My Dinner with Lynne Cheney

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:40

    E.J.'s jacket cuff brushed the top of his extremely full glass of some extremely dark red wine?cabernet??and it fell to the table more slowly than I've ever seen a glass fall. It tottered on its base for a bit, seeming as if it might change its mind and slosh back at E.J. But then it fell away from him, and something about the physics of the fall ensured that when it struck the tablecloth, the entire contents of the glass were fired at Lynne Cheney as if out of a fire hose. She was drenched. Not splattered: drenched, from the waist up, with a great soaking, purple stain the size of a garbage-can lid.

    If there exists a kinder, more gentlemanly person on the Planet Earth than E.J. Dionne, he has never lived in my ZIP code. Obviously, at that point E.J. was desolate. "I'm so sorry! Let me get a napkin! Sorry! Sorry!"

    What happened next should have been a wholly predictable political moment. The powerful pol turns affably to the powerful journalist and says something cornball but kind, like: "Heh, heh... Well, I've been... dumped The Washington Post before, but..." But no. Cheney's eyes narrowed to a Dirty Harry squint that she aimed right at E.J. and she hissed out of her lips like an adder. She said, "Excuse me" and left the table to clean up.

    I don't know quite what to think about this. Should one be horrified at her nastiness, her lack of a sense of irony or humor about herself? Or should one trust her a little bit more for being free of prepackaged Washington-style suavities?

    Well, we'll find out.

    Tax-Free Like Me It always makes me feel virtuous (in the manner of Michael Kinsley on the mortgage-interest tax deduction) to attack a political settlement I benefit from. Congress last year passed one of the strangest, most unfair laws I have ever heard of. The DC Tuition Assistance Grant Program entitles anyone residing in Washington, DC, to send his kids to any state university in the country for the in-state rate. It's not that states are forced to charge less to kids from the district. No, the out-of-state rate goes on the college books. It's that the federal government will make up the difference, up to $10,000 a year. The program is not means-tested. That means some schmuck cleaning toilets in Wichita, who makes half the salary I do, gets to pay for my children to attend college, which will qualify them to run the companies where Mr. Toilet Schmuck's offspring work for minimum wage. How is that justified?

    First, the bill's proponents say, most states have really good public universities, while the University of the District of Columbia stinks. As program director Laurent Ross told The Washington Post last week, "You used to have one choice. Now you have a thousand." The University of North Dakota ain't as good as the University of Michigan, and I don't see anybody rushing to use federal tax money to subsidize the education of 18-year-olds from Bismarck.

    The misguided subtext of the bill is that everyone in the District of Columbia is black and poor, that this is Crack City, the Murder Capital of the U.S., City without Hope, etc. etc. Since that's the case, isn't it a funny coincidence that this law is being passed at precisely the moment the demographic composition of the District is beginning to change? To be more specific, the papers are filling up with accounts of blacks moving to the suburbs (misguided subtext: "Good for them, since suburbs = rich"), and that the District's neighborhoods are getting "better," i.e., more yuppie (misguided subtext: "It's not that richer, white people are moving in; it's that the same old neighborhood residents have decided to become rich, tasteful yuppies").

    Thus far, the program hasn't been used much. It doesn't kick in until next fall, and due to a confusion about its language, District residents were left with the impression that it covered only public universities in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. The farthest distant college that ranks in the top 20 Tuition Assistance Grant schools is Delaware State. But it's now clear that it covers public universities everywhere, with generous stipends provided for private universities in Maryland and Virginia, and full boat for private, historically black universities in the region.

    Once the word gets out, the Tuition Assistance Grant is going to be used mostly to subsidize the educations of the sons and daughters of rich lawyers in Northwest Washington who want to go to Berkeley and Ann Arbor. That's because of the Iron Law of Lawyerly Information Privilege, which holds that complicated laws benefit those who work at laws for a living. Mbuko Mbusboy, who's just arrived here from Uganda with his wife and three multilingual, straight-A children, all of whom work three jobs, is not going to take advantage of this program because he's not going to have heard of it. No?this law is a matter of rich whites waving images of the black poor in front of other rich whites in order to claim freebies for themselves. We don't ask much, you see. Just that Congress intervene to double the value of our houses.

    People will probably deride as right-wing Republican Congressman Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, who in recent weeks tried to bring this program to the floor of the House in order to kill it, or at least chop it down to size. But his may actually be the left-wing position on this one. It's certainly the correct one. This is not to say that the District doesn't still have plenty of poor, black people?only that it's becoming steadily less poor, and steadily less black, as time moves on. Maybe once it becomes sufficiently unpoor and sufficiently unblack, it will be possible to push through the "opportunity" legislation that Jack Kemp favored in the last days of his political life: declaring the District a tax-free zone altogether.