Miracle worker.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Sept. 4 2005 4:05 PM

Miracle Worker

Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept.

80_thehasbeen

Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005

You Go to War with the FEMA You Have, Not the FEMA You Might Wish to Have: At last, a tiny bit of good news.If only the feds could get the power back on so people could appreciate it....

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Witt and Wisdom: Bush may be pleased with "Brownie,"  but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco knows the right man to call when disaster strikes. On Saturday, she hired James Lee Witt to help her state turn things around. Imagine what Witt could do if he still had FEMA behind him. ... 9:32 A.M.

Friday, Sept. 2, 2005

The one that got away
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The one that got away

Witt's End: It will take awhile to sort out the nature vs. neglect debate in New Orleans. Bush is taking a great deal of heat for ranching while Katrina flooded, and for the federal government's sluggish response to a crisis of epic proportions. Bush defenders say you can't blame a Category 5 hurricane on him. One of Bush's European critics suggested that even hurricanes could be the President's fault.

During his last great national disaster, on 9/11, the Bush White House was quick to point out that the Director of Central Intelligence was a Clinton holdover, George Tenet. This disaster, it's worth remembering the Clinton man Bush should have kept: longtime FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

What must make this irony especially painful for Bush is that he knew how good Witt was. In fact, Bush knew it coming and going. When he was helping run his father's 1992 re-election campaign, he saw the miserable federal response from FEMA when it was still a dumping ground for political hacks. As a governor, Bush was so impressed by the agency's renaissance under Witt that he singled him out for praise in his first presidential debate with Al Gore:

You know, as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe. I can remember the fires that swept Parker County, Texas. I remember the floods that swept our state. I remember going down to Del Rio, Texas. I have to pay the administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis.

That debate moment is remembered more for Al Gore's faulty claim moments later that he, too, had visited those fires in Texas with Witt. Gore had been to disasters with Witt, but not that one, and the Bush campaign spun the exchange to persuade the press that Gore was somehow a serial exaggerator. To compound the irony, FEMA was actually a poster child of Gore's reinventing government crusade – so that a compliment Bush was indirectly paying the Vice President ended up helping seal Gore's demise.

Got Aid?: Such was George W. Bush's luck in those days. According to the transcript, Bush went on to say, "The only thing I knew was to got aid as quickly as possible with state and federal help, and to put my arms around the man and his family and cry with them."

Clinton, too, had learned the importance of disasters, coming and going. He blamed his 1980 defeat on Jimmy Carter's botched handling of a crisis that dumped boatloads of Cuban refugees on Arkansas. In 1992, he watched another President fumble a series of crises, from Hurricane Andrew to the riots in South Central Los Angeles.

During the L.A. riots, I spent three days holed up in a hotel trying to boil a dozen advisers' input into a Clinton speech on race, looting, and presidential neglect. The view from my hotel room: the French Quarter in New Orleans. Clinton began the speech by saying, "They wrote me something to say here, but I threw it away" – then proceeded to give a typically brilliant sermon on race in America.

Clinton knew that in times of crisis, he didn't need a speechwriter – he needed James Lee Witt. As governor, Clinton had put Witt in charge of reinventing Arkansas's emergency management system. When he became President, Clinton not only brought Witt with him, but elevated FEMA to Cabinet level.

Before Witt came along, FEMA was a lackluster agency under abysmal political management. As Donald Kettl of Brookings has written, the old FEMA was a laughing stock: "Every hurricane, earthquake, tornado and flood, the joke went, brought two disasters: one when the event occurred, and the second when FEMA arrived."

People in Washington assumed that since Witt came from Arkansas, and they'd never heard of him, he must be another hack. But in disaster after disaster, he turned the agency's reputation completely around. Before Rudy Giuliani, there was James Lee Witt.

Clinton kept Witt busy: In eight years, he declared a record 348 disasters. As they proved in Oklahoma City and countless other occasions, Clinton and Witt understood that if there's ever a time people need a federal government and a President, it's in times of disaster.

