Roundtable: Veterans Sue Rumsfeld, 'Moral Retards'

Topics on Friday's roundtable include: Disgruntled veterans file lawsuit against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; a sociology professor calls religious people "moral retards"; and a teacher gives his students an essay on why he hates his job. Guests: Dawn Turner Trice, columnist for the Chicago Tribune; Bob Meadows, writer with People magazine; and George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, filibuster love: Is it all over?; a review of what we just talked about in segment A; Donald Rumsfeld being sued; and a teacher's essay goes awry. Joining us from our New York bureau is Bob Meadows, writer with People magazine. Dawn Turner Trice, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, is at our bureau in Chicago. And George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, comes to us this day from Maryland.

All right, folks, before we get into some of the other issues, we wanted to go back to what we just heard in segment A, and that's this question of foster children being used for experimental drugs to try to eradicate the scourge of HIV and AIDS during the late '80s and early '90s, the AP report bringing out the fact that, in some states, it was required for these kids to have advocates, overseers, if you will, and that wasn't done. And it also raised the question as to whether or not these kids were being taken advantage of, because, obviously, they do not have the same type of muscle, if you will, a lesser voice than most in society, unfortunately. Bob, as you listened to the segment, what were your thoughts?

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (People Magazine): My thoughts were that--I was thinking back to that time, and I remember that AIDS had caused a great hysteria, for valid reason, and that was, of course, the context that we have to look at this. But I think the worst thing about it was that these children had no advocates speaking for them. That's really the thing. I understand that tests are necessary. I just did a story, in fact, on doctors going to Ethiopia and needing to test AZT drugs on children, teaching the doctors there how to use AZT drugs, because you can't use the same dosage for a child as you can use for an adult. Definitely understand that. But these children needed to have advocates to give that permission, to speak for them.

GORDON: Dawn, what of Dr. Kline's response with the idea that--and let's take a state like Texas, as he suggested, that did not have, at least on a federal level and in that case on a state level, the law that suggested that they had to have advocates, that these kids, many of them disproportionately poor, disproportionately minority, were now given an opportunity, a better chance, if you will, if these drugs worked, to live out a longer and a better-quality life because they were engaged in this study?

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Chicago Tribune): I think that that's definitely a benefit of the study, but I think it does not take away from the fact that the trials may not perfectly parallel the Tuskegee experiment that you guys talked about earlier, but the overall fallout could be the same. This type of thing doesn't engender trust among African-Americans or minorities in the health-care system, and I think that, while it may have helped a number of young people, I think overall the fallout can be a negative one.

GORDON: George?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): I think we have to be careful. First of all, we need to clarify about the Tuskegee study. The Tuskegee study did not inject people with syphilis. What it did was allow people to go untreated.

Ms. TRICE: To die. Yes.

Mr. CURRY: So we have to be careful about that. Secondly, we're talking about kids who were already infected with HIV, and this was not a case where they used placebo; that is, you know, water, fake stuff that's not going to be--I mean, they were dealing directly with what became known as AZT, which is very, very important. So I think it's crucial that HIV-affected kids be involved in trials. The problem is, and the only problem as far as I'm concerned, the lack of having a medical advocate there. And what we have is a patchwork of state policies, so they differ from state to state. We need a federal policy to make sure that each of these kids have medical advocates. But as far as involving them in these trials, I think that's excellent, but their interests have to be protected.

Mr. MEADOWS: I'm glad to know, as the second doctor said--because I was concerned about this--that most of the children, I believe he said, are alive today because they had access to these trials. As was pointed out, these are children who are already infected with HIV or AIDS, so they did need treatment.

