Today's Papers

And Now the Good Bad News

Everybody leads with President Bush’s battle plan for the looming budget wars in Washington. The New York Times reports that Bush called the newly diminished budget surplus “incredibly positive news” because it will “put a straightjacket” on Congress. And the restraint will be necessary if Bush gets his way: He wants more money for the military and that’s likely to crowd out other programs. He claims his increases will not threaten the Social Security surplus unless “Congress goes off on a spending spree,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The NYT cleverly picks apart Bush’s strategy for securing large budget increases for his pet projects–the military and education–while pressuring Congress to curb its own fiscal ambitions. “[H]e will argue that every other proposal must be decided after the military budget is set. In effect, this will preserve Mr. Bush’s priorities while making others appear as if their initiatives are responsible for dipping into the Social Security surplus.”  “Others,” in this case, refers to congressmen on both sides of the aisle. Republicans, for example, have passed a budget resolution that includes a prescription drug benefit for the elderly–and there’s no way to pay for it under Bush’s plan other than to take from the Social Security surplus or cut other programs. 

The LAT and the Washington Post are a bit dryer in their approach to the story–they leave off the wonderful “incredibly positive news” quote that the NYT has in its lead paragraph–but they do provide some numbers that the NYT lead omits. Unfortunately, they’re not the same numbers. It seems that Bush wants an increase in military spending of either $18.4 billion (LAT) or $39 billion (Post), depending on which paper you read. (Bush said $39 billion, according to the NYT transcript.) The Post nicely points out that, according to a Congressional Budget Office report due next week, the government is “already tapping into the Social Security surplus.”

The Post fronts the life expectancy of Russian men (currently at a dismal 59 years), which is likely to “cripple its economy–and its hopes of major power status–for decades to come.”  (In the U.S., men go until almost 74, according to the CDC’s Web site.) Why the disparity? There are obvious reasons–Russian men tend to smoke and drink a lot, and they don’t exercise–and less apparent ones, like Communism. “In the Soviet Union, it was embarrassing to care about your health,” says one Russian health official. “We were made to think that the Ministry of Health was in charge of your health. Your priority was to work for the society.” Mikhail Gorbachev successfully increased male life expectancy with an anti-vodka push in the late ‘80s, but when the campaign later fell apart, the number dropped back down. Here’s one of the many appalling statistics from the story: “Roughly 17,000 Russians drown annually, most of them drunken men, a rate nine times higher than in the United States, where most drowning victims are children.”

Sure enough, as part of its “Siberia Diary” series, the Post online yesterday ran this headline and deck: “An Unexpected Picnic/A Gas Company Helicopter Trip Turns Into a Vodka-Filled Day of Fishing and Bridging Cultures.”

The WP and the LAT front similar stories on the fallout from Gary Condit’s interview with Connie Chung on Thursday. (“Condit Met by Avalanche of Criticism” (WP)/”Condit Engulfed by Torrent of Criticism” (LAT).) Employing a studied, Clinton-esque evasiveness, Condit managed, with startling efficiency, to alienate any remaining supporters, it seems. “I didn’t hear candor. I didn’t hear an apology,” sniffs Dick Gephardt in the LAT.  People who used to be his political allies are now starting to wonder if Condit is even fit to remain in the House. “I have a deep, deep concern,” says the chairman of the California Democratic Party. No one in either paper suggests that Condit had anything to do with Chandra Levy’s disappearance. In an editorial, the NYT offers, “Ever since Richard Nixon’s ‘Checkers’ speech, elected officials who have found themselves in hot water have taken to the airwaves to explain or apologize. Mr. Condit’s appearance was one of the least successful efforts along this line since the invention of television.” The Condit interview was the most-watched news program in more than two years, according to the LAT, perhaps resuscitating one career (Connie’s), while destroying another (Gary’s).

Finally, the LAT fronts a bit of resolution in the “Vatican Soap Opera,” a messy narrative that involves a Catholic archbishop who got married in May in a group ceremony presided over by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in New York. Missing since August 8, the bishop resurfaced yesterday, on Italian television, where he announced that he loved his wife, but could not “resist Pope John Paul II’s appeal that he abandon her” (the LAT’s words). Believing that her husband had been kidnapped by the Vatican, the wife had been into the 11th day of her hunger strike when she heard she’d been jilted. “He’s been drugged,” she said. The church apparently went easy on the bishop–they didn’t immediately excommunicate him–out of fear that he might “continue to act like an archbishop, creating his own clergy–married and otherwise–and divide the church.”