Hack Attack: In 2001, despite his praise for Witt, Bush returned to the old FEMA model. He turned the agency over to Joe Allbaugh, his campaign manager. Allbaugh left in 2003 for a more lucrative disaster gig, as a lobbyist for reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

Now FEMA is a tiny subsidiary of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security. It's too soon to tell whether DHS will become a dumping ground for hacks. But considering how Bush turned it into a phony partisan issue in the 2002 campaign, DHS deserves honorary status as a hack department. Let's hope it learns not to act like one. ... 3:11 P.M. (link)

We Polked You in '44, and We Shall Pierce You in '52: One of the more unfortunate verbs in the English language—to bork—now has company. Today's Washington Postjoins other news organizations in popularizing a verb that will strike equal fear in conservatives and linguists alike: "John Roberts, though, may be well on his way to being 'soutered.' " It's a double whammy for William Safire.

The White House prefers its nominees soothing, not soutered. Last month, a White House spokesman reassured the Post that Roberts "continues to have breakfast with his children and wife. … They have dinner together as a family. And he reads to [his children] before they go to sleep." The White House owes Post editors a thank you for clarifying that Roberts reads to his children, not to his wife. The article didn't say what he reads them—let's hope it's not Prep.

But wait: A cafeteria worker at the federal courthouse where Roberts works told the Post that he always orders a bagel and cream cheese or an omelet. That sounds suspiciously like breakfast!

… And We'll Roberts You in '05: After the debacle of its first ad, which accused Roberts of excusing violence at abortion clinics, NARAL launched a second ad this past week. The new ad displays warm and fuzzy photos with the numbing message, "Roberts's legal record raises questions on whether he accepts the right to privacy." Take that, focus groups: "John Roberts—Question Raiser."

To be sure, NARAL is in a no-win position. They're right about Roberts's record, even if the Washington CW prefers to view those questions as the strategic beauty of the Roberts nomination. But unless you're a media consultant or fund-raiser working on commission, there's no point in running ads that won't move either public or elite opinion. Ads backfire if, like NARAL's first effort, they go too far. But boring ads send elites the wrong signal as well: They're code for "we're shooting blanks."

The Has-Been knows the ad voters want to hear: "John Roberts says he eats breakfast with his family. That's because he's afraid taxpayers will find out the real story: His breakfast is subsidized by your taxes, and he doesn't eat it at home—he eats it at work, in a federal job he'll have for life, even if he never leaves the cafeteria. John Roberts. He won't tell us the truth about where he stands. He won't even tell us the truth about where he eats."

None Dare Call It Treason: Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Roberts "once wrote an entire White House memorandum in French." Isn't that precisely the kind of behavior Republicans just fought the entire 2004 election to prevent? If Roberts were running for president, he'd be out of the race by now.

I didn't have the savoir-faire to work in the Reagan White House, but in the Clinton White House, we had enough trouble with lawyers who wrote memos in English. If a member of his staff had written the late Lloyd Cutler, Clinton's White House counsel, an entire memo in French, Cutler would have loyally reported him to the Secret Service.

I'm sure Roberts has a good explanation for why we shouldn't investigate him for treason. He was probably just too modest to write the whole thing in Latin.

Coming Attractions:Attention, Judge Roberts—to help make your confirmation hearings a little more interesting, Has-Been readers have already submitted more than 100 offbeat questions you won't be expecting. We could share them with you now, but we'd rather unveil them on Tuesday. One hundred questions, at five weeks apiece: With your usual preparation, you'll be ready in 10 years. Have a great weekend! ... 10:38 A.M. (link)

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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005

Lead or Lag: To his credit, President Bush is pulling out all the stops to respond to the tragic impact of Hurricane Katrina. Hopefully, Bush will live up to Presidential historian Fred Greenstein's  remarkably Bush-like observation  that "the can-do stuff ... is something he can do," unlike "the other cerebral stuff."

Bush could use the work. After hitting an all-time low in Gallup last week, the president just set a new personal worst in the latest Washington Post–ABC News poll. His ratings of 53 percent disapproval and 41 percent strong disapproval top Clinton's career highs of 51 percent and 37 percent.

More important, Bush set another record this week as the first president to preside over five straight years in which household incomes failed to rise. People working the longest fared the worst: Earnings for full-time workers fell by 2.3 percent for men and 1.0 percent for women.

