"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 22 September 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Clown Act



Lose the "the," and it costs

just short of a billion dollars

a word: The Safe and Drug-Free

Schools and Communities Act. Now

12 years old, it has allocated

nearly US$6 billion of federal

money to state and local

governments for the purpose of -

well, guess. Who could argue?

Last time we checked, not too

many anti-school-safety

advocates were working the halls

of Congress or making the rounds

of the Sunday morning talk

shows. Then, of course, there's

the fact that schools really are a

great deal safer today than they

were 12 years ago, a distant era

when the student body was less

able to mount a decisive, armed



Just how safe are they? Ask

Ralph Frammolino, the Los

Angeles Times reporter who

recently bothered to investigate

how all that money was spent - a

question with an awfully long

answer. There's the "clown act

promoting bicycle safety" in

Arkansas, the $1,000 in bait and

poles for field trips to a

fishing hole in Utah, the $6,500

remote-controlled toy police car

in Louisiana, the dunking booths

in Pennsylvania, the new Pontiac

Grand Prix for the

always-stylish cops at the Los

Angeles Unified School District.

There's Miss Louisiana singing

the theme song from Titanic to

some unlucky children down in

Jefferson Davis Parish. And then

there's the magician who

defended his anti-drug school

assemblies with the helpful

explanation, "We have a live

duck in the show."


The act really is an act. The

departments of Justice and

Education both released reports

last year offering that

conclusion, calling it "a

relatively narrow range of

intervention strategies, many of

which have been shown either to

not work ... or to have only

small effects." The

Congressional Budget Office

suggested - unsuccessfully, of

course - that maybe it was time

to stop funding all those live

duck and clown acts. And actual

students handed in their own

verdict on the effectiveness of

the anti-drug portion of the act

by getting stoned out of their

gourds. As the Times explains,

the number of eighth graders

trying marijuana has more than

doubled since the early 1990s.

(In similarly consternating

news, sales of Canibus CDs more

than doubled just last week.)



"Still," Frammolino reports, "US

education officials insist the

program is worthwhile and that

schools are safe, with 90

percent of the nation's campuses

never reporting any act of

serious violence." Ah, yes, the

Sun-Coming-Up Program accepts

your thanks for this morning's

sunrise. The program is

worthwhile, and schools are

safe. We're pissing off the

balcony, and forest fires are

down 10 percent in the Pacific

Northwest. Think of it as a kind

of crossword puzzle or "Where's

Waldo" game.


But there's more to our favorite

crisis-programming convolutions

than their brainteaser value;

the best ones both demonstrate

and inspire true courage.

Remember Al Gore on Letterman -

the show, that is - all those

years back, smashing the ashtray

with a hammer? Sure you do,

particularly since you've

received occasional reminders

that the administration was

busily reinventing the federal

government, making it more

effective, faster, and less

expensive. Except that a

reporter at The Washington

Monthly just checked into that

new, more efficient federal

government by trying to get a

series of government agencies to

perform simple tasks. Seth

Grossman's story, in the

September issue, details such

complicated interactions as

calling a cancer-information hot

line, maintained by the

Department of Health and Human

Services ... and trying to get

some information about cancer.

Insert big surprise here: It

didn't work. Grossman was - in

calls to a dozen agencies -

disconnected, promised

information by mail that never

arrived, charged 1-900 fees of

35 cents a minute for passport

information, and instructed to

call hot-line numbers that were

no longer in service. His


conclusion: "In far too many of

these agencies, help lines seem

to exist just for the sake of

existing, not really because the

agencies really want to provide

anyone with any help." But the

reshaping of the federal

administration has achieved one

key goal: the reduction of the

federal work force by 351,000.

Symbols don't need to be staffed

- they just need a sign on the




Writing in the 7 September issue

of The New Republic, the

less-than-dazzling Martin

Peretz came up, surprisingly, with

a bit of precise, perfect

language - describing the

critical political balance

between "polemical outrage" and

"functional indifference." He

was writing about Clinton's

policy toward Iraq, but he could

just as easily have been writing

about nearly any national

politician - and just about any



Still, Clinton is very much the

all-time champion at this game.

The Monday after the president

was distracted by personal

issues, he appeared before the

oh-so-seriously-named Council on

Foreign Relations - or, rather,

before a hastily assembled

audience that was arranged in

front of a sign with the

council's name on it. The

president's staff had called the

council on Wednesday of the

previous week, explaining with

some urgency that the president

needed to give a major speech on

economic policy right away. His

cause: saving the world economy

from a crash. Speaking somberly,

wearing an expression of grim

determination, the leader of the

free world laid out his program

for stopping a crisis that had

already engulfed Russia and Asia

and was emerging in Latin

America. He had ordered the

Secretary of the Treasury and

the Chairman of the Federal

Reserve to convene a meeting

with their counterparts from

other countries. And he didn't

just want a meeting - he

expected a report, too, "to

recommend ways to adapt the

international financial

architecture to the 21st

century." For substance, Clinton

added a demand that Congress

ship more money to the IMF,

committing the United States to

helping the collapsing economies

pay their Visa bills with their

MasterCards - or, we suppose,

with American Express. Not much

more advanced than casting

shadows on the wall, but for a

day the president was busy

saving the world and didn't have

time to dwell on less

significant matters.



We, on the other hand, would

greatly prefer to dwell on the

less significant matters, which

tend to be simpler and much

funnier over drinks - and which

cost a whole lot less money, $40

million in investigations aside.

Feel free to agree or disagree,

but the duck-owning magicians

among you should take at least

one additional piece of

information into consideration.

Clinton is recommending that

Congress increase funding for

the Safe and Drug-Free Schools

and Communities Act in the next

budget year - a position that

really does take courage.


Or something a lot like it.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers