Friday, September 21, 2007

Rudy in full pander mode

Rudy Giuliani, in full pander mode while addressing the National Rifle Association today, demonstrated the art of the acrobatic flip-flop, as he sought to show that he is gung ho for gun rights after having been against 'em.

Rudy today: "People commit crimes, not guns."
Rudy in a PBS interview on May 31, 1995: "It's the person who uses the gun that is the source of the real problem. The gun is also the source of a very big problem."

Rudy's stance today: Each state should be free to decide its own gun laws, without federal interference.
Rudy on May 31, 1995, defending his '94 support for President Clinton's federal ban on assault weapons: "I don't understand (the NRA's) fighting a ban on assault weapons," at a time when his NYC cops were imperiled because "criminals can get their hands on assault weapons outside of New York City." The NRA's "unwillingness to deal with some of the realities we face in cities is a terrible, terrible mistake."

Rudy today: "We leave law-abiding citizens alone."
Rudy in January 1994: "National registration of guns is critically important for us in starting to get a handle on what goes on outside of New York."
Rudy in 1997: "The United State Congress needs to pass uniform licensing for everyone carrying a gun."
Rudy during his brief 2000 Senate race: "I believe that we should treat the possession of a handgun the way we treat driving an automobile."

Rudy today: "I'd like us to respect each other."
Rudy in 2000: "This is an industry which profits from the suffering of innocent people."
Rudy in 1995: The NRA people are "the extremists of the right."

Also, Rudy today somehow forgot to mention that a lawsuit that he filed as mayor seven years ago against the gun industry was being argued this week in federal court. He was reminded of this fact by a questioner. He replied by saying that the lawsuit has taken "several twists and several turns that I don't agree with," and then neglected to identify those disagreeable twists and turns.

Nevertheless, he assured the gun lobby that he was a forthright guy worthy of their trust in the future ("I will tell you what I really believe"). However, he cautioned that if in the future he feels compelled to change his beliefs, "then I'll explain to you why." I'm sure that made the NRA feel better.

Rudy doesn't expect the NRA's endorsement; he is merely hoping that the group will be sufficiently mollified to leave him alone during the Republican primary season. But the NRA never forgets an insult; nor will it necessarily embrace a panderer who has already recalibrated his beliefs in the name of ambition.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The latest snub from the country club

What better way for the GOP to burnish its image as the country club party than to have all its top presidential candidates blow off a long-scheduled, nationally-televised forum on minority issues, a Sept. 27 debate hosted by a prominent black commentator at an historically black college?

Republicans frequently complain that they are unfairly maligned as being insensitive to people of color; indeed, one of the more noteworthy pillars of the long-range Bush-Rove political game plan was to convince black and Hispanic voters that the GOP was a safe haven. Karl Rove's chief political emissary, the now-departed GOP chairman Ken Mehlman, spent much of his time ricocheting around the nation, trying to court non-Caucasians. Just 16 months ago, President Bush said he considered it "a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community," and signaled that GOP should forge those ties again.

But today it's hard to see how that message can have any resonance, now that four '08 Republican contenders - Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain - have opted to stiff Tavis Smiley, the TV/radio host who is sponsoring next Tuesday's minority issues forum at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Newt Gingrich has called this decision "an enormous error," and no wonder: If the GOP has any hopes of being seen as open to diversity, its cause will hardly be helped next Thursday, when the TV cameras zero in on the four empty lecterns.

One of the biggest frauds in this episode is the excuse being floated by the four boycotting candidates, the old chestnut about "scheduling conflicts." This forum has been on the calendar since it was officially announced back on February 8. And "scheduling conflicts" were also invoked this year by major GOP candidates when they were approached by the NAACP, the Urban League, Univision, and the National Association of Latino and Elected Officials.

