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Levey Live: Speaking Freely

Friday, May 28, 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 users around the world the opportunity to ask questions and discuss topics of their choice with Bob.

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Dan Murano/

Fearless Bob takes your questions about virtually everything, from sports and politics (there's a difference?) to world events, Metro area traffic and issues raised in Bob's columns.

Never fear, Bob was here, LIVE ONLINE, typing at you today from his creatively cluttered office high atop The Washington Post building.

Here is a transcript of today's session:


Alexandria, VA: Bob-

This is a comment in response to the Metro special on commuters - especially the introduction, which states, "Three kinds of people live and work in metropolitan Washington: the very rich, the very lucky, and those doomed to commute."

Many of my colleagues here at a well-known consulting firm would agree with that statement, and would place me in the category of "very lucky", since my commute takes at most 30 minutes each way. -it can go as low as 10 minutes in the morning, and averages about 20 minutes to go the 13 miles between Old Town and Falls Church- However, I've come to realize that the "lucky" characterization isn't quite accurate - I'd go for "practical". Here's why:

There are people who are truly limited in terms of where they live - limited by economics, available public transportation, etc. I have a great deal of sympathy for people in those situations who are forced to spend hours each day commuting. I also have sympathy for people like the woman in this morning's article who do make the effort to live close to work, only to have the company move.

However, I have little sympathy for people who CHOOSE to live far away from where they work - like my former co-worker who lives in Fredericksburg and works in Chantilly. He used to complain about his 120-mile round-trip at every opportunity, yet, when I asked him why he didn't move in closer, he responded, "Well, I wanted at least an acre of land, and a larger house in the country…etc.

I've heard variations on the same theme over and over - people say they can't afford to live closer in, yet they're willing to spend $120-month or more on gas, hundreds of dollars more per year in car repairs and depreciation, and more money on child care -for those extra hours they're in the car- rather than move closer to their workplace. I don't have children, but if I did, I think I'd rather live in a house with a smaller yard to be able to spend 2 more hours with them every day. I'd wager that the kids would agree to that also. In addition to the time saving, the savings in stress are immeasurable.

So I come back to my "practical" -vs- "lucky" argument. I pay a premium rent to live in Old Town - sure, I could get the same apartment for less money somewhere else. But would I pay $150 extra per month for 40+ hours of vacation? A lot of people that I know would do just that. Well, that 40 hours is the amount of extra free time I have since I live relatively close to my job. And believe me, the rent differential is worth it. -It's also nice to live in a neighborhood that doesn't have that suburban, Best-Buy and Outback-Steakhouse-on-every-corner cookie-cutter feel-.

I say this to DC-area commuters - if you freely CHOOSE to live in Frederick, or Southern Maryland, or Stafford and you are constantly complaining about the 90-minute commute, maybe it's time you thought about your choices.

Sorry for the length, Bob - I've been wanting to get this off my chest for a while. Feel free to use my name.

Lisa Branco

Bob Levey: Well said. Let me add one thought: Why do you want an acre of land (or even a big back yard) if you're spending so much time commuting that you never enjoy it?

Silver Spring, MD: I found the degrees and types of physical contact accepted-tolerated by students and faculty at Wilson H.S. as detailed in the paper this morning distressing.

I find slaps-pats-taps totally inappropriate. What are the appropriate codes of conduct in schools these days?

Bob Levey: I sympathize big-time with principals and school boards that have to design a one-size-fits-all set of rules. I always hope that common sense will carry the day. In this case, if the female doesn't mind the patting, why does a school need to insist that she should? It's for cases of UNWELCOME patting and touching that the school has to have rules, and has to act. But so many schools ban all patting and all touching, just to make the lives of administrators easier. It has gotten so ridiculous that a teacher can't even offer a literal pat on the back to a student, because he/she might be accused of sexual harassment.

Lexington, KY: A prominent Russian official opined the other day that the world is on the verge of a -possible- nuclear war. Your thoughts?

