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"Levey Live" archives

Levey Live: Speaking Freely

Friday, June 4, 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
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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.

Bob is away today, so his guest host is Vic Sussman, who runs "Live Online" for

Sussman has a long background in broadcasting and print journalism. He was previously the Personal Tech columnist for The Washington Post Magazine, Book World's audio book reviewer, and a senior editor specializing in cyberspace at U.S.News & World Report. He is also a regular commentator for "Marketplace," heard on NPR. His other interests veer wildly from the glories of the Internet to the skeptical subculture, powerlifting, and magic as a performance art.

Here is a transcript of today's session:


Vic Sussman: Good afternoon and welcome to another edition of "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." Bob is off today, so I'll be fielding your questions and comments. The ground rules are about the same--your responses can be about anything in the news or on your mind. Unless it's some of my friends, in which case it will be anything out of their minds.

Let the games begin!

Fairfax,VA: The traffic jam at the mixing bowl could be prevented if everyone listens to the radio and had alternative routes to their destination. Nowadays everyone is in a rush and take the fast way-eg. the Capital Beltway-. Slow down and enjoy the life,the Earth could explode any day!

Vic Sussman: Pardon me, but I am laughing--not at you, dear viewer, but at the notion that one can easily find "alternative routes." Right. And you're the only one thinking of taking this or that so-called back road. How, pray tell, can one remotely assume that a given alternative route won't also be jammed, given that such routes are routinely announced on radio and TV as (duh) alternative routes?

Fact is, traffic in the Metro area is now the second worst in the country and getting worse. And please don't think of the Beltway as the "fast way." Average traffic on that tortured 65-mile endless loop is about 25 miles an hour and dropping.

I do agree with your admonition to "slow down." And that's precisely what you'll do when you enter the Beltway, down to a crawl. I have to vote with Levey here: Public transpo is the only way to go. (And this is coming from a hypocrite who drives an over-powered TransAm!)

Alexandria, VA: While the Fairfax County Fire Department continues to pat themselves on the back for their questionable performance on Wednesday's mixing bowl disaster, I fail to understand why, with all of the fire equipment on the scene, large volumes of water weren't used to soak the powder and render it safe for traffic to move by.

Vic Sussman: It struck me too at first that the response to a truck load of black powder was somewhat hysterical. This stuff isn't exactly nitroglycerin. It takes more than a spark to set black powder off. The news media didn't exactly help by referring to the stuff as "gunpowder" (it is if you own a musket) or an "explosive," which made it sound more volatile than it was.

But as a former volunteer firefighter (who once sprayed water on a summer cottage filled with exploding ammunition, wondering if I was going to be shot by a house) I have to side with the public safety folks on this one. They probably felt they couldn't take any chances and went overboard to neutralize the mess. Nobody would be very happy today if they hadn't done this and if the truck had gone kablooey, taking a lot of commuters with it.

Warrenton, VA : What do you make of Spike Lee's comment about shooting Charlton Heston. Sure he says it was a joke but the Greaseman was fired for less than that. And Tracht quickly acknowledged it was wrong and apologized. Lee seems to feel he can say anything for effect and people should just accept that. Your thoughts?

Vic Sussman: I didn't hear the comment you're alluding to, but there's no way anyone can fire Spike Lee for what he says or does. Nor should they, in my view. The First Amendment is there to protect offensive speech. Doesn't matter whether I agree with Lee or not. He has a right to mouth off. Besides, let's get serious: Lee is an outrageous tell-it-like is kinda guy. Would you expect anything less of him?

Now, am I indirectly defending The Greaseman? Nah. I always thought he was a racist bozo, but I would have preferred some market (read: consumer) pressure to minimize him rather than the uproar that finally tossed him off the air.

I just wish we all got more excited over the *effects* of overt racism than getting our knickers in a twist over the random pronouncements of some media figure.

DC: Gosh, I had a list of questions lined up to ask Bob, but now that you're here...
I skip the sports questions because I know you're not interested and I'll move on to public transportation. Those passes that Metro sells? They don't make any monetary sense. You would have to use the Metro an awful lot -more than a daily commute- to find any advantage with them. I don't understand that -- wouldn't Metro stand to encourage more active use if it offered some type of economic incentive with the passes? As is, I'm better off just buying farecards -or using SmartCard, which is great- at $20+ and getting my 10% discount.

Vic Sussman: I think you're right. This is a perfect example of letting the market speak. You're voting with your wallet and if enough folks do this, Metro will get the message.

washington, dc: Hi, Vic.