GORDON: All right. Let's move on to a subject that seems ongoing, like the Energizer Bunny; this from Senator George Allen, a Republican of Virginia. He says, `The honeymoon is over,' and he simply means what we saw earlier in the week, the idea of these centrists in the Senate coming together to stop the proposed filibuster as relates to the judges--we can now see the blocking, in many people's minds, of the vote for Mr. Bolton to be UN ambassador. Now we're going to wait until the holiday is over and we're going to see if cooler heads prevail. And here is a man who, clearly, the White House is behind, and they say, `This is our man.' Democrats are saying, `No, we don't want him.' George Curry, what happened to the honeymoon?

Mr. CURRY: Well, wasn't never a honeymoon because there was never agreement. First of all, let's be careful. Now these issue are not the same issues as judges, and that's what people want to mesh and pretend that they're the same. The real issue, and the only reason the Democrats are filibustering now, is because they have requested certain documents from the White House and the White House has refused to turn them over to Congress, saying, `You have what you need.' And that's the tension we have here. And the Democrats are doing this only because they don't want to be just rolled over by Republicans, which they're being done anyway, but they're saying, `Look, either you give us the documents we request, or we going to filibuster this.'

Now the real issue here is you have a major tug-of-war between the executive and the legislative branches of government where the White House is gaining more power, and they're using this to do this, and Congress must assert itself--at least, that's what the Democrats are saying--even though the Republicans have the votes.

GORDON: Dawn, a number of people are going to counter what George says and simply say that's splitting hairs. This is the language that Harry Reid, Joe Biden and others are using but, indeed, they are trying to filibuster this vote, that they don't really care about this information, that they know enough about Mr. Bolton to make a decision and they want to see this up-and-down vote.

Ms. TRICE: Well, that's exactly what they're doing, but I think that it's the right thing to do in this case. Bolton is not the best candidate to head the United Nations. He's a man who, by many accounts, is a bit of a tyrant when handling his subordinates, and he's accused of aggressively interpreting intelligence to argue that nations are more dangerous than they are. The stall vote just comes at a time when Republicans and Democrats are trying to make nicey-nice on this whole issue, but that's exactly what's going on.

GORDON: Bob Meadows...

Ms. TRICE: It is a stall, and it's a legitimate stall.

GORDON: Bob Meadows, there are people who are going to disagree with Dawn there and who are going to say that Mr. Bolton is exactly the man that is needed to push the doldrums out of the United Nations and get them to face reality. That being said, is this not just the way of the world, the political world, and Washington as we know it?

Mr. MEADOWS: I love it, Ed. I love it. The Democrats, coming right back--you know, you think you got peace, but no. The Democrats, they took a lot of heat--so did the Republicans--for that deal they brokered last week. This is an opportunity, perhaps, for the Democrats to kind of show a little backbone. But the thing that I love even more is that Senator Thune, the Republican from South Dakota, says he's going to probably vote against confirmation of Bolton, too, partly because he doesn't think Bolton's the best man, but also because the administration is including an Air Force base in his territory as the ones they're going to close down. So he's playing politics, too. Everybody is. That's the name of the game.

GORDON: That's the name of the game. George...

Ms. TRICE: And it's such a partisan time right now. If you--you have a senator from Ohio, Voinovich, who is also the Republican who's going to go against--who has said that he's going to vote against Bolton. And I think that you really have to take note when there's somebody on either side who's going to step outside of the--go against the party line.

GORDON: But that being said, George Curry, the reality is, unless they just continue--and I guess here's the argument for the filibuster--John Bolton will probably be nominated. He probably has--well, not probably; they do have the votes to put him over the top. A lot of people say this is the quagmire, the conundrum, that people get tired of in Washington and why we don't see positive movement, more positive movement, from politicians.

Mr. CURRY: There's no question that--and you look at the latest polls; the public is absolutely disgusted with this whole action even over the filibuster. But I agree that Bolton will get confirmed after the break, but there's still the issue--and I don't want to underestimate it. There is an issue of whether a White House can decide what it turns over to Congress. And that's what's at issue here.

GORDON: And you truly believe that to be the bigger issue?

