Today's Papers

Hatching a Theory

The Washington Post and USA Today lead with President Clinton’s pledge, delivered during his one-day stop in Cartagena, Colombia, that the recently upgraded U.S. anti-drug program in Colombia will not lead to a U.S. combat role in the country’s battle with leftist guerrillas. His remarks are also the top non-local story at the Los Angeles Times and the top story flagged in the Wall Street Journal’s front-page news box. Everyone quotes Clinton saying, “This is not Vietnam, neither is it Yankee imperialism.” The New York Times fronts Clinton/Colombia, but goes instead with Dick Cheney’s renewed attacks on the Clinton administration’s stewardship of the U.S. military, which the WP off-leads.

The Colombia coverage depicts the country’s charged social climate, with descriptions of high security, large milling crowds, and the arrest of some men caught with bomb-making materials and leaflets some distance from the presidential party, which by the way, included Janet Reno, Barry McCaffrey, Dennis Hastert, and numerous members of the House and Senate. The LAT has the most on Colombia’s ferment, noting the squalid refugee camps that ring Cartagena and observing that Clinton’s visit there instead of Bogotá, the nation’s besieged capital, is a reflection of the breakdown in public order.

The Cheney stories limn his take on the Clinton-Gore era military: underfunded, overcommitted, and demoralized compared to the fighting machine he, as President Bush’s Secretary of Defense, bequeathed to a Democratic administration. The papers get passing grades at suggesting the flaws in this picture (a picture endorsed yesterday by Colin Powell and John McCain). They note that while secretary of defense, Cheney presided over Pentagon downsizing, a trend reversed of late by the Clinton administration. They note that Cheney did not put forward much in the way of concrete fixes. They suggest–if they don’t quite drive home–the unverifiability of Cheney’s claim that whatever is good about the current military was the legacy of his era at the Pentagon and whatever isn’t, isn’t. The NYT makes the interesting meta-point that Cheney’s attack regarding military matters comes after the Bush-Cheney ticket found itself on the defensive over tax and health care. But the papers don’t get A’s because they don’t note a huge gap in Cheney’s logic. Cheney stressed how concerned he is for the well-being of American service members (even suggesting, says the NYT, that this is a main reason he came back into public life), but the coverage doesn’t mention that Clinton-era combat has involved record low numbers of killed and wounded. The papers don’t mention, for instance, that while the Clinton military largely achieved its objective in Kosovo, it suffered zero combat fatalities.

And leave it to Republican strategist and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol to (in a WP op-ed) put a laser-guided bomb right down the air shaft of Cheney’s position. He notes that “Cheney never really addressed the obvious question: Yes, the military should be more ready. But ready for what?” If Bush and Cheney are unwilling, says Kristol, to make the defense and foreign policy case in a way that supports America’s continued global leadership, they’re unlikely to win the election.

The WP, LAT, and NYT front a computer science breakthrough heralded today in the journal Nature: At Brandeis University, some simple plastic robotic devices–very simple, all they do is motor inchwormlike along a flat surface–have been designed, refined, and built, not by a computer scientist but by a computer. The WP says the journal article concludes by saying that there is no danger this “virtual evolution” technology could get out of hand, creating autonomous rogue robots. This conclusion is the only part of the story that doesn’t seem like science. It seems like wishful thinking. And, indeed, both the NYT and LAT depict this “Terminator” aspect as a more live option. In fact, the LAT version says that the researchers named their project with a sly nod to a Jewish legend about a rabbi who creates a being to serve him that eventually runs amok.

For the second time in three months, the WP runs word that well-confirmed academic election prediction models say that Al Gore will win in a close one. The models are primarily based on the strength of the economy and the public’s perception of its well-being, with a bit of public opinion polling tossed in. They take no real account of those staples of political journalism: candidates’ strategies or personalities.

The NYT passes along an interesting question put to the IRS last year and an even more amazing answer. The question: “My child has been kidnapped. Can I still take [him as] a deduction on my income tax return?” The agency’s reply: “Only for the year in which the child was abducted.” The bright side, adds the Times: ransom is always deductible.

A letter-writer to the WP suggests a heretofore unnoticed policy implication from the first season of Survivor: If the main purpose of a combat soldier is to survive against all obstacles, then doesn’t the victory by Richard Hatch, an openly gay man, make “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” seem pretty absurd?