Joe Conason's Journal

Does "Slander" end in a Freudian slip? Plus: Tom Ridge's Edison Schools deal gets investigated.

Published August 8, 2002 2:39PM (EDT)

Shrinking Ann
It's probably time for a break from Ann Coulter's inaccuracies and distortions. But an email forwarded to me by a friend notes an interesting Freudian slip on the final page of "Slander." The book's last three words are "lie for sport" -- as in what those "strangely cruel [liberal] bigots" do habitually. If that phrase sounds faintly familiar, it's because those were precisely the words used by Vince Foster in his suicide note nine years ago -- to describe the Wall Street Journal editorialists who had vilified him. That's a spooky reprise, especially when one of the few honest passages in "Slander" describes Christopher Ruddy's conspiracy book about Foster as a "hoax." Mere coincidence or guilty conscience? We report, you decide.

Those donkey blahs
Among the most frequently recurring subjects in the mail and on the Web lately as well is the excessive politeness of Democratic politicians. With few exceptions, they lack the aggressive determination of their adversaries. Readers frustrated by this "attitude gap" should check out this bold, effective flash. I don't think the Democrats should mimic the site's overcooked rhetoric, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the ads.

Before the Common Error
Every day, alert readers point out broken links, typos, mistakes and other more curious phenomena in this column. My reference to the Gracchi brothers, populist martyrs of the Roman Republic, brought mail from a few classics scholars. "True enough, the Gracchi are heroes who deserve to be remembered forever," wrote Jennifer. "But second-century Rome was an Imperial town, and all that Republican business was long since over. The Gracchi were [around] in the second century B.C." Or about 400 years earlier than implied by the reference in my column, where I mistakenly dropped the Before Christ (or Before the Common Era, as secular humanists and professional historians say). Another correspondent admonishes that Roman populism was mere rabble-rousing, "the strategy of the dictators and the imperialists," as he puts it. That may well be true, but it was also the city's mobs, aroused by the aristocratic enemies of the Gracchi, that murdered them.
[3:41 p.m. PDT, August 8, 2002]

Tom Ridge's school daze
Rarely is there any good news for the benighted czar of the "homeland," Tom Ridge. His difficult job is made no easier by widespread doubts about his competence in the Capitol. Lately , however, the worst news for Ridge is emanating from his own homeland of Pennsylvania. The national press hasn't caught onto this story yet, but the Philadelphia papers are strongly suggesting that the former governor left behind a festering scandal when he departed for Washington last fall. The decision by Ridge's education department to award a $2.7 million no-bid contract to Edison Schools for a study of Philadelphia's ailing school system -- and the subsequent takeover of 20 city schools by the Edison corporation - are subjects of investigation now by city, state and federal agencies.

State auditor Bob Casey, Jr., a Democrat, has been probing the original contract since last January, and he now accuses the state of a cover-up. "I don't think there's any question in my mind that based upon their failure to provide these documents and based upon the attitude they've demonstrated... they've circumvented the competitive-bidding rules," Casey warned last week.

A year ago, that very same deal appeared to portend a triumph for Ridge. Conservatives hailed the impending seizure of the Philly schools by the state, which clearly intended to hand them over to Edison. They predicted that this new dispensation would vindicate their ambitious plans to privatize public education. It also represented a crucial opportunity for the Edison management, whose promises to wring profit from the nation's schools have been rolled over every few years like a bad loan to Argentina. The state contract required Edison to show how private companies could provide quality education to Philadelphia's children at no greater cost to taxpayers - a nonsensical proposition on its face, yet one that Edison eagerly agreed to fulfill. Since then, having used the consulting contract to secure a school-management deal for itself, the company has demanded an additional $1,500 per student.

What was touted as private-sector efficiency now looks more and more like a sweetheart relationship with a favored company. But that's only the beginning.

Investigators and journalists are also scrutinizing the fat consulting deals awarded by the School Reform Commission, which have gone to lawyers and public relations firms with political ties to Ridge and the Bush administration. At the top of that list is Blank, Rome, Comisky & McCauley, a powerhouse Philadelphia law firm that boasts three former employees at the commanding heights of Ridge's security bureaucracy, including his chief of staff. They have already billed nearly $2 million in fees and are expected to bill millions more. According to Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer, the firm sent 10 lawyers to join the Bush-Cheney legal team in Florida during November 2000, and raised substantial funds for both Ridge and Bush. (Security-minded citizens will be reassured to learn that a 27 year-old Blank, Rome associate who worked on the Florida recount now serves as "special assistant" to the head of the National Transportation Safety Board.)

So far the biggest winners in the "conservative reform" of the Philadelphia schools are patronage friends of the president and the former governor. With the Department of Education peering into this mess, we may yet see that agency's inspector general sauntering over to the Office of Homeland Security for an interview with Ridge about the strange origins of the Edison scheme.

This affair sheds an unflattering light on Ridge's demands for "management flexibility"-including the authority to spend money without normal oversight -- in the Department of Homeland Security. It's one more reason why he probably won't be asked to lead the new super-agency.
[7:52 a.m. PDT, August 8, 2002]

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By Salon Staff

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