Bob Levey: It's farther away in some ways, closer in others. Farther: we no longer have two hugely armed superpowers glaring at each other and openly debating first strike capability. Closer: We have more nut-case heads of state who have the bomb, or will soon get it. And we have the increased possibility that nuclear weapons will be stolen (and used) by terrorists or true-believers. In the former Soviet Union, for example, no one in the U.S. is sure what happened to that country's huge nuclear arsenal, and no one is sure who "has the keys."

Burke, VA: Here's another Metro-public transit pet peeve for you, in case you haven't had enough. Why do people marinate themselves with way too much perfume, and then board a closed space like a Metro train? I spent 30 minutes on a train the other day with one of these folks, and my eyes were itching and watering, and I was nauseous from the smell. At least in my car, the carbon monoxide is odorless!

Bob Levey: I seriously think it's an attempt by a woman to attract a man. I hear single women say all the time that you never know where opportunity will strike. In fact, it has struck for many women (and many men) right there on the good old Whatever-Colored Line. So the perfume marination bit is, I believe, a way for that woman to scare up a little action.

Montgomery County: What do you think of the new Montgomery County Police Chief Appointee, Charles Moose? Do you think that he was hired to fulfill the demands of the NAACP? Speaking of that, do you feel that the NAACP has proof of their allegation of racism? Keep in mind that the recent shooting in Wheaton was ruled accidental.

Bob Levey: I have no reason to think that Moose is not a good choice. But it would be horrendously naive to think he wasn't chosen under pressure. Obviously his black skin was a response to the NAACP's position on the recent shooting. And how ridiculous Doug Duncan looked when he said he just chose the best man for the job. That's what President Bush said when he nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. The hoots haven't died down yet.

DC: Bob, Boxers or Briefs ? Just Curious

Bob Levey: Some days one, some days the other. I like to keep everyone guessing.

Fairfax, VA: Re: everyone turning in all their guns. Has anyone proposed how to address the antique guns held by collectors? Would they have to turn them in? If so, would the government compensate them for their full value? For serious collectors, we're talking big $$$. What do you think?

Bob Levey: First of all, I don't see everyone turning in their guns, or being asked to do so (except here on "Levey Live"). So please don't get into some Second Amendment snit quite yet. However, I would certainly expect (and support) fair market value payments to any collector.

Bethesda, MD: Outstanding response to the Metro Commissioner question I posed to you last week. If I had any say, you'd get the job. Can you fix the Bullets, Orioles and Redskins after Metro?
Seriously, why does Metro need to import their trains from Italy? Can't the good old USA come up with a suitable -and less costly- train to meet DC's needs?

Bob Levey: The Bullets became the Wizards, my friend, but it hasn't mattered. The best fix there: new management all around. Same medicine for Orioles and Redskins couldn't hurt. At the same time, we gotta be fair (as they say in New York and Philly, where they are never fair). Management doesn't play the games. Players do. And if players stink, there isn't much any management can do very quickly.
As for Metro trains from Italy, I'm with you all the way. What a dopey decision! Sure, the Italian manufacturer came in with the lowest bid. But no one seemed to consider that ordering spare parts would be expensive and difficult, or that the company might go out of the subway car business (which has happened). Every time your subway car is yanked out of service because some clown leans against a door, and the system isn't savvy enough to tell the difference between that and a door that's actually busted, ask yourself: Would it have happened if the cars had been built in the U.S.?

Washington: The worlds going to Hell in a handbasket, Bob. Tell me why.

Bob Levey: Because Starbucks coffee is too strong. Water it down a little, and you'll see peace and love sprouting from every street corner.

Alexandria, VA: OH! about the lady in today's column, and your response, about perpetual talkers! You hit the nail on the head when you said it's not just "lonely guy" syndrome. It's classic passive-aggressive behaviour- he wants to mess everyone up as much as he is messed up, and that's how he goes about it.

Your advice was sound. However, in our case, our silence didn't get him to leave: instead he went to the boss to complain how we were all being "mean to him." And being clueless, it ordered us to stop it. Can you believe it? HIS constant talking disrupts the productivity of the office on a daily basis, and the rest of us get in trouble. Maybe when the rest of us leave, they'll get a clue.