The poverty rate rose for the fourth consecutive year, after declining every year from 1993 to 2000. The percentage of people without private health insurance also went up for the fourth year in a row.

In response, the president could have revived his dormant compassionate conservatism agenda or abandoned his four-year-long effort to avoid signing a welfare reform bill. Instead, the Bush administration sent out a Commerce Department economist to declare that the poverty rate is "the last, lonely trailing indicator of the business cycle." Except for household incomes. And full-time earnings. And private health coverage. When it comes to economic progress, the people are always the last to know.

Mendoza Watch: With gas prices soaring, worker earnings dropping, and the president's popularity falling through the floor, we need to develop a more comprehensive index of failure than the Mendoza Line. The Mendoza Line is named for former journeyman shortstop Mario Mendoza, who had a lifetime batting average of .215 and a famed breakout season in which he hit .198.

Mendoza's career is a heartwarming reminder of the days when players could hit poorly even when they weren't recuperating from steroids. In common baseball parlance, a player is below the Mendoza Line if his batting average is under .200 or he signed a long-term contract for only $16.8 million.

The Mendoza Line does an excellent job of isolating the worst hitters. This season, on the 30 major league teams, just one regular player is hitting below .200. Last year, no regulars did.

But the Mendoza Line comes up short as a perfect index of failure because it doesn't capture the many ways in which a player can cost his team games. As a good-fielding shortstop, Mario Mendoza was sometimes an asset to his team. That's how he managed to stay in the big leagues long enough to set the standard for feeble hitters everywhere.

Now that Bush has crossed the Mendoza Line as one of the most unpopular presidents of all time, he needs new goals to shoot for. The Has-Been suggests that with this week's poverty and income data on top of last month's steady deluge of bad news from abroad, Bush may be the first president to cross a new threshold: the Incaviglia Line.

Readers may come up with better analogies, but H-B named the Incaviglia Line for former Texas Ranger and brief Bush employee Pete Incaviglia, who in 1986 became, by my hasty calculations, the last player to lead the major leagues in both strikeouts and errors in the same season. 

Incaviglia did it in his rookie season, shattering the American League record for strikeouts and leading major-league outfielders in errors even though his manager kept him off the diamond for nearly a third of the team's games, perhaps because he couldn't catch the ball.

The Incaviglia parallel isn't perfect, either. Like Mendoza, he wasn't the worst player of all time. Like Bush, Incaviglia's partisans could point to a few lonely, lagging indicators, such as his 30 homers that year, a level he would never reach again.

George Will, Meet George Won't: But looking back, it's hard not to marvel at Incaviglia's achievement.The Has-Been does not mean to take anything away from what Bush has donewhiffing at and bobbling a little white ball is nothing compared with whiffing at evil and bobbling a whole country. But in his field, Pete Incaviglia embodied Bush's same impressive ability to fail on offense and defense at the same time.

And like Bush, he probably did it without steroids. In the words of this bookies' blog, "Pete Incaviglia was just fat." ... 6:36 A.M. (link)

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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005

Sound Off: Once again, George Bush's good pal Rafael Palmeiro has come up with the answer to the president's problems. The same man who was the top TV pitchman for Viagra and the star witness for covering up steroids in baseball has just come out with a new product: earplugs.

If Bush had learned about Raffy's idea for earplugs just one day sooner, the president could have stayed on the ranch, listened to the protesters without hearing a word, and finished the full month of his vacation. Of course, unlike Palmeiro's last two ventures, it's too early to certify this product as "performance-enhancing." ... 3:44 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005

Changing Speeds: While most Americans savor their last days of summer, Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats are gearing up to ask John Roberts tough questions about his judicial philosophy at his confirmation hearing next week. "We need to be sure this institution is in the mainstream of American thinking," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told David Von Drehle of the Washington Post this weekend. "What we need to do is ask the obvious questions."

Let's hope that as an old country lawyer, Durbin has a few unobvious questions up his sleeve. After reading the transcript of Roberts' 2003 hearings, The Has-Been urges members to leave their fastballs at home and throw changeups and curveballs instead.