I've been trying to figure out why the center span of the Memorial Bridge is steel while the rest of the bridge is stone. Bob hasn't been able to come up with an answer for me. It's not a drawbridge, there are no seams on the roadway. Care to hazard a guess?

Vic Sussman: Oh wow. If Levey doesn't know the answer to this (and there could be no more of a Levey question than this one) I sure don't. I can't even guess.

You're not losing sleep over this, are you?

New Orleans, Louisiana: Why haven't we heard anything about the looming scandal that involves the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the allegations of her family's hoarding of "war loot", estimated to be worth many millions of dollars? The British newspapers have reported on this story in great detail, but there has not been a single mention of it in the American news media.

Will this story be reported when the lawsuit is filed? Or will the conspiracy to keep the public ignorant of Albright's family's war crimes continue? If this allegation involved a Secretary of State appointed by a Republican the news media would pound this story into the ground on a daily basis!

Vic Sussman: Which newspapers are reporting this in the UK? The tabloids? I'm asking because I really don't know. If it's the latter, then it will be a while before you read anything about this alleged situation in our mainstream press. Reason: British tabloids are notorious for running with stories that later turn out to be exaggerations or fabrications.

If there is a real story here, however, I can guarantee you that legit news providers will jump in with both feet after checking the facts.

Rosslyn, VA: Vic -- how many questions are you getting compared to Bob?

Vic Sussman: Oh give me a break. I'm subbing for Levey and I'm up against a Panda with a kidney problem. I'm happy to be here at all...

reston VA: Big difference between Spike Lee & the Greaseman. There's no history in the US of black vigilantes lynching whites, white civil rights leaders getting assassinated by blacks, etc. Context matters, when it conjures up a whole history of racial violence.

Both men were being jerks though. I'm more concerned by Lee's antisemitism, though.

Vic Sussman: Yes, Spike Lee makes better movies than Doug Tracht. But it all comes down to what Justice Brandeis said about dealing with offensive speech: The antidote is more speech, counter-active speech, not censorship and suppression.

Arlington VA: I would love to take public transit. oops, I work in Herndon. Oh well.
Now I hear that while rail to Dulles has no funding, they are thinking of widening I-66 -so much for those trees and bike trails!-. Of course, if Metro went to Tyson's and Dulles, fewer people would be on 66 in the first place...

Is it just me or is transportation planning here really amazingly dumb?

Vic Sussman: I don't think it was dumb as much as it wa--and perhaps always has to be--behind the curve. How good are you at predicting the future. Thirty years ago, transportation planners had to look into a crystal ball to figure out what traffic would be like three decades hence. (Don't try this at home, kids.)

The Beltway, for example, was originally designed to carry interstate traffic AROUND the metro area. But a funny thing happened on the way to the drawing board: The Beltway is now choked with local traffic, with folks headed out to shop and get to work in the suburbs--not downtown.

Could you have predicted that back in the sixties?

Mt. Rainier MD: Hey, the panda is cuter than you or Bob, but what can they say besides, well he's old and he's gonna die. As are we all. Not genuine news...

Vic Sussman: How can you assume the panda is cuter than I am without seeing my picture on the Web page? And Levey, I can assure you, has just as much white hair as Hsing-Hsing.

By the way, cynic that I am, I wish the panda a full recovery.

Vermont: Vic-
Nice to have you along today. How would you dump a long-distance romance? Letter? E-mail? Wait until the next time you see her-him? -Calls can only be initiated by the significant other because of military restrictions.- I want to be nice about it; I still love this person...I'm just not in love anymore. Oh yeah, and I asked Carolyn, but she had other things to discuss.

Vic Sussman: Oh geez. Now I'm subbing for Carolyn Hax. She'll kill me, but here goes--I think "dumping" somebody by e-mail stinks, especially if, as you say, you still love this person. Loving somebody means at the very least that you care about their feelings enough to confront them with some respect. After all, you're about to inflict some real pain.

E-mail to say goodbye to someone you once cared deeply about? How about a letter addressed to "Dear Occupant..."