Some white GOP conservatives have been talking up the Smiley forum for months, calling it a great opportunity for the '08 hopefuls; as Jack Kemp, the ex-congressman and ex-presidential candidate, wrote in July, "if the GOP is ever to regain its lost ground with African-American voters, a good place to start would be to commit itself to debating (minority) issues before a largely black audience...I can't wait for Sept. 27. I can't wait for someone in the GOP to make a positive and progressive case for voting Republican in 2008, instead of appealing only to our fears and trepidations on immigration and Iraq."

So why are the top contenders cutting and running?

Here's the real answer, from a GOP adviser who was quoted yesterday in The Washington Post: "What's the win? Why would (they) go into a crowd where they're probably going to be booed?"

Wow. These guys don't even have Secret Service protection yet, and they're already in the bubble - fearful of not being universally lionized in the public square. (This is a lamentable bipartisan phobia, by the way; the Democratic candidates seem equally fearful of being asked unpleasant questions by Fox News.)

Although all the debates are generally conducted in a civil manner, there's little doubt that the leading GOP contenders, if they weren't so timorous, would indeed be confronted with some inconvenient questions at the Smiley forum. Maybe questions like this:

How would you have handled the Katrina response differently, in a way that would have prevented the needless deaths of black New Orleans citizens? Why do you think that Republican candidates in 2006 received only 11 percent of the black vote nationwide, and how would you boost that support in the future? How come, according to the U.S. Census, the percentage of blacks living below the poverty line jumped from 22.7 to 24.7 during President Bush's first term, while the gap between black and white income widened - and what would you do to reverse all that? And given the large numbers of African-Americans who are fighting and dying in Iraq, what would you specifically to end this war, and how would those efforts differ from those of the current administration?

Kemp and others insist that the GOP candidates have positive ideas that might resonate with minority listeners (in Kemp's words, "empowerment zones, educational choice, capital and ownership opportunities for low-income families"), but, clearly, the prospect of adversarial questions probably explains the four empty lecterns.

None of the top contenders want to risk saying anything that might make them appear to be distancing themselves from Bush - who still has strong majority support from the white GOP conservatives who are likely to dominate the early Republican primary voting in Iowa, New Hampshire, and (especially) South Carolina. Indeed, politics is often a game of inches, and longer-range concerns - such as the fact that the GOP is sending out an exclusionary message at a time when the nation is becoming more racially diverse - are generally postponed to another day.

Giuliani and the others are basically stuck with their decisions. Even if they suddenly reversed themselves and told Smiley that they will attend next Thursday, that by itself would play like an admission of error. Yet by blowing off the forum, they're apparently alienating minority Republicans who have long hoped for an hospitable GOP.

As Princella Smith, a GOP activist and former political aide, wrote online the other day, referring to the four timid candidates, "the time is up for this kind of cowardice....It is absolutely ridiculous to snub an entire demographic of an electorate and then ask to lead their country. If this is their train of thought, I feel they are not worthy to lead."


Now that the Senate Democrats have failed in their last serious bid to alter Bush's Iraq war strategy - yesterday, their proposal to set rules on troop redeployments was defeated by the Senate Republicans who are sticking with Bush - it appears that a new era on Capitol Hill is at hand. We will soon move to the phase of open political warfare.

Democrats will no longer try to forge compromises with wavering GOP senators, because apparently that tactic is futile. From now on, in all likelihood, Democrats will fix their eyes on 2008, and seek to portray the Republicans as pro-war obstructionists who would rather stand with the unpopular lame duck than with the American majority. The Democratic goal, of course, is to elect a president and strong congressional majorities that will work together to end the war in 2009.

But what would "ending the war" really mean? Hillary Clinton has signaled for months that a sizeable contingent of U.S. troops, albeit with a reduced combat mission, will be required in Iraq for the foreseeable future. And her chief rival, Barack Obama is now saying much the same thing. Here's a key passage from his foreign policy speech last week, a passage that has been largely overlooked:

"We will need to retain some forces in Iraq and the region. We'll continue to strike at al Qaeda in Iraq. We'll protect our forces as they leave, and we will continue to protect U.S. diplomats and facilities..."

