Levey Live: Speaking Freely on the Road
Friday, April 2, 1999
"Levey Live: Speaking Freely," hosted by Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, appears every Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, open-agenda discussion offering washingtonpost.com users around the world the opportunity to ask questions and discuss topics of their choice with Bob.
Here is a transcript of today's session:
Colesville, Md.: If you really were "Captain America", what one thing that you've seen along your trip would you like to see in place here. -Could be a driving regulation, particular restaurant, yadda, yadda, yadda....-
Bob Levey: This person refers to the epic 3,000 mile truck trip that my twelve-year-old son and I finished last night. We ran 11,000 pounds from New York city to Burbank, Calif. (see, I even use the same verbs as truckers now!). If I had my druthers, I would make it a federal law for all Cracker Barrel restaurants to be banned from the face of the earth. They are just a little bit too cute -- and they get cloying after 5 1/2 days on the road.
Bob Levey: As long as you will promise me that my wife is not reading this, I will confess: we bought half a pound of fudge in Tennessee. It lasted until Oklahoma -- barely. Other than that, we bought nothing that we could not put in our mouths or the gas tank of the truck.
Falls Church, VA: Good afternoon Bob. Any suggestions on what Americans can do for the families of those three captured American soldiers? I fell terrible about it and want to do something.
Bob Levey: Having covered many of these kinds of stories during my 3 1/2 decades of newspaper work, I hope that you will not become a gawker. The worst thing for any of these families is to have camera crews parked outside their houses 24-hours a day. There's no way to stop that. But please don't stand across the street and point fingers at family members as they take out the garbage. I have seen that happen, and it is ugly. On a more political note, I would make sure to express through letters to the editor your total support for these three men.
Annandale, VA: So how was Tucamcari, NM? Was the "Trucken Heaven" as promised? Whe I was there in 1979, it was two miles of every motel and fast food chain imaginable. Has anything changed in 20 years?
Bob Levey: Yes. Two miles became four miles. We stopped there for gas, and I thought I was in a bizarre science fiction movie. Fifteen huge trucks were parked side by side in a mamoth parking lot. For some reason, the drivers had left their engines running. It looked like a bunch of bizarre creatures from outer space, hacking and coughing and snarling and planning in some strange language how to mount an assault on the nearby Ramada Inn.
Bob Levey: Hey, by the way, does anyone know why truckers leave their engines running?
Bob, I need your input. What is your feeling about standardized testing? My coworker and I have been having an ongoing discussion about this. I feel that colleges-both undergrad and even more so at the graduate and law school level- rely too heavily on SAT and similar test scores. I don't think they are an accurate reflection of the type of student you are or potentially could be. She on the other hand thinks they are pretty accurate.
Bob Levey: I agree 1,000% that SATs are overblown as predictors of academic performance. So many factors determine success or failure in college that it is absolutely crazy to assume that one test can accurately measure one young person. I always love to cite my own experience when this subject comes up. I got 1,600 on the SAT -- making me one of only about 5,000 people ever to achieve a perfect score. But my performance in college did not exactly set any world records. I barely graduated with a 2.2 average. The reasons were, in no particular order, spending all my time on the college newspaper, playing bridge and chasing women. I defy the SATs to measure anyone's desire to write headlines, take finesses or ask a beautiful sophomore what her sign is.
Alexandria, VA: Bob: Now that you've finished your trek across this great country of ours, what do you think about gas prices? How can the oil companies slowly lower prices 20 to 30 cents over a six month period because of a glut of oil and turn around and raise prices 20 cents in 2 weeks over the mere threat of lowering production? Sure beats the heck out of me.
Bob Levey: I don't presume to understand economics, and I have never understood the gas business. It seems to me that prices could be steadier, and have been steadier. Yet during our trip, we paid as little as 92 cents a gallon for unleaded regular (Arkansas) and as much as $1.46 for the same gallon (California). Surely regional demand cannot explain that kind of difference. I'm not sure anything else can, either, other than greed.
