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Dispatches The Buzz (Publick Occurrences)

How low can we go?

As if it were not enough that nine girls and young women in upstate New York are now infected with the virus that causes AIDS, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders last week blamed the Chautauqua County, N.Y., tragedy on school officials' not being explicit enough with sex-ed. This is no joke: In a speech at the National Press Club on the occasion of her being honored by the manufacturer of the controversial birth-control drug Depo-Provera, Dr. Elders said condoms should have been available "on every corner, so all you'd have to do is reach in and pick them up." Reach in and pick them up is almost precisely what 20-year-old Nushawn Williams is alleged to have done to 28 area girls, ranging in age from 13 to 24, by offering them drugs in exchange for sex. Contrary to Dr. Elders, the New York school district where most of the girls received their sex education is in fact on the cutting edge of explicit sex-ed; officials boast that their program won national awards for its "comprehensive" approach. School officials say sex-ed begins in the fifth grade and that 7-year-olds are told how HIV is transmitted. A USA Today article quoted Jamestown High School principal Terry Redman explaining that in the entire two-week "age-appropriate" sex course, "You might spend the first 20 minutes on abstinence. It's fairly straightforward. You do it and move on, and sometimes it's forgotten." Sometimes? In an emergency school assembly called in the wake of the sex-for-drugs tragedy, the newspaper reported one high-school senior took a microphone and to "scattered applause" he complained, "This [assembly] is the first time anyone's said anything about abstinence."

Green thumb

Remember that "Indonesian gardener" who gave almost half a million dollars of his father-in-law's money to the Democratic National Committee in 1996? The Los Angeles Times last week obtained a four-page summary of a June 24 interview with Arief and Soraya Wiriadinata, conducted in Jakarta by two Senate investigators and an FBI agent. Someone connected with Fred Thompson's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee leaked the summary to the newspaper. The investigators' interview with the Wiriadinatas raises new questions about former Commerce Department official and DNC fundraiser John Huang. The first of the couple's DNC donations, the Times reported, came while Mr. Huang was still working for the government and was prohibited from soliciting funds. According to DNC records, Mr. Huang's wife, Jane, was responsible for soliciting the donation. But in the interview, the Wiriadinatas say Jane Huang never discussed money with them. Mr. Huang refuses to appear before the Thompson committee without immunity, but his lawyer insists Mr. Huang "did nothing illegal in connection with the Wiriadinatas' voluntary donations." Meanwhile, Mr. Thompson's anger with White House "foot dragging" boiled over, even as fellow Republicans seemed to suggest the time had come to wrap up the probe. The committee chairman blasted White House lawyers during their Oct. 29 appearance before the committee, complaining that key documents and evidence under subpoena has come from the White House "in dribs and drabs." On television the previous weekend, Mr. Thompson was more provocative: "Washington, D.C., is the only place you can get away with" the kinds of delays that have hamstrung his investigation. In a letter, Mr. Thompson asked Senate leader Trent Lott to back legislation to extend the probe past its Dec. 31 deadline. Mr. Lott, who has been critical of Mr. Thompson's leadership of the probe, had no comment on the letter. Committee member Don Nickles (R-Okla.) didn't help Mr. Thompson's cause when he answered a reporter's question on whether he thought the committee's investigation should be extended: "I could give you either argument. My guess is we won't extend it. Unless we're uncovering major new material, what's left to be done?"

Testing 1-2-3

Several major government agencies continued to run on borrowed time last week, one month into Fiscal Year 1998, with six controversial appropriations bills still in dispute. House-Senate negotiators crafted a compromise they thought would break a deadlock over the biggest funding bill: the measure that provides $269 billion to operate the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. At issue was whether to retain an amendment to the House-passed version of the bill that bars President Clinton from developing national educational tests. The Oct. 30 compromise didn't sit well with conservatives. "Once again," complained Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), "our leadership is running from a fight with the president." The measure would allow the education department to "field test" national exams and allow states voluntarily to adopt the tests, but leave with the House and Senate education committees the final decision whether to implement the tests nationwide. One of those who would make that decision-William Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the House education committee-blasted the proposal. "That so-called compromise allows the piloting and field testing of the test in 1998, which is exactly what the administration planned to do without congressional approval," Rep. Goodling said. Senate conservatives-who fear national testing will lead to federal control over curriculum as teachers "teach the test"-plan a filibuster to block consideration of the compromise. Assuming the measure passed anyway, White House aides made it clear the president would veto it. "It's not acceptable," declared a White House spokesman, who pointed out Mr. Clinton will accept nothing less than complete freedom to move forward with national testing.

Holding the line-item

The theory behind the line-item veto, which Congress approved and gave to the president in 1996, is that a chief executive should be able to kill objectionable items in otherwise acceptable legislation without having to veto the entire bill. The line-item veto is aimed at curtailing congressional logrolling, the practice of trading legislative favors (usually unnecessary, wasteful federal spending) for crucial votes. But last week, the logrollers won. On a 63-30 vote on Oct. 30, the Senate voted to overturn President Clinton's veto of 38 military construction projects dear to certain states. Only 12 Republican senators supported the spending restraint. Mr. Clinton may have more success in the House, where the necessary two-thirds majority will be more difficult to muster.

Judicial power

A federal judge barred Alabama public schools from allowing any "school organized or officially sanctioned religious activity," including Bible-based devotional messages and commencement ceremony prayers. U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent, who last year struck down the state's school prayer law, warned that he would instigate contempt proceedings against any school or government officials who refuse to obey his ruling. To ensure compliance, the judge announced he will appoint a monitor, who will have authority to enter any classroom or attend any school-initiated event, to watch for violations.

