Friday was a big day in the River City, and that's not even counting Sammy Hagar's presence in town. (Sammy played two gigs in town last week, and he's not even on tour. Like, who needs Wilco? How lucky can we be?) It was also a big day for the St. Louis Board of Alderman, who, on their last day before summer recess, passed a proposal that might help fund indigent health care. It was a big day for former U.S. Sen. John Danforth and his Waco investigation. And it was a big day for Norman Probstein.
The board voted unanimously to put on the November ballot the reinstatement of a use tax, a city tax of 2.625 cents on the dollar for out-of-state purchases. The tax is mostly on businesses; individuals are exempted from paying it on the first $2,000 of a purchase from an out-of-state business. A proposal to reinstate the tax in 1996 after it was tossed out by the courts was rejected by city voters. This time, with revenue dedicated to health care to fill the $5 million ConnectCare hole in the budget, aldermen are more optimistic.
But it's unlike the aldermen to spend much time on such weighty matters. There was a golf course to name, or rename. Seems that local hotel owner Norm Probstein had kicked in $2 million to redo the Forest Park golf course, with the rest of the $12.5 mil coming from Forest Park Forever, the Danforth Foundation (yes, yes, they're into everything), the city and other sources. Ald. Steve Conway (D-8th) took umbrage at the fact that although Probstein had kicked in a minority stake, he was requesting naming rights in perpetuity, which, in aldermanic terms, is a very long time. Conway didn't like that Probstein's cash was going to trump the memory of World War II hero and ex-President Dwight Eisenhower, for whom the golf course is currently named.
"I don't know this gentleman," Conway said of Probstein. "Obviously he has some money, but that isn't the criteria for us to throw out Gen. Eisenhower and name something after someone who's got a couple of million dollars. We're not that poor. We don't need to set this type of precedent."
Maybe the city should have held out for more -- say, $3 million -- and promised to put Norm's name on all the golf balls or his photo on the flags stuck in each hole, or painted an ad for his hotels on the sides of the golf carts. Aldermanic President Francis Slay stepped down from the podium to speak from the floor in defense of Probstein. "I do know Norman Probstein," Slay said from the aldermanic floor. "He's a very generous man." Slay noted that Probstein has given money to Cardinal Glennon Hospital for Children, the St. Louis Public Schools and Children's Hospital. Maybe Slay is angling for Probstein to kick in some cash for Slay's mayoral ambition as well, offering naming rights to make it the Norman Probstein Campaign to Elect Francis Slay Mayor. Of course, perpetuity might be a problem, and those nagging campaign-finance laws could be an obstacle. But Francis doesn't look as if he needs the golf benefactor's help.
Slay has $548,561 remaining to spend on his mayoral bid, with the Democratic primary set for March. That's a 2-to-1 edge over incumbent Mayor Clarence Harmon, who has $252,532 in his piggy bank. In the last three months, Slay has raised $79,951; Harmon has collected $25,832. Rumors that former Mayors Vince Schoemehl and Freeman Bosley Jr. will enter the race continue to circulate, but there's no money on the table. Yes, Bill Haas is running again.
Most interesting, though not most substantial, among Slay's donors are Michael E. Pulitzer, chairman of Pulitzer Inc., the company that bring you this city's daily paper, and his wife, Ceil Pulitzer; each gave $1,125. Is Slay part of the home team? Sidney Barthelemy, a honcho at Historic Restoration Inc., the firm welding together the convention-hotel deal, kicked in $1,000 for Clarence.
So it's money, be it for campaigns or golf courses, that matters. But aside from the crass reality that everything is for sale, particularly in government, the most dreary aspect of the Probstein minifuror was that it named the golf course in perpetuity. It's distressing to imagine that whoever is roaming the turf in the year 3029 would be unimaginative enough to still be playing golf. Makes one shudder.
As the board droned on, it came time to drive down Walnut Street from City Hall to the downtown Marriott for the Waco press conference. Listening to Sammy Hagar for lunch on KSHE ("When I drive that slow, you know, it's hard to steer/I can't get my car out of second gear/I can't drive 55"), the mind drifts, trying to differentiate between the Board of Alderman and the Branch Davidians. Praise Jesus that there is no David Koresh at Tucker and Market.
