Friday, October 26, 2007

Pillow talk as public policy, and vice versa

You may have noticed that Hillary Clinton likes to repeat herself:

"I have a unique perspective being on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue" (Sept. 18); "My experience at both ends of Pennsylvania me special insight into what we must do" (Sept. 26); "My eight years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue..." (Oct. 10, 2002, when she voted to authorize the Iraq war option).

And with respect to that experience at the White House end of Pennsylvania Avenue, we also have this long-recurring theme:

"I talk to my husband about everything. We talk constantly (about policy), and, you know, he tells me sometimes why what I think won't work, or thinks it's a good idea and he'll look into it, but sometimes I talk to other people in the administration as well (May 28, 1996); "I worked alongside my husband..." (Jan. 24, 2005); "We have influenced each other so much over these, goodness, 36 years now...there's a bit of a challenge to say 'here's where he stops and I start'" (Essence magazine, Nov '07).

But if a scholar or journalist or voter tries to find out the exact nature of the Bill-Hillary collaboration, to indeed determine where he stops and she starts, the inquiring citizen will be stonewalled. Because all her '90s White House papers are locked away at the federally-financed William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and virtually none of them are expected to see the light of day prior to the '08 election.

Here's the deal, apparently: She gets to tout her First Lady stint as proof of her governmental experience, but we on the receiving end don't get to find out exactly what she did. She gets to travel America extolling the successes of the Bill Clinton administration, and she gets to tell us how much she influenced his thinking, but we don't get the chance to learn exactly what she influenced (much less how and why).

To verify her experience claims, to understand the nature of her advice, and to determine whether her advice helped or hurt her husband's performance, we would need to have access to a number of things: her policy memos, her notes from strategy meetings, her appointment calendars, and a lot more. But there is no such access - as the respected biographer Sally Bedell Smith discovered recently when she visited the library. When she requested material on Hillary's advice to Bill about welfare reform, she was told that "policy" matters were off limits; when she requested material on Bill's advice to Hillary during her 2000 Senate campaign, she was told that "political" matters were off limits.

Much of this is Bill's doing; as Newsweek determined, after reviewing documents obtained from the National Archives under a Freedom of Information request, Bill decreed in a 2002 letter that there should be no speedy release of "sensitive policy, personal, or political" material. He was also very interested in slowing the release of "communications directly between the President and First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature." Apparently he was casting a wide net, because neither of his immediate predecessors, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, has reportedly placed any controls on the papers of their respective spouses.

Democratic strategists and pro-Clinton archivists have been arguing for months that Bill and Hillary are rightly concerned about the pitfalls of disclosure, that Clinton critics would merely cherry-pick the most negative material. Yes, they would do that. It's just too bad that the voters won't have the chance to decide for themselves whether to believe the critics, or, more importantly, to decide whether the archives confirm Hillary's claims about the breadth of her experience.

The bottom line is that this issue demonstrates why the Clinton collaboration is so unique - and potentially troublesome.

As Hillary keeps telling us, she and Bill have been talking policy since the day they were married; it's part of what bonds them as a couple. But now that she's running for president herself, and people want to understandably find out more about the nature of their policy talk (since, after all, their policy talk affected the nation in the '90s and may well do so again), they're invoking an expansive zone of privacy. Witness Bill's abiding interest in safeguarding "communications between the President and First Lady." Witness Hillary's remark, during a Sept. 26 debate, that "I don't talk about my private conversations with my husband."

So the deal, for the '08 campaign, is that when Hillary touts her close collaboration with Bill, as part of what she calls her "35 years of experience," she expects the voter to simply take it on faith and not sweat the details. Because those details are under lock and key.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The deceptive allure of darn good buzz

On a busy day, I'll confine myself to offering this public service:

In recent weeks, a great number of emailers have excitedly sought to inform me about a particulary juicy entry in The Reagan Diaries, a recently published volume of the late president's private jottings. They have quoted the entry, and urged me to post it forthwith; after I declined to do so, I was duly informed, by some of the emailers, that I was clearly a right-wing stooge/Republican apologist/censor/killjoy.

Here's the passage. Supposedly, the juice factor is high because the writer is Reagan, the "George" is Vice President Bush, and the "son"...well, you know who that is:

"May 17, 1986. A moment I've been dreading. George brought his ne're-do-well son around this morning and asked me to find the kid a job. Not the political one who lives in Florida. The one who hangs around here all the time looking shiftless. This so-called kid is already almost 40 and has never had a real job. Maybe I'll call Kinsley over at The New Republic and see if they'll hire him as a contributing editor or something. That looks like easy work."

For those of you who might find this passage in your email box, and might be tempted to forward it to new recipients, be forewarned: It's fake.

