Today's Papers

Missing in Action

The WP and NYT lead with the run-up to Thursday’s start of the Senate impeachment trial. The LAT goes with yesterday’s air action in the southern “no-fly” zone over Iraq between U.S. and Iraqi fighters. And USAT, which devotes its front-page “cover story” to the eve-of-trial situation in the Senate, leads with a survey out today of 213 companies showing that large firms’ health benefit plans will go up about 7 percent this year, far outpacing the current inflation rate of 1.5 percent and making for the first big rise since the early 90s. The paper says the up-tick is primarily driven by the consolidation of HMOs, and that it’s bad news for employees, who typically pay more than 20 percent of the cost of their coverage. The health cost story runs inside at the WP.

According to the papers, the only thing that’s really known about the impeachment trial proceedings scheduled to start in the Senate on Thursday is that they’re scheduled to start in the Senate on Thursday. Comments made by senators in breaks from yesterday’s continuous palavering suggest that the fast track proposal is, in the words of the NYT, “foundering,” with a number of Senate Republicans bucking their leadership to complain that the House managers are entitled to more time to make their case against President Clinton. According to the WP, Rep. Henry Hyde, the leader of the House impeachment team, also weighed in with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott against a fast track. A related fault line is whether or not the proceedings should include the calling of witnesses. On the one hand, a trial without witnesses seems odd and on the other, there is concern that with a full slate of witnesses, the Senate cannot avoid the rancor just seen in the House. “We think that would really become a zoo,” Sen. John Kerry tells the Times. Another issue is whether the Senate is constitutionally empowered to consider censure. Things are so confused that Sen. Lott has, according to the LAT, urged citizens to call their senators and express their views, a remarkable statement, says the paper, in light of the public’s overwhelming opposition to impeachment.

According to the LAT lead, yesterday’s combat over Iraq represents both the determination of the U.S. to enforce the “no-fly” zones and of Saddam Hussein to flout them. The Iraqis sent up more than a dozen warplanes and the U.S. responded with four fighters firing six missiles. The LAT account makes it seem that the U.S. aircraft fired on the Iraqis simply because they were in the zone, whereas the WP and NYT accounts add that the Iraqi planes first illuminated the U.S. aircraft with their fire control radars, indicating possible imminent missile launch (although no Iraqi missiles actually were). But none of the accounts address the issue this difference raises: What is the U.S. rule of engagement here? Is the mere presence of Iraqi aircraft in the “no-fly” zone considered justification or is some further more conventionally understood provocative act required?

Also, for a press that’s become quite intoxicated with the technical details of our weapons, especially when they work, there’s a notable lack of information in the accounts about how each of six U.S. missiles could fail to hit obsolescent Iraqi planes. The NYT quotes the DOD spokesman saying that the Iraqi pilots had been able to get out of range of the missiles. This is doubtful, if the U.S. missiles were fired within their range envelopes, which is U.S. practice, because missiles are many times faster than airplanes. More likely is that the Iraqi pilots saw the missiles coming and then, probably with the help of distracting countermeasures, made sudden maneuvers the missiles couldn’t duplicate. Another possibility is that the shots were all taken looking down at the Iraqi planes, with the clutter of the desert background confusing the radar-guided missiles. But none of these matters make it into the reporting. In addition, only the LAT and the WP run the incident on their fronts. The NYT puts it on page three and USAT saves it for page nine.

In the past year, the papers have made much of the various safety and environmental negatives posed by the wild proliferation of sports utility vehicles. A front-page WSJ feature adds another to the list. At least in this week’s blizzard in Chicago, the “off-road” monsters got stuck in the snow like crazy.

Maureen Dowd makes the case today for President Elizabeth Dole. On the principle that we will want our next president to be everything this one is not, she writes, “After President McMurphy, we will want Nurse Ratched.”