The charge is murder

A Massachusetts jury found a teen-aged British nanny guilty of murdering an 8-month-old baby in her care. Prosecutors convinced the jury that 19-year-old Louise Woodward, resentful over her employers' attempt to restrict her social life and upset over the baby's crying, shook the child roughly and threw him against a hard surface, fracturing his skull. In Pennsylvania, a teen-aged murder suspect who admitted he threw a 4-year-old girl off a cliff led police to the child's body. Nicholas Bowen, 17, faces charges of homicide. Also in Pennsylvania, a man who racked up huge debts related to his long-running obsession with a stripper pleaded guilty to strangling his wife to cash in on her $1.8 million insurance policy. A tearful Craig Rabinowitz, who for months had maintained his innocence, said he decided to admit his guilt after his dead wife and other deceased family members visited him in a dream.

Blinded by Scientology

Scientologists, in a long-running battle with the German government, marched in the streets of Berlin, chanting "Religious freedom now!" and singing "We Shall Overcome." Germany has refused to recognize Scientology as a religion, insisting that the U.S.-based movement started in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard is actually a business that exploits its members for financial gain. Rally organizers had hoped for 10,000 marchers. About 2,000 showed up.

Religion in Russia update

Russia's recently enacted religious restrictions won't be applied to "centralized" organizations, but only to "local" religious groups, according to an adviser to Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin. The nation's new law on "Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations" puts severe restrictions on groups that don't have at least a 15-year history of operating in Russia. However, in an interview with Keston News Service, Chernomyrdin adviser Andrei Sebentsov insisted that "centralized" organizations, such as the nation's two Roman Catholic dioceses, won't feel the brunt of the new law. Can "local" groups circumvent the 15-year provision by banding together and becoming "centralized"? No, said Mr. Sebentsov.

Economics 101

Worried that rapid declines in international financial markets could spread to the United States, investors leapt into action, creating-at least temporarily-the very situation they feared: On Monday, Oct. 27, "sell" orders reached a fast and furious pace, leading to the largest ever single-day point decline on the New York Stock Exchange. A day later, the Dow Jones industrial average bounced back, but not as high as it had been, recovering more than half of the previous day's loss. The huge sell-off and buy-back punctuated months of increasing market volatility that has seen the Dow drop by more than 10 percent since August. Cool-headed economists had been warning that stocks were overvalued and in need of a "correction." One of those analysts, the one who made "irrational exuberance" part of the American economic lexicon, headed to Capitol Hill Oct. 29 to offer largely upbeat testimony. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, describing the economy as "robust" and the business climate as "solid," suggested the stock market decline could prove to be a "salutary event" that would serve to dampen inflationary pressures and keep the long-running economic expansion on an even keel. In something of an "I told you so" to overly optimistic investors, Mr. Greenspan again stressed a lesson from Economics 101: Markets go down as well as up. In investments, he said, "nobody bats 1000 percent."

The moral of the story is ...

Standing by its 1996 ruling that a viable fetus is a "person," the South Carolina Supreme Court, by a 3-2 vote, again upheld the child abuse conviction of a woman who harmed her unborn child by using cocaine while pregnant. An attorney for Cornelia Whitner, the drug-abusing mom, expressed dismay over the implications of the ruling: "If [a] fetus is a person, everything a pregnant woman does is potentially child abuse [and] abortion is murder," said Lynn Paltrow, a New York-based "reproductive rights" lawyer. Florida's high court, meanwhile, ruled that a woman cannot be prosecuted for shooting her unborn child. In 1994, then 19-year-old Kawana Ashley shot herself in the stomach, apparently trying to kill her yet-to-be born girl. The baby, delivered three months premature by emergency Caesarean section, survived the shooting but died from complications related to prematurity. Ms. Ashley was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The Florida Supreme Court struck down both charges Oct. 30, ruling that while a person can be held criminally liable for harming someone else's unborn child, a woman cannot be prosecuted for harming a child in her own womb. Priscilla Smith, a New York-based attorney who represented Ms. Ashley, said the morality lesson from the case is clear: "Kawana wouldn't have been in this position if Medicaid covered abortion," she said. In a unanimous ruling, the California Supreme Court decided that if a child is injured in the womb because mom was forced to work in unsafe conditions, the child later can sue the mother's employer. Previously, California law barred such suits because the unborn child was considered inseparable from the mother and therefore had no legal standing in workplace injury cases. The court ruled in a suit involving a pregnant woman who claimed she breathed hazardous levels of carbon monoxide at her workplace due to inadequate ventilation. Her child was born with brain damage and other disabilities.

"Victory in Jesus' name"?

In a coup attempt dubbed "Operation Born Again," disgruntled Zambian military officers tried but failed to overthrow President Frederick Chiluba. Rebel leader Capt. Stephen Lungu briefly seized state radio, claiming an angel had appeared to him with "the message [that] the government had to be overthrown." Zambian officials accused former president Kenneth Kaunda of being the real force behind the coup attempt. Mr. Kaunda, a socialist overwhelmingly defeated by Mr. Chiluba in the nation's first multiparty election in 1991, recently has tried to make a political comeback. After the coup was quashed, Mr. Chiluba, an evangelical Christian who won reelection in 1996, addressed the nation: "The enemy is defeated," he proclaimed. "Victory is ours in Jesus' name." Two-thirds of Zambia's eight million people consider themselves to be Christians. Until the coup attempt, Zambia had been considered one of southern Africa's most stable countries.