Alexandria, VA: About truckers leaving their engines running. You see, Bob, when the trucker starts his trip, someone else starts the engine but doesn't tell the trucker how it's done. So, they have to leave them running until they reach their destination.
Bob Levey: My mother's neighbors here in Burbank may just have called the cops because you made me laugh so loud that I disturbed the avocados on the trees. Cute!
I've always heard it had something to do with time and wear & tear. It's better for the engines rather than shutting them down and restarting them.
Bob Levey: That sounds very logical, my friend. However, you can get into the most endless argument of your entire life over whether your reasoning makes sense. For example, back in 1982, I did a column about whether it is more energy-efficient to open and shut a refrigerator every time you take something out, or to open it and leave it open for a few seconds, or until you have unloaded everything you want. Don't laugh: a couple in Bethesda got divorced over this.
East Lyme, Ct:
Bob Levey: As far as Mary Washington goes: Fredericksburg is about 60 miles from the White House. That is right on the outer edge of what we consider our local world. By way of contrast, the major schools in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins, Goucher, Towson State, Morgan State and Loyola) are not considered local schools by the Post, either, although they are a mere 35 miles away. As for getting the Post in Conn., I sympathize but I also understand why it does not make economic sense for the Post to consider you a bedrock subscriber. It costs about $2.50 to publish every copy of the Post that you receive in Conn. (or anywhere else). The newsstand price obviously does not cover the production cost. If we charged you $2.50, you would be dollars to donuts to drop your subscription. Luckily you have an alternative: washingtonpost.com! The entire newspaper is available right here on this website, and nobody will charge you a penny for it.
San Jose, CA: On the gas prices thing ... no one in the Bay Area is really pleased with gas prices. They're somewhere between 1.59 and 1.65. California has a law that won't let us import gas from out of the state. Go figure. But that, combined with the Tosco and Chevron refinery fires, and problems with Exxon's refinery in Benicia have made for REALLY high prices. So that's why. I'm not sure that it's greed, but it sure is costing a bundle to fill up these days.
Bob Levey: No argument about the bundle. But surely all of those negative factors have not created a real shortage. Put it this way: if the Washington Post had a warehouse fire tomorrow and 20% of our newsprint burned up, do you think we would rais the price of the newspaper the next day? I still smell major league greed here on the part of the oil companies. They know they have a monopoly and they turn the screw any time one or two headlines seem to give them an opportunity.
Bob Levey: The two figures I mentioned earlier were both encountered beside a major interstate highway, so I'm afraid your distinction doesn't hold up. I'm well aware that state taxes vary. But 54 cents different?
Baltimore, MD: Regarding the value of the SATs - I think the test, as many standardized tests do, measures predicted performance in a traditional classroom setting. If you do well on the SATs, you probably would do well with standard memorization, reading material, tests, etc. This brings up a problem with what "traditional classrooms" teach anyway. What about "real world" skills, like writing a proposal, working with vendors, or managing a project? There would have to be a totally different test to measure that kind of aptitude.
Bob Levey: And what about the biggest issue of all: what kind of a person you are? The minute you try to quantify every student, you invite people to become nothing but grade-getting machines. If I were running The University of Levey and I had to choose between two kids, one of whom had 1,500 SATs but had never done anything except get a driver's licens, and another kid who got 1,100 SATs but who played sports and worked in politics, I'd choose the second kid every time.
This is related to the posting by the person who wrote about Mary Washington College sports. I am a William and Mary grad and I am never able to discover the results of certain sporting events unless W&M happens to be playing AU or Mason. The problem is that the Post sees fit to print all the info one could ever care to know about UVA athletic teams about which I could not care less. The Post should either report on all Div I sports teams in the area to include W&M or it should draw the line at "within X miles."
