Friday, March 09, 2007

Newt asks forgiveness for his zipper problem

With so many conservatives still disillusioned about their choices in the 2008 Republican race (Rudy Giuliani’s liberal stances on social issues, John McCain’s past heresies, and Mitt Romney’s conveniently-timed flipflops), the door remains glaringly ajar for a true-believer. Or at least somebody who can be perceived that way.

Which is why Newt Gingrich is so busy these days trying to purge his personal past (which is a nice way of saying he needs to deal with the zipper issue), and polish his ideological credentials by airbrushing his track record. He’s clearly a believer in the Field of Dreams strategy – that if he builds himself, they will come.

Two fresh incidents have convinced me that Gingrich is seriously weighing a White House bid. Exhibit A is what Gingrich said to religious conservative leader James Dobson. Exhibit B is what Gingrich’s press secretary said to me.

Exhibit A: Dobson is the religious-right leader who doubles as a GOP political boss. There’s a long history of political bosses in politics, of course. Fifty years ago, aspiring Democrats would go to Chicago to kiss the ring of Mayor Daley; today, aspiring Republicans drop to their knees and pray with James Dobson. Gingrich is serious about a presidential bid because now he is praying with James Dobson.

In perhaps the most unsubtle pandering gesture since Hillary Clinton donned a Yankee cap, Gingrich went on Dobson’s radio show today, and sought to atone for his messy personal life and demonstrate his spiritual bona fides. He didn’t cover all the bases – he left out the part about serving divorce papers to his first wife as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from a cancer operation – but, with Dobson’s gentle prompting, he did confess to weaknesses of the flesh. Especially the part about assailing President Clinton during the Lewinsky affair while concurrently canoodling with a congressional aide, an affair that occurred while he was married to the wife who had replaced the wife from the hospital bed. (That second wife has since yielded to the aide, now his current wife.)

Dobson’s radio show reaches millions of listeners, people who tend to vote heavily in Republican primaries. Clearly, Gingrich can’t tout his conservative credentials to that audience without first seeking forgiveness for his three-wife life. (In a sense, he upped the ante for Giuliani, another three-wife lifer, who at some point might also feel the need to humble himself.) Hence, the decision to join Dobson on the air. (The whole interview is here, dated March 9, starting around minute 17:00). Gingrich spoke about his past in full humility mode:

“There are some elements I’m not proud of….There were times when I was praying, and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong, but I was still doing them. I look back at this as periods of weakness, periods not only that I’m not proud of, but I deeply urge my grandchildren not to follow in my footsteps.”

Dobson then asked Gingrich to verify the “rumors” that he, Gingrich, had been sleeping with the congressional aide while simultaneously passing judgment on Clinton. Gingrich has never spoken publicly about this. Yet it was clear, from the way Dobson framed the question, that Gingrich had already told Dobson – and that this interview was designed to help Gingrich ‘fess up with his own spiritual spin.

Dobson said to Gingrich, “I (recently) asked you if the rumors were true…”

Gingrich replied, “The honest answer is yes.” Then he launched into a lengthy argument about how he wasn’t as bad as Clinton, because Clinton had lied about sex under oath, and thus it had been his duty to assail that, because if everybody started lying under oath, America would resemble “a corrupt country like Nigeria.”

Dobson waited him out, then steered him back to his own behavior: “You and I have prayed together…Do you understand that word repentance?”

Gingrich replied (and, for the audience, this was the intended money quote): “Absolutely…I believe deeply that people fall short, that people have to recognize they have to turn to God for forgiveness…I don’t know how you could live with yourself…if you don’t deal with your own weaknesses and go to God about them.”

And, he just as well might have added, I don’t know how you can win a Republican presidential nomination unless you turn to the religious-right voters and ask for forgiveness.

Exhibit B: But atoning for personal failings is only one facet of the Gingrich political strategy. The other is to polish Gingrich’s conservative credentials to the point where all the tarnish is removed. After all, restive conservative voters are more likely to pine for Gingrich if they view him in an idealized form. These voters, however, are less likely to embrace the idealized Gingrich if he retains his true-life tarnish. Hence the need to rebut all those who would seek to resurrect the actual Gingrich history.