Bob Levey: Before you split, you might want to hazard a private talk with the boss. Tell him/her that the wool was pulled over his/her eyes. Any boss worth a nickel will understand the difference between appeasing one employee and losing 12. By the way, thanks for the kind words about the column.

Washington DC: I don't understand people who live so far away from their jobs and whatnot. When I was looking for a new apartment with my roommate last december, we decided some very clear parameters, ie, no rent over 900 dollars, but must be within 5 blocks of a red line metro stop, since I work near union station during the year, go to American quite often, and am working at the NIH this summer. It's crazy to do any less - I don't need any more hassle in my life, and I view that 40 minute train ride each way between medical center and silver spring this summer as the perfect opportunity to take the time and read some good books. No need to make it any more stressful than it should be.

Bob Levey: The problem is that a $900 rent today might be a $1,200 rent in a year or so, because so many commuters feel the way you do, and there will be big pressure on rents near Metro stations. The economics are a whole lot easier if you happen to have bought a nice house three blocks from a Metro station in 1975.

Washington DC: Hey now, Bob. Ever had a mocha frappucino? perfect thing for the summer - and it's already watered down, after a fashion, since it's mixed with liberal amounts of ice =D. Try some :-

Bob Levey: I don't do strange drugs

ALexandria: Re: perfume-cologne. I have to disagree--men are by far the worst offenders when it comes to overkill. The rule is this: it should only be smelled when someone is -right- next to you. Not ten feet away, and not in a wave of smell as you pass by.

Bob Levey: Are you talking about after-shave? If so, I second the motion. Would someone please explain to me the alleged allure of Mennen? Other than those TV ads, which suggest that gorgeous chicks will swoon all over you in the bathroom as you shave, I think the smell is.... well, I was in a toxic waste dump in New Jersey once.

Arlington, VA: For a second there, I thought I had written that note from Lisa Branco -about commuting-. I agree 600% with everything she said, and it appears you do, too. Maybe if the thousands of people in the D.C. and other metro areas that can afford to live close to work did, we could eliminate or at least reduce so many pollution, stress, financial and even some crime problems.

Bob Levey: You know, the funny thing is that Metro's planners have taken a ton of heat for failing to anticipate the change in employment and commuting patterns here. But the planners always expected and assumed that residential growth would occur around stations--and that would touch off additional commercial development. Yet it barely happened anywhere for the first 15 years of the system. Now, take a look at stations like King Street, Bethesda, Gallery Place, Rosslyn. Just the way the Founding Fathers imagined it.

Washington, DC: Is there going to be yet another white, middle-aged guy taking over at OP-ED or is The Post management -please don't mention Ms. Graham- going to start to look like the city it lives in and writes about?

Bob Levey: A white middle-aged guy has already taken over. He's Steve Rosenfeld, who had been Meg Greenfield's Number Two. However, in a memo posted on the bulletin board, our publisher, Don Graham, noted that Steve has always said he wanted to go when Meg did. So he is an interim appointment. The next permanent one could be anybody at all, according to the water-cooler know-it-alls. By the way, I'd argue to the death that the next editor does not have to be of a certain sex or race to know the city, or do a great job.

Washington, DC: Hi Bob. I read your column daily -have for many, many years-, and I love these chats. Two part question: 1- Did you read the article in today's Post, -lower half of the front page-, about the kid in Calvert County who was nearly arrested because he walked out on a public prayer at his graduation which he specifically requested not occur? 2- What's your take?

Bob Levey: I've always favored prayer in schools if a) it's voluntary b) it isn't coercive and c) it isn't sectarian. But "Our Father who art in heaven" could be viewed as being alien and coercive by Jews and Muslims (just two examples). So I'd say the prayer, as offered, had no place. Far more important: How in the world can any school official bless people who break the law at a school function? I'm real sorry if you don't like the law, but this isn't the way to change it, or protest it.

