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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- I read about a million magazines and newspapers every week (all right, all right ... more like 28) and it strikes me that during a close presidential election campaign such as this one, everyday Americans miss a big pile of important news. Media outlets are more interested in feeding you the latest grimace on Dubya's debate face, or speculating the president is getting secret debate instructions through an ear piece, or analyzing whether John Kerry's assertive wife hurts him or helps him.

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So, herewith, a Vote-free Briefing on some important recent stories that would have made front page news or the 11 o'clock lead in quieter times.


Malaria, which kills about 700,000 children each year and almost as many adults, mostly in tropical climes, has resisted immunization efforts for decades. Now, a promising new vaccine has been developed which, after preliminary trials, has public health officials optimistic this deadliest of plagues can finally be tamed. This is huge science news. Much of the credit goes to computer zillionaire Bill Gates, who bankrolled costly tests on 15 experimental vaccines. That's important. The Big Pharmaceutical corporations don't like to work on vaccines for tropical diseases because they don't bring enough profit. Malaria is caused by a parasite spread by mosquito bites. More immunization trials continue.


After well over a decade of suffering stubborn federal bad-mouthing, false accusations of gold-bricking and shirking, portrayals as wimpy hypochondriacs, persistent military legal opposition, epidemiological sloth and indifference, and outright deception from Pentagon paladins, about 100,000 of the troops who fought in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 finally have some encouraging news. Their multiple symptom chronic illnesses -- which have lasted for 13 years -- aren't just due to stress, the previous kiss-off diagnosis of Defense Department researchers. The emerging truth is what many private sector scientists suspected all along as the cause of the mystery symptoms: exposure to neurotoxins.

A new report by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses concludes that the wide range of symptoms affecting about one-seventh of those who served in the Middle East in Bush the Elder's war -- including muscle pain, fatigue, persistent diarrhea, memory loss, debilitating headaches, joint pain, mental confusion and skin rashes -- are real and not just figments of a stressed imagination; are caused by a "probable link" to neurotoxin exposures; and result from a chemical group called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors -- found in sarin gas chemical weaponry possessed by Iraq, in pyridostigmine bromide given to troops in futile hope it would protect against such nerve gas, and in various pesticides used by American soldiers in massive quantities to repel desert bugs.

The report was prepared for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which already provides disability benefits for Gulf War veterans suffering from the fatal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Those who served in that quick war to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait are almost twice as likely to come down with ALS as troops who were not sent to the Middle East. Much of the report is based on the research of Dr. Robert W. Haley, the chief epidemiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Haley's original promising research on the possibility that neurotoxins caused damage to brain cells and the nervous system was widely ridiculed by military doctors and Pentagon officials who refused Haley funding. He had to rely on Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who supports many veterans' causes, for initial help.


You will not be pleased to learn, oh American taxpayer, that you are being screwed royally once again. I understand that's not really news these days. But this reaming is particularly galling. Amtrak -- the taxpayer-supported railroad that needed an additional $1.2 billion in government subsidies this year alone to keep from folding -- has for the last 20 years been quietly paying off damage claims against private major freight carriers for rail accidents that weren't even Amtrak's fault.

The New York Times, through some excellent digging and reporting, found that Amtrak since 1984 has shelled out more than $186 million for accidents officially blamed on private multi-billion dollar freight railroads. Amtrak uses the excuse it must pay these liability claims regardless of fault "as a condition for using the freight lines' tracks." Now there's a good deal for the average American taxpayer. What federal moron representing us negotiated that one? These accidents caused by private corporate negligence -- mostly derailments and grade-crossing collisions -- have killed 53 and injured 1,288 persons in the last two decades.

The Times points out this governmental travesty of shielding rich corporations from negligence with your money and mine not only gives us the shaft -- it removes almost any incentive for the railroad magnates to keep their tracks in operating order. Most of us thought this kind of robber-baron behavior was put to rest more than a century ago.

You can blame this one -- as usual -- on Congress, which created Amtrak 34 years ago to unload money-losing passenger travel on the taxpayer and let the railroads concentrate on moving profitable cargo. The Amtrak indemnification was forced on the taxpayer-supported line by Congress in the first place to please private sector fat cats. Amtrak was a sham from the get-go. Its original board of directors was peppered with executives from freight railroads, and the Congress as recently as seven years ago underscored Amtrak's legal right to indemnify the private freight lines with blanket immunity from liability after a federal judge questioned its legality.

You'll hear more about this one as we learn more about how big corporations carry Congress around in their hip pockets.


Many Americans seem unaware that Sept. 30 is the end of the federal fiscal year. Lost in all the election hoo-ha was the Treasury Department's announcement that the federal deficit has plunged to a record $413 billion shortfall. This is the most red ink since World War II. While the premise of this column is to present topics not connected to the election, you may have heard this during campaigning during the last two weeks. The Democrats keep noting the administration of Bush the Younger three years ago predicted a $5.6 trillion surplus by the end of this decade. If things remain the same fiscally, that will instead be a $2.3 trillion deficit. To paraphrase the late, great Sen. Everett Dirksen: a trillion here and a trillion there, and "pretty soon you're talking about real money." Only Dirksen's wisecrack was in the billions. It's hard for any of us to get our minds around a trillion dollars.


Speaking of presidential campaigning, "Harper's" Magazine notes that it's not always good for a municipality, despite the hoopla and excitement. While President Bush and challenger John Kerry both campaigned in Davenport, Iowa, on Aug. 4, and distracted the populace with rousing speeches, bank robbers there knocked over three such institutions.


One of my favorite magazines, the little "Washington Monthly," in its September issue ran interesting predictions of what another George W. Bush administration would be like. They came from both sides of the political spectrum.

Tax cut advocate Grover Norquist, a board director of the American Conservative Union and the National Rifle Association, predicts no less than the demise of the Democratic Party if Dubya returns to the White House. He asserts the Democrats depend on sustained control of Big Government to survive in terms of power and money, and that, without a beachhead in Congress to fight back, the Dems will suffer dissolution under more Bush "reforms" aimed at trial lawyers and the bureaucracy. The Democratic Party, he contends, will turn into "a vampire in the sun" if Dubya is re-elected.

One of former President Bill Clinton's closest advisors, Paul Begala (now co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" and a Kerry consultant) predicts, "If George W. Bush is given a second term, and retains a Republican Congress and a compliant federal judiciary, he and his allies are likely to embark on a campaign of political retribution the likes of which we haven't seen since Richard Nixon."

Begala asks himself: How do I know this?

His answer: "I'm from Texas."

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 19 2004