Entries from March 1998

Subway Shovers Do Not Appear Out Of Nowhere

David Frum March 28th, 1998 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Last Friday, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, someone attempted to murder my wife. Quite literally. Danielle had just stepped off a westbound train at Toronto’s St. George subway station and was walking toward the stairs. The train she had exited was now roaring away from the platform. She passed a small seemingly normal woman walking in the opposite direction. As she passed, the woman suddenly body-checked her, hard, toward the speeding train. My wife staggered, fell back, and caught herself. Had her attacker been only slightly stronger, my wife would very likely have been killed.

The attacker was caught and proved to have — no surprise — a history of mental illness. She told the police she had been prescribed drugs to control her condition, but had not been taking them.

To those of us who love her, my wife is the centre of the world. But in a big and busy city, she has inevitably become a statistic: the sixth person to have been shoved toward a Toronto subway train by a deranged person in the past six months. One of the six, 23-year-old Charlene Minkowski, was killed.

These subway incidents have spread fear in Toronto. In a city once rightly proud of its worldwide reputation for safety and civility, passengers now make a point of staying far from the edges of platforms and keeping a watchful eye on odd-looking people. Not that these measures do any good: as my wife observed, the woman who shoved her looked perfectly normal. The attacker was just the sort of person around whom even a cautious subway rider would relax.

So being careful on the subway will not necessarily protect you. But then again, there should not be any need for passengers to be so careful. These subway shovers do not appear out of nowhere. The truth is, almost all of them turn out to have long records of mental disturbance. Consider this case. Six weeks ago, 19-year-old Jean Derose was shoved by a man onto the same St. George tracks on which my wife nearly landed. (Derose escaped with just minor injuries.) The man had been apprehended by police and confined to mental hospitals 10 times since 1991. And always with the same result: after 72 hours he was released back into the community.

Sound crazy? Well, the hospitals did not have any choice. Under the most recent reforms to the Ontario Mental Health Act, it is illegal to detain a mentally ill person for more than 72 hours — no matter how frightening his prior history — unless he or she is an ‘imminent’ danger to others.

What happens is this: a deranged person does something violent. The police catch her and arrange for a psychiatric assessment. She’s diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and detained. While under detention, she is given drugs that control her condition. By the time the 72 hours are up, the drugs are working, the mental illness has abated, and the patient is no longer an ‘imminent’ danger. Which means she must be released.

The doctors can entreat her to continue taking her medication. But if she stops, there is nothing anybody can do about it — until she shoves somebody again. At which point the whole cycle of apprehension-detention-release begins again.

It’s become commonplace to blame Ontario’s government cutbacks for the proliferation of dangerous lunatics on Toronto’s streets. But we could double the money we spend on mental health and then double it again without reducing the danger from the violent mentally ill, so long as the Mental Health Act exists in its present form. That’s because the trouble is not too few dollars, but too little sense.

The trouble is Ontario’s mental health law has been commandeered by a small band of ideologues who argue that deranged people like the one who tried to kill my wife have a right to roam the streets, committing mischief after mischief, until they actually succeed in seriously hurting someone.

Originally published in The Financial Post.

What The Elephant Forgot

David Frum March 23rd, 1998 at 12:00 am Comments Off

A friend of mine recently ran for office on the ticket of a right-of-center political party. He’d call me late at night, after finishing a hard day of campaigning, and burst into a self-mocking parody of the speeches he had been embarrassing himself by making from dawn to dusk. “Let me say how sickened I am by the evils of child abuse! I yield to no one in my condemnation of the illegal trade in puppies! We must move ahead, while leaving nobody behind!”

My friend is a British Conservative, but he could just as well have been running for Congress as a Republican. The vapid, empty politics he was ridiculing has become almost the official credo of Congressional Republicans. The party’s politics today careers wildly from feel-good mini-policies a la Dick Morris (the cigarette tax increase) to vast but empty gestures (the repeal of the Internal Revenue Code).

Four years ago, the Republicans won a major Congressional victory by promising large and important reforms in the operation of the Federal Government. Four years later, they are hoping to hold onto their majority by refraining from doing anything at all.

Psychologists have observed that if you apply electric shocks to a dog at random intervals, it falls into a condition called learned helplessness. It decides it’s going to be punished whatever it does and ends up lying on the floor and whimpering.