The purpose of any good job interview is to find out how a person's mind works under pressure. A good confirmation hearing is no different: The committee owes the country a chance to see John Roberts' mind at work. If he's as good as his profiles, he'll pass with flying colors. If he stumbles, the country will take another look.

But as Roberts demonstrated last time, pressing him to outline his judicial philosophy doesn't feel like pressure at all. The man has been preparing to duck those questions his entire adult life. His first job was to advise Sandra Day O'Connor on how to do the same. After a quarter century of preparation, John Roberts is not suddenly going to take the stand and confess, Perry Mason style, that he's a Scalia conservative, not a Rehnquist clone, or that Roberts is really  Latin for Souter.

Roberts is famously overprepared. A legal colleague told the Post's Von Drehle that Roberts' secret is "taking the hostile question that you didn't want to answer and transforming it into an affirmative point that advances your client's cause." A former partner told the New York Timesthat Roberts would demand endless revisions to briefs and launch lengthy debates "over the way certain sentences were phrased."

A Lawyer's Lawyer's Time Sheet: According to Von Drehle, Roberts believed in spending five weeks preparing for a 30-minute argument. We may have finally identified the true source of America's soaring legal costs.

At most, senators have had a few weeks to prepare for Roberts. Roberts has spent 25 years preparing for them. So, on all the obvious questions, Roberts has an overwhelming advantage.

But on screwball questions, that advantage disappears. The model for this line of questioning comes from the late Peter Jennings. In a televised debate during the 2004 primaries, Jennings asked John Edwards to "tell us what you know about the practice of Islam." A thousand debate preps and murder boards could never have prepared Edwards for that question. It made for great television because neither the viewers at home nor the press corps had any idea what he would say, or even what he should say.

Under the circumstances, Edwards handled it well, admitting that "I would never claim to be an expert on Islam." Roberts is famed for both erudition and modesty. Make him choose: Is there any topic on which he would say he'd "never claim to be an expert"?

Call Me Ismael: Asking questions that reveal how a person's mind works is far more revealing than asking a person's views. In a group interview, I once was asked how many levels of allegory I could name in Moby Dick, and why the book was so popular in the Soviet Union. The committee soon saw that my mind didn't work at all. (Update: It still doesn't25 years later, I still can't think of a good answer. One committee member told me I should have said the book justified Soviet whaling policy.)

If Roberts invokes the Ruth Bader Ginsburg precedent and says, "It would be inappropriate to answer questions on the practice of Islam because they might come before the court" or "One thing that is unfair about whaling is that it is not certain, it is not definite, and there doesn't seem to be a reasonable time limitation," Democrats will know they're getting somewhere.

In fact, even leaking in advance that they plan to ask some off-the-wall questions might do Democrats some good. Then Roberts can spend his Labor Day weekend feeling five weeks behind. ... 10:24 A.M. (link)

P.S. Do you have an offbeat question you'd like John Roberts to answer? Send it to thehasbeen@gmail.com.

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Monday, Aug. 29, 2005

Hitting Bottom: It's official—George Bush has crossed the Mendoza line. On Friday, Gallup announced that the president's approval has reached a new low of 40 percent, while his disapproval has soared to a new high of 56 percent.

Every second-term president has his eye on the history books—and with these numbers, Bush has secured his place in them. Of the 12 presidents who've served since Gallup started polling in the late 1930s, Bush has entered the ranks of the most unpopular. He's now more unpopular than FDR, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Ford, and Clinton ever were, and has matched the highest disapproval rating of his idol, Ronald Reagan.

Bush's disapproval rose five points in August alone. At his current pace of losing favor, he could speed past two more presidents within the next month: Jimmy Carter, who peaked at 59 percent in mid-1979, and George H.W. Bush, who hit 60 percent in the summer of 1992. That would leave the current Bush just two more men to pass on his way to the top spot: Richard Nixon, who reached 66 percent before resigning in 1974, and Harry Truman, who set Gallup's all-time record at 67percent in January 1952.

Can Bush break the record? The experts say it's nearly impossible in a political climate so much more polarized than the one the men he's competing against faced. To increase his disapproval ratings among Republicans, Bush would have to lose a war, explode the national debt, or preside over a period of steep moral decline. Moreover, as his friends have learned, it's a lot harder breaking records when you have to do it without steroids.

Bush v. History: But don't count Bush out—he thrives on being told a goal is beyond his reach. The president is an intense competitor and stacks up well against the historical competition:

  • Reagan was old and amiable; Bush is young, vigorous, and has a smirk in reserve.
  • Both Carter and Bush 41 were one-term, rookie presidents with no clear plan to gain disfavor and who had to rely entirely on external events going south. Bush 43's chances don't depend on luck: He has a proven strategy to fail at home and abroad.
  • Nixon had to achieve his disapproval ratings almost entirely through scandal, with little help from the economy or world events. The Bush White House is much more versatile: They won't let scandal distract them from screwing up foreign and domestic policy. Already, 62 percent of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction—the highest level in a decade—even before the Bush scandals have begun to take a toll.
  • Truman might seem tough to beat, because Bush has no popular generals to fire. But Truman had several historic achievements under his belt that kept his unpopularity down, such as winning World War II and presiding over the postwar boom. Bush's record is free of any such ballast. In a pinch, the Bush camp can also make a good case that polling on Truman was notoriously unreliable, and that Bush deserves a share of the modern-day record if he reaches Nixon's level.

The Worst Is Not, So Long as We Can Say, This Is the Worst: Best of all, Bush has a luxury that unpopular presidents before him did not: time. His father and Jimmy Carter made the mistake of losing favor in their first term, assuring that voters would not give them a second one. Nixon committed high crimes and misdemeanors that helped him win a second term but prevented him from completing it. Truman's numbers didn't tank until his last year in office.

George W. Bush still has 41 months to turn the rest of the country against him. In the past 41 months, he has cut his popularity by 40 points—from 80 percent to 40 percent. At that rate, he's on track to set a record for presidential approval that could never be broken: zero. ... 8:55 A.M.( link)

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Friday, Aug. 26, 2005

Groundhog Day Off: George Bush desperately wants history to remember him as the Sept. 11 President. In speeches, he sounds like a wartime Bill Murray, who wakes up every morning only to find that it is still 9/11.

That's more or less what the country wanted: a commander in chief who'd worry about the war on terror so we didn't have to. These days, however, Bush doesn't look like a Sept. 11 President at all. With each passing day, he acts more like the last thing the country wanted: an August President, who leaves all the worrying to us.

August is the siesta month, when we shut down our brains, head on holiday, and spend money while doing nothing to earn it. We go back and forth between a deep desire to squeeze in every last moment of idle repose, and a vague sense of dread about what lies in store.

In other words, we spend August the way George Bush has spent his presidency.

Bush's August fetish is most visible now, when he's wrapping up another record-breaking vacation. Yet in many respects, the entire Bush term has been a kind of record-breaking vacation. First president to cut taxes in wartime. First president to go five years without a single veto. Largest surplus squandered; largest deficits left behind.

After all that work, you can see why a guy might want some time off.

Easy Rider: As Lance Armstrong would say, it's not about the mountain bike. My problem isn't what Bush does on vacation; it's that he runs the country like it's on holiday.

Bush's approach to most problems—from economic competitiveness to political reform to health care—is the same as his answer to Cindy Sheehan: We're at war, I don't have time to see you now. Yet the narrowness and lack of inspiration of his approach to the broader struggle against terror suggest that he is giving the war the same answer.

Politicians should take vacations now and then, if only to give the electorate a breather. When Congress and the president leave Washington for the August recess, it usually has the same effect as a summer thunderstorm, lowering the temperature by breaking tensions that have built up too long. Voters breathe the same sigh of relief as my father-in-law, who greeted this August by noting that the government couldn't cost the taxpayers more with no one left in Washington.

The best proof of the August recess's effect as a political tonic—or maybe gin-and-tonic—is what happened in 1994, the year Washington didn't have one. A decade of post-mortems on the 1994 elections has overlooked one simple theory: By canceling the recess that year in a last-ditch attempt to pass health care, Democratic congressional leaders failed to break the storm clouds building on the horizon. A year later, Republicans made the same mistake by shutting down the federal government during the holidays, which went over about as well as the Grinch's plan to cancel Christmas in Who-ville. In both 1994 and 1995, voters concluded that the party in charge wasn't getting the job done and wouldn't go away.