This is where I come in.

Three weeks ago, on Feb. 20, on this blog, I pointed out that Gingrich’s conservative credentials aren’t nearly as spotless as nostalgia would suggest. A long excerpt was reprinted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and in a number of other newspapers as a guest column. One key paragraph: “People forget, for instance, that the House speaker was nearly overthrown in 1997, by conspirators that included Tom DeLay, in part because he was not deemed to be sufficiently conservative. They felt that Newt had caved to President Clinton on a number of key budget issues. They complained when Newt invited Jesse Jackson to join him on the House podium in January of ’97. They were angry when Newt refused to launch a frontal assault on affirmative action. They didn’t like it when he defended the National Endowment for the Arts and broke bread with liberal activist and actor Alec Baldwin.”

From the perspective of the Gingrich camp, such material clearly messes with the Gingrich strategy. Press secretary, Rick Tyler, promptly wrote a long letter to the editor, defending Gingrich’s track record. Let’s give him the floor. Here’s an excerpt: “After winning the majority for the Republicans in 1994, Newt Gingrich fulfilled all of the promises laid out in the Contract with America, including the first tax cut in 17 years, the first child tax credit, a capital gains tax cut, welfare reform (how could you forget that?), Congressional reforms including term limits for committee chairs, and making all laws passed by Congress applicable to the Congress itself. He led in passing the first increase in defense and intelligence spending since Reagan. And the Republican Congress under his leadership was re-elected for the first time since the 1920s. It was Newt who led the charge for a Constitutional Amendment to balance the Federal budget, when Congress failed to pass it, he committed to balancing it anyway….The fact is that no other political leader today can match Newt Gingrich’s conservative legislative accomplishments.”

It’s the job of a press secretary to make the boss look good, so I have no problem with Tyler recounting the heady days of 1995, when Gingrich was most effective. Nor would I disagree with the argument that Gingrich has more “legislative accomplishments” than any potential conservative rival. But nowhere does he address my main point – that Gingrich, as House Speaker, was widely viewed as insufficiently conservative by many of his conservative colleagues. Which is one big reason why they tried to overthrow him in 1997.

This is part of the historical record, notwithstanding Tyler’s assertion that I was “laughably” questioning Gingrich’s conservative credentials. Indeed, let’s return to that era, and see what certain people were saying at the time about Gingrich’s credentials.

Here’s an item, from June 30, 1997: “Gingrich’s men…are desperate for Gingrich to step down, the sooner the better…Christopher Cox of California, the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, has been grousing about Gingrich for months, insisting that he’s not a real conservative. (Rep. David) McIntosh says, ‘It was the decision to compromise (with Clinton) at the beginning of this term rather than push for our agenda’ that soured him on Gingrich….hat is unusual – and far more significant – is the deep distrust of the party leader by his closest colleagues in the leadership.”

That report was written by Fred Barnes, the reliably conservative commentator, in the reliably conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

Here’s another: “Newt appears beyond salvage. (His 1997 budget deal with Clinton) is a band-aid cure…The federal administrative behemoth will expand, a result that contradicts everything the Republican party and conservativism are supposed to embody…The budget deal will not save Republicans from their obligation to stand for something. It will not save them from their Gingrich trouble. It will not save Newt Gingrich from himself.”

That was the lead editorial in the Weekly Standard, dated July 28, 1997. And a week later came this editorial: “The House GOP now resembles a decadent royal court, with Newt Gingrich cast as Louis XIV at Versailles. He is a monarch at once all-important and ineffectual….(The House GOP) is a balloon that floats with the wind.”

I could go on; that summer, there was another reference in the magazine to Gingrich’s “frequent compromises, flip flops, and stumbles.” And today there are plenty of conservatives who don’t buy the idealized Gingrich – starting with columnist Robert Novak, who writes that Gingrich’s conservative record is “far from flawless,” and with David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who wrote last month that Gingrich has “more baggage than a Grand Central red-cap.”

