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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Readers who complain that all this scribe produces is unmitigated beefing about government and public servants should be cheered by my observations on the saving of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Watching the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) deliberate on television before the weekend convinced me the body politic can still produce some great work and results beneficial to the common weal if participants go at the task with zeal, fairness and honest intent.

BRAC members and staffers -- who could have simply rubber-stamped the Defense Department's proposals to close 33 major bases and gone home -- obviously did their homework, refused to swallow the Pentagon's standard outrageously fake cost estimates, and were led by an extremely capable chairman, Anthony J. Principi.

I covered Principi in my closing years in Washington, when he was secretary of Veterans Affairs. He did at least two things that impressed me -- and had to cut through a mountain of lethargic bureaucracy and red tape to accomplish them.

First, he stood up to the career-protecting military medical hacks and Pentagon spinmeisters who followed orders and routinely blamed the health complaints of about one-sixth of those who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War upon gold-bricking, hypochondria and a desire for undeserved benefits. Principi -- a Vietnam veteran himself -- actually took obviously sick veterans of Desert Storm at their word and started some epidemiological efforts that produced results.

Second, he started the transformation of a VA hospital system that was a notorious disgrace into a network of admirable and efficient health care facilities. He was very good at digesting reports and acting upon them, instead of making neat piles of wasted paperwork like many government officials who only pose at their jobs.

In the base closure brouhaha, when Principi got a look at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plans, the BRAC chairman reacted by stating clearly and publicly that they removed far too much military presence out of the Northeast region. His steady leadership resulted in some studied reflection and fine decisions on many realignment questions in addition to Niagara's. He can expect payback for that. This Pentagon usually retaliates in some fashion against those who confront and challenge that vast machine.

Another impressive feature of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station's preservation, the saving of $150 million in annual revenue generated by the base, and the retention of almost 2,900 badly needed jobs was the bipartisan cooperation among New York's elected federal representatives. Members of Congress Tom Reynolds (R-Clarence) and Louise Slaughter (D-Fairport), and Democratic U.S. senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton played key roles in presenting convincing information and pressing commissioners to do the right thing.

Clinton's effort was particularly newsy.

The Pentagon's plan in shutting down the Niagara base was to move the 914th Airlift Wing's eight huge C-130 Hercules aircraft to Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas -- the Defense Department's intended recipient of mega-base status, 120 more planes (50 of them C-130s to total 116 of the mammoth Hercules transports at Little Rock), and about 3,900 new jobs.

Pentagon numbers-crunchers contended two things:

A determined Sen. Clinton earlier in August pried a contradictory Air Force report out of the reluctant Pentagon that showed the true cost of the Arkansas expansion would be almost triple that -- $292 million.

That had a lot to do with the BRAC commissioners' steady distrust of the numbers provided by the military brass.

State-funded lobbyists also showed the commission that the $199 million in savings over two decades by closing Niagara was an ephemeral figure, and that the federal government would actually save money by keeping the local air base open. (It seems the Pentagon, in typical figure-fudging behavior, had included the big expense of training reserve personnel in the intended savings, despite the recognition those reservists would only be moved and trained elsewhere, not eliminated.)

The alert BRAC staffers were polite and didn't label this weasel-arithmetic for the intended deception it was, instead diplomatically calling this and other Pentagon falsities and misleading descriptions "deviations from original criteria."

Hillary Clinton's involvement also had political and personal aspects. One of the arguments for keeping the workhorse planes and personnel at Niagara was that Little Rock was smack in the middle of "tornado alley" -- making the Pentagon's intended move of the C-130 fleet to Arkansas "contrary to military merit" and equivalent in strategic terms to putting "all of our eggs in one basket."

Hillary asked the Pentagon "Why would you put all your C-130s in a place with weather problems?"

A spokesman for Little Rock Air Force Base quickly noted that no tornadoes had touched down there in 30 years (although I personally witnessed one come pretty close when I moved to Little Rock in 1988 to run the news operation of the Arkansas Gazette).