Bob Levey: I can certainly understand the comparison to UVa. However, we are a celebrity culture, and UVa plays in a hyper-competitive conference. That means they play the biggest of big-time college sports. William & Mary does not. Since space in the newspaper is not infinite, that's where we tend to draw the line. However, judgments change over time. When I was assistant sports editor of the Post in the early 1970s, we never covered women's college sports at all. Today, women get almost as much coverage as men.
Arlington, VA: So when do you think ground troops will be sent into Yugoslavia? Doesn't it seem like a foregone conclusion at this point? And what does this debacle of bombing say about Clinton's leadership? Wasn't he paying attention to the history lesson that bombing alone doesn't work?
Bob Levey: I still can't imagine ground troops being sent in in the same kinds of numbers that we saw in Vietnam. And the reason is Vietnam: we surely would never have the political will to repeat that disaster. I think it is far more likely that we will continue to bomb for awhile and then withdraw for awhile, to see if anything is different once the smoke clears. Yes, I know that this is precisely what Lindon Johnson did in 1964 and 1965. However, we had ground troops in Vietnam at the time, so the comparison is not perfect. Remember that Clinton is not calling all the shots here. So even though I agree that he is severely wounded as a leader, I can't imagine the most popular American presidents doing anything different.
Bob Levey: Twenty-five minutes remaining in this week's session. Keep those questions coming!
Alexandria, VA: Why did you decide to move to California and, since i gues this is your last day, do you consider the Post a good place to work if you are young?
Bob Levey: It was my mother who moved to Calif., not me. All my son and I did was to drive her stuff out here. I could never leave the Post. It would take me too long to clean out my office.
Bob Levey: I'm not familiar with the details of this, but it reminds me of the same brilliant planning that we see whenever there is a mid-day snow storm. Some amatuer weatherman at OPM decides that he knows better than the Weather Channel, and he shuts down the entire federal government all at once. What you describe sounds similar.
Wilmington, NC: Hi Bob! Would you do it again?
Bob Levey: I'm assuming you're talking about the truck trip, and I've never been as sure of an answer as I am of this one: no, no, a thousand times no. Of course, if my mommykins decided next month that Burbank wasn't cutting it, and it just had to be northern Maine, I think I know who would drive here stuff there.
Arlington, Virginia: Have you observed beautiful flowers or other plants along the way?
Bob Levey: We saw some lilacs in New Mexico beside the road that were utterly spectacular. But when you drive across the United States, you realize just how brown the country really is west of, say, Oklahoma City. In the middle of the Mojave Desert, for example, you do see some cacti and a couple of wild flowers. But none of it holds a candle to the lush greenery of Virginia and Tennessee.
Alexandria, VA: There has been considerable speculation regarding the New York Senate race among two candidates who have not declared that they will run! Why do you think Mrs. Clinton would want the job? She will be in the minority and could probably have more of an impact working in corporate America. Is the legacy really worth it?
Bob Levey: I have never understood why she would want the job, and I understand even less why she would want to campaign for it. Would you run for public office if you knew that for six solid months, everywhere you went, the first ten questions would have nothing to do with you, but would concern Altoid mints, blue dresses and whether your marriage is worth sustaining?
Colesville, Md.: Now for some "serious" stuff. What do you think is going to happen and-or the US-NATO is going to do about the three captured soldiers?
Bob Levey: As I read it, there is nothing they can do directly. I saw General Schwarzkopf on television last night, and I thought he made an excellent point. Real armies don't rush in and rescue soldiers who are prisoners of war. As the general said, "That's Rambo." I think the Russians, who are still friendly with Milosevic, can assure that the three remain alive. Beyond that, I think we had better prepare for a full-dress trial on television, and lots of political ferment here at home as a result.
Baltimore, MD: Have you read-heard any statistics on the number of accidents caused by people who rent trucks and drive them with little or no previous truck-driving experience?