But if Gingrich can successfully atone for the zipper problem, and persuade an amnesiac electorate to play the nostalgia card, he might yet fill the niche that he is eying so assiduously...Unless somebody else - perhaps Fred Thompson, the politician/actor - comes along.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why haven't elected Republican politicians called for the pardon of Scooter Libby? Take a guess

It would appear that the campaign to pardon Scooter Libby represents a broad swath of the conservative/Republican coalition.We read that personal friends of the convicted felon are pushing for President Bush to absolve him with the stroke of a pen; that the “editorial boards” at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and National Review all want Libby to be set free; that Libby’s “defense team” wants Bush to make things right; that prominent conservative lawyers, such as Victoria Toensing, want to see Cheney’s Cheney pardoned, on the grounds that he never should have been prosecuted in the first place.

But one faction is conspicuously AWOL: Elected Republican politicians.

To the best of my knowledge, not a single Republican on Capitol Hill has called for Bush to pardon Libby. Nor have any of the ’08 Republican presidential hopefuls leapt at the opportunity to urge absolution for the defendant who lied under oath, obstructed federal investigators, and worked with his boss to discredit a critic of the Bush administration’s bogus prewar WMD evidence.

Why all the thunderous silence? Here’s a wild guess: Unlike all the personal friends and editorial boards and defense lawyers and activists, the Republicans who have to face the voters in 2008 can’t afford to be blasé about the mood of the American electorate. And on virtually all matters relating to the war in Iraq, the mood does not bode well for Republican candidates. In the latest bipartisan poll sponsored by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, 69 percent of Americans say they are pessimistic about the war’s outcome; in the latest CBS-New York Times poll, Bush's approval rating on Iraq stands at 23 percent (that's no typo). But most relevant to the Libby affair are the longstanding numbers showing that a majority believe the Bush team deliberately misled us into war.

So why would any ’08 Republican candidate want to publicly endorse a Libby pardon – and thus, in the shorthand of politics, implicitly endorse the Bush administration deceptions that led to war? Why, at this point, should Republican candidates be eager to embrace a cause celebre that would merely underscore their Iraq war burden? Here’s how the Democrats would likely spin a GOP candidate’s call for a pardon: “By asking President Bush to pardon Libby, Republican X is refusing to hold the administration accountable for the prewar deceptions and the intimidation of those who questioned those deceptions. The American people demanded accountability in the 2006 elections, and they will demand it again in 2008.”

Or something like that. And unless the Republican candidate hails from a deeply-red state or district, the Democratic argument could do some damage.

Even John Podhoretz, one of the pro-pardon conservative commentators, argues nevertheless that Bush can’t absolve Libby at a time when Republicans are trying to run for office. As he wrote yesterday, “For political reasons, Bush can’t pardon Libby (right now). His responsibilities as head of the Republican party, heading into an election year, would preclude such action.”

So he’s calling for a pardon during Bush’s final days (which is the way Bill Clinton pardoned financier-felon Mark Rich, the senior George Bush pardoned the Iran-Contra defendants, and Ronald Reagan pardoned George Steinbrenner for his ’74 election law violations). Podhoretz thinks that Bush will have no choice:“(If he) fails to pardon Libby, he will implicitly be accepting the contention that Scooter Libby was part of a White House conspiracy at the highest levels to destroy the career of a CIA agent (Valerie Plame Wilson) whose husband (Joseph Wilson) had proved Bush & Co. had lied us into the Iraq War.”

Yet Republican politicians are currently silent about the pardon issue precisely because they know that a majority of Americans already believe that “Bush & Co,” lied them into war, and they won’t want to be seen as defending one of the key players – somebody who lied under oath, no less.

But at least one pardon supporter, GOP strategist Rich Galen, has a different take on the current political landscape. He thinks that the Republican candidates should embrace the pardon issue. Galen, in fact, was calling for a Libby pardon before the trial even began, and he’d like to see a pardon forthwith.

I exchanged emails with him this morning, and he offered several arguments (for instance, that there’s no political downside for Bush to issue a pardon, because Bush is not on the ballot in 2008; because he retains the loyalty of most conservatives, who would welcome the pardon anyway; and because his overall poll numbers can’t go much lower than they already are).