Mr. CURRY: Yeah, because, see, this is not something you want--I don't think Democrats really want--I mean, this is not something you want to fight over. Bolton's going to get confirmed. The real fight is over the judges, and the reason there are big fights now is because they're getting ready for the Supreme Court showdown. It's `throw down in the showdown.' That's the real issue, and that's what all the maneuvering's about.

GORDON: And, George, what of the idea--and I brought this up with Professor Ogletree just the other day on the Roundtable--part of that is not as many people are looking at Chief Justice Rehnquist and his inevitable move out, and if Scalia moves up, as many people are suggesting, replacing a conservative there, it really is the swing seats--i.e., one person that's being looked at as a possible out is Sandra Day O'Connor.

Mr. CURRY: Right. The issue is, they replace a conservative with a conservative, the vote will still be the same. It would be that second nominee which would really make a difference. And I know Ogletree had mentioned Justice Scalia, but it's still between Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Don't throw up. It's still between both of them as to who will be the next chief justice.

GORDON: All right. We can put some money down on that one, but that's a later time.

Let's take a look at what's happening in a 150-year-old Washington retirement home. It's a veterans' home. There are inhabitants there who are suing the US Defense secretary over budget cuts that they say have harmed the medical care standards in that home. They say they are putting their health in danger. It is a home that--we are now seeing on-site pharmacies. Treatment rooms have been closed. X-ray facilities and others have been removed; the number of dentists on site reduced. Their contention is this is happening because of all of the monies that are being spent on the war; therefore, other areas are being cut. The government, while not dealing with this specifically, is suggesting that there is confusion because there are other primary care services ahead when they open a new clinic in July. It is just interesting, Dawn, to see veterans of previous wars, who typically stand in gale winds when you talk about the military, suing the secretary of Defense and also the home's chief operating officer, among others.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And the suit may be largely symbolic, but the reality is that there are 26 million veterans in this country. About 30 percent of them are disabled, many requiring some form of long-term medical care. And we send these men and women off to protect this country, and then when they return, we have very little to offer them in terms of medical care. And I think it's a shame.

Mr. CURRY: What's interesting about here is you're talking about people who really have devoted a lot of time to this country. One, they must have served in a war zone; they must have been in service at least 20 years, active service; they're all over 60 years old; and they're unable to make a living, whether it's service-related or not. I mean, this is a vulnerable population.

GORDON: Yeah, those are the requirements to get into this home.

Ms. TRICE: ...(Unintelligible). Yeah.

Mr. CURRY: Yes. So this is a very extremely vulnerable population, and this really should be an embarrassment to this country that we're not taking care of these veterans.

Mr. MEADOWS: I looked at it very similarly. This is the way we treat our poor people who did not serve in the military. Their benefits are cut. They don't understand what's going on. A lot of people blame the war for all this, for the budget cuts, and as George has indicated, these are people who really served their country and should be getting the support, but they're not.

GORDON: All right. Let's quickly move to Louisiana. Fun time down in the hot state of Louisiana; a public schoolteacher there is fed up with his students' behavior. He found a way to berate them. He wrote a two-page essay to his fourth-grade students saying that he hated his job and he blasted the children's behavior as animalistic and even identified some of them by name. And then he turned around and suggested that the students write a 200-word essay on how the teacher should treat them. Now before we get into some specifics here, Bob, when you first heard this, what's your thought?

Mr. MEADOWS: I was reminded of--OK, I was a bad kid. I was reminded of making teachers so upset, me and my classmates, that they--they didn't put it on paper, though. See, that's the difference.

Ms. TRICE: Right.

Mr. MEADOWS: They would say stuff like this to--I honestly thought this guy had a really bad day. That's what I--you know, he talked about the root canal that he had.

GORDON: Yeah, he said he had a root canal...

Mr. MEADOWS: Right.

GORDON: ...and didn't have sleep before, that night.

Mr. MEADOWS: I thought, `Man!' You know, I could understand. I could understand his point of view, based on what teachers told me a long time ago.