This verdict is apparently a revelation to many of my emailers, who seem to assume, in our new communications era, that anything rocketing through cyberspace automatically has the ring of truth - or, more specifically, that anything that squares with their partisan views should be treated as true. Certainly, back in the mid-'80s, George W. Bush was a notoriously underemployed adult, so perhaps that was sufficient for those who greeted the purported entry with guffaws of delight.

My first reaction, when I read it, was puzzlement. How had this not been highlighted last May, in the initial news stories about the diaries? How was it possible that Bill Maher had not mined it for an entire opening monologue on HBO? How was it possible that a president would have penned such brazenly disdainful prose, when, in fact, every president assumes that his diaries will be publicized, and therefore that they need to be written with malice toward none and charity toward all?

So I went to a bookstore, pulled The Reagan Diaries off the shelf, leafed to the date...and there was nothing about a shiftless ne'er-do-well son. Then I went online, and within seconds, the truth emerged:

Columnist Michael Kinsley learned last spring that he would surface on page 400, where Reagan briefly mentions enjoying an off-the-record lunch with Kinsley and several other journalists. Amused by this news, Kinsley then proceeded, in the July '07 pages of The New Republic, to write a satire, in which he made up several Reagan entries, with himself playing a cameo role in each. The Bush passage was one of three Kinsley inventions.

Somewhere along the line, somebody with no sense of irony highlighted the Bush passage and, minus the Kinsley authorship, passed it along as truth...and out it spun, morphing into darn good buzz.

And what's doubly ironic is that, according to Kinsley, the actual Reagan entry - where he attends an off-the-record lunch with the president - was wrong too. Kinsley says the actual New Republic attendee was Charles Krauthammer; somebody (Reagan, the editor, the publisher) stuck in Kinsley's name by mistake.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make, about slippery factoids on the Internet. There's an old saying in journalism, and it needs to be honored anew: "If your own mother says she loves you, check it out."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Grownups say the dumbest things

In the spirit of broadcast pioneer Art Linkletter, who once authored a book entitled Kids Say the Darndest Things, I offer today's post, Grownups Say the Dumbest Things.

Actually, dumb might be too mild an adjective. In several of the instances listed below, you might feel that moronic is more accurate - depending, of course, on your partisan inclinations:

1. Mike Huckabee, GOP presidential candidate. I mentioned on Monday that he might be poised to ride a boomlet into the Iowa caucuses, in part because he is an effective communicator and an ordained Baptist preacher who is sincerely in sync with the party's religious conservatives. Nevertheless, in a Republican debate on Sunday night, his fervor got in the way of his facts.

At one point, he said, "When our founding fathers put their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, those 56 brave people, most of whom, by the way, were clergymen, they said that we have certain inalienable rights given to us by our creator, and among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, life being one of them..." (emphasis mine)

Really? "Most" of the Declaration signers were clergymen? I have toured Independence Hall a number of times, and I have read my share of early histories (thank you, Joseph Ellis), yet I had never heard that stat before. In the reality-based community, "most" is defined as a majority. This would mean, if Huckabee is using the reality-based definition, that, at minimum, 29 signers were clergymen.

Here's the problem, however: All available evidence indicates that, at maximum, the actual number was...four.

Among the signers, there was only one active clergyman (John Witherspoon of New Jersey). One religious website,, says that perhaps four signers were preachers in the past. One conservative group, the Heritage Foundation, puts that number at two.

Perhaps Huckabee was using a faith-based definition, one that is tailored to the belief that the signers were explicitly creating a Christian nation. One of his rivals on stage could have rebutted him by quoting Thomas Paine, whose fiery writings helped inspire the Declaration of Independence ("I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.") But no presidential candidate would dare do that.

2. Glenn Beck, host of The Glenn Beck Program. One of the perks of being a talk radio loudmouth is that the brain's flotsam can be flushed through the lips, without the checks and balances of rational thought. Beck, who is also employed by CNN, belched on his radio show Monday about the current tragedy in southern California:

"I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today."

I would suggest that it is inappropriate to run a loyalty test on people who have just lost their homes. I would even bet that a large number of the newly homeless are America-loving Republicans; there are many such people in southern California, as indicated by the voting rolls and the presence of so many Republican congressmen. But such nuances are the province of journalists, and those who spew on the air don't qualify.

3. Pete Stark, Democratic California congressman. This guy has been a loose cannon for years - six years ago, during a House debate, he falsely charged that black Republican J.C. Watt's children had been "born out of wedlock" - but last week he overreached with an anti-Bush tirade that embarrassed his own party colleagues.

During the struggle last week over children's health insurance, Stark told Republicans: "You don't have money to fund...children, but you're going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement."