But with respect to the GOP candidates, he said this: “The election isn't until November 2008. It is impossible for me to believe that ANYone will remember the Scooter Libby pardon by then. In fact, I'd like to see some data that indicates anyone who lives more than five miles west of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor tracks knows or cares about the case….Similarly, GOP candidates for the House or Senate can use the pardon issue to their best advantage. In swing, or marginally GOP districts which we lost in '06, it might be a great opportunity to draw a distinction – between the GOP challenger (for the pardon) and the Democratic incumbent (tied to Nancy Pelosi's hemline in opposition to the pardon).”

I wonder whether that would work. By their silence, however, it appears that most elected Republicans, and those seeking elective office, view the Libby case as yet another treacherous undertow in an ocean of woe. Which is why they are all swimming elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

From inception to execution

I want to resurrect a phrase that I used here yesterday - it appears in the headline above this post – because it signals that the Scooter Libby trial and the Walter Reed scandal are inextricably linked, as manifestations of a war conceived in deception and prosecuted in bad faith.

It’s probably only a matter of time before some Bush administration apologist declares that the successful prosecution of Libby is an act that emboldens the terrorists; until that happens, Bush defenders will continue to argue that the case against Libby was basically (as Woody Allen put it in Bananas) “a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a sham,” that because Libby was merely convicted on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, it can thus be argued that no real crime had been committed.

Predictably, that’s how the always-reliable Fred Barnes interpreted the jury verdict. He said yesterday on Fox News: “I would stop short of calling it politically devastating (for the Bush administration), because no one was charged with an underlying crime here of actually having leaked the name of Valerie Plame Wilson to the press…So this is not quite as devastating as it could be if there was some underlying crime.”

The Bush spinners are conveniently omitting an important fact: When a criminal defendant lies and obstructs investigators, he is by definition making it more difficult for those investigators to determine whether an “underlying crime” has been committed. Which is exactly what prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said when the Libby indictment was announced in October 2005: “What we have, when someone charges obstruction of justice, the umpire gets sand thrown in his eyes. He’s trying to figure what happened, and somebody blocked (his) view.” Obstruction, said Fitzgerald, “prevents us from making the fine judgments we want to make.”

But even if Libby or an associate had been charged with an “underlying crime” – such as leaking covert CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity to the press, in violation of federal confidentiality statutes – that too would have been a very narrow reading of this affair. Because this case was ultimately about the inception of the Iraq war, about the false WMD evidence floated by top Bush lieutenants and their determination to lash out at anyone who questioned it.

Libby worked for Dick Cheney. Libby was widely known (in the words of GOP strategist Mary Matalin) as “Cheney’s Cheney.” After Valerie Wilson’s husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly refuted some of the bogus WMD evidence, Cheney scribbled instructions about how to discredit the guy. One strategy for punishing Wilson was to out his wife, expose her CIA status. Cheney told Libby about Valerie Wilson’s status; that came out at the trial. Cheney’s scribblings were also introduced during the trial. Libby acted on those orders, spinning against Wilson with selected journalists.

All told, as Republican strategist Scott Reed said to the New York Times this morning, this trial “has shown a lot of the inner workings of the White House. It peeled the bark right off the way they operate.”

I see Scooter Libby as the Bush team’s Frankie Pentangeli. You movie buffs might recognize the name. In Godfather II, Frankie Pentangeli was the loyal Corleone family soldier who, after being ensnared by the feds, was coaxed by Tom Hagen to sit in a bathtub and open his veins – to take one for the team, as it were. Which is what Libby is doing now, willingly bleeding to protect the superiors who were key players in the prewar sales effort and the subsequent attempts to muzzle critics. As juror Dennis Collins said after the verdict yesterday, “We had a lot of sympathy for Libby…and we kept asking ourselves, ‘Where’s Cheney? Where’s Rove?’”

By the way, it’s a bit jarring to hear Bush apologists contend that a four-count jury verdict on lying and obstruction is no big deal, especially in the absence of an “underlying crime.” I seem to vividly recall that, back when special counsel Ken Starr was ensnaring President Clinton, the conservative line was that Clinton’s lies under oath were sufficient grounds for throwing him out of office. The line back then was that perjury - for any reason - was a violation of the “rule of law.”

