Today's Papers

Washington’s Gas Problem

The New York Times leads with the European tour of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who sang the praises of missile defense to reluctant U.S. allies across the pond. At the Los Angeles Times, the lead looks at President Bush’s latest efforts to promote his tax cut package, the newly released details of which have drawn a tepid reaction from Democrats. The Washington Post front is dominated by local coverage, going below the fold with two reasonably benign nonlocals: a write-up of newly crowned DNC Chairman Terence McAuliffe’s opening jabs at Republicans and a closer look at the controversy surrounding the self-immolation of presumed Falun Gong faithful in China.

Rumsfeld’s is the first overseas excursion by a Bush Cabinet member, and the coverage casts his visit as all business and no pleasure. The WP reminds that missile defense opponents include “a parade of European officials from the German chancellor to the chairman of the Russian State Duma’s foreign affairs committee.” While Rumsfeld’s remarks emphasized U.S. support for companion missile defense programs that would shield our European allies, the NYT asserts this olive branch sweeps aside larger European fears that the U.S. initiative might destabilize global politics and undermine efforts at strategic arms control. Rumsfeld confirmed that the U.S. intends to pursue its course even over potential objections from Europe, Russia, and China because the program “should be of concern to no one, save those who would threaten others.” The LAT supplies the broader context, seeing the debate over the issue as evidence of the “gulf that has opened” in the aftermath of the Cold War between the U.S. and its European allies in NATO, who have cast their lot with an increasingly united Europe.

The WP takes a separate look at President Bush’s crash course in foreign policy. Accepting the daily CIA briefings that Bill Clinton felt he didn’t always need, Bush has spent his first few weeks in office boning up on the subject critics saw as his weakness throughout the campaign. The story reveals that Bush has brought a folksy tone to his calls to world leaders with mixed results. Described by the WP as uncomfortable with small talk, new Philippine President Gloria Arroyo groped for a compliment during her telephone conversation, finally congratulating Bush on having won “78 percent of all the counties and three-fourths of all the states.” The article goes on to suggest that Bush may find it easier to impress than first believed because the global audience expects little of him. The latest dig comes from the Moscow Times, which characterized the president as “a man whose lips are where words go to die.”

The LAT reports that in his Saturday radio address, Bush emphasized that his $1.6 trillion tax cut would be for “everyone who pays taxes,” lowering the average family’s IRS bill by $1,600. As the piece notes, Bush portrayed the tax cut as a unifying measure whose benefits will be shared among all Americans. In response, Democrats preached moderation, opposing the plan’s nods to the wealthy (such as the repeal of the estate tax) while still asserting the need for cuts aimed at the lower and middle classes. A day after taking aim at the estate tax, the NYT editorial page goes after Bush’s tax plan more broadly, arguing against a cut that gives “43 percent of the benefits to the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers.”

The NYT fronts a mammoth revisit of the Wen Ho Lee affair, fulfilling its pledge to conduct a thorough re-examination of the case in light of criticisms of its coverage. The 8,500-word Part One that runs today decides that everyone involved behaved badly and shares in the blame. Among the guilty: the New York Times, for breaking the story over the objections of the FBI (if only Louis Freeh had called, they say, things might have been different) and spawning a public outcry; the FBI, for trying to strong-arm Lee without sufficient evidence and for dealing clumsily with the press; and Lee himself, for violating security protocol and misrepresenting his actions to the FBI. Enthusiasts of the case can look forward to the lengthy conclusion tomorrow.

Fronting a local story with national resonance, the WP reports that D.C. residents who heat their homes with natural gas (i.e., most residents) saw upward of a 70 percent increase on their December heating bill. The story explains that reduced efforts at natural gas exploration left the nation ill-prepared for this year’s unusually cold winter. Still, the paper attributes most of the blame to the skewed incentives of deregulation, which encourage utilities to shun long-term energy contracts and purchase their gas at “spot prices” (the price on the daily market) since spiked costs can be passed immediately on to the consumer.

From the headline of the NYT’s own fronted gas effort, “Gas-Rich Desert Will Test Bush’s Environmental Resolve,” one might expect to hear a tale of high drama, pitting a need for energy against a compelling case for preserving nature. The piece, which focuses on the Jack Morrow Hills of Wyoming, clearly makes the case for drilling–natural gas is in high demand (see the D.C. story above), it is among the cleanest forms of energy available and is there for the taking–but is a bit skimpy with the argument for preservation. Perhaps the story assumes that the merits of leaving a desert pristine are self-explanatory, but thanks to its one-sided presentation in the NYT, the issue hardly seems test-worthy. And the piece admits that everyone involved expects Bush to opt for drilling, making Jack Morrow even less of a drama.

The WP reports that Bush’s commitment to humility has its first casualty: “Hail to the Chief.” The Marine Band hasn’t struck up the customary entry music for the president since his inauguration. The article suggests that perhaps Bush should be mindful of the tune’s continued influence in Washington. Several members of Congress who “had been looking forward to it” expressed their disappointment at Bush’s silent entrance. And White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was called in to deny rumors that the tune had been banned (“it’ll just be played on fewer occasions”) and to assure the press that Bush still “likes the song a whole lot.”