Gaithersburg, MD: If this question has been answered before, please forgive me, I must have missed it. The bombing of Yugoslavia has done tremendous damage and been heavily criticized. What other effective options were available? Specifically, I work with a Russian woman who has been emphatically against the bombing, sending me weblinks to columns that claim that the bombing is only a vehicle for NATO to give the U.S. an opportunity to prove that "the U.S. runs the world" or is "enforcing international morality" or to express "our arrogant assertion of dominance and power". I asked her what could have been done differently and she said Milosevich agreed to UN peacekeepers in France the week before the bombing commenced. If so, then why wasn't it done? What was the reasoning behind the change of plan? She has not explained to me a preferable plan other than that. She did not explain what the UN peacekeepers would have done differently. She thinks that no outside forces should have been called in to the "civil war" which leads me to wonder if there is a history of animosity by Russians toward ethnic Kosovar Albanian Muslims. Is this Yugoslav Serb violence toward the Kosavars merely an instance of an eye for an eye? I'm not fond of the bombing nor America's involvement as a NATO member but I can't justify sitting back and doing nothing to stop what looks like ethnic cleansing. What other options are available to resolve this crisis? I'm not seeing answers and I doubt I'm getting a clear picture of the region's history and how it contributes to the conflict. What have the Kosovars done to deserve this? If nothing, then my Russian friend has traditional eastern Europe hostilities that she's keeping from me. Yes? No?

Vic Sussman: I'm not a foreign news reporter so my opinion is just that. I do know, from what I've read and heard, that Milosevich did *not* have the same deal in front of him before the NATO bombs starting falling. The deal he now says he's accepting is less than what he apparently could have received had he agreed earlier.

I agree with you that something had to be done. Whether that should have been more and more (failed) diplomatic attempts or a rain of bombs I leave to historians.

By the way, I HATE the words "ethnic cleansing." Since when did murder, and mass murder at that, rate such a formal description. This is exactly what Hannah Arendt once referred to as "the banality of evil."

Oh, right. Pardon me. The killings at Littleton High School were "secondary school cleansing."

Vienna, Va.: Why don't people use their turn signals? It's about three inches from your hand when your driving. It is not a complicated device. Why can't they use them. Why, why, why!!?! I wish officers could and would pull people for not using their signals and charge them with reckless driving, because that's what it is.

Vic Sussman: Pulling myself up to my full height as a Web savant, I will answer this with a multiple choice:

1. Because most people cannot drive and think at the same time.

2. Because most people think they are immortal and live out their lives like sleep walkers.

3. Because most people should not be allowed behind the wheel of a car or at the helm of any heavy machinery.

Vermont: The e-mail was just tacked on there as a last resort kind of thing. I'd never do that. But seriously, should I wait until I see this person again or should I be honest and up-front about it now? On one hand, I feel that I owe her-him a face to face explanation, but on the other hand, I don't wanting to string him-her along.

Vic Sussman: From "ethnic cleansing" to dumping insignificant others. Ya gotta love the Web.

If you love(d) this person you need to end the situation in the kindest, most respectful way possible. Otherwise I will bet this will haunt you for years. As it should.

Vic Sussman: We're just past the halfway point in our program, so please keep your questions coming. Even if I'm not a panda and my kidneys are healthy.

Hope, Arkansas: Greetings Mr. Sussman, and welcome to Levey Live. Bob has opined on this previously, but I'd like your take: How can any New Yorker with half a brain consider voting for-electing a "carpetbagger" like Hillary Clinton -IF she chooses to run- as senator from that state? As a resident of any state, wouldn't you at least want to vote for someone that has actually LIVED there?

Vic Sussman: I love this question. It's one I asked myself just today. Two answers: In New York, given the power of upstate, even someone who's a New Yorker (city, not state) is a sort of carpetbagger. That is, if you were a born and bred New Yorker (city), folks upstate would consider you a sort of outsider.

Second: More intriguing is the fact that Hillary Clinton has never held or run for elected office. As a voter, that would trouble me more. Most politicians have at least worked their way up through the ranks, through precincts and party politics.

That said, I will lay odds that she'll win. Celebrity uber alles.

Burke, VA: I just wanted to let everyone know what a bunch of liars officials at VRE are. It was reported on Channel 8 this morning that "there were no major problems for commuters as a result of the signal problems last night."
I guess if you're perspective that getting people home four hours late is OK, then they're right. People at the Crystal City station were left standing on the platform with no information until 8:30 when they were told to take Metro to Franconia Springfield. They were never told the nature of the problem -even though it was known and announced to those on the trains- or that there was no estimate on the time for resolution of the problem. If they had been told this, they would have headed for the Metro hours earlier. What's up with these guys?

Vic Sussman: Are they liars or just mistaken? Do you really believe VRE officials consciously decided to mislead commuters? What would they gain from that except criticism?

