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Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories

Editor's note: The Monitor "404" reports began in 1997, and were often the most popular section of the newspaper. At first the objective was to simply update earlier articles; one of the great faults of the press at large is its failure to follow up and explain how stories were resolved. Over the years, the 404 section evolved into presenting feature-length media criticism articles on a single topic, such as last year's Why Bush Won the Presidency and Debunking the Elian Gonzalez Myth. With this issue, we are reintroducing a new hybrid 404 report, combining both short updates of previous Monitor stories and items providing some of the context missing from today's mainstream news coverage.

The "404" name is a reference to the familiar missing web page error, "404-Page Not Found" -- in almost all cases, the news items discussed here are missing from media coverage. Earlier 404 reports are still available, linked sequentially from the bottom of each report.

 + THOSE LIGHT-FINGERED EX-PRESIDENTS   Gone, but not forgotten: Just days after the Clintons left the White House, the right-wing press exposed another Clinton "scandal." (How will Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk survive without the Clintons to pester? Oh, that's right -- they still have Hillary.)

This time the tempest was over the value of personal gifts accepted by the Clintons. During his 8-year presidency, friends and admirers gave the first family furniture, art, and other items valued at $190,000. Most of that stuff -- $86,000 worth -- was given to them during their last year in the White House. In other circumstances, these might have been applauded as thoughtful gifts -- after all, the couple had lived almost all their entire adult lives in government housing and now had digs in New York to furnish. But after a few days of media hounding, the Clintons surrendered and promised to repay everyone who gave them gifts during Y2000.

But as departing presidental scandals go, these were petty charges. Turn back the clock to 1988, as Ron and Nancy Reagan prepare for their transition to private life. Earlier that year, the couple had acquired a $2.5 million house in the Los Angeles suburb of Bel-Air. As Time magazine reported, "a consortium of about 20 friends and investors purchased it specifically for the President and the First Lady." The Reagans didn't disclose how much rent they paid their landlord friends to live at 668 St. Cloud Road, but it was almost certainly a token amount (the house was originally 666 St. Cloud Road, but renumbered because the number spooked the new tenants).

The house in the tony neighborhood wasn't the only multi-million dollar gift to Ron and Nancy. The entire time the Reagans were in Washington, questions were raised over Nancy's "borrowing" expensive designer dresses. She was warned by lawyers in 1982 that returned or no, these gowns had to be disclosed as gifts under the Ethics in Government Act. By the time they left the White House, she had worn more than 300 dresses that had been custom tailored for her size 4 figure. It remains unclear how many of the dresses -- worth an estimated $1.4 million -- were sent back to Adolpho, Oscar de la Renta, and other designers. The IRS was adamant that these were gifts, and had to be declared as same. Breaking the law apparently didn't bother her Nanciness; the Associated Press quoted her press secretary: "She set her own little rule... and she broke her little promise because she just didn't feel she had to do it." The only gifts that the Reagans admitted to receiving were sentimental trinkets. Needless to say, Nancy Reagan wasn't thrown in the clink as the tax cheat she was.

As it turns out, there's quite a Republican tradition for cupidity. In the 1950s, Mamie Eisenhower was criticized for accepting unprecedented gifts, such as a diamond necklace and a gold mesh bag "so heavy that she could hardly carry it around," columnist Drew Pearson wrote at the time. Yet Mamie was a piker compared to President Ike. Eisenhower accepted a 7-bathroom "cottage" from supporters, as well as livestock, antiques, and a long list of other gifts cataloged by Pearson, who estimated the value at over $500,000 -- roughly the equivalent to ten million dollars by today's measure.

But according to Jack Anderson's memoir, "Confessions of a Muckraker," Pearson was always astounded that the press didn't seem to mind their loveable Republican president raking in the loot. Similarly, the stories about Nancy Reagan's dress controversies -- which appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines until the Reagans left Washington -- never seemed to ignite public interest.

Thus this last "scandal" neatly sums up the Clinton era: some of his personal ethics may have been dodgy, but he didn't break the law. Yet in the end, none of that mattered to his enemies. (Jeff Elliott, February 3, 2001)

 + THE NUCLEAR ANGLE IN THE ENERGY CRISIS   Developments are happening fast in California's electricity crunch, with the state planning to spend up to $9 billion constructing "fast track" power plants. As California Governor Gray Davis prepares an industry bailout, little attention has been devoted to what this will mean for the state's aging nuclear power plants. For background, see our May 2000 feature, Too Cheap To Meter.]