How many forces? For how long? How would he draw distinctions between "al Qaeda in Iraq" and all the other sources of violence, ensuring that we were only striking at the former? By "facilities," is he referring to the sprawling military bases that Bush has built, seemingly with a permanent presence in mind?

In other words, even if the Democrats win all the short-term political battles on Capitol Hill between now and election day, the hard questions, about the nature of our long-range involvement, will await them in 2009.


Late update: Hey, it turns out that the Democratic Senate has finally managed to assemble a veto-proof majority and speak out on the war that has sowed chaos in the heart of the Middle East, killed nearly 3,800 American soldiers, cost American taxpayers $10 billion a month. The big vote was held today, and 72 senators came together... condemn a newspaper ad.

That's right. The Democrats, while apparently powerless to change the Bush war strategy, were downright resolute on the burning issue of whether a left-wing antiwar group trafficked in dumb hyperbole in a newspaper ad.

If I read this Congress correctly, the war itself is less important than whether an interest group called somebody a nasty name. No wonder Congress' positive job approval rating is heading toward single digits. As Chris Dodd, one of the "no" voters, remarked in his futile attempt to provide some perspective, "It is a sad day in the Senate when we spend hours debating an ad while our young people are dying in Iraq."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How dare she question authority?

I guess we're gonna party like it's 1994. Seriously, I woke up today to discover (via the morning news shows) that the clocks had been set back, that once again it's All O.J. All the Time, reprising his '94 role as an accused felon...and that Hillary Clinton, the foiled reformer of '94, is once again talking up health care. What's next, a Pulp Fiction sequel from Quentin Tarantino?

Actually, 1994 was also the year when Rudy Giuliani took the oath as New York mayor, and began to build a track record that he often invokes today as a presidential candidate. The hitch, however, is that certain aspects of that record don't play well with likely Republican primary voters.

He can't tout himself as the scourge of illegal immigrants, because he was nice to illegal immigrants in New York. He can't tout himself as the scourge of gay people, because he was nice to gay people in New York - and even lived with a gay couple when he was between wives. He can't tout himself as an avowed foe of abortion, because he was nice to abortion rights advocates in New York. And, on the broader canvas, he can't really offer GOP voters any fresh thinking about what to do with Iraq, because he prefers to avoid specifics, and, indeed, when he was offered the opportunity to join the Iraq Study Group, he opted not to show up and was encouraged to quit.

However, as evidenced by his behavior over the past week, there is still one way he can audition for conservative hearts: By beating up on Hillary.

Beating up on may be a conservative crowd-pleaser as well, but let's focus here on Rudy's strategy to directly assail, at this early stage, the likeliest '08 Democratic candidate. In terms of wooing wary conservative Republicans (85 percent of whom reportedly view Hillary negatively, according to polls), Rudy's strategy makes a lot of sense. He masks his aforementioned vulnerabilities by offering an advance preview of how he would battle Hillary in a general election - and the top priority right now, among Republicans, is to find a nominee who can effectively take her on. And their top-priority task is to strip away her senatorial image as a strong national security advocate and rebrand her as "anti-military."

As a fawning pro-Rudy commentator at the conservative American Spectator website put it the other day, "While there may be many factors that conservatives will have to consider when choosing the Republican nominee...the ability of a Republican candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton should be a major consideration. This looks like a battle Giuliani was born to fight."

It's questionable, however, whether the kind of anti-Hillary attacks that please the GOP primary electorate would ultimately sway the general electorate. Consider Rudy's most recent arguments, for instance:

Starting last Tuesday, and continuing through the weekend, he picked a fight with Hillary because she had the audacity to voice skepticism about General David Petraeus' testimony on Iraq. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she told Petraeus: "I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."