GORDON: Dawn?

Ms. TRICE: And you also felt that if he found it therapeutic to write something down, maybe he should have just written it and then chewed it up...

GORDON: Sure.

Ms. TRICE: ...as opposed to passing this out. I mean, it just didn't make sense. And I got the feeling that he probably said what a lot of teachers across the country feel, want to say, almost every day. But--and providing that this isn't the guy--this isn't a guy who's just kicking his cat every morning and really hates the job. I mean, he may need to quit, but it sounds like he had a really, really bad day.

Mr. CURRY: What he had was a really, really bad lesson plan, and he needs to go in the corner and stand on one foot until he gets himself together. I like the idea of the interactivity, though. I mean, I kind of like that idea of the students being forced to write something, but that, I don't think, is the right approach.

GORDON: What of the thought, though, here that there is--and maybe we're missing the bigger picture here. There is a sense, an environment in many schools, that this is what goes on, on an everyday basis--the occurrence of unruly students, the occurrence of an inability to truly set an environment that's conducive to learning. You know, we laugh at this and we feel bad for this teacher, but the reality is this is more typical than we'd like to believe.

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, you know, we discussed on here...

Ms. TRICE: But I think that what happened...

Mr. MEADOWS: ...a few weeks ago about the kid--the teacher--I believe it was in Queens or Brooklyn--who called the kids animals, the Haitian kids, and made them eat on the floor. This is something that goes on all the time, and what you could really--what I really looked at with this teacher was he was trying to have a spelling bee, which is a fun thing, and he said the kids were just so bad...

GORDON: Unless you can't spell.

Mr. MEADOWS: Unless you can't spell--right. And, you know, he was trying to do a fun thing for the kids, and he was like, `They're just so unruly, they mess up everything.'

GORDON: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. TRICE: And I think that...

GORDON: Since we're telling the truth, I was one of those kids who took the early seat. `The: T--oh, shoot.'

Ms. TRICE: And the teachers...

GORDON: Go ahead, Dawn.

Ms. TRICE: ...are being asked to parent as well as teach in a lot of cases--not all cases, but in a lot of them. And I think that that's fortunate. I mean, as a parent of a fourth-grader, who's soon to be a fifth-grader, I can't tell you how many warnings that we've had, just so many challenges. But by the time I drop this child off, what I tell her is, `I love you. Have a great day.' But what I want to say, what I'm thinking is, `You know, you better get out of this car. You know, go on.' So I think that it's just a trying time across the board.

Mr. CURRY: I think many of us are removed--and I'm the first to admit that I'm one of them--in terms of what's really happening in these classrooms. My youngest sister's a teacher in Tuskegee, Alabama, and we're talking about the kid, five-year-old, being handcuffed. She said, `Hey, I understand it. Come get some of mine.' And I was shocked.

GORDON: Right.

Mr. CURRY: So I think we really don't know what's going on in the classroom.

GORDON: Yeah. I think that we talk a lot when we talk about, you know, that children are our future, our most precious resources, but I think that's a lot of--well, you know what I think it's a lot of.

Mr. MEADOWS: Baloney. Baloney. Baloney. Baloney.

GORDON: Baloney.

Ms. TRICE: Let's say baloney.

GORDON: Because there are tremendous problems going on in our schools, not just in behavior but, as we've talked about before, lack of books, lack of opportunity, lack of everything that one needs to have a formal education. And it's difficult. I think we really have to start looking at that.

All right. Enough of my preaching. Bob Meadows, Dawn Turner Trice and George Curry, thank you all for being with us today. Enjoy your holiday.

Ms. TRICE: You're very welcome.

GORDON: George...

Mr. CURRY: All right. You, too, Ed.

Ms. TRICE: You, too.

GORDON: Not too much eating, man. Be careful.

Mr. CURRY: Hey, a little late for that, man. Too late.

GORDON: All right.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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