Something like that seems to have happened to the Republicans. They appear disoriented. They trample on their professed principles, discarding (for example) their alleged commitment to federalism by knuckling under to the President’s poll-driven scheme to force all states to adopt the same drunken-driving rules. They meekly accept the gutting of the work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform law and abjectly assent to huge Presidential spending proposals.

Worse, they are dreaming up equally bloated spending programs of their own, like the colossal highway bill, which would leave scarcely a blade of grass in the lower 48 states unpaved. (Where are the environmentalists when we need them?)

By heroic effort, the Republicans narrowly avoided losing the House in 1996. Having won, they no longer seem to have any idea what to do with their victory.

This is sad, because very soon they are likely to have an opportunity to do a lot. The Clinton Presidency is badly damaged — much more badly damaged than polls alone reveal.

This is a President who did not address the nation from the Oval Office during the Iraq crisis, who doesn’t dare take questions from the press and who lives in dread of the evidence gathered by the independent counsel’s office. Just as a weakened Richard Nixon offered his Democratic opponents national health insurance in 1974 if only they would relent on Watergate, this President too may soon be asking his opponents, “What can I do for you?”

Sometime between now and then, the Republicans need to work out an answer.

The right answer, or answers, must be bold without appearing reckless. In 1995, the Republicans wounded themselves with a program that sounded radical (to the alarm of some voters) without producing much in the way of political change. The task for 1998 is the opposite: to assemble a program that advances Republican principles while reassuring voters of the party’s moderation and good sense. There are dozens of possible elements of such a program. But here
is one that might form the basis for all the others.

In his 1996 campaign, President Clinton claimed that the Government was the smallest it had been in 30 years. But the Federal tax burden as a share of gross domestic product will in the coming fiscal year exceed 20 percent for the first time since 1945. The figure was less than 18 percent when Mr. Clinton took office. The Tax Foundation, a Washington research organization, points out that tax burdens on middle-class families have returned to within whispering
distance of their 1981 peaks.

Mr. Clinton defeated Bob Dole by convincing Americans that any tax cut would require unacceptably large spending cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and in education and environmental programs. But now, with the budget balanced, Republicans might be able to put their case in a new way.

In the 1999 fiscal year, the Federal Government expects to spend $6,443 for each of the 269 million people living in the United States. In 1996, President Clinton convinced Americans that the Federal Government should spend no less. Why, then, can’t Republicans try to convince Americans that the Federal Government should spend no more? What if the Republicans made no net increase in per-person Federal spending their central negotiating demand? You could even fit it on a bumper sticker “$6,443 — and not a penny more.”

With the budget balanced and the economy growing, a per-person spending limit would quickly reverse the relentless growth in Government. Should the economy continue to chug along at the 4 1/2 percent predicted by the President’s budget, a per-person spending limit would shrink the Government’s overall tax claim to some 16 1/2 percent over the next five fiscal years. That would make about $330 billion available to return to the people in the form of grand tax
cuts, and all without nicking a single dollar from any existing Federal program.

Spin-meisters like Frank Luntz argue that Republicans should avoid harsh words like “cut” and “control” when referring to Government programs and instead say “preserve” or “protect.” Somewhere along the way, however, what began as advice about communications metamorphosed into injunctions on policy. Not only did Republicans avoid talking about spending control; they ceased practicing it. Unfortunately, despite the spin-meisters — despite Mr. Clinton’s famous concession that “the era of big government is over” — the battle over the size and scope of the Government remains the central divide of modern politics.

Republican leaders in Congress show little patience with external critics who do not have to face voters, who are not under attack by the President as “extremists” and who urge the Republicans to gird for another round of seemingly hopeless combat. But today’s accommodationist strategy also exacts its price, and the feebleness and drift that we see in today’s Republican Party are only the first installment.

There is a middle way between suicide and surrender, and the balanced budget gives Republicans a chance to explore it. They should put the spin-meisters back in their place: figuring out new and attractive ways to explain conservative principles, rather than figuring out new and attractive substitutes for those principles.

The Republican task now is to stand for something bigger and better than highway spending. Republicans must prove to the voters that as fervently as they oppose the illegal trade in puppies (and of course they yield to no one in their opposition to that!), they actually have some idea of what they intend to do with the trust the people have reposed in them.

Originally published in the Financial Post.