There was no “underlying crime” in the Lewinsky affair; Clinton’s behavior may have been odious (for instance, indulging Monica while discussing Bosnia on the phone), but the carnal relations were consensual, not illegal. So here’s what the Bush apologists are really saying: Lying under oath about sex is clearly worse than lying under oath about national security.

With 3,165 U.S. soldiers dead in a war that was launched in pursuit of nonexistent WMDs, let’s see whether that conservative argument holds up in the long run.


As for the Walter Reed scandal, a fresh symbol of inept wartime execution, I wanted to briefly revisit the privatization scheme that has helped jeopardize outpatient veteran care at the famed facility:

It turns out that IAP Worldwide Services, the well-connected private company that last year was awarded a five-year contract to handle facility maintenance and health support services at Walter Reed, is the same company that played a big role in an ice-delivery fiasco during Hurricane Katrina. At the time that IAP got the Walter Reed contract, Pentagon investigators were fielding charges that the company had overcharged during Katrina.

Moreover, IAP is run by two former Halliburton executives, one of whom appeared at a congressional hearing in 2004…to defend Halliburton against charges that it had engaged in gas-price gouging in Iraq.

The writer Philip Roth once said that fiction cannot compete with the absurdities of contemporary life. He said that contemporary novelists constantly struggle “to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.”

Now I know what he means. Because, with regards to the IAP/Katrina/Halliburton actuality, there’s no way you could dream that one up.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

This has not been the Bush team's best news cycle

Given the potential of the Walter Reed scandal to wreak havoc with the GOP's pro-soldier image (see post below), the Bush administration was probably hoping today that some hot story would come along to dominate the news cycle. Something fresh for the cable news vultures to feast upon. Something to change the subject and distract the public.

Hey, how about this one: Dick Cheney's former top aide convicted on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.

That's probably not what the White House had in mind, so maybe there's something else out there...

OK, how about this one: Federal prosecutors fired by the Bush administration claim they were pushed out for partisan political reasons.

That's the other big one today, courtesy of congressional hearings. Again, not the ideal distraction, from the Bush team's point of view, but symptomatic of the president's woes at this point in his lame-duck tenure. Surely there must be a fresh angle in the Anna Nicole Smith saga.

The Scooter Libby perjury conviction, by itself, is not a major story to average Americans living their lives outside the Washington Beltway. I would bet that there aren't more than a relative handful of citizens who can recite exactly who Libby spoke to and when, and what it was that he conveniently misremembered. But the details don't matter. What counts is the shorthand: that the vice president's top guy got nailed in court for a scheme to discredit a critic of the unpopular Iraq war. What counts is the war, and, for a lot of Americans, this court conviction is merely further evidence of how - from inception to execution - it has gone wrong.

Next up: Will Bush pardon the guy? Some conservatives are already pushing for a pardon, but will elected Republicans nervous about 2008 join that particularly crusade?

Indeed, when you stack the Libby conviction with all the other headaches that have occurred since Bush's re-election - Katrina, Harriet Miers, the Dubai ports episode, and now Walter Reed and the rapidly growing federal prosecutors story - it's no wonder that Republicans are a tad anxious about the mood of swing voters in advance of the '08 elections.

But don't take it from me. Let conservative commentator Jim Geraghty pose the rhetorical question: "Even if you like this president, even if you’re pulling for him, even if you think his heart is in the right there any way this presidency doesn't look pretty disastrous at this moment?"

"Support the troops" rhetoric: as flimsy as a yellow ribbon

After the Walter Reed scandal is thoroughly investigated – something that would not be happening, by the way, if the Republicans were still running Congress – it will be fascinating to see whether GOP rhetoricians continue to proclaim that they are the true protectors of our fighting men and women.

I would imagine that they will persist, if only because “support the troops” has long been such a durable party line and habits are hard to break. Just recently, for instance, they made it clear during the House debate over Iraq that those who disagreed with the Decider’s troop escalation plan were clearly not “supporting the troops.” Last autumn, when the verbally clumsy John Kerry botched an Iraq joke, he too was assailed for not “supporting the troops.”

