Hill of Beans: Air Time; ‘Oomble

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


The most important item in President Bush’s State of the Union speech last week (aside, of course, from his de facto declaration of war on Iraq) may have been his announcement of a $1.2 billion pilot research program for developing hydrogen-powered cars. That is because it makes no sense. Either it’s nothing–what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to call "boob-bait" for environmentalists–or it is an initiative of epoch-making importance. If all cars are going to be hydrogen-powered two decades from now (and that is the timetable Bush hinted at), then the country that develops them will be the world’s transportation powerhouse. You have to ask why China hasn’t decided to do the same thing. In fact, if the price tag for leadership in the Car Market of Tomorrow is a mere $1.2 billion, then Greece and Uruguay could enter the competition as well.

The point of this plan is purely geostrategic. It’s true that the president announced it in the context of the environment. "Join me," he said, "in this important innovation to make our air significantly cleaner, and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy." But the initiative–again–makes no sense as an environmental measure. For one thing, American clean-air standards for gas-powered cars are already among the strictest in the world. Today–as compared to, say, 1970–our air simply is not that polluted. There’s always room for improvement, but if Bush were really worried about the levels of pollution that remain, he would have been more sympathetic to removing the exemptions from CAFE car fuel-efficiency standards that sport-utility vehicles enjoy. Bush’s environmental record up until…ohhh, eight days ago…would suggest that "making our air significantly cleaner" is not a policy priority that has caused him many sleepless nights. No, this is about buying less Saudi oil, and about not putting money into the pockets of those who foment and bankroll Binladenism.

It is tough to tell whether Bush really wants energy independence. It would certainly harm the economic interests of the state of Texas–which are identical to those of Saudi Arabia. His administration has struck down California efforts to seek alternatives to gasoline vehicles. And $1.2 billion is chicken feed. So the program could merely be a shot across the Saudis’ bow, or a way for Bush to defuse environmentalist pressure to do what he decidedly does not want to do. Creating a new means of private transport for this country will require a commitment on the level of the space program: hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars. If Congress thinks this is a good idea, it should hold the president’s feet to the fire by budgeting 10 times what the president has requested.

It has been something of a mystery in the last 18 months that Green parties, in America and abroad, have not done more to present our differences with the Arab oil states as a reason to embrace their own anti-pollution agenda. Particularly in Germany, the Greens have been keen to tout their willingness to use arms in the Kosovo conflict as evidence of "political maturity." But when you ask them about taking the initiative to win public support for just making oil matter less–which would seem to dramatically reduce the possibilities for serious armed conflict–they’re less voluble.

How come? When I pressed this point with some German Greens last September, they mumbled that there would be something cynical about piggybacking their environmental concerns on the back of a foreign-policy agenda. But the upshot of their silence is that a conservative president now has the opportunity to claim the centerpiece of the international Green agenda. They must be mighty confident that he is not at all serious about seizing that opportunity. By budgeting 10 or 20 million dollars for the hydrogen car plan, Congress can now challenge the president to show that cynicism to be unfounded.

’Oomble

When people trash politicians for "saying one thing and meaning another," it’s usually a particular politician’s dishonesty they’re referring to. But the job of politician so often entails saying what everyone knows to be nonsense that the very language gets corrupted. In Washingtonese, there are all sorts of words that now mean their exact opposites. An old classic is "interesting." When a Senate staffer comes up to you at a party and tells you he has just finished an 1100-page report on depreciation schedules for school-lunch equipment, what you say is: "That’s interesting!" What you mean is: "That’s uninteresting!"

A new classic is "humble." A couple of weeks ago, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry got an informal semi-endorsement from his fellow Massachusetts senator, Ted Kennedy, during a speech the latter made at the National Press Club. "I expect he will be announcing his candidacy," Kennedy said, "and I expect to support him and I expect him to win." Kerry’s staff, per form, rushed out a press release touting this as an endorsement. In it, Kerry said: "It’s humbling and gratifying to have his support as a friend and colleague."

Really? In what sense is it humbling to have one of the lions of the Senate describe you as the person best fit to fill his beloved, martyred brother’s shoes and run the free world?

Other politicians would have understood. Take Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who after her appointment by the governor last December said, "I am honored and I am humbled at the trust and confidence that has been placed in me." Well, yeah, placed in her by her dad, Frank (for it is he who is the governor). That would really make a person feel "humble," wouldn’t it? To be asked by one’s father to run the half of the state he doesn’t run? It’d make you feel like a real lowdown bug.

Janet Napolitano’s election as governor of Arizona last November left her in a similar fit of self-loathing, prompting her to describe herself as "gratified and humbled to be Arizona’s choice for the next governor." And that same month, when she was locked in a tight Senate race against Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, the Republican nominee Susan Haik Terrell was visited by Vice President Cheney: "It’s humbling," she said, "to have the support of the administration." Oh, yes, how humbling it must be to have the most seasoned strategic thinker in the Bush administration sent away for an entire weekend, dropping a diplomatic and military portfolio on which the fates and fortunes of six billion people depend, to devote himself to bettering the career prospects of a Louisiana hack politician. What a comedown for Susan Haik Terrell! How "humbling"! I am scum, Terrell must have been thinking. I cannot bear to look at myself in the mirror.

See Ya, Lisa

Farewell to Lisa Kearns, one of the finest editors I’ve ever worked with, who leaves New York Press this week. Good writers are a dime a dozen, but good editors combine punctiliousness with creativity, and that’s something rare. Lisa is one of those. She may be moving on to bigger things, but her writers (and our readers) will be the poorer for it.

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