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Hope for better days and news

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

Like most of Americans, I was happy to turn the calendar on 2001 -- and not just because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The year was going downhill even before then. I was tired of hearing the Democrats in Congress dwell on the sanctity of the Social Security "lockbox," and I was ready to gag on cable television's fixation on the Gary Condit sex scandal. I suspected the economy was in recession even before it became official, and I was unable to muster much interest in the media recounts of the 2000 presidential vote in Florida. Airline travel was an ordeal before Sept. 11, and it has since gotten even worse, something I had not thought possible.

As we begin the New Year, I am hoping for better days and better news. I know the threat of terrorism and the pain of the recession are going to be with us, and that common sense will continue to be the missing ingredient in airport security. I don't expect the politicians in Washington to rise above partisanship and dishonesty and hypocrisy and do what's best for the country. But there are some things, nothing really momentous, I would like to see come to pass in 2002.

For a start, I would like to see Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature at least acknowledge that Florida is in trouble. I'm not talking about just the state's budget crisis. The real problem is a leadership crisis that pretends that everything was going swell before last fall's terrorist attacks. About the only Republican who is not in denial is Senate President John McKay, who is trying to open a political debate on the need for tax reform. McKay's proposal is as modest as it is sensible: Tighten up on exemptions from the state sales tax by lowering the rate and expanding its reach. Among antitax Republicans, including Bush and House Speaker Tom Feeney, the McKay proposal probably has about as much of a chance as Osama bin Laden has of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

I would like to hear former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno announce that she is dropping out of the Democratic gubernatorial race. That could clear the way for Bill McBride to emerge as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. A Bush-McBride contest would make it difficult for Florida voters to pretend that this year's election does not present them with a clear choice on the state's future. It's probably not going to happen. From what I hear from leading Democrats, there is about as much chance of Reno dropping out of the race as there is of Republicans calling for a tax increase.

I would like to see airport security personnel detect and confiscate as many loaded handguns and shoe bombs as tweezers and fingernail files. And it wouldn't be a bad idea to ban University of Georgia football fans from airline travel during the college football season. It's not that Georgia fans are security threats; it's just that they don't like to be inconvenienced by security measures when they're rushing to catch a plane to an out-of-state game.

I know this is really asking a lot, but I would like to see the Clinton-haters feel the former president's pain over the death of his dog, Buddy, a playful Labrador retriever hit by a car outside the Clintons' home in Chappaqua, N.Y., last week. If anyone needs a faithful friend, it is Bill Clinton. Buddy was named after Clinton's favorite uncle, and his arrival at the White House couldn't have come at a better moment -- just a few days before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Buddy gave Clinton what no one else could during the darkest days of his presidency -- unconditional love and loyalty. If Clinton decides to get another dog, I hope he will have sense enough to fence in his yard and walk the dog on a leash. Hey, what are Secret Service agents for anyway?

I would like to see the FBI, which has been given new surveillance powers to root out terrorists, get something right for a change. It won't be easy, but I'm willing to give the agency a chance to redeem its reputation and restore my faith in its competence after a string of embarrassing blunders. It's not just that the FBI missed clues that one of its own was a spy for Moscow, or that it failed to follow up on reports about suspicious characters who wanted to learn how to fly -- but not land -- airplanes. What really worries me is how much of a challenge even routine assignments can be for the FBI.

Laurence Silberman, who for 15 years served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia and now works part time as a senior circuit judge, recently told Washingtonian magazine of his experience with the FBI. It is not a reassuring story at a time when we look to the FBI to stay one step ahead of the terrorists.

"When I was nominated to be a judge," he said, "two FBI agents came to me after conducting a background investigation. One said gravely, "We have a problem.' I couldn't imagine what it was."

The agent told him, "We've determined that you made trips to countries on the banned list -- Syria, Iraq and Yemen."

Silberman said, "I explained that, in 1984, I was the president's special envoy to the Middle East. It was in that capacity that I made those trips."

The FBI agent asked, "How can we verify that?"

Silberman replied, "Well, you might try calling the president or the secretary of state."

Maybe I am asking too much of 2002.

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