Silver Spring: Hiya Bob, and go outside... Anyway, I think I have an entry for Rudest Thing You Ever Saw on Public Transit... T'other day, I was on the Z8 bus heading down Colesville Road to the Silver Spring Metro station. Sitting next to me -- and directly opposite the driver, was a young woman with a headful of those long, thin braids. She was spending her ride re-braiding the tips, which was fine. Except that, whenever she finished one, she'd take a Bic lighter and torch the end, I guess to keep em from unraveling. Ever smell burning hair, Bob? And there has to be a safety issue to boot, constantly lighting little fires on a public conveyance... The driver didn't say anything, neither did any riders -including my own milquetoast self-.... Your thoughts?

Bob Levey: Unbelievable! By the way, I don't blame you for saying nothing. The smell was probably so awful that you couldn't draw a breath. Yet you could still file a report, and I'd suggest you do so. That driver ought to get a lesson in what constitutes "comfortable conditions" for his passengers--and what doesn't.

Washington DC: So when are they gonna get off their duffs and build the purple line and a rail link to rosslyn-dulles anyway. I hate driving around in this town.

Bob Levey: Find me the national administration (and the Capitol Hill leadership) that will fork over $2 billion, and poof... you've got your wish. It can't and won't happen any other way.

Arlington, VA: Quick comment on the perfume marination of women on the Metro. I've spent many tear-filled moments in the presence of a few "Polo" and "Drakar Noir" soaked males before. So I don't think it's a purely gender issue.

Bob Levey: Fair enough. Didn't mean to suggest otherwise.

Washington: Hey Bob. I was having a little fun with you with the 'Hell in a handbasket' thing.

But in all seriousness, do you perceive the world in general and humanity in particular as progressing in a positive way or negative ?

I remember when I was young the future always held hope and everyone assumed that things would get better in regards to social conditions, international relations, etc.

I still consider myself a positive person but it seems more and more people I talk to are pessimistic -sp?- about the future.

Is it just me ? Here's a general question : Are things getting better or worse ?

Bob Levey: No offense, but if you just look around, you will see that we have never had it better.
We live longer. We live in houses that would astound our great-grandparents. We learn more, and learn it more easily. We communicate with amazing ease. As Wall Street would say, it's all up-trends (yes, I'm afraid they do talk that way).
The big minus is politics. Ours are ridiculous--contentious and out of touch. As for international relations, we may not be on the verge of World War Three, but we are certainly far, far away from international understanding or tolerance.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: In my country we are suffering now the same situation than in The States with kids carrying and using weapons at schools.Politicians and specialist in this matter say that the root of this problem has to be found in poverty, social segregation, and drugs. But when I see what happened in Colorado,where those midclass teens terrified the whole society, my conclusion is that money has so little to do with this sort of violence. I think the crisis is focused,specially, on the horrible lack of emotional support that young people find in their families and in their surroundings.I would like to know your opinion. Thank you.

Bob Levey: Parents in our country seem to give up on being parents, just because the process isn't easy or perfect. I know parents who never discuss anything with their kids--barely even see them. That's a prescription for alienated kids, and more Littletons.

Charlotte NC: Why do you criticize Clarence Thomas? Identify one decision he's made as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court which you believe indicates he is not fully qualified for the position. Also, name another person who was more qualified for the position when Thomas was nominated. Thank you.

Bob Levey: Clarence Thomas is ignorant of history--chiefly his own. He has said that he got where he has gotten because of his talent alone. Yet he clearly benefitted from affirmative action. I don't think any man who is so totally in denial can be an effective justice. It isn't a matter of my pointing to one decision that proves his unfitness. His entire attitude makes him unfit.

Gaithersburg, MD: What are your thoughts on the Y2K crisis? Home Depot is sold out of generators and the Red Cross is talking about knowing where your emergency shelters are....

Kim Martin

Bob Levey: As we used to say when I was a kid in New York, get off it. We Americans have such a wonderful ability to panic ourselves. I plan to usher in the year 2000 by kissing my wife and kids and by going to bed. None of that requires Home Depot's involvement.

