An Arsenic Era 

In more ways than one, we may be in for it under Bush II.

The new administration's intention to mine for arsenic in Yellowstone National Park, first reported here last week (what, you didn't notice?), may well be reversed before it makes it to the president's desk, should he be there and not in the gym, working out. I have this on the best of all possible sources, an irrepressible imagination.

The fact that you might have accepted just a bit of the first sentence tells you something about the George W. Bush administration and how it is not as smart as it, for one, thinks it is. Nothing could illustrate this better than the new standard for arsenic in drinking water.

The Cheney administration, as it is sometimes called, finds itself on the wrong side of the arsenic issue. That takes some work, since nothing makes the average American shudder more quickly than the word "arsenic." It is, after all, the poison used in the movie Arsenic and Old Lace by those kindly spinsters, the Brewster sisters, who dispatched lonely old men to a better place. They offered their guests homemade elderberry wine with only a teaspoon of arsenic. It does the trick.

I have no idea, really, whether a teaspoon is sufficient. And I do not know whether the arsenic standards the Cheney administration rescinded are too stringent, as it maintains, or simply prudent. But I do know that an administration about to embark on the wholesale rape and pillage of the land (and the skies) should have waited a bit before becoming pro-arsenic.

It would have been one thing if the administration had rescinded the arsenic standard and done nothing else. Then we all could have debated the standard and listened to one expert call another expert a fool. But the new standard was really part of a package -- an environmental approach that would make Smokey the Bear weep.

The administration wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. It is considering opening vast areas of the Rocky Mountain West for oil and gas drilling. It has dropped the Kyoto treaty on global warming into the wastebasket and will not, as George W. Bush himself once promised, reduce the amount of CO2 in the air. Much of this is to solve an energy crisis that many experts say simply does not exist.

It is EPA director Christie Whitman's task to explain this or that bright idea from the brain of some conservative ideologue. Even though she argued for the United States not to renounce the Kyoto treaty, she later tried to explain why doing so was just a dandy idea. The other day, she said the administration was working hard to develop more balanced arsenic and CO2 standards than the ones scuttled. The new standard for arsenic may even be tougher than the old one, she said.

We are now beginning to understand the meaning of the phrase "compassionate conservative." It refers to the attempt to lull most Americans into believing that George W. Bush is, at most, a millimeter right of center. In this sense only is the administration compassionate. By all means, the people should be comforted.

But now, by dint of some knuckleheaded thinking, the administration stands revealed as deeply, passionately, and insanely conservative. It talks about an energy crisis without mentioning conservation. It argues for the repeal of the estate tax for farmers who have lost their land to the IRS -- only these don't exist. It has a reason du jour to justify a huge tax cut, but, really, it just wants to starve the government. As always, it's your money but not, for some reason, your government or your national debt.

I sincerely doubt the administration will mine for arsenic in Yellowstone. This feeling, I have to tell you, is hardly based on the Bush administration's reverence for the environment but rather on my guess that there's no money in it. If, however, there is a buck to be made in arsenic, Old Faithful will have to go. Poor Christie Whitman will explain why.

Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His columns frequently appear in the Flyer.

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