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Dispatches The Buzz (Publick Occurrences)

I'm not crazy

Moments before opening arguments were to begin in the trial of accused Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, the unpredictable suspect paralyzed the proceedings by demanding that his attorneys be fired. He said he didn't want lawyers who would "pursue a mental-health defense." Mr. Kaczynski's attorneys, who have been working on the case for 18 months, say their client suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and intend to offer a defense that focuses to some degree on his "mental defect." The trial judge ruled that Mr. Kaczynski's effort to change lawyers was too late and that the trial would go forward.

Man knows not his time

Less than a week after the death of Michael Kennedy in a skiing accident, entertainer-turned-politician Sonny Bono died instantly last week after crashing into a tree on a Nevada ski slope. Rep. Bono (R-Calif.) made an unlikely entrance into politics after about a decade of relative obscurity. Living a quiet life as a restaurateur, Mr. Bono was frustrated by city-government red tape that delayed his placing a sign outside his restaurant. He ran for mayor of Palm Springs in 1988 and won, but not without enduring some of the same kind of disrespect he received from his wisecracking ex-wife Cher during their comedy/variety show in the '70s. Frank Bogert, the Republican mayor Mr. Bono defeated, called him everything from a hippie to a squirrel; when Mr. Bono won a seat in Congress in 1994, Mr. Bogert said, "I don't like to see a darned Democrat go to Congress, but I sure don't want to see Sonny Bono there, making a fool of himself and us." He didn't, and steadily earned the friendship of his GOP colleagues by speaking for them at fundraisers. "We lost a very good friend," said Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The race for No. 2

Politics are just as competitive as any sport, but sometimes it's better to be second. White House and congressional officials struggled mightily on last weekend's talking-head programs to avoid taking the lead on the issue of reforming the politically sensitive Social Security system. "The president needs to exert leadership on this," said House majority leader Dick Armey on CNN's Late Edition. "And we're anxious to see him make a proposal." White House Budget director Frank Raines on NBC's Meet the Press said, "We can't do it by the president alone or Democrats can't do it alone." The Washington Post reported last weekend President Clinton may call a special session of Congress following the November elections to deal specifically with Social Security. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said last week he wants "an adult discussion" about the problems facing the system. But he said "the politicians ought [not] to try to get ahead of the American people," whom he said needed to summon the "moral courage" to act to head off Social Security's demise. His proposal: a commission to recommend reforms and congressional action to establish a new system in 1999, between election years.

Back into the crossfire

Former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, lately a cable television personality, announced last week she's entering the New York Democratic primary to earn the chance to challenge Republican incumbent Sen. Alphonse D'Amato. The New York senator faces reelection this fall. A three-term member of Congress from 1979 to 1985, Mrs. Ferraro cited her recent work on CNN's Crossfire as valuable experience that would make her a better senator. "Night after night, I've seen firsthand the problems facing this country," she said, referring to her hours toiling on the set in a television studio. Mrs. Ferraro sought the Democratic nomination to take on Sen. D'Amato in 1992, but lost in a four-way primary. This year, her entry makes the Democratic contest a three-way race with Naderite activist Mark Green and New York Rep. Charles Schumer.

Arrogant and sloppy

Convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols escaped the death penalty after a divided federal jury in Denver deadlocked over his punishment. The sentencing is now the purview of trial judge Richard Matsch, who under federal law cannot impose a death sentence. At a news conference after the deadlock was announced, jury foreman Niki Deutchman said some jury members continued to be deeply skeptical of the government's case against Mr. Nichols. She accused the FBI of being "arrogant" and "sloppy" in its handling of the investigation and said that prosecutors "didn't do a good job of proving Terry Nichols was greatly involved" in the attack. Later, about 60 relatives of bombing victims gathered at a church about a block from the courthouse to seek consolation. The service ended with the church bell's chiming 168 times, once for each person who died in the Alfred P. Murrah federal building.

Ruby Ridge saga continues

A state judge in Idaho ordered FBI sharpshooter Lon Horiuchi to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Vicki Weaver, killed during the bureau's 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge. Seeking Mrs. Weaver's husband Randy on a weapons charge, dozens of FBI agents surrounded the Weaver family's mountaintop cabin. As Mrs. Weaver, with a baby in her arms, held open the cabin door to allow her husband, a daughter, and family friend Kevin Harris to take cover inside, Mr. Horiuchi fired, killing Mrs. Weaver. He later claimed he was shooting at Mr. Harris. Although the Ruby Ridge incident touched off a firestorm of concern about government abuse of power-the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals called the FBI's "shoot-on-sight" policy at Ruby Ridge "a gross deviation from constitutional principles"-the FBI has defended Mr. Horiuchi's actions and the Justice Department is paying for his attorneys.

The nation in brief

Almost two-thirds of children in urban public schools are failing to reach minimal standards in reading, math, and science, according to a report from Education Week magazine. While fretting about lack of funding for some urban schools, the report also concedes that "huge bureaucracies and special interest groups" are a big part of the problem. Feeding at the public trough proved quite satisfying for 90 members of an extended Georgia family. Working together, they laid claim to more than $1 million in federal disability benefits before government officials discovered they didn't qualify. The inspector general for the Social Security Administration said that while the Georgia case was unusually large, abuse of the federal disability program is not unusual at all, but increasingly common. NASA headed back to the Moon, the first lunar mission in 25 years. The space agency launched an unmanned orbiting spacecraft, the Lunar Prospector, to search for water that could one day be used by human settlers.