The Boy of Summer: That last part is one mistake Bush will never make: canceling a vacation. He promised to work hard, play hard, and has kept half that promise. The danger for Bush is that his rush to leave his post in August 2005 may have the same effect that Democrats' refusal to take a break had in August 1994: It just reminds people that they have to keep worrying, because the job isn't getting finished. Between the war abroad and the scandals back home, August has been no rest for the weary. ... 6:49 A.M. (link)

Clarification: Wednesday's item  should have made clear that Australian PM John Howard sent troops to support the invasion of Iraq, but has deployed most of the remaining Australian troops in non-combat roles  since that time. The point I was clumsily trying to make was that Iraq did not become the all-consuming issue in Howard's re-election campaign because Australia has not suffered casualties. As a dedicated Australophile, I certainly didn't mean to minimize Australia's longtime support for the U.S. or the courage of Aussie soldiers who've put themselves in harm's way.

The moral: Never trust foreign correspondents -- we don't have time to Google. ... 5:20 P.M.

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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005

No Worries: The Has-Been does not pretend to be God's gift to man-droughts. Indeed, during H-B's recent visit to Australia, the only drought Aussies seemed to care about was another endless stretch of perfect, cloudless weather in Sydney.

By American standards, Australia's biggest problem is just that: a shortage of obvious problems. The Australian economy has grown steadily for 13 years straight. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard supported the Iraq war but sent no combat troops and just won a fourth term by a landslide. Despite a largely uninhabitable center and most of the deadliest creatures on earth, Australians enjoy the sixth-longest life expectancy in the world (the United States is 42nd). All those crocodiles, great white sharks, box jellyfish, and death adders might as well admit that their work on the Australian continent has been an abject failure.

Australia does have some entrenched problems, such as a long-suffering Aboriginal population and a surprisingly high percentage of births outside marriage. But when a serious national problem comes along, such as the emergence of the racist One Nation party a few years back, both major parties generally work together to make it go away. Because each party has a loyal base and competes vigorously to earn the support of middle-class swing voters, Aussie leaders often have to search the horizon for new problems to solve.

Three's Company: The current government isn't doing anything yet about the man-drought. But they have big plans to take on another obscure problem: Australia's declining fertility rate. Like many advanced nations, Australia has a low birth rate: 1.7, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Thanks to immigration, Australia is still growing and in no danger of running out of people. Still, the Howard government isn't taking any chances. Treasurer Peter Costello, Howard's deputy and likely successor, is offering parents a $4,000 baby bonus. Costello told Australians that having more children is their "patriotic duty" and urged them to "have one for Mum, one for Dad, and one for the country." This earned him the infamous headline in one London tabloid: "Bonk Down Under."

The plan may be working. Last year, the number of Aussie births surged to the highest in a decade. Not bad for a country short of men. There's no real evidence that the government's plan had much to do with it, but a headline in the Australian Financial Review proclaimed, "Costello's Maternity Money Puts Couples in the Mood."

Strange as the baby bonus may seem, American Democrats might want to take a look. John Edwards proposed a version in the 2004 primaries as a way to help parents of newborns afford family leave. Tony Blair has proposed a more sweeping "baby bond"—a kind of universal savings account for children.

In fact, Democrats could easily argue that baby bonds and bonuses are a better answer to Social Security's long-term financial challenge than Bush's private accounts. Markets go up and markets go down, but every child born in 2006 will start paying payroll taxes in the 2030s, when the Social Security system needs it most. Bush would no doubt prefer to rely on immigrants to expand the workforce down the road. Why not try a homegrown answer first?

Led by Hillary Clinton, many pro-choice Democrats are already calling for ways to reduce the number of abortions. That's a good start. If Democrats want another bold stroke to shatter the Republican myth that we're anti-family, perhaps baby bonuses might be just the ticket. It's certainly hard to imagine a message that's more pro-marriage, pro-faith, and pro-family than "Go forth and multiply." ... 5:24 A.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2005

Mickey's Assignment Desk: As if those of us who support expanding trade didn't face enough hurdles, Australia and New Zealand have found another problem to blame on globalization. Both countries are in the midst of a nationwide "man-drought."

