of the size and shape I needed.

I hesitated to use if for only one reason: He looked so extremely YOUNG — far, far too young to be president. As young as his campaign workers that I wrote about back in this column in the summer of ’07. It brought to mind something I said to my wife recently about JFK: He was several years younger than Obama when elected, but I remember him as looking older and more mature. Is that because I was a child at the time, or did he just look more grown-up manly. Was it something about that generation — they had been to war, and that does something to a man’s face. They were the Daddy generation (in fact, somewhat older than MY dad, who was too young for WWII). My wife pointed out something I should have realized: The prednisone that Kennedy took for his back problems caused his face to fill out; before that, HE looked like a skinny, gawdy kid. True enough, I suppose.

So I hesitated to use a photo with our congratulatory editorial that in my own mind raised one of the reasons I preferred McCain, on a gut level: Obama is to me something far more dramatic than the first "black" president (a distinction regarding which I have my own rather pedantic doubts). He is the first president younger than me. Quite a bit younger. So it is that, not wanting to express doubts about the new president through my choice of a photo, I paused. But nothing else I saw was nearly as suitable, so I went with it.

Imagine my dismay last night when, flipping channels on the boob tube, I saw a news program use the very same photo quite prominently. Then imagine my further concern this morning to see that our newsroom had decided to, in the hyperbolic expression that many readers use, "splash" that photo across six columns on the front page this morning. This coincidence give grist to those who believe there is collusion between news and editorial, when the truth is that I see these things when you, the reader, do.

These "coincidences" cause me to reflect on what Tom Wolfe once said about the news media, which was to call us the Victorian Gentleman, constantly striving to evince the proper emotion, the exact right tone for the moment — which causes us to make the very same decisions simultaneously, without the slightest effort at collusion or even awareness of what each other are doing. This picture is an illustration of that phenomenon. It said "winner" better than any other photo, so everyone picked it.

By the way, my second choice of the day was the one below that I used on the op-ed page, with the David Broder column. Obama’s expression isn’t nearly as good — he almost looks apprehensive — but he has that "eyes on the distant horizon" look, and the air Biden has of presenting him to the world (Behold, your new president!) was just too good, too apt, to pass up.

So on the whole, this Victorian Gent is satisfied.


Our congressional endorsements today

Yesterday, I wrote the editorial that I dread each election year — the one dealing with Congress. (Actually, some years we do separates on the individual districts, but this year I decided to do it all in one piece — like ripping off a Band-Aid suddenly.) I put it off until it became the VERY LAST endorsement we did. I’m the one who had to write it, and I took advantage of being the editor to keep postponing it.

Now, before anyone gets all huffy about my dismissive attitude — I think Joe Wilson is a really nice guy who tries hard, and I know that Jim Clyburn is deeply and passionately committed to his constituents. But they are both, to me, emblematic of what is wrong with Congress and with our system for apportioning districts.

They are both deeply committed to the agendas of their respective political parties, and you know how I feel about that. Joe is just breathlessly eager to implement GOP initiatives, and Mr. Clyburn (I don’t feel I know him well enough to call him "Jim"), as the Majority Whip, is the very embodiment of Nancy Pelosi’s House. And I don’t like any of that one bit.

So why don’t I do what Doug always says I should do, and endorse the challengers? Because I have too great a sense of responsibility. (As you know, I’ll make a futile gesture with my own personal vote, but I wouldn’t feel right indulging myself that way on behalf of the newspaper.) For all their partisan flaws, Messrs. Wilson and Clyburn are obviously more knowledgeable and better qualified than the people running against them. I have the greatest respect, admiration and appreciation for young Rob Miller’s service as a United States Marine. (As some of you know, the very first thing I wanted to be as a kid — and one thing I could never be, for medical reasons — is a Marine. So the Corps has a particular mystique for me.) But I can’t see where serving as a captain in the Corps has equipped Mr. Miller for the very different duties of a congressman. I’d like to see some other things on his resume — such as service in some lower elective offices. I have a great reluctance to send people off to Washington before we’ve had a chance to see how they serve in office a little closer to home, where we can keep more of an eye on them.

And from what little I’ve seen of the lady running against Mr. Clyburn, I am deeply unimpressed. Watch the debate on ETV if you doubt me.

Now John Spratt is a somewhat different story. I’ve never been conflicted about endorsing him, because he seems to have so much competence, and his partisanship has been far more muted than either of the aforementioned gentlemen.

Those three are the only districts we endorse in, because those are the areas where we deliver the paper.

Anyway, here’s the endorsement(s).