This Week

Issue: "The gay getaway," May 2, 1998

Because life is first

One thing a couple of presidential defeats can teach a party: Timidity is for losers. Last weekend, three GOP presidential contenders appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and left no doubts about their pro-life priorities. Steve Forbes went first. Tim Russert asked why Mr. Forbes told The New Republic, given the hypothetical choice, that he would sign an abortion ban over a tax-cut bill. "Because the Declaration of Independence says 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Life comes first. ...So you preserve life, then you can deal with other issues. If a society does not have a sense of the sanctity of life, then we're on a downward slope." Later came John Ashcroft and Pat Buchanan, both unequivocally pro-life. But Mr. Buchanan raised the stakes: "I would not support a candidate of my party ... if [he] supported partial-birth abortion.... We have to draw a firm line. I mean, we've got to stand for something. And if we can't stand for stopping that, what in heaven's name is our party all about?"

Earning an A+ for effort

Congress headed for a veto showdown with President Clinton last week as the Senate voted on 17 amendments to Sen. Paul Coverdell's controversial "A-plus" education reform proposal. Debate was fierce, as both parties see education as an issue on which they can offer voters a clear choice in November. Democratic amendments often tried to extend the federal government into areas traditionally controlled by state and local authorities: school construction, teacher hiring, even after-school "enrichment programs." Each of those amendments was defeated. Republicans, meanwhile, pushed through amendments to increase local autonomy in education. By a single vote, senators approved an amendment that would gut Education Department funding by sending $10.3 billion directly to the states in the form of block grants. And Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) won approval for his amendment barring national tests in reading and math-a favorite Clinton project. Liberals hoped that such amendments would weaken the chances of the underlying Coverdell bill, which had attracted some big-name Democratic support. A-plus accounts would allow parents to save up to $2,000 per year to spend tax-free on their children's education in either public or private schools. As a final vote neared on the much-amended Coverdell plan, President Clinton reiterated his opposition to any bill that endangered the federal education monopoly. If he carries through on this veto threat, Congressional leaders hope that parents will teach the Democrats a few lessons of their own come November.

World in brief

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Forced to freedom
Take your freedom and go, said Chinese authorities, who released dissident Wang Dan from prison April 19 and sent him to the United States. Clearly a move to win points before Chinese President Jiang Zemin's June summit with President Bill Clinton, Mr. Wang's release was regarded as a positive step-by half. Human-rights experts said it creates the illusion of progress on political freedom without altering the system that handed Mr. Wang an 11-year prison sentence for his role in organizing the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration. Another student leader of that democracy movement, Wuer Kaixi-who escaped China shortly after the Tiananmen Square incident and now lives in Taiwan-said of Mr. Wang's release: "I have this mixture of confused feelings.... I don't know whether I should congratulate him on his release or express my regret on his beginning of exile-which is torture on the mental level."
Whose hardships?
It was a move plainly testifying that, when it comes to key human rights issues in the Americas, Europeans can call the shots. Nineteen countries defeated a U.S.-led resolution to rebuke the communist government of Cuba for its human-rights abuses. The defeat came before the annual UN Human Rights Commission meeting now convened in Geneva. Sixteen countries sided with the United States, including Britain, France, and Germany. But other European countries, along with China and Russia, mustered enough votes to block the U.S. effort. The findings of independent UN investigator Carl Johan Groth of Sweden-who testified that President Fidel Castro's regime "systematically and brutally repressed" its domestic critics-were outweighed by Mr. Groth's criticism of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which he said has caused "untold hardships" for Cubans.

Suing the millennium bug

As the millennium bug threatens to cost the world trillions to clean up high-tech meltdowns, one group could make a killing: America's trial lawyers. One Manhattan firm, Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes, and Lerach, has already filed three lawsuits against computer companies because their systems have trouble understanding dates after 1999. One target is Symantec, makers of the popular Norton AntiVirus software package. Another is Macola, which produces accounting software. More legal action is sure to follow. If businesses fail because computers start coughing up bad data over the next 18 months, more people will be calling their attorneys (if the phone system is still working). In California, the breadbasket of the computer industry, Republican assemblyman Brooks Firestone proposed a bill to limit Y2K lawsuits. Under AB 1710, plaintiffs could recover damages only for bodily injury or the cost to fix damaged computer equipment and software. They could not collect punitive damages or awards for emotional distress. To keep their noses clean, computer companies must aggressively inform customers about problems-and provide free upgrades. The bill is supposed to cut down on frivolous lawsuits, and supporters include many computer companies. Proponents fear lawyers will swoop down like vultures onto Silicon Valley to rip flesh from the computer industry. The Year 2000 Legal Coalition, which supports the bill, says that legal bills could top $600 billion as angry victims seek jackpot settlements. Tort reformers say the big bucks spent on attorneys' fees and settlements can fix buggy software and faulty chips instead. "The millennium bug should not be a full-employment act for our state's trial lawyers," Mr. Firestone said. The attorneys say the bill lets off the hook companies that produced faulty products. Mom-and-pop businesses that lose everything when their computers become unreliable will suffer, they say. Companies should avoid lawsuits by fixing problems and helping customers. "There should be some relief a consumer could receive when he bought a product that he thought would work," explains Reed Kathrein, a Milberg Weiss lawyer.

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