Federal weather statistics show that in the last half century 45 other states had fewer tornadoes than Arkansas. In that same time period, Little Rock Air Force Base averaged about 65 thunderstorm days a year in which the bad weather was enough to delay takeoffs and landings.

Hillary's sharp remarks were aimed at a state in which she spent most of her early adulthood (15 years) and -- as Bill Clinton's long-suffering wife -- she was Arkansas' first lady for 12 years. She was an attorney in Little Rock's most prominent law firm and was urged to run for governor herself by serious movers and shakers who noticed she did much of the work anyway in setting and promoting policy on education and child health care issues.

Her new devotion to New York state and all those snooty Yankee constituents was pretty much understood by we-play-the-same-game Arkansas politicians as merely representing constituents, but her opposition to a plan that would provide that southern state capital area with 3,900 new jobs was less admired, and her description of a place where residents are universally proud of their comfortable southern clime as having "weather problems"was totally unappreciated.

John Brummett, the state's most fervently followed political writer (who used to work for me), explained in a piece for the Arkansas News Bureau that "Hillary always was a cultural alien here, beginning with her keeping her own last name until surrendering it under duress in service to ... her husband's political career. When Bill got elected president, she gave a bit of an impression of being pleased to escape. She revisited rarely. Most biographies chronicle her horror at having to come here for Her Boy Bill in the first place."

The prescient Brummett correctly concluded that Hillary "is the GOP's Public Enemy No. 1 and up for re-election next year" and added "she can contend that this is all a cynical attempt to sacrifice essential jobs and commerce near Buffalo to do her political harm."

Having apparently triumphed, she is too cool a political cucumber to pick an unnecessary fight with Republicans at this point, but might do just that if the Niagara base decision isn't supported by President George W. Bush and Congress, as it must eventually be.

Congress must vote up-or-down in one tally on all the base realignment decisions by BRAC -- no picking and choosing. As Yogi Berra accurately observed about air travel: "You're never on the plane until you're on the plane." It applies to federal decisions and politics, too, but even members of Congress disgruntled by the base-closing decisions are unlikely to scrap the BRAC conclusions.

It's sort of a "reverse pork barrel" situation. You don't throw ice water on a colleague's hard-won gain -- whether it's justified or not -- just to vent your anger, or you won't last long on Capitol Hill.

These base-closing stories will continue in the news. Little noticed was a federal judge's decision in Philadelphia that prohibited deactivation of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing without consent of the state's governor. BRAC approved closing the Willow Grove Naval Air Station anyway, but the federal judge's ruling gives some hope to states that lost Air National Guard units in the base closings and realignments. Illinois and Tennessee are sure to pursue similar court challenges.

Another observation: The Pentagon pushed the elimination of 33 major bases (and many more minor ones) as justified because many exist mostly as "job-provision projects" instead of locations connected to military strategy.

My reaction is: So what?

Dubya seems unaware he has us headed for a major economic recession anyway, and at least military bases return a portion of our tax money to us in our own localities of choice -- something few other government programs accomplish.

We are at war. Closing even one military base in time of terrorist peril seems counter-intuitive and questionable.

And arguing that making the military economically efficient and trim as a national priority is pretty hypocritical for an administration that outsources military support jobs to a politically connected company now accused of overbilling you and me for $1.4 billion in phantom services. I'd rather have that money put back into my community than give it to Halliburton.

A final observation: For an area on its economic keister, and one with seemingly disparate goals and a tendency toward chronic political lethargy and confusion, Niagara -- in the runup to the BRAC vote -- didn't act like a schizophrenic upstate stepchild of Albany, New York City or Washington. It strapped on the harness and its citizens pulled together.

The Niagara Military Affairs Council, a support and liaison group between the base, business and government -- headed by funeral director Merrell Lane -- collected more than 126,000 signatures, the most for any affected base in the nation, to urge BRAC to keep the base alive. That is very, very impressive, and gained national attention. I didn't think you could get 126,000 residents of the region to agree on anything. Maybe things are turning around.

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 Aug. 30 2005