-- Back before Jonas Salk developed his polio vaccine in 1952, summer could be a bad time for America's children. The fear of polio often kept them indoors, away from the beach or out of the pool. So it came as something of a surprise when the government somehow ran out of the vaccine and the secretary of health, education and welfare, Oveta Culp Hobby, uttered one of the great dumb remarks of American history: "No one could have foreseen the public demand for the vaccine."
The spirit of Mrs. Hobby lives on in George W. Bush. Almost three years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001 -- the biggest intelligence failure in U.S. history -- and after his own administration went to war for reasons that did not exist, the president has ordered his crack staff to see which of the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations can be implemented fast and without congressional approval. Bush, you will recall, opposed the creation of the commission in the first place.
"We will move on all fronts very aggressively in the coming days and weeks," a presidential aide told reporters down at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Tex. "We're going to focus on all the recommendations and determine which ones can be done through executive branch action. The president said he wants this on a fast track."
This is Hobbyism at its most egregious. She, too, was a wealthy Texan, and maybe there is a kind of softheadedness that afflicts that state's more affluent citizens. But it takes a New York kind of chutzpah for Bush to suddenly announce he will do what he has put off doing for lo these past three years. In that time the president steadfastly stood by his team of jolly incompetents who, rather than explain what had gone wrong, merely slapped Bush on the back and bonded with him in a manly fashion. George Tenet stayed at the head of the CIA even after he had assured Bush that it was a "slam-dunk" that Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction.
Why the sudden alacrity? It's because the chairman and vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, have been all over the airwaves warning that another terrorist attack could be imminent and that the nation's intelligence apparatus, so obviously broken, has yet to be fixed. They recommended a host of measures, some of which -- improved border and port security, an integrated "watch list," etc. -- you would have thought would have been implemented on Sept. 12, 2001. Insistently, the commissioners recommended speed. To paraphrase: Lives are in danger and little is being done.
So dire is the situation that even Congress is threatening action. It will actually hold hearings in August and then, if the past is prologue, do nothing more. Very often this is the very best thing Congress can do for a grateful nation, but not in this case. Some serious work needs to be done -- more serious than campaigning or taking a vacation or, as is happening here, downing the canapes so kindly supplied by lobbyists. In fact, there is something a bit wacky about the Democratic Party taking a week to mount a meaningless Mardi Gras when the terrorism clock supposedly ticks closer to midnight.
Still, it is the president who runs the government. Now he suddenly discovers he is expected to do something about national security. He cannot be serious -- and rest assured he is not. The many months of inactivity in this area offer eloquent testimony to Bush's firm belief that little needs to be fixed. In the same way he could not answer earlier this year what mistakes he had made as president, he cannot even say what mistakes his government made that might have led to Sept. 11 and the debacle in Iraq.
Now we are engaged in a great farce. Outside my hotel room, a good piece of the nation's political talent is engaged in a purposeless convention to nominate a man who has already been nominated. And down in Crawford, the White House staff is dutifully feeding the press accounts of Bush's newfound concern about what ails the intelligence community and even -- imagine! -- that Bush took the Sept. 11 commission's report with him. From somewhere, Oveta Culp Hobby smiles. She is finally off the hook.