Bubba to Britain?
As time runs out and Bill Clinton pulls heartstrings in nostalgia-laden speeches at Democratic fundraisers, details of his post-presidential plans are slowly emerging. First came reports that Clinton might not be spending much time at the family’s Chappaqua estate. Last month, the president said he wanted to stay with his mother-in-law, Dorothy Rodham, in Little Rock while working on his library. Now the London press is reporting that Clinton is looking for a place to live while teaching at Oxford. Tony Blair is said to have launched security preparations for the president’s arrival in the English countryside.
Meanwhile, Clinton is reported to be taking steps to ease the painful return to private life among his inner circle. Soon after he was sworn in in 1993, Clinton signed a tough executive order requiring administration officials to wait five years after departing government before lobbying any federal agency for which they previously had any responsibility. The order also forbids lobbying for a foreign country. (Before Clinton took office, a ban on lobbying by former administration officials required only a one-year “cooling-off period.”)
Washington being what it is, this effort to “uphold the highest possible ethical standards” didn’t mean much, since any former official can sit in a K Street office hatching lobbying strategies and send out junior partners to do the dirty work.
Even so, it’s been an annoyance, and now Clinton, who has caused his inner circle so much distress and embarrassment — not to mention legal expense — during the Lewinsky mess, is reported by a White House spokesperson to be reviewing the executive order with an eye toward relaxing its inconvenient details.
Dubya’s Lethal Lessons
Death & Texas
People surely mistake the growing public obsession with the death-row lottery as some sort of precursor to reform and abolition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only one state, Illinois, now has a moratorium on executions and another, Maryland, is considering one. Meanwhile, the tumbrels are rolling! Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, 625 people have been executed, 133 of them in Texas while George W. Bush has been governor. Illustrating the public’s confusion on the matter, a recent Texas poll found that 55 percent of respondents think the death penalty is unfair, but 75 percent of them approve of it.
“We need the death penalty,” one woman told CNN after Gary Graham’s execution last week. “We need to teach our children… uh, our children are all spoiled rotten…” Still, capital punishment is an expensive form of education, according to one Duke University study, which found that more than $1 billion has been spent in the U.S. since 1976 to administer the death penalty.
Public executions may come even sooner than we think — i.e., when the first TV reporter worms his or her way into a witness room and shoots the execution with a hidden camera in the manner of the infamous Daily News photo of Ruth Schneider being electrocuted in the 1920s. If the ratings are good, we might even see a new hit show, Nonsurvivor, with replays of killings around the world, from stonings in Saudi Arabia to hangings in Singapore to dismemberment in Afghanistan.
Gambling With Workers’ 401(k)s
Welcome to the Fund House
The most significant story of the U.S. economy during the Clinton years is not the roaring bull market, but the deliberate dismantling of the pension system conducted under the watchful and approving eyes of the highest officials of the administration and their lapdogs in the labor unions.
Using the trillions of dollars held in trust for workers to build a mutual fund house of cards must amount to the biggest economic ripoff in U.S. history. To get an idea of just how America’s new pension system, the 401(k), can be misused, consider a recent class-action lawsuit brought, under the RICO laws, against New York Life Insurance Co. by James A. Mehling, a respected former vice president of the the firm. It’s seldom that top executives emerge from the boardroom to spill their guts in public, so the story is important.
The suit, filed in federal district court in Philadelphia, charges the insurance giant with manipulating its employees’ retirement plans, and then sacking Mehling for trying to blow the whistle. (The company denies the charges.) Mehling alleges that, beginning in 1991, New York Life’s top officials used employee retirement funds as seed money for separate mutual funds New York Life was attempting to launch. The suit claims that during 1994 and 1995, hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned into these MainStay Institutional Funds. It also alleges that siphoning was key to the existence of the mutual funds, since the fees charged to investors were too small to cover costs, and the funds’ market performance was spotty.
“For example,” the complaint states, “when outside investors in the new International Equity [a mutual fund], who had held a majority of the assets… began fleeing the fund in 1997-1998, the defendants pumped tens of millions of dollars in pension plan assets into the fund to keep it from collapsing. During one year, when half of the fund’s outsidemoney left… the pension plans went from having a $40 million stake in the fund, which represented 38 percent of the fund’s assets, to having over $100 million, or 75 percent, of the fund’s assets.”
According to attorney Eli Gottesdiener of Sprenger & Lang, the law firm bringing the suit, “To the extent that the MainStay funds have been able to attract outside investors at all, it is largely because New York Life, by using the plans’ assets, was able to create the illusion that the market thought the funds were good investments.”
In certain of the funds, 80 to 90 percent of the assets came from the pension plans, according to the complaint. “In aggregate, one half of the money in the funds comes from the plans,” said Jennifer C. Jaff, another Sprenger & Lang attorney.
The New Global Security Market
During the Reagan years, anti-Communists in Washington spoke glowingly of the French Foreign Legion, which became notorious during the Algerian war for bathtub tortures, along with Latin American and Asian death-squad paramilitaries as models for new forces to fight dirty wars without getting Americans killed. In their view, the contra war in Nicaragua was an experiment for future low-intensity guerrilla conflicts. In the process, it could correct errors made in Indochina by the CIA’s Air America and other failed enterprises.
Thus, under the Reagan Doctrine’s aim to export American-style democracy abroad, training of foreign armies became a key part of U.S. foreign policy. To that end, U.S. Special Forces work with about 100 countries every year. To keep up with demand at a time when the government is downsizing, private paramilitary companies have sprung up like weeds. In areas where U.S. forces are stretched thin, they provide security, military advice, training, logistics support, policing, drug interdiction, and intelligence. Companies sell such services to third-world countries, nongovernmental organizations, and even industrial nations that have standing armies.
Sierra Leone, for example, hired a British outfit, Gurkha Security Guards, in 1995 and later a South African company, Executive Outcomes, to train its forces. In 1997, deposed president Ahmed Kabbah employed the British firm Sandline International to arm and train his own troops. Currently in Africa, the State Department and the Pentagon have retained three companies — MPRI, DFIU International, and Logicon — to help out. Revenues for the global security market are projected to rise from $55.6 billion in 1990 to $202 billion in 2010.
Losing Peter, Gaining Carol
Sex Change in the Chapel
The sex- and race-baiting Southern Baptists could take a lesson from the archbishop of Canterbury, who recently gave his blessing for Reverend Peter Stone, a transgendered country vicar, to become Reverend Carol Stone.
Reverend Stone says he lived through two marriages and raised a daughter who is now 18 while concealing the fact that he felt like a woman. He plans to undergo a sex-change operation, take a month off, and then resume vicarage duties as a female. He also hopes to carry on as a territorial chaplain in the British army.
“We do not always feel our bodies fit us,” the archbishop explained in a sermon to Stone’s congregation, according to the London Telegraph. “Some of us feel too fat or too thin. How would you feel if your body felt totally wrong?”
Following the archbishop’s message, a member of the congregation rose and declared, “We loved him as Peter, and as Carol we will give him our full support.” The congregation broke into applause.
Elvis on the Line
During Jimmy Carter’s tenure as president, Elvis Presley was so pleased to have a Southerner in the White House that he used to phone regularly, Carter’s former chief of staff Hamilton Jordan recalled in a speech last week at West Virginia University. “Trouble was, Elvis was usually pretty loaded,” Jordan explained. “It got to the point that the president would just hand off the phone to me or whoever was around. Elvis never caught on.”
Additional reporting: Kate Cortesi