The GOP message is that the Republicans, who have basically run Washington for the last six years, enjoy a monopoly on “supporting the troops,” and the message starts at the top, with the supporter-in-chief. As President Bush declared last December, during his most recent trip to Walter Reed, “We owe them all we can give them. Not only for when they're in harm's way, but when they come home to help them adjust if they have wounds, or help them adjust after their time in service.”

But now that leaders of the governing party have been outed for allowing ex-soldiers to live in squalor; for trying to do treatment on the cheap even while the Iraq caseload was expanding; for privatizing Walter Reed support services by awarding a contract to (surprise) a former Halliburton official, thus trimming the support personnel staff from 300 to 50…now that all this has happened, with more to come (such as a broader probe of Veterans Affairs secretary Jim Nicholson, an ex-Republican national chairman with no previous experience advocating for vets), it would appear that the GOP’s traditional “support the troops” rhetoric has proved to be about as flimsy as a yellow ribbon tied to a tree.

Some commentators have equated this scandal, which victimizes vets, with the Katrina debacle that victimized the poor of New Orleans. But that strikes me as a facile comparison – because, in some ways, the Walter Reed scandal is worse. Notwithstanding all the Bush administration incompetence that was exposed in the wake of Katrina (incompetence that was heavily documented by House Republican investigators, to their credit), a hurricane is still an act of nature. Whereas Walter Reed is an act of man – or, more accurately, it is the product of man’s inaction.

Problems at the army medical center have been surfacing in the press since 2003, long before the Washington Post blew the whistle in its February series, but there is scant evidence that anybody in charge took the reports seriously – not the congressional Republican overseers, not the president who repeatedly trekked to the place for photo ops, and not the Walter Reed director who was warned, in a memo last autumn signed by a high-ranking subordinate, that unless more federal workers were hired, “base operations and patient care services are at risk of mission failure.”

And why was this subordinate, Garrison Commander Peter Garibaldi, urging that more federal workers be hired? Because, as reported by the Army Times newspaper, he was concerned about the privatizing of services at the health facility. Thanks to cost-cutting measures initiated by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, coupled with Bush’s “competitive sourcing” program, private companies were being tapped to handle facilities management, patient care, and guard duty. As a result, many skilled government workers decided to leave. Yet, while all this was happening, the caseload expanded, courtesy of the wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq. (Garibaldi’s request for more workers was ignored, by the way.)

The congressional committees, one of which was meeting today, will have to determine whether the Walter Reed scandal is a product of simply human incompetence, or a conservative ideological hostility to governance, or a combination of both. (The same debate took place after Katrina.) A verdict may be delayed until the probes are exhausted, because even some of the Republicans, notably congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, are now saying that Walter Reed is merely "the tip of the iceberg." But they know that already; back in the spring of 2005, VA chief Nicholson, the ex-Republican chairman, admitted that the VA had underestimated the number of vets who were expected to seek treatment that nearly 80,000, because somehow the agency hadn't taken the growing Iraq caseload into account.

Don’t expect any guidance on the competence/ideology question from the Bush administration. Dick Cheney offered a few words yesterday, but he’s about as credible these days as Ann Coulter. Cheney said, “There will be no excuses, only action, and the federal bureaucracy will not slow that action down.” Two observations: If the press hadn’t exposed what was wrong, he would be urging no action today; and his attempt to blame “the federal bureaucracy” (which, as we know, is a code phrase for “big-government Democrats”) conveniently overlooks the privatization issue. Besides, the calendar tells me that he and Bush have been in charge of that federal bureaucracy six years in a row.

As for Bush - who has already mapped future budget cuts in veterans' health care - he has been largely AWOL on this scandal. Spokesman Tony Snow said the other day that when Bush saw the Post series, “that was the first he was aware of what was going on…” (I seem to recall Bush saying in the past that he doesn’t read newspapers, but never mind.) And when Snow was asked whether Bush was taking charge of the situation, he replied, “he had a very busy weekend, and he was on the road Thursday and Friday, as well. I’m not aware of any reach-out calls to ask people.”