Bob Levey: Now that we have successfully concluded the trip, I can answer with a somewhat less cautios mentality. No, I don't know of greater accident rates among inexperienced truck drivers. But it would not amaze me. Two pieces of evidence: figure 1) it cost me $200 to insure just the truck (not even the contents) on our trip. I spend only a little more than that to insure our two cars for nearly half a year. Figure 2) These babies are EXTREMELY hard to handle. I drove through a snow storm in Ariz. yesterday for four hours, and it was only my 38 years of driving experience (plus my son singing show tunes) that saw us through.
Boston,MA: You guys are driving back, right? ;-
Bob Levey: We are driving back from seats 11A and 11C aboard a USAirways "truck."
Washington, DC: Re: Trucks left running -- the trucks may have been refrigerated trucks, in which case the motor has to stay running for the trailer to keep cool. Did you happen to notice if the trailers or the trucks had motors on the top -it would probably be covered by some sort of casing-? The other answer is that most truckers sleep in their rigs, some even have faxes, phones, and small sinks in those sleepers -- there's a whole host of reasons that they may want to keep the engine running.
Bob Levey: I'm sure you're right on all counts. By the way, these rigs are used 24-hours a day by so many people that even the signs on the outsides of trucks are beginning to reflect that. I passed a truck in Texas the other day. On the driver's side door, the following appeared: "This truck is operated by a team. In case of accident, check sleeping area."
Truck engines power the refrigeration units in the trailers. If you shut off the truck, it's like unplugging the fridge. And it's not just the deep freeze trucks. The trucks hauling lipstick or chocolates have to be kept cool in summer and yet others need to be kept warm in winter.
Bob Levey: Maybe if I had kept the motor running on our Ryder rent a truck all night long the two red apples that we brought with us from New York might have lasted until Arkansas! As for Memorial Bridge, it goes right to the top of my Monday morning question sheet.
east lyme, ct:
Bob Levey: Hey, on a sunny day in southern Calif., I'm more worried about getting a team in Los Angeles than I am about the Redskins! Seriously, however, I remain baffled by the whole 'Skins disaster. Since when is $800 million not enough? To a more seasonal sport: I'd say that there is a better chance for baseball in downtown Washington than there is in northern Va. However, there are many miles to before downtown D.C. baseball is a reality. Take a good hard look at the scheme that Mayor Williams has been trumpeting. He's talking about a site near 5th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. There are only four problems with that idea: he doesn't have a team, he doesn't have any money to buy one, there's no subway stop nearby and there's no interstate nearby. Other than that, it's a heck of an idea!
As far as the tirade against SATs goes, any admissions office I've ever dealt with puts far more weight on overall grades, activities, essays, etc. The SATs are used simply as an easily comparable constant.
Bob Levey: You must not have spent much time around the admissions offices of today. If you try to apply to even a moderately selective college these days, and you don't have good SAT scores, it won't matter whether you have raised money to cure cancer or helped elect a governor. The SATs are viewed as the passport. If you ain't got one, you can't get through the door. It remains the biggest single qualifier. I hate that, but admissions people acknowledge it.
Falls Church, VA: OK Bob, Let's have it. Where was the best food on the trip? Maybe some Mom and Pop place with the great BBQ ribs? Please don't tell us that you ate mostly at the Golden Arches.
Bob Levey: The last Golden Arch hamburger I had was in 1981, so I can say with a clear conscience (and even clearer arteries) that we avoided all junk. We did find a buffet restaurant in Jackson, Tenn. that wasn't half bad. Otherwise, the food was strictly C-plus. By the way, my son and I have been assigned to do tandem pieces about our trip by the Washington Post's Travel section. Be looking for them sometime later this spring.
Bob Levey: That's it for today. I have to go help unload the truck, which I have cleverly been avoiding for the last hour. Please join us next Friday (and every Friday) at the same time for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." And don't forget the Tuesday edition, "Levey Live," which appears from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. Our guest Tuesday, April 6 will be the Governor of Virginia, Jim Gilmore.