A visit to D.C.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I spent part of last week in Washington, D.C., at a newspaper meeting and heard John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at three separate events.

McCain was much stronger in person and in his delivery than I had expected. He obviously was comfortable in a question-and-answer format, a reason why he held over 110 town hall meetings in one of the early states.

Obama was more guarded in his remarks and didn't display the charisma that he gets credit for with college students, independents and many Democrats. He had been under the gun all week with heavy media scrutiny and was careful and slow in his responses to questions.

Clinton didn't use a Teleprompter but delivered effectively from printed notes. She looked good, had strong, policy-laced comments and was especially strong in displaying her grasp of details in answering questions.

At this point, unless Obama stumbles, most expect he will run against McCain for president this fall. In my opinion, any combination of two of the three candidates will end up in a tight race to be decided more by outside influences than by them, their personal campaigning on Iran, Iraq, the economy, campaign expenditures by outside groups and so forth.

Clinton will probably stay in if she wins in Pennsylvania today, to be there if Obama hits an unexpected mine. Even if she doesn't get the nomination, she is positioned to be the Democratic nominee in 2012 if McCain wins.

And if Clinton doesn't get the Democratic nomination, she will be a leading senator from a large and influential state in what might become a filibuster-proof 60-member Democratic majority.

There will be major differences between the final two candidates in dealing with the economy, tax increases, the radical Islamic war, appointments to the Supreme Court, health costs and international trade. A historic election looms.

We also had major programs on the economy, technology, communication platforms and various newspaper industry panels.

Wendy and I toured the Newseum, the just-opened 250,000-square-foot media history museum in Washington with 25 hours of videos available on such subjects as bias, news sources and historic news events.

I enjoyed it much better than anticipated. I highly recommend it. There are some children-participation display available.

We visited the Nationals baseball park that opened this spring and watched sons Jon and Rex hit some of the longest drives during the evening in which many participated, but not me.

Jon was re-elected to a three-year term on the Associated Press board and has been selected to head the AP technology committee. He already serves on the executive committee. Certainly, few are qualified for this demanding task, especially in this time of rapid technological changes for all media, of which the AP is one of the leaders.

The new crusade in Washington: Axing pork from the budget. Spending bills for 2008 now include $17 billion in earmarks, many of dubious value, from $78,000 for a paper industry hall of fame in Wisconsin to $743,000 for olive fruit fly research to be conducted in France. Pointing them out has become a sport for politicians.

But the price tag is minuscule compared with entitlement costs. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, health care for veterans and other automatic benefits total roughly 30 percent of the federal budget, $820 billion a year. Health care benefits alone, if left unchecked, will grow over the next three decades to encompass the same percentage of the U.S. economy that the entire federal budget does at present.

Congress and the new president will confront hard choices in trying to reduce the leading strains on the federal budget: cutting benefits, limiting eligibility, hiking taxes, privatizing or some combination of the above, all of them politically difficult.

Looming baby boomer retirements mean pain is unavoidable. — Private newsletter

One missed call: In Michael Mukasey, President Bush finally seems to have an attorney general worthy of the current moment. In Nancy Pelosi's hometown this week, the former judge who once tried terror cases told the Commonwealth Club audience that even he had no idea of the extent of the threat.

Speaking of what he hears in his national security briefings, Mr. Mukasey said, "it is way beyond — way beyond anything that I knew or believed. So, if I was picked for the level of my knowledge ... that was a massive piece of false advertising."

As reported by the New York Sun, he also offered a perspective, partly personal as a former Manhattanite, on the necessity of warrantless antiterror surveillance. Before 9/11, Mr. Mukasey said, "We knew that there had been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn't know precisely where it went. We've got" — here the attorney general paused with emotion — "we've got 3,000 people who went to work that day, and didn't come home, to show for that."

The AG also addressed why immunity from lawsuits is vital for the telecom companies that cooperated with the surveillance after 9/11. "Forget the liability" the phone companies face, Mr. Mukasey said. "We face the prospect of disclosure in open court of what they did, which is to say the means and the methods by which we collect foreign intelligence against foreign targets." Al-Qaida would love that. The cynics will call this "fearmongering," but most Americans will want to make sure we don't miss the next terror call. — The Wall Street Journal

Act. Conditions are never just right. People who delay action until all factions are favorable are the kind who do nothing. — William Feather

Gary Rust is the chairman of Rust Communications.

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