Enough About Pollution Regulations; Here's a Riff on Amy Winehouse

By Al Kamen
Friday, February 1, 2008

There's often something almost magical when government bureaucrats begin blogging. Take the extraordinary blog The Flow of the River (http://flowoftheriver.epa.gov), by Marcus Peacock, the Environmental Protection Agency deputy administrator. We're told it's been a source of great entertainment for the staff there.

These postings are deeply personal ruminations, running two or three a week; they include riffs on friendship, kids, culture, theater and family travel. Since this is, after all, a government Web site, they seamlessly segue to EPA management themes.

An angst-ridden Peacock posted this last week:

"I once borrowed a friend's goggles to go snorkeling. I got into the water and couldn't see much of anything. It was all fuzzy. Turns out he forgot to tell me they were prescription goggles. Sometimes, however, you see more, not less, when you look through someone else's goggles.

"There are moments, late at night, when I wonder if I'm spending my time working on the right things. Are measures, goals, quarterly reports, best practices, and regular management meetings important to making EPA a more effective agency?"

Of course they are. If you doubt it for a moment, call OMB regulators and they'll put your mind at ease. Now go back to sleep.

On Wednesday, Peacock, 47, opined on rock megastar Amy Winehouse, the singing sensation who has a serious alcohol and drug problem. "She is an incredibly skilled person," he wrote. "She is also incredibly self-destructive."

But, he says, "here's the fascinating question: would a 'clean' Amy Winehouse still be Amy Winehouse? What if someone had grabbed her when she was still impressionable and sent her down a different, cleaner, path? What if we had the talent without the drugs?"

"Some say we wouldn't want that," he writes, ". . . Janis Joplin without heroin would have just been another singer. I can't go there."

But the riff allowed Peacock to muse on the benefits of early intervention. "A good management system . . . forces people to consider how they are doing" and rewards those who "bring bad news early."

That may be why EPA chief Stephen Johnson announced Dec. 20 that he would not grant California, Maryland and a dozen other states a waiver so they could impose tougher mileage standards than automakers want.

EPA staff and lawyers are working feverishly -- at least when they're not reading Peacock's blog -- to justify that decision to Congress by Feb. 15. But at least Johnson got the bad news out early.

Johnson might explain the decision-making rationale by simply paraphrasing Winehouse's hit song about people trying to force her into rehab: "They tried to make me grant a waiver, I said no, no, no."

TSA's Happy Talk Turns Ugly

Speaking of government blogs -- it appears that most, such as Peacock's, are "moderated." That's a government euphemism for "censored." So they tend to be lame and borderline agency propaganda.

That's how the blog for the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration started out on Wednesday. It was mostly happy talk and praise from screeners and officials about how the blog will be very useful.

The five-member team of bloggers introduced themselves. Here's one: "Hi! My name is Ethel and I'm from Wisconsin. I like music, I love ice cream, and I adore weird facts: Did you know that elephants can smell water from as far away as three miles?"

But then the tone changed. By early yesterday morning, with hundreds of comments submitted, things started to get ugly, reflecting the traveling public's fury over rules on shoes and liquids, delays, abusive screeners, and so on.

Such words as "scum" started creeping in. And there were questions about what TSA personnel do with that wine and liquor they confiscate.

"Frankly we've been overwhelmed with the number of responses we've received," a post from the blog czars acknowledged on the site yesterday. "More than 700 comments have been received and comments are still pouring in" including "stream of consciousness diatribes."

A notice popped up on the "welcome" page shortly after 2 p.m., saying, "New comments have been disabled for this post by a blog administrator."

Many people talked about how useless and absurd the TSA is. Airport screeners pleaded for understanding. "We're human too," said one.

One fine entry, by "Anonymous," said: "I appreciate the work that TSA is doing -- helping to prevent another 9/11 incident. However, somehow I've been added to their [secondary screening] list and I find it rather insulting."

"Anonymous" explained that he is "an Air Force pilot (C-5) who flies troops and cargo into the combat zone each month." He said that some of his "missions include pre-positioning and de-positioning the President's motorcade and Secret Service personnel" during President Bush's trips, and that he has a "Secret security clearance."

"So, if our nation and government can trust me to carry the President's vehicles, fly monthly into hostile territories and keep classified information to myself . . . do you think I can STOP getting secondary screening. Please remove me from your list." Sure. After you remove your shoes, all metal, liquids, computers . . .

There were many thoughtful comments, such as: "DHS and TSA are fundamentally broken. Disband both immediately and return our civil liberties."

But many apparently were too far over the top. "In the spirit of transparency, we plan to note how many comments we've rejected and tell you why," the agency "blog team" wrote. "Mostly the rejected comments include profane language, political rants or abusive posts that we just can't print. . . . Other than these, every post will go up as written."

Meanwhile, there were already complaints like this one: "Lots of questions, comments and suggestions but no apparent replies or answers! So what's the point of the blog?"

Still, maybe you'll feel better seeing that other fliers share your pain. The site is http://www.tsa.gov/blog.

Gap? What Gap?

There's been much talk of a gender gap among Democratic primary voters when it comes to supporting Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Pollsters have concluded that the gap generally looks to be in the low double digits, 10 to 15 points.

And it appears that gap is equally large when it comes to congressional endorsements. Five of the 12 senators who have endorsed Clinton are women. Only one of the eight senators who've endorsed Obama, freshman Claire McCaskill of Missouri, is a woman.

On the House side, 28 of the 73 Clinton endorsers -- that's just over 38 percent -- are women. But only eight of the 44 House members who've endorsed Obama are women. That's 18 percent.

Maybe they represent the people after all?

Back in the Whatever We Call It Now

Free Travel Alert! The State Department released this "joint statement" yesterday.

"Given the increased investment and trade between our two countries, and Russia's growing importance in the world economy, the United States and Russia will establish a formal economic dialogue to discuss issues of mutual interest. As appropriate, this dialogue will include various U.S. Departments and Agencies, Russian Ministries, and our respective business communities. The inaugural meeting of this dialogue will be in the Spring in Washington, D.C."

Doubtless no trips to Russia in winter. Sign up for the optional St. Petersburg leg now.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company