Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rudy's lucky escape and other awards

In the wake of last night's Republican presidential debate, let's hand out some awards.

Lamest answer and luckiest escape: Rudy Giuliani.

Early in the proceedings, CNN's Anderson Cooper said to Rudy, "Politico broke a story a few hours ago questioning your accounting of taxpayer dollars as mayor. They say that as mayor, the report says you took trips to the Hamptons and expensed the cost of your police detail to obscure city offices. One, is that true? And, if so, was it appropriate?"

First of all, that was a charitable interpretation of the story. What the documented evidence strongly suggests is that Rudy was tomcatting with his extramarital lover on the taxpayer's dime, and trying to cover his tracks. He and his security team repeatedly took summer visits to Southampton, the Long Island town where future third wife Judith Nathan had an apartment - there are few indications in the records that he was visiting Southampton on official business - and all the security costs were subsequently squirreled away in the budgets of obscure city offices.

Anyway, Cooper asked if the squirreling was true. Rudy replied: "First of all, it's not true. I had 24-hour security for the eight years that I was mayor. They followed me everyplace I went. It was because there were, you know, threats, threats that I don't generally talk about. Some have become public recently; most of them haven't. And they took care of me, and they put in their records, and they handled them in the way they handled them. I had nothing to do with the handling of their records, and they were handled, as far as I know, perfectly appropriately."

Wow, where to begin...His first sentence was a lie. The squirreling was true - because, as the Politico story made clear, the fiscal watchdogs in the city comptroller's office discovered the squirreling and tried to get some answers from the mayor. But the watchdogs were repeatedly stonewalled. They later wrote that they "were unable to verify that these expenses were for legitimate or necessary purposes."

The next few sentences of Rudy's response were all smoke (he was under threat, he won't talk about the threats, etc.). He concluded by distancing himself from his security detail, which, he says, made its own decision about how to handle the expenses, and did it "perfectly appropriately," based on whatever he does know.

That response, of course, begs the question of how and why $34,000 in taxpayer costs wound up buried in the accounts of an agency that regulates loft space (and why another $40,000 was charged to an agency dedicated to finding legal aid for the poor). Fortunately for Rudy last night, Cooper did not follow up. Nor did any of Rudy's rivals choose to make the obvious point that this story, at bare minimum, sows fresh doubts about Rudy's ethics and his fealty to the principles of open government....and whether, after nearly eight years of an imperial presidency, it would be wise to elect a successor who engages in imperial behavior and stonewalls about it.

Most pathetic pandering: Mitt Romney.

This award was a tough call, because there were so many contenders. But Mitt gets the nod, based on how he handled one of the YouTube inquiries. A good ole boy from Arizona, clearly hoping to determine whether the GOP contenders are all Manly Men, asked this question: "Any of you-all want to tell us about your gun collection, roughly how many you own, what your favorite make, model and caliber is...?"

Nobody wanted to flub this question; earlier in the debate, Rudy had been booed by the Republicans in attendance, simply for saying that perhaps there were times when gun sales should be subject to "reasonable regulations." (Such as keeping guns away from mental-case psychos. Little things like that.)

Anyway, I was half expecting one of the eight white males to whip out a Glock and proudly fire a round at the ceiling, but everyone on stage merely sought to reassure the Arizonian that either, yes, they do own guns at home (Duncan Hunter: "I have an old 20-gauge L.C. Smith that is just like the gun that my dad used to carry"), or, even if they don't currently own any guns at home, they are clearly not to be mistaken for Girly Men (John McCain: "I know how to use guns").

As for Mitt, he had a slight problem. He himself doesn't own any guns. But, lest anyone judge him insufficiently manly, he flashed his Colgate grin and hastened to point out that "I have two guns in my home. They are owned by my son Josh!" - thereby wrapping himself in family values, as a bonus.

Most inept attempt at stonewalling: Again, Mitt Romney.

Late in the debate, when the topic was gays in the military, Cooper asked, "Governor Romney, you said in 1994 that you looked forward to the day when gays and lesbians could serve, and I quote, 'openly and honestly in our nation's military.' Do you stand by that?"

