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SO-CALLED 'LITTLE PEOPLE' GET LEFT OUT OF LOOP

There were stirrings of domestic unrest in President Bush's war on terrorism last week. Mainly though, these feelings of mistrust were among those whom the elites here consider to be little people.

At a postal facility in a suburban Maryland community called Gaithersburg, scores of postal workers - as many as 100 - called in sick. These absent workers are either terrified about anthrax, or don't believe our government any more - or both. And a community meeting about postal workers and anthrax turned understandably ugly in Southeast Washington. The District of Columbia's health commissioner, Dr. Ivan Walks, was chased out of the hall.

A number of furious women blamed the D.C. government for the deaths of two postal workers at the District's Brentwood facility. They charged that if the postal workers at Brentwood had been given the same warnings and medical care accorded congressional employees who may have come in contact with anthrax, then the two postal workers would not have died.

The Brentwood Post Office processed the letters that infested the mail rooms of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. All congressional personnel who potentially came in contact with the pathogens were screened and given 10 days' supply of Cipro. As the congressional office buildings were being cleared, Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the U.S. Postal Service that there was no danger to the employees at Brentwood, and they could keep working there.

The service was told the employees didn't need screenings. As a result, U.S. Postmaster General John Potter told the Brentwood workers to stay put. Two long-time workers at Brentwood subsequently died of inhalation anthrax.

For the record, the two workers who believed Potter and Koplan and died were named Joseph P. Curseen Jr. and Thomas L. Morris Jr. Walks, of the District's health department, protested that the department had nothing to do with the tragedy at Brentwood. He said, accurately, that Potter's and Koplan's agencies told D.C. to stay out of it.

Neither Potter nor Koplan showed up to defend themselves, or poor Walks. In fact, the only persons who have so far paid for this carelessness, this bureaucratic arrogance, are postal workers Curseen and Morris, their families and the legions of friends who survived them.

The Bush administration has handled this episode as though it was a political issue - with spin. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, who generally performs admirably, has had several opportunities to voice concern at daily briefings about the conduct of Potter and Koplan, and has ducked. It's not Fleischer's fault. He operates under the guidance of the president himself, or Karen Hughes, the communications director, or Karl Rove, the president's political director.

Asked at Tuesday's briefing whether CDC or the Postal Service could be blamed for keeping the Brentwood workers on the job when congressional workers were told to go home, Fleischer said: "The president believes that the cause of death was not the treatment made by the federal government or the local officials, or anybody else, that the cause of death was the attack that was made on our nation as a result of people mailing anthrax through the mail."

It was a marvelously crafted phrase in which a straw man was created and the core issue of the federal government's responsibility was artfully deflected. The next afternoon, reporters asked Fleischer whether the failure of CDC to share accurate information on the dangers of anthrax with the Postal Service, or with Home Security Director Tom Ridge, "led to the deaths of two people (Morris and Curseen). "I'm going to keep moving," Fleischer responded, brushing the deaths aside. Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services, who oversees CDC, blamed the deaths on "evolving science."

Out of the entire cast in this drama, only Surgeon General David Satcher, who was a bit player, had conscience enough to admit the truth. "We were wrong" not to have acted more aggressively to save the postal workers, he said. Satcher, however, had no executive responsibility for it. His job is largely symbolic.

Ridge and his informal executive branch team has had a rocky start. Some of the week's performances have raised questions about his readiness for prime time, and the Bush administration's fitness to conduct a two-front war - the second front extending from your home, your mailbox and your workplace.

Ridge's preoccupation, no doubt due to White House spinmeisters, has not been information but public relations. At week's end he was still trying to wriggle out from under his previous statements that the anthrax found in Daschle's mail room was not "weapons grade," when it was clearly shown that this sophisticated and lethal stuff was most likely made in Russia, the United States or Iraq. Ridge and Home Security ought to be able to put out something authoritative by now on whether the average citizen can safely handle mail.

But the White House and Postal Service still were conflicted about that. Some people, like Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., think Ridge's problems can be fixed by making his office a cabinet agency with a big budget and lots of legal clout.

But no matter how Ridge's office is structured, Bush's second-front war will be won only if the government plays it straight with everybody, even the so-called "little people." And so far, some of them, including a hundred postal employees in Gaithersburg, and a room full of angry people in Southeast Washington, aren't buying the story.

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