Show me the reforms

Concerns about Asian economic problems continued to roil international markets. Currencies in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines fell to record lows. Sharp currency declines also occurred in Taiwan and Singapore, even as the Clinton administration sought to project confidence that a $100 billion bailout effort by the International Monetary Fund is bearing fruit. That assessment was further undercut by Indonesia's refusal to implement budget cuts ordered by the IMF. Instead, hoping to quell unrest caused by rapidly rising unemployment-Indonesia has more than two million newly unemployed-Indonesian leaders moved to raise government spending by 32 percent.

Blood flows

Algeria's bloody six-year Islamic insurgency got bloodier. An estimated 1,000 people died in a new round of massacres coinciding with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Several hundred people were said to have been burned alive and many others were chopped to death with axes. Some 65,000 have died in brutal attacks by Muslim guerrillas. Repercussions continued from the December massacre of 45 unarmed Indians in a southern Mexican state. The governor of the state resigned Jan. 7, becoming the second top official to do so. So far, more than 40 men have been arrested, including the top county official where the slaughter took place. He's charged with organizing the killings. A local village leader is accused of buying the weapons that were used, ranging from machetes to AK-47 assault rifles.

Just don't do it

Sex educators like to say that kids will "do it anyway," so it stands to reason they should be taught to "do it responsibly." Those who want sexual abstinence taught point out that "responsible" fornication or adultery is a contradiction in terms. There's an analogy here to government spending on sex-education programs in the public schools. Can education bureaucrats be trusted to spend taxpayer money responsibly? Apparently not, one congressman complained last week. He charges that local officials may be misusing money from a five-year, $50 million annual federal program to promote sexual abstinence among public-school students. Part of the 1996 welfare reform bill, the abstinence provision is aimed at reducing family-destroying sexual promiscuity and out-of-wedlock pregnancies that worsen poverty and welfare dependence. At the time, the program met with much criticism from sex educators who didn't like the requirement that none of the money could be used for, or mixed with funds for, other school curricula that promote birth control. Now, there's evidence that officials in at least half of the states signed up for the money anyway and found a way around the law. In a letter last week to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) noted that some states plan to use the money for after-school programs, without any effort to tell children not to have sex. Other states, the letter says, may be using their matching money to distribute information about birth control. "It is imperative that the guidelines used by [HHS] to approve applications are consistent with the letter and spirit of the legislation," Rep. Bliley wrote. The Virginia congressman also demanded an investigation into an e-mail message sent by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staffer urging state officials to lobby their members of Congress to repeal the abstinence-only requirement. It is against the law for federal agencies to spend money on "grass-roots" lobbying efforts, Mr. Bliley noted.

Back to the future

The Canadian government issued a formal apology for a centuries-long campaign that attempted to stamp out the cultures and beliefs of the land's Indians and other indigenous peoples. In an official "Statement of Reconciliation," the government expressed its "profound regret for past actions." Along with the apology, the government pledged to establish a "healing fund" for the thousands of Indians forced to leave their homes. Former South African President Pieter Botha will face criminal prosecution for attempting to hinder the work of the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel investigating human-rights abuses under apartheid. While serving as president from 1984 to 1989, Mr. Botha is suspected of having mounted a campaign against anti-apartheid opponents that included both overt repression and covert killings. A former South African police general has told the truth commission that Mr. Botha ordered the 1988 bombing of the Johannesburg office of the South African Council of Churches.

Policy wars

Hours after House Speaker Newt Gingrich last week unveiled his 1998 agenda that included modest tax cuts, President Clinton announced that his Fiscal Year 1999 budget proposal to Congress would show a three-years-ahead-of-schedule surplus. The Wall Street Journal reported that whatever surplus is finally unveiled-White House budget director Franklin Raines said it would be "slight"-would be due to growth in the economy "rather than to government action." Stronger economic activity has boosted government tax revenues to the point where taxpayers have apparently finally surpassed Washington's appetite for spending. Not so fast. Even as he announced the surplus, the president began previewing a host of new spending programs in the budget scheduled for official release Feb. 2. The biggest-ticket item is his proposed expansion of Medicare by lowering the eligibility age to 62 from 65. Under the plan, early Medicare entrants would be required to pay $400-per-month premiums, which private analysts doubt would cover all the new costs. Mr. Clinton also outlined his five-year, $20 billion child-care bill. In addition, the president provided a glimpse of his plan to make new taxpayer subsidies available for college education. The supposed "slight" surplus, The Washington Post reported, is actually no surplus at all-because government accounting includes Social Security revenues in the total. Subtracting those revenues, the government will actually run $135 billion in the red in Fiscal 1999. Without mentioning Mr. Gingrich directly, the president said he would resist GOP tax cuts, charging that they would cause a return to deficits. At the same time, Mr. Clinton claimed his new spending initiatives would not bust the budget because they were offset by tax hikes and fees, such as higher taxes on cigarettes that are part of a yet-unapproved legal settlement with tobacco companies. Mr. Gingrich instead urged spending restraint and a gradual reduction of the federal, state, and local tax burden from 38 percent of the average American's earnings to 25 percent. The House speaker also proposed "a World War II style victory plan" to rid the nation of illegal drugs; a crackdown on bad schools, with the threat of getting "rid of the people in charge of them"; and the liberation of students "trapped in bilingual programs where they do not learn English." Mr. Clinton's proposal to increase Medicare costs was opposed by Republicans. House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich said on NBC's Meet the Press, "To add more people to a system that's running out of money doesn't make any sense."

Still standing

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government frayed but didn't unravel, following the resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy. Mr. Levy, protesting a lack of welfare spending in Mr. Netanyahu's 1998 budget, took with him a block of five previously pro-Netanyahu votes in Parliament, leaving the prime minister's coalition with only a 61-59 majority. Analysts predicted it was only a matter of time before the coalition would collapse and force new elections. But Mr. Netanyahu, whose budget passed despite the Levy resignation, said he's been eulogized "at least 18 times in the last 18 months, and look, I'm still here."