Falls Church, VA: Does Metro sell bonds or something similar? My friend thought it would be a good way to raise money for big projects like a line to Tysons and Dulles. I thought they'd already do something like that but I never heard of it.

And since the company in italy went under or stopped making trains, who makes Metro trains now.

Bob Levey: Metro bucks are all appropriated by 11 local governments--directly, cash on the barrel head. There've never been any bonds, and there never will be, I'm sure. What if there were a default? Every local government would sink into the sea--and there would be no lifeboats for whichever politicians thought bonds were a good idea.

Alexandria, VA: Bob,
Doesn't it seem a bit hypocritical to you that NATO is bombing Yugoslavia to stop ethnic cleansing while Turkey, a NATO member-state, is itself conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against its native, Kurdish population? Something like 30,000 Kurds have been killed in Turkey, in recent years, by the Turkish military. I believe we began bombing Serbia because they'd killed 2,000 Kosovars.

Bob Levey: Secretary of Defense Cohen said it very well the other day when he spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation. He suggested that we can't assure human rights fairness in every country. But we have to step up when we can hope to right the balance, quickly.

Reston, VA: Regarding a future replacement for Meg Greenfield, I agree it should not be a certain age, race or gender. How about the best person for the job? What a concept! The Post covers the entire Metro area so the district is not necessarily the center of the universe.

Bob Levey: I agree, I agree, I agree. Yet how do you define "best person for the job?" Don Graham will make a decision based on his comfort level with the successful candidate. That isn't measurable or quantifiable, now or ever.

Warrenton, VA: Seems to me politics is not attracting very high caliber people any more. I look at Congressional leaders and on balance it is an unimpressive bunch. Do you agree and if so what do you think can be done to get the best people in public service?

Bob Levey: That's a tricky thicket. In our earliest history, our politicians were mostly our wealthiest landowners. There were plenty of turkeys then, believe me. These days, the problem is not so much that individual politicians are idiots (although many are). It's that we don't come together well politically. Our parties are inflexible and hard to manage. Our leaders are chosen because of seniority (truly stupid) or so the fewest people will be ticked off (e.g. Dennis Hastert). The best people will show up regularly in public life when the PROCESS works better. Bill Bradley was absolutely right when he said that politics is broken. But he never said that good people don't run, because they do.

Arlington, VA: Here's another Metro-related question: How did the powers-that-be at Metro measure for the overhead bars in the trains? I'm 5'4" -average height- and I have to really reach to grab the bar during rush hour. Thanks...

Bob Levey: Every "spec" in the system was personally approved by Gen. Jackson Graham, the first general manager. He was well over six feet tall. Nuf sed.

No.VA: hmmm, let's see... the US is violating international law in bombing Serbia. Innocents are dying. We refuse to even discuss pausing, let alone stopping, our attack unless the other side totally surrenders to our demands.

So... in order to uphold the law, protect the innocent, and encourage us to negotiate for peace, Moscow & Beijing decide to start bombing downtown DC -with extra missiles for VEPCO, Bell Atlantic, Washington Gas, and - oops! - Walter Reed-.

That'll work. Right.

Bob Levey: We've felt free to violate international law several times since Vietnam if our actions are moral, and in defense of people who can't defend themselves. I don't defend that necessarily, but that seems to be the underlying political rationale. Yet you're cleverly forgetting that Milosevic and Co. have been violating international law far longer (and probably far more viciously) than we have.

Wash, DC: Bob, I love your no nonsense attitude. You remind me of my Uncle who writes for the Buffalo News. How long have you been in the news business--just curious....

Bob Levey: I'm winding up my 33rd year in The Biz, and my 32nd at The Washington Post. Thanks so much for what I assume is a compliment! Who's your uncle, by the way?