Actually, Bush did surface today, with a speech to the reliably compliant American Legion. At one point he announced that "I have also directed the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to lead a task force composed of seven members of my Cabinet to focus and respond to immediate needs." That would be the aforementioned Jim Nicholson, the ex-GOP chairman who is dismissed by veterans groups as unresponsive and over his head; as one VFW official reportedly complains, "there is no free flow of information since he took over."

Heckuva job, Jimmy.

One might assume that the Democrats will benefit politically from this episode, that they will use their oversight role to demonstrate that they, not the Republicans, are truly the people who “support the troops.” Indeed, there are reports that the House Democrats have already huddled in private about this issue. But given the fact that these are the same House Democrats who continue to spin their wheels over Iraq (torn, as always, between their get-out-now liberal faction and their more cautious moderate faction), it’s no slam dunk that they will fully grasp this gift that the GOP has bestowed upon them.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Clintons and Coulter and an obituary worthy of note

A bunch of things…

After writing yesterday in my Sunday newspaper column that “a sizeable number of Democrats” are afflicted with “Clinton fatigue” and fear that Hillary as the ’08 nominee would be burdened by Clinton family baggage, some Clinton fans sent me angry emails. They essentially made two arguments: (1) There is no Clinton fatigue among Democrats, and (2) There is no “package deal,” because President Hillary would not make any decisions that would benefit Bill politically, just as President Bill did not make any decisions that benefited Hillary politically.

I disagree, obviously. The candidacies of Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden, and the yearning on the left for an Al Gore candidacy, are proof of Clinton fatigue in the Democratic ranks. It might not be sufficient to deny Hillary the nomination, but it persists in many quarters as a low-grade virus.

Many of those who exhibit the symptoms are quick to contend in private conversations that they’re not fatigued by Bill’s private behavior. They insist that their main concerns are about policy and ideology. It’s not sexy or exciting to talk about, but the (overlooked) fact remains that many liberals have long been miffed by the Clintons’ centrist political instincts, and have no desire for eight more years of the same.

They complain that Bill basically governed like an Eisenhower-style moderate Republican (signing free trade agreements that screwed domestic organized labor, balancing the budget as a sop to Wall Street, paying down the federal debt as a top priority, expanding the federal death penalty, building more prisons), failed to lead on health insurance after the Hillary’s ’93 plan blew up (the number of uninsured Americans rose from 37 million to 42 million on his watch), and that he junked some important pledges (such as campaign finance reform). Indeed, it’s noteworthy that Hillary’s two top rivals, Obama and Edwards, are positioned to her left.

At the moment they are using Iraq to draw restive liberal primary voters away from Hillary (Obama was against the war before it began, and Edwards apologized for his ’02 Senate vote, whereas Hillary has not), but the bill of particulars against the Clintons goes way back to the early ‘90s. That’s the fight that many Democrats have long been seeking to wage. It will play out over the next 11 months, until the nominee is likely decided in the big state primaries on Feb. 5.

As for those Clinton fans who argue that Hillary-Bill will be no more of a package deal than Bill-Hillary was, I would like to refresh their memories about one particular incident in August of 1999. (I’m not arguing that a package deal is necessarily a disqualifier. I am just biased against amnesia.)

On Aug. 11 of that year, Bill made a decision that was opposed by the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, federal prosecutors, and a number of senior Democrats. He offered clemency to 16 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group, FALN, that had been responsible for six deaths and dozens of injuries in more than 100 bombings on U.S. soil between 1974 and 1983. Fourteen of the 16 were still in prison on weapons and conspiracy offenses. He said, in essence, that they could go free if they promised not to do it again, and not to associate with each other.

A debate ensued: Why had Bill made this decision? Why had he approved clemency for only the third time of his presidency, out of 3000 petitions? Did it have anything to do with the fact….naw, it couldn’t be…that his spouse had set up an exploratory Senate candidacy, and would need to build bridges to New York’s 1.3 million Puerto Ricans, a key voting group in the 2000 race? Was it possible that he was bending public policy to politically aid the spouse who had stood by him in tough political times?