But the federales have their own problems, including enforcing gun laws and refraining from trampling religious freedoms while dealing with people like Vernon Howell, a.k.a. David Koresh. And even though Jack Danforth appeared sincere and earnest -- and Jack Danforth is nothing if not sincere and earnest -- there was something hollow about the announcement that the interim report by Danforth, the special counsel picked by the government, had, well, exonerated the government.
Danforth made a lengthy presentation, waited to hear all the questions offered in the formal press conference and even hung around for follow-up questions. As federal security types -- clad in suits, earphones in place -- stood watchful around the edges, in the doorway and down the hall, members of the local and national media huddled around Danforth, asking about pyrotechnic projectiles and just who was to blame for what during the Waco conflagration. Danforth's 149-page interim report took 10 months to complete, involved 16 lawyers and 38 investigators, and cost $12.5 million, about the same price as the Forest Park golf course. It clearly blames the Branch Davidians for the fire. Danforth navigated his way through Friday's media inquiry by not letting the queries stray to anything before the April 19, 1993, catastrophe, avoiding any questions about what preceded or caused the 51-day standoff.
In picking Danforth to head the Waco investigation, Attorney General Janet Reno went for a retired senator known for his veracity, a conservative Republican who is an ordained Episcopal minister. This is also the man who is so religious and righteous that before Clarence Thomas testified at his acrimonious Supreme Court confirmation hearing, he, Thomas and Thomas' wife stood in the senator's bathroom, held hands and prayed as Danforth played a tape of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "Onward Christian Soldiers." This, of course, was not the theme song of the Branch Davidians, 80 of whom died in what to them may have seemed to be Masada-like martyrdom.
The subtext of Danforth's report was that if the Waco episode had any valuable lesson, it was that government should come clean about what it knows. When federal authorities refused to admit early on that three pyrotechnic rounds had been fired at the Mount Carmel compound, it tainted their credibility. "We want them to learn from this experience the importance of candor, even about very small things," said Danforth, stating that the three rounds shot hours before the flames started had nothing to do with the fire. "Yet government officials were not open enough then: They weren't candid enough, they didn't tell, they knew things and they didn't disclose those things, and the result of that is that those who want to believe the worst about government say, 'Aha, this is something that is really bad.' And if government lies about one thing, it will lie about everything, so everything is suspicious. I think the lesson is that government has to be open."
But this all started when the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms cowboys staged their Feb. 28 raid. Four ATF agents were killed. If they wanted to bust Koresh, they could have done so on one of his frequent trips to town to buy auto supplies as he customized "muscle cars" for future sale. They could have pulled over his black Camaro without calling out the TV-news vans. And if the goal was to find out about illegal firearms, well, that sure as hell didn't work out, did it?
FLOTSAM & JETSAM: What formerly was known as Library Ltd., at the corner of Forsyth Boulevard and Hanley Road in Clayton, and now known as Borders Books & Music-Clayton soon won't be there anymore. Well, not soon, but by September 2001. The Borders store will be relocated to the Brentwood Promenade, that spread of shops at Highway 40 and Brentwood Boulevard, where there's now a Target, a PetSmart, and so on. You know -- where the historically black settlement of Evans Place was bulldozed; you can't miss it.... A meeting to discuss the impending doom of the South Side National Bank building at Gravois Avenue and Grand Boulevard is set for 7 p.m. Monday, July 31, at St. Pius V Church, 3310 S. Grand Blvd.... The irrepressibly chatty Alvin A. Reid, editor of the St. Louis American, will appear on ESPN Classic at 7 p.m. Wednesday as part of a special about former Cardinal center-fielder Curt Flood.... With the season more than half over, here's this year's first Mike Shannon koan. During a game against the Giants just before the All-Star break, Mike had this to say on a two-out, bases-empty walk: "The two-out walk has broken many camels' backs." OK. If it's he last little thing to happen before a disaster, then it's the straw that broke the camel's back. But a two-out walk as the first bad thing to happen in an inning? What is the sound of one hand holding a Busch?