Washington DC: I don't mean to make this spiral go even lower, but one should call, even if it's from a pay phone or something, if one's gonna break up. sheesh. surely they let you out in the world every once in a while.

Vic Sussman: My point too. At least a phone call.

DC: One reason people don't use their turn signal is because for some reason, other drivers see that as a sign to cut you off. I try to use my signal as often as possible, but have found that when I do, those in te other lane speed up to prevent me from merging. Now I'm not saying this is a reason to stop using them, but what's the deal with that?

Vic Sussman: People won't let you merge because they are trying to save two seconds. I'm sure you understand.

Springfield, Virginia: Vic,
I surfed over here in between waiting for answers from the Panda lady, but now I think you're as interesting-amusing as she -and Bob- are!
So I'll ask my first ever online question:
Do you think Washington SHOULD get another pair of pandas, or is the limited supply of pandas worldwide enough reason to give another zoo a chance -even assuming China would agree to send more pandas over here?- Do you think the National Zoo should pay the hefty price tag -$1.5M a year- it would even cost to get some pandas on loan from China?
For the record, I love Hsing-Hsing and I would definitely like more pandas in Washington and would even contribute my financial mite to the cause...but I wondered what a self-styled "cynic" thinks.

Vic Sussman: At the risk of infuriating zoo officials, I would rather see all that money used to protect and preserve the natural habitat of pandas. I don't like seeing animals imprisoned, period.

On the other hand, I respect what a lot of zoos are trying to do--act as the last preserves for endangered species, even breeding them for a possible return to the wild.

Fairfax, Va: Are the rest of your "listeners" at work like myself? I'm so glad that with all this technology at our fingertips, the majority of our time is spend goofing off on-line at work. I think a lot of companies are shooting themselves in the foot by letting employees have access to the web. They think that employee production will go up because of the instant access to vital information, but all I see when I walk by people's desks are them "chat" rooms or checking E-trade or something. So basically they are wasting company time on-line, like myself...ain't technology grand Vic??

Vic Sussman: Oh c'mon. Before there was a Web there was the telephone, the fax machine, the water cooler, making paper clip chains (you can tell what a hard worker I am) and stuff like office pools. Workers have always found ways to goof off and always will until we are controlled like the drones in Orwell's "1984."

Funny, you're making a comment about workers goofing off by goofing off by making a comment...

Hyattsville MD: In my ideal world, there would be cameras at every stoplight to detect red light runners, runners would be fined one year's insurance, and the fine would be doubled if they had a cell phone at their ear at the time. I just can't like these people.

Vic Sussman: And after that, Spike Lee could shoot them.

Boston, MA: You said anything. Well here it is. I have been working since I was 18. I am now 38 years old. I have always done
the best job I could. I am told daily how smart I am.

I now want to retire. I realized that I am wasting my time working. I barely make enough to get by. What is wrong with this country? I never miss days at work.

I see work with a woman who is always absent. She is making what I am worth. I am so upset
with working. I now understand homeless people.

Vic Sussman: Pul-eeze! Most "homeless people" are mentally ill and/or strung out on drugs and booze. They are hardly slackers in the classic sense.

Retire at 38? Wow. Tell me how you're going to do this.

Ever think that maybe you're just slogging along in the wrong job? Have you considered seeing a career counselor? Slavery was repealed a long time ago, so surely you can make a move if that's what you really want.

Sterling, VA: Vic,
For somebody new starting out on the internet, what areas would you recommend surfing just for fun?

Vic Sussman: This is like asking me what foods you should buy the first time you walk into a supermarket. The Net is now just too huge to generalize. What are your interests? I'd be led by the things you enjoy or are curious about. The Net and now the Web (there is a subtle difference between the two) is a human communication medium, so anything that humans can communicate about is online. Everything you can imagine and stuff you can't imagine.

Of course, [coughs demurely] I recommend that you actively surf Check out the many transcripts at They are original content and made good reading. But I might be biased.

Herndon, VA: Gerald Durrell once commented that he'd love to leave animals in their natural habitat - but it would probably mean their extinction under current circumstances. Between destruction of habitat, over hunting, and other dangers in the wild, zoos are more frequently saviors of endangered animals than prisons. Besides, zoo animals are extremely well treated and often live considerably longer and in more comfortable surroundings than wild conspecifics. Prison is a human construct, not applicable to most nonhuman animals.