Washington: Speaking of alienating kids- there is an interesting article in Time this week about depressed children on Prozac and other medications. I think it is terrifying that they have come up with a drug to "fix" every mood- even in our children! We give the Prozac to pick them up, Ritalin to calm them down. I can't help but think that this insistence on always being in a perfect mood and situation is leading us to bigger problems. Yes, I know there are people with real problems, but I think brain altering drugs are being handed out right and left. What do you think?

Bob Levey: Drugs for children should always be the last resort. Prozac for kids makes my skin crawl. I would never consider it for one of our children, regardless of how many walls that child might be climbing.

The Motor City, Michigan: Hi, Bob! What's your opinion on Feiger's plan to sue the parents of the Littleton Two? Personally, I think he is SCUM. There are so many victims in the scenario who does it help? The sleazy lawyer gets his pockets lined either way.

Bob Levey: Sleazy lawyers never get a chance to be actively sleazy if judges grow backbones and throw their ridiculous lawsuits out of court. I hope and expect that that's what'll happen to Feiger. This is a human tragedy all around, not a cause for squeezing money out of someone. This is one reason why I grieve for our legal system. We can't distinguish between the damage done to that Shoels boy and the damage you would do to my shrubs if you drove your car over them.

Charlotte, NC: I figured you would be unable to cite even one decision of Justice Thomas that indicating he is anything but fully qualified for the position. Perhaps you should assess your own attitude, rather than ignorantly attacking the attitude of Justice Thomas.

Bob Levey: You're missing the point (deliberately?). Thomas can certainly write legal opinions in a credible way. It's what lies behind those opinions that isn't credible.

Springfield, Va: Bob,
Being you are on a Transit kick today, lemme ask you this. I have a former boyfriend, who was a driver w- Ride-On in Montgomery County, twice employee of the month, and once was named Best transit Operator, 1993. You once did an article about him. My question is this: Do you think that if someone was tried & convicted for child sexual abuse --not the above named driver-- should he NOT be driving a transit bus,where he is in daily contact with children & the father of the child in question (The above mentioned driver) should be allowed to keep his job, but was to stressed out over the conviction of the guy & the child molester was allowed to return to driving, where my b-f was so stressed out, he was fired?

Bob Levey: I'd need to know much more to comment with any assurance, but if this person has served his sentence, or been acquitted, I can't see why he shouldn't keep his job. The whole rationale of our system is that you do your time and you are presumably rehabilitated. Yes, I know all about Willie Horton. But assuming the best is still the only way we can proceed in a positive way. Otherwise, we'd be locking the door and throwing away the key on every 18-year-old who is ever convicted of any crime.

Arlington, VA: So when did we -or any other country- EVER have high caliber politicians?

Bob Levey: Ancient Greece wasn't half bad

Fairfax Co., VA: Why is it that Prince William County have the lowest gas prices in the northern va?

Bob Levey: If you figure it out, let me know. Seems to me prices should be lowest in the areas where most gas is bought. Last time I checked, Prince William was about one-eighth the size of Fairfax.

Alexandria, VA: Northern VA is right. Two rights do not make a wrong when it comes to justifying military action. Bob, how can you support a NATO policy which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Serbian civilians?

Bob Levey: Because to do nothing would be worse. There are no pure answers in messes like Kosovo.

DC: Okay, so maybe you wouldn't condone drugs like Prozac for your children. What would you do for these people and their problems? And do you think that there is a higher rate of depression these days, or has the disease just been made public by the media?

Bob Levey: There's much more pressure in modern life, but whether that has led to more depression, in the clinical definition of the term, I can't say. As for what I'd recommend for kids and their problems, what about psychiatry? No, it isn't perfect, or sometimes even very good. But if we were serious about treating humans in a human way, that'd be my choice. Yes, I know it's expensive. But isn't it time (dear friends at HMOs) that we looked at what really matters? Bucks ultimately don't.

Bob Levey: That'll do it for this lovely spring day. Join us next Friday (and every Friday) for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." And don't forget the Tuesday version of our show, which appears from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. Our guest on June 1 will be author Miriam Horn, whose new book takes a look at the Wellesley College class of 1969 (it included Hillary Rodham Clinton).

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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