Editor's Notes: No happy ending

Cleanliness in government is not only a healthy principle; it is an essential component of competence.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Perhaps you remember the Steve Martin-John Candy movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, tracking the singularly ill-matched duo on a disaster-paved journey from New York to Chicago. I went through something similar last week, albeit without sharing a bed with a shower-ring salesman. The day had started smoothly enough, when I left San Francisco early in the morning en route to New York, the final destination on a short speaking trip before I headed back to Israel. But 15 minutes before we were due to land, the captain announced that Newark airport had been closed by a snow storm and we were diverting to Cleveland. There, we were told to leave our hand luggage on board, "deplane," and wait for an update. In early evening, the airline announced that its part in our journey was over; the rest of the flight was canceled. We were grudgingly allowed back on board to retrieve our valuables, but after that it was a case of pick up your suitcase if you're lucky enough to spot it amid the chaos of thousands of stranded passengers at the carousels, find a hotel, and make your own way home from there. The next day's flights were all booked solid, and those the day after. Catching my plane back to Israel was looking decidedly iffy. By the time I'd located a nearby hotel with rooms to spare, it was getting dark and the snow had reached Cleveland, too. Along with some seasoned business travelers and two sets of young parents with many more children and bags than hands, we crammed into an airport-to-hotel shuttle bus, waited patiently in lines to check in to our rooms and to get a hot drink and meal, and plotted our escape. Blessed with a resourceful sister-in-law and brother-in-law in New York, I booked the last remaining seat on a 2:15 a.m. Amtrak train headed to Pittsburgh and connecting there to New York - a 13-hour journey. A couple of the businessmen had rented a car and were setting off at 7 a.m. on the 10-hours-if-they-were-lucky drive. They invited me to join them, but I opted to trust Amtrak over the icy roads. By 3:15 a.m., with the Pittsburgh-bound train still a no-show, I was wondering whether I'd made the right choice. By 4:15 a.m., as the gray-haired woman with the headset made her 13th screaming phone-call to relatives vowing to "get even with Amtrak if it's the last thing I do," as the Brooklyn know-it-all with the infuriating whine traced the bitter decline of the American rail network in excruciating detail, as an impossibly happy young Latino couple had a snowball fight in the freezing outdoors while the rest of us watched dumbfounded inside, and as members of the Rutgers University volleyball team thoughtfully entertained our 200 weary travelers in the waiting room by cheering every goal scored and saved by their colleagues on their laptop computer soccer game, I was cursing myself in language that has no place in a family newspaper. At 5:15, the grumpy, combed-over and, most pertinently, tight-lipped station-master, who must live for nights like this, reluctantly vouchsafed that our train was just 10 miles away. Unfortunately, he also revealed after much further beseeching and flattery, it was behind a freight engine. Which had broken down. The train finally limped in at 7 a.m. By the time we got to Pittsburgh, the connection had long gone, of course. But the good folks of Amtrak would not be defeated. They came to our rescue by loading us into buses and chasing after their own departed train, clean across Pennsylvania. One of my fellow passengers - we had far too much time on our hands - calculated that we were averaging 65 mph in the highway traffic and sleet, compared to the train's 35 mph. Bus and train finally met up at a place called Harrisburg, and from there we made an untroubled last leg into Penn Station: San Francisco to New York in about 36 hours instead of the scheduled six - but none of us was complaining. Actually, that's not true. All of us were complaining - especially about the airlines that had abandoned us. Truly. In the faint hope of a seat opening up and sparing him the train marathon, the Brooklyn whiner had called his airline's customer service hot line when he arrived at the Cleveland train station at 2 a.m. When we boarded the train five sleepless, exasperating hours later, the hot line was still playing its cheerful recorded message, reminding him that so many services were now available on line and assuring him that his call was "so important to us." But we had been through a grand adventure (believe me, I've cut a very long story short here). And the small knot of us who had gravitated together - including the Laurence Olivier-lookalike in the waistcoat who had wailed theatrically in the darkest pre-dawn hours that "we'll never get out of Cleveland. We'll just have to get jobs here and start over;" the bespectacled, sandal-wearing Delhi computer whiz who was trying to get home for his brother's wedding, and was traveling with a girlfriend/sister/cousin who looked like a Bollywood movie star and who never removed her stiletto heels during the interminable waiting hours; the parents of a California rabbi; and the inevitable sabra, a Ramat Gan Arabic student who modestly acknowledged under questioning that she'd just won a place on a PhD program at Harvard - had displayed impressive reserves of patience and courtesy and grown to quite like each other. Besides, we'd all reasoned, there was nothing to be done except hang in there for the ride, for as long as it took. After all, we were victims, as the exculpating airline personnel had so triumphantly told us, of force majeure, an act of God. IN MARKED contrast to this week's general strike. Wednesday's Histadrut-ordered closedown could have been much, much worse, of course. It was over almost before it had begun and didn't even bite that deep while it lasted. Though airlines had made all kinds of emergency efforts to move flights forward, in the event the airport flow was hardly slowed at all, sparing us scenes of soccer-hungry England fans, denied the opportunity of watching their side trying its luck against mighty Israel in Ramat Gan on Saturday, denouncing us in frustrated lines at Britain's airports. But unlike last week's freeze in the US Northeast, it could and should have been avoided altogether. If the enduring problem of nonpayment to workers at local authorities could be resolved within a few hours of the unions downing tools, why couldn't it have been sorted out over the long months of mounting discontent before that desperate resort to strike action? It might have helped if the country's best-known trade union leader, now a leading member of the cabinet, had been in charge of one of the relevant government ministries, rather than insistently attracting ridicule and doing who knows how much more damage at the Defense Ministry while simultaneously attempting to fight a bitter campaign to retain the leadership of his party. It might have helped if the finance minister had been able to devote his full attention to those hapless unpaid workers and the local authority hierarchy that continuously fails to pay them, rather than being preoccupied with defending himself against allegations of personal corruption that stand out as dismayingly grave even amid the escalating swirl of scandal that is engulfing our political leadership. The confluence of a national strike and a finance minister facing long hours of police questioning on the same day underlines, as if the reminder were necessary, that cleanliness in government is not only a healthy principle; it is an essential component of competence. Leaders who are expending much of their energy trying to account for dubious past activities simply don't have the time to focus on present and future national imperatives. We all saw Avraham Hirchson paralyzed between the questioning cops and the striking workforce. We can only imagine, and fear, how paralyzing a shadow corruption casts over other, still more central, areas of governance. Finally, it might have helped avert the strike, too, if, as in so many contexts, Israel's leadership didn't only react when matters had reached boiling point, when pressure had been allowed to far exceed safety levels. The same cussed indifference until it's too late applies everywhere from the radicalization of the Israeli Arab sector to the weaponry now pouring into Gaza and back into south Lebanon. The worst was averted this week on the labor front because the sides finally, belatedly, put their heads together and found a solution. Disaster on other, more critical fronts is not inevitable, either, not force majeure. But disasters there will surely be without capable, competent and focused leadership to head them off. And nobody will come to our rescue.