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Archive for Wednesday, December 29, 1999

99 REVEALS BOTH INSIGHTS AND MISTAKES

December 29, 1999

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— It was, I boldly pronounced in that column published last September, "one of the most famous roll calls in the history of the House of Representatives." So you might have thought I would get it right.

But no. In the annual review of goofs and gaffes, mistakes and misjudgments of the past year, that boo-boo stands out as perhaps the most egregious. I was writing about a 1999 vote by the House to dismantle the draft registration system and so I recalled the Aug. 12, 1941, occasion -- less than four months before Pearl Harbor -- when the House rejected by a single vote what I described as "an amendment that would have ended the government's authority to draft men into the Army."

No sooner was the column in print than the e-mails and letters began to descend. As many of you pointed out, I had the 203-202 vote count right, but erred badly on the substance of the provision. It was, in fact, a measure to extend the term of Army service for draftees, Reserve officers and National Guardsmen to 30 months and for regular Army volunteers to 4 1/2 years.

That was an important step in preventing an exodus of needed personnel on the eve of America's entry into World War II -- and thus a cautionary note about cutting back too far on today's military. But even if the point was right, the account was flawed.

That happened with some frequency in 1999, though most of the mistakes were errors of judgment, not, as in the past, of grammar or simple fact. The pattern was set early in January when I foolishly said that while "the House of Representatives will be a long time healing from the partisan warfare of last month's bitter impeachment battle ... on the opening day of the new Congress ... you could see the first glimpses of a better time ahead."

It was a mirage. The squabbling continued right up to adjournment, in one of the nastier legislative sessions in memory. If it took quite a while for that mistake to become obvious, my Dec. 1 column, praising President Clinton's leadership on trade issues and opining that the course "of reducing international barriers and expanding world commerce ... seems clearly set," was barely in print before protesters in Seattle confounded the supposed consensus and the World Trade Organization delegates broke up their conclave in sharp disagreement.

I dished out plenty of criticism of Clinton this past year, as the White House would quickly confirm for you, and especially for his default on the big issues of Social Security and Medicare. But others fared better. Rereading the year's columns, I'm comforted by the list of people who received unstinting praise here: former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former President Jerry Ford, retiring Rep. John Kasich, Meg Greenfield, The Washington Post's editorial page editor, and Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island. I take back none of it; I only wish the last two had not been memorials.

I'm heartened by the fact that the potential of Bill Bradley's presidential campaign was recognized here as early as last April, but chagrined there was no similar column about John McCain, especially since he was the candidate I spent most time covering for The Washington Post.

What made the past year really worthwhile was the opportunity to publicize the wonderful things being done by some private individuals and groups: the Council for Excellence in Government, for its work in supporting public service careers; Colin Powell and his organization, America's Promise, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and several organizations of police chiefs and preachers, all of whom understand the importance of preventive measures in reducing juvenile crime and who labor to help young people fulfill their dreams; the Vietnam Children's Fund, the vets who are building schools in the country where they fought; and the National Alliance for Business and its partners, for helping states and local districts install in their schools the same "Baldrige principles" of quality management that have made American firms such formidable competitors in world markets, thus proselytizing for the single most promising approach to education reform I know.

Finally, I am grateful to the notable Washington businessman who responded to the column quoting the letter Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack had received from a farm wife, whose husband had committed suicide in despair at the prospect of losing the family homestead in the depressed agriculture economy, by sending the widow a $10,000 check, on condition his identity be kept secret.

Once in a while, these foolish scribbles actually help others do good things.

-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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