Robert McCartney: Want a Piece of My Mind? After 27 Years, I've Got Lots to Say

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, June 21, 2009

For 27 years, The Washington Post has paid me to keep my opinions out of the newspaper. Now it's going to pay me to put them in.

I'm the Metro section's newest columnist. I'll be writing Sundays and Thursdays about all kinds of issues in the Washington region, which I'm taking the liberty of defining as every place from Richmond to Baltimore and Ocean City to West Virginia.

This assignment represents a big change for me, because until now I've been a hard-news journalist rather than a commentator. I've striven to report facts and other people's opinions, but not my own. As an editor since 1992, most recently heading the Metro staff for nearly four years, I've even labored at times to wring other journalists' opinions out of stories.

Now I'm putting all that even-handedness behind me. After a reasonable amount of reporting and analysis, I'm going to say what I think.

So, what sort of opinions should you expect? I start with the perspective that we in the Washington area suffer from a chronic shortage of healthy civic outrage. We are too content to tolerate such long-standing social ills as crime, poverty, waste and mismanagement (both government and private), pollution and Capital Beltway traffic. They hurt our own quality of life or our fellows' well-being, yet there is little sustained public outcry.

We have plenty of resources to combat these problems. We live in one of the wealthiest, most powerful metropolitan areas in the world -- in all of human history, in fact. So why can't we do more to lower the murder rate (eight per week in the region last year)? What about the 12,000 without homes in the area, or the nearly 800,000 without medical insurance? How do we curb the bureaucracy that can so often cripple public services?

Geographic isolation in comfortable suburbs contributes to our complacency. The people with the most money and power, in places like Great Falls, McLean, Ward 3, Potomac and, yes, my own community of Bethesda are seldom directly affected by violence or want. We see the story about yet another homicide just a few miles away and think, "Isn't that awful." Then we dismiss it as someone else's responsibility, or a problem that will never be fixed.

On the bright side, many good people labor hard to improve others' lives, such as by feeding the needy and tutoring the ill-educated, often as volunteers or for relatively low pay. I want to spotlight admirable works in this column, especially by those taking innovative steps that yield practical results.

I also plan to campaign against the parochial rivalries and poor cooperation among Maryland, Virginia and the District (plus the federal government) that block progress. I grew up in the region and remember how such bickering delayed construction of the Metro system. More recently, the area hasn't worked together effectively to end the gradual poisoning of the Chesapeake Bay. It's failed to prevent the growth of street gangs, which now recruit in middle schools and particularly affect some Latino and African American communities.

Of course, traffic congestion is the top example of this problem. Political gridlock leads to the highway variety. Consider this: Starting in three years, parts of the Beltway and I-395 in Virginia will be widened with the opening of newfangled toll lanes where you pay more when traffic is heaviest. Maryland and the District, however, aren't yet planning to add similar lanes on their sides of the American Legion and 14th Street bridges. Sound like a recipe for more bottlenecks?

It may seem dreamily unrealistic to rail against such enduring problems as crime, homelessness and even traffic. But I've lived and worked in metropolitan areas in Europe, notably in France and Germany, where the murder rate was substantially lower than here and social services -- including public transportation -- were superior. So I know it's possible to do better. The challenge is to improve the quality of life without drastically raising taxes, strangling economic growth and eroding individual freedoms.

I believe this is an auspicious historical moment to raise our expectations. Wall Street's collapse and the worst recession in seven decades make us more open to experiment. Surely the election of an African American president, which we already take for granted, shows how much people's thinking can be transformed in a short time.

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