Giuliani fumed, in various remarks and in his campaign advertising, that Hillary "was questioning (Petraeus') honesty," that "it was wrong for her to attack the integrity of a commanding general in a time of war," that she had directed "political venom" at the general; all told, he said, "I think that's not the way in a responsible way to go about, you know, forging the foreign policy of the United States and the military policy of the United States."

This might be effective stuff, at least to those GOP voters who prefer to be fact-challenged. But for all other voters who might prefer to see the full context of what Hillary actually said during the committee hearing, here it is. She is addressing Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker:

"Nobody believes that your jobs, or the jobs of the thousands of American forces and civilian personnel in Iraq are anything but incredibly difficult. But today you are testifying about the current status of our policy and the prospects of that policy. It is a policy that you have been ordered to implement by the president. And you have been made the de facto spokesmen for what many of us believe to be a failed policy. Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief." (emphasis mine)

In other words, she merely voiced the traditional American belief, dating back 200 years, that civilians (beginning with the president) are ultimately responsible for war policy, and that the military is tasked to carry out that policy. Her expressed "disbelief," in other words, is directed at President Bush - not at the military man who is merely following Bush's orders. Rudy, in his complaints, appeared to be giving short shrift to the American tradition of civilian control over the military - and to the necessity of questioning those who are tasked to carry out civilian policy.

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who is apparently sharpening his antiwar critiques now that he is heading toward retirement, basically argued the other night that Hillary was right. Regarding Bush's decision to use Petraeus as his front man on Iraq, Hagel said: "It's not only a dirty trick, but it's dishonest, it's hypocritical, it's dangerous and irresponsible. The fact is, this is not Petraeus' policy, it's Bush's policy. The military is, certainly very clear in the Constitution, is subservient to the elected public officials of this country."

The latest polls - from USA Today/Gallup, CBS News and Pew, already indicate that most Americans were unpersuaded by Petraeus' testimony and Bush's subsequent address. That's why Rudy's anti-Hillary attacks (at least on the topic of the Iraq war) might well be effective only with conservative primary voters. With respect to the majority of Americans - those who will dominate a general election - it's hard to imagine that they view the Iraq debacle as a less serious issue than the firm questioning of a Bush surrogate.


Speaking of 1994, I recall that, way back then, the American tradition of free speech was alive and well. A disagreeable person could generally show up at a political event and raise a ruckus. The basic rule of thumb (to quote the U.S. Supreme Court) was that it was basically OK to speak out unless you were "falsely shouting fire in a theatre."

Well, that rule has apparently been tightened. As evidenced by what happened in Florida on Monday, it's now deemed a violation of free speech to act obnoxious in a theatre.

University of Florida student Andrew Meyer appears to be a bit of a provocateur, and he was playing that role while nagging John Kerry with some very persistent questioning. There are always people like that at political events, disputatious souls who'd rather hector and make speeches. But even though Kerry was willing to engage with the kid, the college cops decided to maintain decorum by dragging him up the aisle and zapping him with serious taser voltage, to the point where he sounded like one of Jack Bauer's torture targets on 24.

Perhaps it's time to junk the centuries-old American warning to oppressors - "Don't Tread on Me" - and replace it with "Don't Tase Me, Bro!"

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The art of "expedient exaggeration"

This post is an expanded version of my latest print column. It all started when I saw a TV commercial that made my jaw drop...

The resilient myth that Saddam Hussein plotted 9/11 is proof that Mark Twain was right when he said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

Even today, long after this 9/11 myth has been officially and repeatedly discredited, roughly 40 percent of Americans still insist that Hussein conspired with al-Qaeda to bring down the Twin Towers. And it's a fair bet that this myth will remain in mass circulation as long as proponents of the Iraq war persist in believing that it is savvy politics to prey on people's ignorance.

Consider, for instance, the current TV ads - sponsored by a White House front group known as Freedom's Watch - that seek to shore up waning support for the Iraq war by perpetuating the canard that 9/11 was a Hussein production. In their quest to stoke emotions in defiance of fact, the ad-makers aren't exactly subtle. First, some military vets are shown making the case for staying in Iraq. Then, in the key image, we're back on 9/11. The north tower is burning, the second tower is seconds away from igniting, and these words flash on the screen: They Attacked Us.

The ad doesn't state that "they" refers to the Iraqis, but clever advertising is all about connecting the dots. Denizens of the reality-based community - including many in Philadelphia, who have probably seen this ad aired locally - are likely shaking their heads at this effrontery. Wasn't this myth put to rest years ago? Let us count the ways:

1. As early as June 2003, one month after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a monitoring group appointed by the U.N. Security Council announced that it had found no evidence linking Hussein to al-Qaeda.

2. In 2004, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

3. In 2005, a newly declassified Defense Intelligence Agency document concluded that a key terrorist informant had been "intentionally misleading" his American debriefers when he claimed that Hussein had been in cahoots with al-Qaeda. The document, written 13 months before the U.S. invasion, also stated that "Saddam's regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements."

4. In 2006, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence - which, at the time, was still run by the Republicans - concluded in a report: "Postwar information supports prewar intelligence-community assessments that there was no credible information that Iraq was complicit in, or had foreknowledge of, the Sept. 11 attacks or any other al-Qaeda strike."

5. In February of this year, the Pentagon's acting inspector general concluded in a report that President Bush's neoconservative war planners utilized "both reliable and unreliable" information to fashion a Hussein/al-Qaeda link "that was much stronger than that assessed by the [intelligence community], and more in accord with the policy views of senior officials in the administration."

6. In April of this year, At the Center of the Storm, a memoir by ex-CIA director George Tenet, was published, in which we read that "there was never any real serious evidence that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda."

7. Last, even some notable Bush administration officials have debunked the myth. Donald Rumsfeld did it in 2004: Referring to Hussein and al-Qaeda, he told the Council on Foreign Relations, "I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two." And the other debunker, way back on Sept. 17, 2003, was George W. Bush. In a news conference that day, the president said: "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11."

Yet despite all the empirical evidence, a pro-Bush group - financed primarily by some rich Republican donors, and some ex-Bush ambassadors - has nonetheless paid out $15 million to air ads that meet the dictionary definition of propaganda. The ads are airing in 60 districts where Republican congressmen are wavering in their support for the war; Pennsylvania, home to seven targeted GOP House members, is on the front lines of this PR war. (Indeed, one key Freedom's Watch supporter is a prominent Philadelphian: Edward Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor.)

Clearly, Freedom’s Watch and its ad makers are not shamed by the prospects of perpetuating a myth. Nor, apparently, do they see a downside in hiring, as their spokesman, the former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, whose track record of prognostications is far from stellar. This is the same guy who insisted, on the first day of the war, that “people will rejoice” in Iraq when the Americans take over, and “there is no question that…Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.” Two months later, he opined: “I don’t think there’s any chance of losing the peace.”

When Fleischer popped up recently on MSNBC to defend the ads, guest Hardball host Mike Barnacle asked him how many of the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqis. (Correct answer: Zero.) Fleischer replied: "Mike, you're stuck in the 2001-2002 timetable and debate. (The situation today) is so far beyond that debate."

Translation: We should simply ignore the historical record.

But these strategists at Freedom's Watch are politically smart. They know, at this point, that it's virtually impossible to buck up the war supporters by talking about the tensions among Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds; many Americans, who are not particularly wise in the ways of the world beyond their borders, can't distinguish one group from another. Hence, the strategists' need for an emotional short-cut: Tie Hussein to al-Qaeda, the amorphous enemy that everybody knows.

The administration has long been performing this sleight of hand. In a letter to Congress on the day after he launched the invasion of Iraq, Bush said it was important "to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001." He did not directly state that Hussein plotted 9/11, but the implication was clear. He repeated that formula for years thereafter.

Even after the evidence mounted that Saddam had not plotted, Bush kept the inference alive, by shifting his terms and claiming that Saddam and al Qaeda had enjoyed a “relationship.” (June 17, 2004: “The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda – because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.”) Today, the ’08 Republican presidential candidates blur the lines further by routinely linking the Iraq war to the broader war on terror.

The myth about a Hussein-9/11 link persists not just because politicians and spin artists keep repeating it, in order to stoke emotions for the war, but also because many people are hard-wired to believe it. Psychologists have determined in recent studies that false information, once lodged in the brain, often tends to remain embedded, to the point where it becomes impervious to empirical reality. This helps to explain why, in a CBS/New York Times poll taken Sept. 4-8, 33 percent of all Americans - including 27 percent of Democrats - still tied Hussein to 9/11. Some 2007 polls have even pegged the share of credulous Americans to be as high as 41 percent.

Hence, the Twain adage about the traveling lie and the sluggishness of truth. But perhaps Freedom's Watch, in its defense, would prefer to quote another sage commentator, the erudite Cary Grant. While playing a Madison Avenue executive in North by Northwest, Cary purred to his secretary, "Ah, Maggie, in the world of advertising, there is no such thing as a lie, there is only expedient exaggeration."


Dante Zappala, the brother of slain Pennsyvania National Guardsman Sherwood Baker (KIA in Iraq, 4/26/04), emailed today to express his exasperation about the Freedom's Watch ad campaign: "As someone who lost his brother in Iraq, while he was looking for WMD, no less, it's all very disheartening. This is not the civil democracy my brother believed in." And his mother recently delivered a video response, here.


In current political news, it is with great sadness that I note the return, to the GOP presidential arena, of Alan Keyes. The black conservative and master of the diatribe - who ran as a fringe candidate in 1996 and 2000, and who got waxed by Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race, and whose prospects of winning even three percent in any Republican primary are roughly analagous to Britney Spears' odds of dancing on Broadway - filed his candidate papers last Friday. Then he showed up last night at a conservative "values" debate. Maybe he figures that he can be the GOP's Mike Gravel.

My fondest memory of Keyes dates back to the winter of 2000, in New Hampshire. After a Republican debate, he stormed into the press room, where I and my colleagues were attempting the usual miracle, trying to write 1000 words of clean copy on a 45-minute deadline. For 15 of those minutes, Keyes proceeded to inform everyone, at the top of his impressive decibel scale, that the press was against him...because he was black. Then he stormed out. We all made deadline.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bush reaches out; folksy Fred gets lucky

News on several fronts:

Three weeks ago, in the wake of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' widely applauded resignation, I wrote this: "Bush may be politically constrained from nominating another White House errand boy. This time he faces a Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, and there's no way that Patrick Leahy and his crew are going to sign off on anybody who believes that Justice should function merely as a political arm of the Republican National Committee....Bush soon will be battling Congress over executive privilege and domestic surveillance. Gonzales, with his credibility in tatters, would have been the wrong salesman. There are plenty of respected, independent legal scholars who can make a case for strong executive authority...strictly on the merits. Now that Bush's circle of inept Texas cronies has shrunk to nothing, he may have no choice except to reach out."

And apparently he has done so. Bush has tapped Michael Mukasey, a retired federal judge and ex-federal prosecutor. The decision to go with Mukasey is a sign that Bush actually recognizes his current political weakness, and understands that if he goes to the mat for a controversial conservative nominee, he will surely lose. Clearly, somebody in the bunker is thinking clearly, at least on this matter.

Mukasey, by reputation, is a tough law-and-order judge who can indeed advocate for Bush's concerns strictly on the merits. He does not hail from the Bush inner circle; indeed, as an outsider from New York, he is hardly known within the Washington community of conservative activists. (He's an advisor in the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign.) But this weekend the White House enlisted Bill Kristol to smooth ruffled feathers and make the conservative case for Mukasey.

The activists' favorite candidate for the AG job was Ted Olson, the current U.S. solicitor general, but Olson (fairly or not) would trigger the protracted battle with the Democratic Congress that Bush can ill afford. Olson reputedly has a fine legal mind, and some Democrats (notably, ex-Bill Clinton operative Lanny Davis) sing his praises. But he was a prominent player in some of the major partisan scraps of the past decade - joining the Bush legal team during the 2000 Florida recount battle, and representing the conservative American Spectator magazine during the '90s, when it was investigating Clinton's private life. The current Democratic Congress, which can't seem to do much of anything about Iraq, would have sought to satisfy its liberal base by devouring Olson.

Mukasey, at least, has won early praise from liberals such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer, and Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice; even liberal attorney/blogger Glenn Greenwald likes Mukasey's rulings in the famous Jose Padilla terrorist case. For all these reasons, some conservatives are already suspicious of Mukasey, but perhaps that's a sign that we actually have the making of a bipartisan nominee. Considering the poisonous mood in Washington in the waning days of the Bush era, that alone would be an accomplishment.


Speaking of terrorism, Fred Thompson, the GOP's annointed great conservative hope, got very lucky early last week. Another embarrassing story about his Washington lobbying career got largely buried, thanks to the heavy media focus on the General Petraeus hearings. Consider this one:

Thompson billed his lobbying firm for the work he performed in 1992 on behalf of two Libyan intelligence agents who had been criminally charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103.

You may remember that terrorist act. The plane blew up over Scotland a few days before Christmas in 1988, sending 270 innocents (most of them Americans) into the sky. Four years later, after two Libyans were indicted, a Libyan lawyer was trying to prevent his clients from being extradited to the West. Seeking legal advice, he finally turned to the Washington lobbying firm where Thompson was hanging his hat. Thompson helped out. As he explained earlier this month, "I believe it was a venue question...I gave them my opinion, and that was the long and the short of it. That's all I know about it."

He wasn't the main player in this episode, but he did bill the firm for 3.3 hours of work on the case. That doesn't sound like much time, but you can still dispense an awful lot of advice to terrorists, or contribute considerable research, in just 3.3 hours. As a lawyer for the Pan Am 103 victims' families put it, "a number (of the families) were offended and angered that American lawyers were willing to earn fees by doing anything to help this pariah nation or the two bombing suspects.”

Thompson got lucky last week that this story quickly died. He's also lucky that he is not a Democrat. Because if a Democratic candidate for president had ever billed 3.3 hours of lobbying work on behalf of terrorist suspects (one of whom was ultimately convicted in the bombing), you can easily imagine the GOP's attack ad:

"The Democrats want us to believe that they can keep this country safe. But when one of their own candidates, working as a Washington lobbyist insider, had the chance to take money from terrorists who killed hundreds of Americans, he took it, and he aided their cause. The families of the victims aboard Pan Am 103 deserved better, and America today deserves a strong president who will fight the terrorists, not embolden them..."

But even if Thompson managed to dodge this story, he can't escape his tepid performance on the stump. This guy might turn out to be the worst product rollout since the DeLorean car in 1981. Asked late last week, in Florida, to comment on the Terri Schiavo case - which galvanized the nation two years ago, and became a conservative cause celebre - Thompson replied thusly:

"I can't pass judgment on it. I know that good people were doing what they thought was best. That's going back in history. I don't remember the details of it."

Consider those last two sentences. We're talking about the national political battle over a brain-damaged woman in 2005, not the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Schiavo's fate, and the GOP Congress' decision to override state's rights and reinsert her feeding tube, was a top news staple for weeks. Either Thompson was so immersed in memorizing his TV scripts in 2005 that he was barely paying attention to real life, or he was feigning bad memory in order to avoid taking a stand on an issue that was crucial to the conservative base. (It appears to be the latter.)

Lobbying for terrorists, claiming amnesia on Schiavo...this is the touted heir to Ronald Reagan?