Anthony Lewis: The President Must Go

David Frum March 18th, 1998 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Those of us who remember the stirring attacks on presidential lawlessness during Watergate have been startled by the silence from one-time upholders of the rule of law in the face of lawlessness by the Clinton administration. Has something changed between 1998 and 1973? Puzzled, we looked up some of the columns by one of the fiercest scourges of Nixonian wrongdoing, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, and discovered that yes, it was all the same. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewis appears to have taken an extended sabbatical. So we decided to help out. With just a few changes of proper names and no additions other than those marked in brackets, Lewis’s writings from 25 years ago provide a compelling explanation of what’s constitutionally at stake today. We’ll supply footnotes on request. — D. F.

There are too many sawdust men in Washington now, men with nothing inside — no limits of character to what they will do for political ends. If it works, if you can get away with it, do it: That is the only standard.

The lawyers of this Administration have made their names symbols of contempt for law. The lawyer-President has thrown dirt on judges. His lawyers in the White House have sent thugs out after [FBI] files and conspired to obstruct justice.

The old brazen attitude is evident in the President’s attempt to keep present and former aides from testifying about his own knowledge of [the scandal], and in his resistance to an independent prosecutor. There could hardly be a more direct challenge to the co-equal constitutional authority of Congress and the courts than the expanded claim of Executive privilege. One must conclude, as did the London Sunday Telegraph, that it was “the gamble of a guilty and desperate man.”

[The President] has made a pass at improving relations with the press. But he and his fallen aides still project the “stupefying belief,” as the Economist of London put it, that in [the scandal], “the only serious trouble lay in people’s inquisitiveness.” Leaking is a widespread phenomenon, deeply rooted in the American system of government, and using the criminal law to stop it would raise grave difficulties.

We are admonished not to follow McCarthy tactics and jump from hearsay premises to guilty conclusions. Fair enough. In terms of hard evidence, no outsider can prove today that the president was involved in the original crimes or their subsequent concealment. That is a wise caution, but it does not relieve the political dilemma of [the scandal]. For Presidents are judged by broader standards than personal guilt. They are responsible for the character of their associates and for what is done in the name of the White House. One would expect an inquiry or a detailed, categorical denial of the charges. But no. The White House press secretary dismisses it all as “hearsay” or evidence from unidentified sources. In other words, grave charges will be ignored unless they are proved as they would have to be in a court of law. If that standard applied, virtually no corruption would ever be officially investigated. In the end these brazen tactics failed. The press, or some of it, kept digging despite lies and threats.

What threatens America now is an enfeebled Presidency. At best [the President] will be asking the world to believe that the men he chose as his closest associates committed evil without his knowing it. And it may be much worse: the doubts may come ever closer to him. The authority of the President, which is to say the authority of the United States, will be gravely damaged. [Even] overseas, the poison of [the scandal] is having its effect. Heads of government are not usually finicky about the morals of other powers. But when they deal with an American President, they want to know that he speaks with authority: that he can bring Congress along on a trade agreement or a security treaty.

If [the President] were capable of redeeming vision or self-perception, the prospect would be less painful. But he is not. He is a man who can obstruct election campaign reform and then ask the public to join him in a great reform effort. He is a man without shame. The appalling dilemma facing this country is how to live for nearly four years with a wounded Presidency. Some people argue for what amounts to a conspiracy of silence. We must close our eyes to what has happened, they say, and let government continue — almost as it was allowed to continue during Woodrow Wilson’s illness.

The alternative is forbidding. [Only one] President has ever been forced from office: even a serious attempt would put awful strains on the system. But can this country stop short of the truth, can it live a pretense, and be once again the hope of the world?

The framers of the Constitution plainly intended impeachment to play a broad role as one of their several defenses against abuse of power. That was still the view fifty years later, when de Tocqueville said the main object of the clause was “to take power away from a man who makes ill use of it.” It is a historical anomaly, therefore, to treat the idea of impeaching a President as almost sacrilegious. It is inconvenient to change Presidents in mid-term; it is risky. But the risks are not only one way. We can live with a weakened presidency; we have done so before. But can we live with ourselves under a leadership that we know is tainted?

The American system is less flexible than the parliamentary, but it does not condemn us to the rigid embrace of a President unfit for office. The Constitution speaks not only of “removal” but also of “resignation.” Is there any serious possibility of resignation? It is an act of self-denial hard to imagine in any man ambitious enough to become President. [Still] one cannot exclude a decision that only [the President's] resignation can open the way to a healing of American politics.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard