Looking Back in History

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Washington is all caught up in the battle between George W. Bush and the Democratic majorities in Congress over Iraq. But I'd like to highlight a few recent pieces of journalism that usefully look back at history.

One is a story in yesterday's Washington Post on how we're, literally, losing Louisiana and have been for many years. By building levees along the banks of the Mississippi, the Army Corps of Engineers has deprived the wetlands of southern Louisiana of river overflow, and land has been washing away into the Gulf. This may very well be justifiable. Protecting New Orleans from floods was always a worthy idea, and the land of southern Louisiana has been of marginal economic value.

But the Army corps and the Louisiana levee boards didn't do a good job of protecting New Orleans. As the story points out, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, built by the corps at great expense and used very little for navigation, funneled waters into Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. My guess is that the MRGO was built because it looked good on the map: It connects the port of New Orleans to the Intracoastal Waterway. And because the corps bureaucracy never had proper supervision from Congress and from administrations of both parties over the years.

The second item is today's Post column by Harold Meyerson. Meyerson is a leftist writer with an agenda: He would like to see American workers organized by unions. There is something of nostalgia in his vision, nostalgia for the 1950s when more than one third of private-sector workers were union members and when it seemed possible that unions could break through and organize workers in the almost entirely nonunionized South. In this column, however, Meyerson looks back on the Los Angeles riot of 1992. He starts off by recalling how he saw Mayor Tom Bradley leave a black church in South Central Los Angeles as the riot began, then looks at "the three distinct riots" that broke out, and finally flashes forward to the Los Angeles of today. He ends on a pessimistic note.

"Black-Latino tensions continue to plague L.A., in matters ranging from gang violence to political representation (the death last week of Juanita Millender-McDonald, a black House member from an increasingly Latino district, threatens to start a war between black and Latino political elites). The tensions are greatly exacerbated by the absence of decent-paying jobs for blue-collar work: The auto and aerospace factories are shuttered, and unionized construction jobs are few and far between.

None of that necessarily means another riot is in L.A.'s future, of course. But if a thriving middle class is the best guarantor of social stability, then Los Angeles, like all our increasingly two-tier cities, may yet be in for some rocky times." I would add that Los Angeles is an extreme example of a "two tier" city, by no means typical of all our metropolitan areas. And I would recommend another Meyerson column, on how Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the direct political heir of Rep. Phillip Burton and his wife, Sala, who succeeded him in the House and then, when fatally ill, handpicked Pelosi to succeed her. Phil Burton was beaten for the position of House majority leader by one vote after the 1976 election, in a Democratic Caucus with 290 members; Pelosi was chosen as minority whip in 2001, in the election that led directly to her present position, by a Democratic caucus with 213 members. Whether she would have won if the caucus had had as many "blue dogs" as it does today is unclear. I have known all three of these San Francisco representatives, and I think Meyerson's column on them is first rate.

Finally, I posted last week on David Halberstam, who died tragically in an auto accident. Today the Post ran a column by Richard Holbrooke, reminiscing about his time in Vietnam, when he was a Foreign Service officer and dined with Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Here's one passage to whet your appetite:

"With his characteristic generosity, he invited me to dinner at one of Saigon's best French restaurants, bringing along his closest friend, UPI bureau chief Neil Sheehan, who later described the evening in his book A Bright Shining Lie. They seemed a generation older and wiser than I, but–and I realize this now with astonishment–all of us were in our 20s."