Mitt, clearly not wanting to stand up for gays in front of this crowd, yet not wanting to renounce his '94 statement lest he again look like a flip-flopper, took refuge in his standard duck-and-cover response: "This isn't that time. This is not that time. We're in the middle of a war. The people who have - "

Cooper interrupted, "Do you look forward to that time, though, one day?" In other words, does Mitt stand by his statement of 1994, since, presumably, there may come a day when we will not be "in the middle of a war"?

Mitt responded by doing a variation on duck and cover: "I'm going to listen to the people who run the military to see what the circumstances are like. And my view is that, at this stage, this is not the time for us" to allow gays to serve openly.

He rambled on a bit longer, but Cooper peristed: "So, just so I'm clear, at this point, do you still look forward to a day when gays can serve openly in the military or no longer?"

Mitt responded again by taking cover and repeating his talking point: "I look forward to hearing from the military exactly what they believe is the right way to have the right kind of cohesion and support in our troops and I listen to what they have to say."

For this, he was booed. It's easy to see why.

Most artful dodger: Mike Huckabee.

The Huck got off easy last night, given the fact that he's virtually the only GOP candidate on the rise these days. Perhaps Mitt and Rudy were concerned that, by assailing him, they would risk ticking off Huckabee's growing corps of religious conservative supporters. The result was that Huckabee was able to praise his own record as an Arkansas governor ("I have a great record on fiscal conservatism"), without being challenged on the facts. Huckabee bragged last night, for instance, that "I cut 90 taxes" as governor, leaving out the fact that he also raised 21 taxes during his tenure, and presided over a net tax hike at the end of his tenure. But nobody on stage bothered to point this out.

Left virtually untouched, Huckabee proceeded to deflect potentially sensitive questions with bits of humor. When a YouTube questioner asked whether Jesus would have supported the death penalty, Huckabee simply remarked, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office." Everybody laughed, Huckabee was in the clear, and at that moment he reminded me of a certain Republican president who always seemed to elude difficulty because he was so quick with a quip. He served two terms during the '80s.

Most lop-sided exchange: John McCain versus Mitt Romney.

Yes, it was indeed a bad night for Mitt. And no episode was worse than when he went up against McCain on the issue of torture.

Mitt was busy trying to dodge the question of whether waterboarding was torture, while still arguing that we should reserve the right to use it, when McCain came along and slam-dunked him:

"I am astonished that you would think such a - such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our (custody)...It's in violation of the Geneva Convention. It's in violation of existing law. And, Governor, let me tell you, if we're going to get the high ground in this world and we're going to be the America that we have
cherished and loved for more than 200 years. We're not going to torture people. We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak. I suggest that you talk to retired military officers and active duty military officers like Colin Powell and others, and how in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me."

Mitt persisted, trying to reserve the right to use the procedure, and McCain retorted: "Well, then you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions, which were for the treatment of people who were held prisoners, whether they be illegal combatants or regular prisoners of war....This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America."

So, Mitt: The moral of the story is, don't get into a fight on the issue of torture with a guy who was being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison at the same time that you were traipsing around France as a Mormon missionary. You'll never win that one.

Finally, I'm betting that the Most Disappointed YouTube Questioner was Joseph from Dallas, Texas. All he wanted to do was make sure that every Republican on that stage believes in every word contained in the Holy Bible...and only three candidates got the opportunity to pander in a manner that would enshrine them as good Republicans.

True, Rudy got to say that the Bible is "the greatest book ever written," and Mitt got to say that the Bible is "the word of God, absolutely," and the Huck got to say that "I believe the Bible is exactly what it is," but five candidates didn't get the chance to say the same thing.

Who knows, maybe one of those candidates might have done something wild and crazy, such as suggest that perhaps this wearing of one's religion on one's sleeve is starting to get a tad out of hand. But if anyone had dared say such a thing, he would have been met with audience derision, and not even a desperate boast about owning an arsenal of AK-47s would have mattered a whit.