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Compassion Malfunction

From the Publisher of Chicago Life

By PAM BERNS

When George Bush ran for president, he claimed to be a "compassionate conservative." However, this administration is governing as an oligarchy--one that merely serves the needs of only a small group of people. While taxes have been drastically cut for the wealthiest 1 percent, the number of those in poverty has risen for the fourth straight year to 12.7 percent. Nowhere have the deep divisions between rich and poor been more evident than in the flood areas in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Americans have seen, firsthand, the degree to which poverty permeates our society.

One of the most telling signs of this oligarchy was illustrated by the current president's own mother who, when listening to criticism of her son's response to the hurricane, said on American Public Media's Marketplace program, "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas." She said that her son's response was nevertheless successful for evacuees because they "were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." This flippant, callous reaction to the tens of thousands of helpless Americans who had neither water nor food for days and had just lost their homes, jobs and had misplaced family members is illustrative of this insular group of self-ordained elitists who by virtue of connections to oil, guns, tobacco and other special interests have bought favor in the White House.

In 2003, George W. Bush said, "First let me make it very clear, poor people aren't necessarily killers. Just because you happen to not be rich doesn't mean you're willing to kill," (from What We've Lost by Graydon Carter). This disconnect is reflected in the administration's complacency in dealing with the minimum wage and inability to confront unequal health care while doling out tax relief for those who do not need it. How are we are supposed to pay for Bush's endless war in Iraq, re-build New Orleans and eliminate the estate tax? What about financial accountability?

The former head of FEMA, Michael Brown, is typical of the caliber of appointees in this administration. While patronage appointees are being investigated in Chicago, this White House continues to place unqualified political cronies in the highest and most important positions in government. Not only is FEMA loaded with unqualified political appointees, in this administration, the foxes guard the henhouse. Our parks, forests and environment are regulated by self-serving appointees who have come from the very industries that exploit the environment.

Gale Norton, secretary of the interior, was a prot?g? of James Watt, whom the Sierra Club named "public enemy No. 1." Before her current position of protecting 500 million acres of public land, she was a lawyer representing oil, logging and mining industries. She also was a lobbiest for the lead paint industry.

J. Steven Griles, Bush's former deputy secretary of the interior, was a lobbiest for Sunoco and other oil and coal companies as well as for the Chlorine Institute and the American Chemistry Council. Now he's a principal for a lobbying firm representing energy companies.

In September, the director of the FDA Office of Women's Health, Susan Wood, M.D., resigned in protest after 15 years of working at the FDA. "I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended for approval by the professional staff here, has been overruled," she wrote in an email to colleagues. The government announced her replacement, who turned out to be a man who'd spent the majority of his career in veterinary medicine.

"The current administration has shown a persistent pattern of bringing in incompetent leaders into critical positions," said Sen. Barbara Mikulksi to the Senate on Sept. 22. "We've seen it at FEMA. We've seen it at other agencies. And now it's true at FDA," The recent resignation of FDA commissioner Lester Crawford after 2 months as commissioner has highlighted FDA problems of late: the dangers of Vioxx, implantable defibrillators shorting out, the Plan B politicization and the inadequate rules protecting the public from mad cow. Clearly, the FDA is confused as to whose interests it is protecting: the public or the pharmaceutical and meat industries. Mikulski says that we cannot continue to politicize the FDA.

And are we supposed to believe that Karen Hughes--a speechwriter not known for being well-read or inquisitive, let alone knowledgeable in Mideast studies, is the most qualified person to improve our relationships with Muslim countries?

The toxic soup in New Orleans floodwaters resulted, in part, after toxic dumps were not adequately cleaned up--just covered up. Unfortunately, on this administration's clock, the Superfund Program, which made polluting companies contribute to the cleaning up of our nation's worst hazardous waste sites, has been severely underfunded and corporate polluters have been let off the hook.

The role of government has been tilted to address a political agenda rather than a country's needs. This administration continues to put science aside in favor of political considerations. It has used its power to intrude in the most personal of decisions, interfering in the realm of modern medicine by withholding federal funds from scientists who are working to cure the most serious diseases--Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and cancer--and meddling with scientific facts, even re-writing environmental reports on the human effects on global warming and re-studying ad infinitum the effects of snowmobiles in national parks until they concoct the results they want. This is akin to recreating and cherry-picking intelligence to fit the war plan.

Americans care about helping those less fortunate; this is what compassion is all about. Americans also support science and overwhelmingly support stem cell research. Precious time has been lost waiting for this president to understand that science must trump politics if we are truly concerned about alleviating suffering.

Published: October 01, 2005
Issue: November 2005