Governor Davis' plan to salvage the electricity crisis in the state would, in part, allow utilities to wriggle out of deregulation. Instead of subjecting the power plants -- the nuclear plants in particular that utilities still own -- to the market or to directly serving customers, Davis' plan would put the plants under cost-of-service regulation. This could cause $100s of millions a year of ratepayer or taxpayer money to be poured into the plants. This would greatly expand the plants' lifespans. It would increase the growing pile of radioactive waste. It would cause nuclear-generated electricity to be considered something like a "public good." Davis' plan would remove risk.

If Davis' plan as proposed is put into law, it appears that the post-rate-freeze profit sharing plan for nuclear plants that is now on the books at the California Public Utilities Commission would be pre-empted. As part of deregulation, regulators required any profits from nuclear generation would be shared 50-50 between ratepayers and shareholders. With California's current prices, that would be a huge benefit to ratepayers, but for many, as slimy as taking profits from a Columbian drug lord.

Cost-of-service ratemaking also begs the question of nuclear investments. Under the profit sharing plan, shareholders were supposed to be at risk for investments in keeping the plants running -- a deal that regulators thought would keep a tight leash on the dangerous technology.

But, that was when nuclear was considered "uneconomic."

Then the question begged is whether the state, as a public policy, wants to take away shareholder risk in continued operation of nuclear plants. With no high-level waste dump, radioactive waste will continue to be stored on-site. And with protracted operations and capital infusions under cost-of-service that waste -- along with the continued possibility of accidents -- mounts. Legislators have not indicated whether nuclear plant operations under cost-of-service should be singled out, and capitol sources say the question of public interest in nuclear plants has yet to be discussed.

Even some nuclear foes now want to keep Diablo Canyon and San Onofre on line -- although for the shortest term possible. There's a political movement in California to buy generators for the public -- a spin off from the Green Party. Barbara George, a leader of the movement advocates buying up nuclear along with every other generation available and also building new renewable-based power plants. If the public owns the nuclear plants, she says, the public could also retire them. (J.A. Savage , February 24, 2001)

 + DONELLA MEADOWS, 1941 - 2001   It's with great sadness that we print the last column by Donella H. Meadows, probably the best environmental writer of our times. Dana Meadows died February 20.

Starting in mid-1997, the Albion Monitor picked up her "Global Citizen" column frequently, eventually reprinting about twenty. Dana didn't cover only environmental issues; she wrote about politics and policy with remarkable clarity. Now that the Repubs are tub-thumping for a repeal of the "Death Tax," it would be a good time to reread her October column, plainly explaining how the tax is not a punishment upon the rich, but rather a small measure of justice for the poor. And anyone who laments the last two hateful years of Florida vote-stealing and impeachment follies will be astonished by her gentle column, Fred And Pat Have Cookies And Milk. Although written in November 1998, she describes a halcyon time that now seems impossible.

But Dana did far more than write a regular column. She taught at Dartmouth College from 1972 until her death. She was co-author of several important books, including "The Limits to Growth," which sold millions of copies. She was an advisor on the ten-part PBS series "Race to Save the Planet." She was a leader in many national and international organizations. She was a respected scientist. She was a recipient of the coveted MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. (For much more about her, see her obituary, which we have printed in full.)

Meadows lived as she hoped everyone could. For 27 years she was part of an organic communal farm in New Hampshire. Then in 1999, she was one of the founders of an eco-village in Vermont, where she also helped create the Sustainability Institute (see: to promote the development of sustainable communities and more.

In a 1998 column appears a theme she often discussed: We seem to have an infinite capacity to make the wrong decisions. We subsidize industries that should be dismantled, choose foolish quick-fix solutions, make important personal decisions based on our fears. She wrote, "What I really want to do, when confronted with vicious cycles like these is to say, hey folks, why don't we stop turning them? There are so many. Every time we have a problem that keeps getting worse no matter what we do about it, we probably are earnestly, in the most well-meaning way, doing something that makes the problem worse." It was this dilemma that she sought to solve with her Sustainability Institute.

An archive of all her articles written since May, 1996 is also available via the Internet. There's much there to inspire and educate -- and to mourn. It is particularly distressing to note that she died just as Gale Norton and the rest of the anti-environmental gang settle into Washington. More than ever we need Dana's pen and wit; never have the stakes been so high. (Jeff Elliott, February 23, 2001)

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