Today's Papers

Marine Corpse Maneuvers

USA Today

leads with the acquittal of Marine pilot Richard Ashby in connection with the deaths of 20 people that occurred when the airplane he was piloting struck an Italian ski lift in 1998. The story is also top front with pictures at the other majors. The New York Times and Washington Post go with the announcement yesterday by Republican congressional leaders that their budget plan will set aside money for Social Security while also providing for a tax cut. The Post says this is a vague proposal, with the size of the tax cut still undefined. But the paper does say that over the next ten years, the GOP aims to use all the non-Social Security budget surplus for tax relief, while President Clinton would devote some of it to Medicare, special savings accounts, and extra defense and domestic spending. The NYT says the GOP proposed tax cut before the 2000 election will be quite modest, growing to “historic” dimensions only in subsequent years. The Los Angeles Times leads with bad news for California’s schools: low reading scores. The death of former Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun, age 90, makes everybody’s front, the headlines making it clear that his authorship of the Roe v. Wade opinion is at this point viewed as his signal legacy.

USAT reports that Ashby’s mother and sister squealed with joy at the verdict, but that Ashby took the news undemonstratively. (The paper says he was sitting when the verdict was read. Unlikely. The other papers have him standing.) Relatives of the victims, says USAT, sat in “shocked silence.” USAT, the WP and LAT report that the Italian prime minister, in the U.S. to meet today with President Clinton, said he was “baffled” by the verdict. The NYT says he was “infuriated.”

The WP and NYT make it clear just how sweeping the acquittal was: Not only was Ashby cleared of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide but also of charges of dereliction of duty and destruction of property, even though he was flying lower and faster than the rules allowed. None of the papers mention it, but the trial outcome is part of a disturbing recent trend in U.S. military justice. What do the U.S. Navy shootdown of an Iranian airliner, the “friendly fire” missile attacks on Allied troops during the Gulf War, the Tailhook sexual assaults, and the U.S. Air Force shootdown of two U.S. Army helicopters in the Iraqi no-fly zone all have in common? Miraculously, the military justice system found that none of these actions was anybody’s fault.

The LAT lead says a new federal assessment of California’s fourth graders’ reading skills shows that only 20 percent of them are proficient readers, putting the state second to last (only in front of Hawaii) in the nation in this category. As if realizing what the study suggests about the cognitive prowess of LAT readers, the paper points out that the federal assessment “also” showed that eighty percent of the state’s fourth graders are not proficient readers.

The Wall Street Journal main “Politics and Policy” piece argues that President Clinton’s decision to keep his distance from the press in the wake of the Lewinsky and Broaddrick allegations has hurt the public’s understanding of his policies. And will hurt historians’ understanding of them as well.

Follow up: Yesterday, in discussing the Supreme Court ruling that physically disabled children are entitled to the provision of publicly-funded continuous classroom care, this space wondered how it was that none of the papers covering the decision seemed at all curious about how the disabled boy in the case could have been paralyzed in a motorcycle accident as a four-year-old. Well, Today’s Papers couldn’t take it any more and quickly found out some further interesting facts: The boy was injured when, after his father put him on the back of a motorcycle, the baby blanket that the father placed around his shoulders became entwined with the cycle’s drive shaft, breaking the boy’s neck and snapping his spinal cord. The parents sued the motorcycle manufacturer and accepted a settlement offer of $1.3 million. Leaving aside the question of how it is that anything about the motorcycle design or manufacture could have been nearly as implicated as the father’s ill-advised decision to put the four-year-old on a motorcycle, it should be noted that that $1.3 million was primarily proffered to pay for the costs entailed by the boy’s injury. Hence, here’s a crucial fact not reported in any of yesterday’s stories: the parents had already been given more than enough money (by their own estimate) to provide for the additional cost of keeping him in a mainstream classroom.

The WP reports on one rather peculiar preparation made for Clinton’s visit to the Interior Department yesterday. Seems Interior honchos decided to use a 5-foot-wide version of the departmental seal as the event backdrop, a seal featuring blue, snow-capped mountains, an orange sunset, and a buffalo grazing. Problem was, it was discovered late in the game that the buffalo is an anatomically correct he. And that Clinton when he spoke at Interior would be standing, wags the Post, “right near its anatomical correctness.” Hence the last-minute airbrush job by government workers, avoiding the appearance of any interspecies sensuous gestures.