Hillary at the time insisted that she had known nothing in advance about her husband’s decision. Unfortunately, she had just told a magazine, weeks earlier, that she and Bill talked policy and politics all the time. (“We talk in the solarium, we talk in the bedroom, in the kitchen it’s just constant conversation.”). But, in this one case, we were supposed to believe that Bill had decided to rule on a terrorist clemency case without giving Hillary any heads-up on how it might impact her own Senate bid.

Anyway, the controversy raged for weeks, especially in New York, until finally Hillary publicly distanced herself from Bill’s decision. I remember discussing the whole flap with former Clinton White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers, who said, “I’ve kind of given up trying to make sense of what happens over there.”

Well, that’s what the next 11 months are for.


There are hundreds of ways to rebut the lazy charge that the mainstream media is “liberal” – starting with its general failure to question the Bush administration’s prewar WMD claims – but the latest Ann Coulter incident provides fresh grist.

On Friday, as most of you probably know by now, Coulter spoke to an audience of conservative activists. She said: “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I -- so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.”

So let us review: A best-selling conservative author, delivering the day’s keynote speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, arguably the most prominent organization of rightward grassroots activists, declared in public that a major Democratic presidential contender was a “faggot.” And (after a few surprised gasps), she was greeted with widespread applause from the audience of thousands…..

Yet The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press all failed to mention the incident in their CPAC reports.
The nightly network broadcasts also failed to report it.

The print folks basically got around to reporting the incident 24 hours later, only after the Democrats, and some of the Republican presidential candidates, voiced their objections to Coulter. That’s the dance of objectivity; as long as somebody takes “the other side,” a reporter is on safe ground to write something “balanced.” This way, there is no need for a reporter to exercise his or her own best professional judgment on whether a remark is newsworthy.

Howard Kurtz today, while also deploring the MSM omission, suggested one possible reason: "A collective shrug that, well, you know, it's Coulter, there she goes again, what do you expect? And it's that attitude that lets her off the hook."

So I’m just wondering: if Michael Moore, or some other left-leaning flamer, had keynoted a national liberal conference, and had called a major Republican contender a “faggot,” would these mainstream media outlets have failed to mention that?


Thomas Eagleton died yesterday. His passage is worth noting, if only because he demonstrated the perils of allowing personal ambition to cloud political judgment at a critical moment in history. He was also responsible for the introduction of a phrase that has since become synonymous with political dishonesty – even though he wasn’t the one who said it.

In 1972, as some of you older readers may remember, Missouri senator Eagleton was tapped to be George McGovern’s running mate on the Democratic ticket, in a year when President Nixon was mired in Vietnam and working to minimize the Watergate scandal. Eagleton was so anxious to get the nod that he failed to tell McGovern’s people about a few incidents in his past that might be viewed as problematical – namely, that he had been hospitalized three times for depression, and twice undergone electroshock therapy. (There was no Lithium in those days, assuming that would have helped Eagleton.)

Anyway, the truth came out, in the usual dribs and drabs, and it put McGovern on the spot. Finally he felt compelled to declare that he stood behind Eagleton “1000 percent” – even though, at the time he said it, the McGovern camp was already moving to dump Eagleton. (As McGovern told CBS’ Bob Schieffer many years later, “After saying I was behind him 1000 percent, it made me look like a damn fool, but I decided we had to ask him to leave.”)

We all know that straying “off message” is a cardinal sin, so imagine if something like this happened today: On a Sunday in August of 1972, Eagleton went on Face the Nation and declared that he intended to stay on the ticket – while, over on NBC, at virtually the same hour, McGovern’s handpicked Democratic national chairwoman was telling Meet the Press that Eagleton would best serve his party by stepping down. This would be blogger bliss. (Complicating things further, McGovern told Eagleton later that day that he, McGovern, had not asked the chairwoman to say what she had said.)

Within a day, Eagleton stepped down. Decades later, I bet you will never hear a candidate claim that he or she supports somebody or anything “1000 percent.” Yet I wonder if a candidate afflicted with depression today would share the same impulse to hide it. Up-front honesty is generally the best strategy.