According to a new report by Australian demographer Bernard Salt, his country now has 20,000 fewer 30-something men than women. Thirty years ago, Australia had the opposite problem: a substantial man surplus. Salt says the ratio of male and female births hasn't changed. His theory: The globalization of labor draws many Australian men to job opportunities overseas, where they marry and remain abroad or bring their foreign bride home. Either way, they end up throwing the natural balance out of whack.

Salt first noticed the trend in New Zealand, which has a female shortfall of 24,000. By his estimate, a 32-year-old Kiwi woman has as much chance of finding a male partner her own age as does an 82-year-old woman. Salt believes the man-drought could help explain why New Zealand has a female prime minister, governor-general, and chief justice.

Amazon.com: While men still hold Australia's top political posts, women are preparing to do without them. Salt told one newspaper, "You have more women buying apartments, taking out finance loans; women are evolving their own single culture."

It's not at all clear why globalization would cause men to abandon Australia and New Zealand in higher numbers than women. Nicole Kidman certainly did her part. But Salt warns both countries to adopt "defensive migration strategies over the next ten years to limit both the impact of the brain drain and the man-drought."

One can only wonder what such policies might entail. Asking Foster's to run more ads on Spike TV? Hiring John Roberts to start a chain of all-boy boarding schools in the Outback?

New Zealand, where women rule, seems to have adopted the best policy: no worries. But if the drought persists, Aussies might have to look to a solution from their own history. After all, an earlier wave of globalization—the massive deportation of convicts and criminals—is what overpopulated the Australian continent with too many men in the first place. ... 2:26 A.M. (link)

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Monday, Aug. 22, 2005

School for Scandal: So far, the John Roberts scandal watch has come up empty. But the intense scrutiny of Roberts' privileged youth may have uncovered another scandal: One of the hottest-selling novels of 2005 turns out to rest on a premise that's pure fiction.

This spring, Curtis Sittenfeld  lit up the style pages and the best-seller lists with her first novel,  Prep. The book tells the story of Lee Fiora, a girl from South Bend, Ind., who heads East to Ault, a tony, private boarding school for rich kids. Lee's Midwestern mores are no match for Ault's arid elitism, and by junior year she is as heartless, insufferable, and dull as the sons and daughters of families who have attended Ault for generations.

Prep's main selling point was its ring of truth. Sittenfeld, who went to Groton, remembers all the reasons boarding school made her miserable, and she sets them out in vivid detail to get even.

Now, thanks to reams of Roberts profiles, we know that Lee Fiora didn't have to travel 1,000 miles East to find a tony, private boarding school. There was one in her own backyard.

Little Big Man: Roberts prepped at La Lumiere, an exclusive private boarding school in LaPorte, Ind.—just 25 miles form South Bend. Like Sittenfeld's anti-hero, Cross Sugarman, Roberts was the BMOC: getting elected proctor, captaining sports teams, and getting into Harvard. Unlike Sugarman, Roberts didn't set out to bed every woman in the class face book. He was too busy fighting to keep the school from going co-ed, so there weren't any.

For the most part, Prep is the tale of the excruciatingly tedious youth he could have had if he weren't so interested in Latin class. As The New Yorker review put it, "Any feelings of nostalgia for adolescence should be dispelled by the exacting intimacies of this first novel."

The high point of Lee Fiora's high-school career is when she spills her woes to a New York Times reporter, who writes a page-one story Roberts would not like to be in, about all the ways that wealthy kids at boarding schools look down on scholarship students.

La Lumiere is co-ed now, so Lee Fiora could have gone there and made Peppermint Patty an honest woman. If she had, she might help us understand why John Roberts went to boarding school a few minutes from his parents' home.

Random House, though, knew better than to publish a book called Midwest Prep. Boring is fine for Supreme Court nominees, but not for best-sellers. ... 4:08 A.M. (link)

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.

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