Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Of knuckleheads, 9/11 mythologists, and rude dinner guests

Some observations today about a few noteworthy politicians:

The competition for Democratic Knucklehead of the Year has been pretty intense - my previous nominees on this blog, here and here, have been Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and West Virginia congressman Allan Mollohan -- but another strong contender has to be a state senator in Ohio named Charlie Wilson.

By way of introduction, here's a TV ad for Wilson that has been running in Ohio's Sixth Congressional District, in advance of today's primary to choose a Democratic candidate for Congress in November:
"Democrats need to write in his name for Congress. Charlie Wilson. In the (state) legislature, he fought Governor Taft and lowered the cost of prescription drugs. Charlie Wilson. In Congress, he'll stand up to the Republicans and President Bush. Charlie Wilson. Saying 'no' to privatizing Social Security and 'yes' to real health care reform. Charlie Wilson....We need to write in Charlie Wilson."

Get the message? Democratic primary voters need to write in his name on the ballot today. But if the guy is so good (and apparently he's far more qualified than two other Democrats who did make the ballot), then why is he not on the ballot?
This is where the Knucklehead nomination comes in.

If the Democrats, nationally, hope to achieve their ambition of retaking the U.S. House, they absolutely need to hang on to their seat in Ohio's sixth district. Right now it's being vacated by Ted Strickland, who is running for governor. Wilson was tapped as the national party's best hope to keep that seat. His first step, back in February, was to get on the May 2 primary ballot. All he needed to do was collect enough petition signatures. And, under the lenient rules, all he needed was 50 signees.

He got 46.

So he's not on the ballot.

Apparently, by all accounts, Wilson's campaign manager (who is also his son) screwed that one up, flunking Politics 101. And as a result, Wilson's chances of winning the nomination are vastly reduced, because most voters generally don't write in names. And that would mean victory for one of the underqualified Democrats, either of whom reportedly would have a tough time beating the Republican challenger, a state legislator named Charles Blasdel. And that would mean a seat pickup for the GOP in November.

Maybe Wilson will prevail, who knows. But his knuckleheaded gaffe has already forced the national Democrats to spend nearly half a million dollars on mail, ads, and phone banks, just to ensure that people know he's a write-in candidate. And he has opened himself up to the lawyers, because Ohio officials say it could take 10 days to read all the write-in names, in all 12 counties, and determine whether they say "Charlie Wilson." Scrawled handwriting can be challenged.

Perhaps this final anecdote says it all:
At a meeting in the district the other night, labor leaders had to conduct a session to teach voters how to write Wilson's name on the ballot. Wilson himself was supposed to show up at the session.
He never made it. He had car trouble.


Rudy Giuliani has been floating on a wave of positive publicity ever since he donned a hard hat on 9/11. His latest foray, yesterday, was to the state of Iowa -- the first stop on the presidential primary trail, and a favorite destination place for politicians who deny they have any interest in the presidential primary trail.

It is generally assumed that Giuliani, if he chose to embark on that trail, would be a long shot for the GOP nomination because his pro-choice, pro-gay rights stances would play poorly with the conservatives who tend to dominate early primaries. It is also generally assumed that he might have a shot anyway, because (as the New York Times story says today), his "personal popularity" has been "burnished by his leadership of New York City during and after the Sept. 11 terror attack."

But if he does become a candidate, some of his competitors will try to de-burnish his 9/11 popularity. And they will have some ammunition.

Start with the book "102 Minutes," by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, two New York reporters who have written the best account of the World Trade Center disaster. Go to pages 58-60. Here are some excerpts: Despite the fact that Giuliani became mayor in the mid-'90s by stressing the issue of public safety, "the city did not organize a single joint drill involving all the emergency responders at the trade center in the eight years after the (initial) 1993 (terrorist) attack."

And remember how Giuliani and his emergency officials were roaming the streets after the attack? It was because they were essentially homeless. Here's why:
The book reports that his Office of Emergency Management was unable to orchestrate the 9/11 rescue efforts, because it had been forced to evacuate its new, $13-million "bunker" headquarters. That bunker had been located at 7 World Trade Center.
A few years earlier, a number of emergency-response efforts had insisted that this was a dumb place to build the agency bunker, given the fact that the WTC had been targeted by terrorists before. But, the book notes, "the mayor brushed off the critics as people mired in the 'old ways' of thinking. His aides described the bunker as state of the art and imagined it as impregnable."

Meanwhile, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission report has also concluded that the city response, while heroic, was woefully inadequate. The commission staff, in a report, stated: "Effective decision-making in New York was hampered by limited command and control and internal communications."

And one of the 9/11 commissioners, former Navy secretary John F. Lehman, specifically went after Bernard Kerik, the city police commissioner on that fateful day. Lehman said that the emergency response was undercut by turf warfare between Kerik's cops and the fire department, and that Kerik's perfomance was "a scandal."

Kerik was Giuliani's former driver, and a business partner, and the 9/11 Commission's harsh verdict did not dissuade Giuliani from getting Kerik nominated (with President Bush's OK) as the new Homeland Security secretary in late 2004. But Rudy's pal had to withdraw his name after it was revealed that, among other things, he had met with several mistresses in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero that was supposed to be a haven for exhausted firefighters working at the site.

The point is, Giuliani's 9/11 hero profile will stay pristine as long as he remains a non-candidate. If his status changes, factual reality may intrude.


Finally, an observation about that famed Washington institution, the White House Correspondents Dinner. It was held last Saturday night, and there has been great debate in recent days about the performance of Steven Colbert, the Comedy Central star who unleashed his barbed ironic humor on the grand sachems of the Beltway establishment and earned few laughs as a result.

You go, Steven.

Maybe it's just because I don't live and work in Washington, but I find myself baffled by that event. I attended once, back in 2000, and that was enough. Too much smug self-satisfaction. Too much ritualized chumminess between press and newsmakers.

The tradition is to hire comics who will poke some fun but without drawing too much blood. Jay Leno, for example.

Steven Colbert, on the other hand, shattered the politesse. (C-Span has it all.) He said this about President Bush, who was sitting a few feet away:

"I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world...You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man's beliefs never will."

Then he went after the journalists in the audience, some of the same Washington journalists who didn't ask sufficiently probing questions during the runup to war. They have since acknowledged that, but they squirmed anyway when Colbert said:

"Here's how it works. The President makes decisions, he's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home.Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction."

It's interesting to note that Colbert wasn't even mentioned in the New York Times writeup on the dinner yesterday. Clearly, Colbert won't be invited back any time soon. Good for him.