Vic Sussman: I can't argue with this. And I read a lot of Durrell years ago, even reviewed one of his books for The Post. You're right, but the sad thing is that zoos have become saviors and that we even need such intervention to save endangered animals. Insert heavy sigh here.

Vermont: If I could call, I would. I can't so that's not an option. On another note, why is this panda story such hot news?

Vic Sussman: Hot news because Hsing-Hsing is a beloved animal in the Washington area. Even though the animal isn't really a bear, it's cuddly, cute and it's not a politician.

washington, dc: re: Memorial Bridge

You're not losing sleep over this?

This could be the heart of the traffic problem in DC. If it turns out that that's not steel, but giant magnets, it could explain why traffic is always so slow through there.

I should hope we're all losing sleep over this.

Vic Sussman: I can only talk about this if I wear an aluminum colander on my head to block out the cosmic rays being aimed at me by the evil transpo folks who put magnets in Memorial Bridge. (No wonder paper clips stick to my forehead when I drive over that span.)

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Sussman, you're doing an excellent job of filling in for Bob.

Just a comment for the person with the long-distance dilemma - I think you should end the relationship as soon as you can. Sure it would be more respectful to do it in person, but the circumstances obviously prevent that at this time. How respectful is it to keep this person in the dark & prevent him-her from getting on with his-her life? It seems more hurtful to pretend like nothing is wrong until the oh-so-awaited visit with you in person.

Just my thoughts . . .

Vic Sussman: Levey Live is now gaining on Carolyn Hax...

Hyattsville : Nah, don't want Spike getting in trouble, and I'm anti-violence. Just want the bozos to pay for it when they endanger everybody else.

Vic Sussman: Speech itself doesn't endanger people unless it leads to imminent violence, which it almost never does. Let 'em talk. At least we know where they are and what they think.

Alexandria, Va: Hi Vic,
I was wondering what your plans are for the imposing "doom" of Y2K? Are you stocking piling cans of potted meat and bottles of water? What do you think will happen to your pc at work?

Vic Sussman: My pc at work will probably freeze or go down, but it does that now, so why worry? I have a Mac at home, so I know that's good until 2525 or so. As for Y2K, other than stock piling creamed corn and toilet paper (quite a mental picture that, eh?) I am doing nothing but preparing for the biggest damned non-story of the new year.

Arlington, VA: Ah, but the "Panda Lady" enlightened us in the other chat about how DNA research has placed the Giant Panda in the bear family, while the Red Panda is, as previously thought, part of the raccoon family.

Vic Sussman: Help, help! The panda discussion is leaking into Levey Live!

DC: You might be biased, but I'll agree with you. I can't tell you how many an hour I've wasted -?- reading these online chats. They're very entertaining. So, is there any chance that you could start your own chat? I'm always looking for more ways to procrastinate.

Vic Sussman: Yes, I'm thinking of starting my own gig at night. Late at night, when my only competition is the stupid 11 o'clock news. And any pandas still awake...

Northern Virginia: Mr. Sussman,
Why did you kill talk central?

Vic Sussman: Are you the person who sprayed pig blood on my TransAm?


I plead guilty. I knocked off a sprawling service that was not serving our readership as well as we wanted. We think the new Live Online--your chance to read and ask questions of Post writers and newsmakers--is a better use of resources.

That said, I can promise you that we are working on Talk Central-like projects that should please our readership. Can't say more because our competitors read this too.

DC: You're sort of in charge of all this online stuff at WashPost, right? So give us a little background -- how did it develop, who was on first, etc?

Vic Sussman: Long story, too long for here. Suffice to say that The Post has a huge pool of talented writers and editors. I wanted to get those people online, here to answer questions, schmooze with the public, have fun, provide useful information. That's what Live Online is all about. That and bringing in public figures, people in the news, experts in various fields.

We're the only newspaper doing what we're doing with Live Online. It's exciting and our plans for the immediate future are REALLY cool, so please stay tuned.

dc: does the speed with which new responses appear in these chats depend on the typing speed of the host, or what? Also can the hosts, um, host from anywhere, say the comfort of their own home?

Vic Sussman: Typing speed and the speed of thought are indeed limitations. And yes, we can do these discussions from anywhere in the world we can get Web access. At the moment, for example, I am typing this to you from a beach in Maui. (My typing is slower than usual because I keep getting sand in the keyboard.) Thank you all for being here. We've run out of time. Mr. Sussman is now off-line, his computer having been hacked by pro-panda forces. Please join Bob Levey on Tuesday at noon for "Levey Live," when his guest will be Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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