Notwithstanding President Bush's historic miscalculations in Iraq, and the fact that 3,800 Americans are dead because of his errors, it's a tad unfair to assume that he is amused by the death toll. Some liberal bloggers have declared Stark to be a hero, but the reality is, he made life more difficult for the half-dozen House Democratic freshmen who represent conservative districts.

Unlike Stark, who is seemingly a congressman for life because he hails from a liberal northern California enclave, those freshmen have to compete in 2008, and the last thing they need is to be linked with a guy who thinks that a commander-in-chief is amused by the death of soldiers. Which is why Stark was squeezed by the House leadership until he finally apologized. But we'll undoubtedly hear from him again, in some future fracas.

4. Mitt Romney, GOP presidential candidate. Here he was Tuesday morning, discussing the latest developments in the war on terror:

"Actually, just look at what Osam, uh, Barack Obama, said just yesterday. Barack Obama, calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. 'That is a battlefield. That is the central place,' he said. 'Come, join us under one banner.'"

Naturally, Romney's spokesman later explained that the candidate had "simply misspoke." (Twice, in fact.)

I suppose that's understandable. All those funny-sounding names sound alike, right? Granted, one of them is a presidential candidate and the other is a terrorist, but what's a guy to do? Perhaps, if it happens again, Romney can defend himself in song, with apologies to George and Ira Gershwin:

You say Osama, and I say Obama/ Osama, Obama/ Obama, Osama/ Let's call the whole thing off...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Message to the moralists: Mind your own business

It looks like Fred Thompson can kiss off the Christian conservative vote. He has insulted them, big time.

During a news conference yesterday, the Republican presidential candidate basically stated that when a family member is struggling to decide whether to pull the plug on a mortally ill loved one, everybody else should just butt out because it's none of their business. Indeed, it's an issue near and dear to him: “I had to face a situation like that in my own personal life, with my own daughter.”

Thompson's stance is definitely not in tune with the Christian conservative agenda. Their attitude - as evidenced by the Terri Schiavo case, the 24/7 cable TV melodrama of 2005 - is that the federal government should intervene in the private lives of families, and ensure, in accordance with their views of morality, that the doomed patient remains attached to the feeding tube.

When Thompson was asked about the Schiavo case last month, he claimed that he couldn't recall the details. It turns out that he pleaded amnesia merely to avoid discussing his own family trauma. But for those of you who truly don't remember the Schiavo case, here's the gist:

Terri Schiavo, who had hovered near death for the better part of 15 years, was being kept alive by a feeding tube. Her husband wanted to remove the tube. State courts in Florida, backed by the testimony of medical specialists, ruled that he had the right to remove the tube; the key state judge was a southern Baptist and Republican. But religious conservatives, cracking the whip, compelled the Republican Congress to pass a special law, overruling the state courts and Michael Schiavo. In the immortal words of then-House GOP leader Tom DeLay, "I don't care what her husband says."

Eventually, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled for Michael Schiavo. Which brings us back to Thompson; clearly, his idea of conservatism is that the federal government should not be in the business of promoting morality and butting into people's private lives. That's the old conservative credo, as articulated several generations ago by Barry Goldwater (who said in 1964, "I fear Washington and centralized government more than I do Moscow"). The problem is, Thompson's credo is not the Christian right's credo.

It's probably bad enough, from their perspective, that Thompson is known to be an infrequent churchgoer, that he once lobbied for an abortion rights group, and that he bestirred few hearts at the weekend Values Voter Summit. And now, from Thompson at his news conference, comes this blasphemy:

"Making this (Schiavo case, and others like it) into a political football is something that I don't welcome, and this will probably be the last time I ever address it. It should be decided by the families - the federal government and the state government, too, except for the court system, ought to stay out of those matters as far as I am concerned."

And the reason he doesn't want to revist this issue publicly is because he knows first-hand about what it's like to struggle with it in private: His 38-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Panici, died from an accidental drug overdose in 2002, six days after being hospitalized. He said yesterday, "These things need to be decided by the family. And I was at that bedside."

That should put the kibosh on Fred. Anyone who sounds this much like a Goldwater conservative, anyone who refuses to accept a little evangelical assistance while at a stricken daughter's bedside, won't stand much of a chance with religious conservatives. After all, it was Goldwater himself who in 1981 said of those folks, "I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism."


On the mercenary front, Erik Prince uttered a revealing remark the other day. The founder/owner of Blackwater, who says his longstanding family Republican ties have played absolutely no role in his reaping of more than $1.02 billion in private security contracts from the Bush administration, was being quizzed on CNN on the issue of accountability...or, more specifically, about why the Bush team and the Iraqi government have long failed to hold Blackwater accountable for anything (as two new audits have also concluded).

Prince was asked, "Whose laws are you subject to?" And in response, almost in passing, he told CNN: "Well, in the ideal sense, we would be subject to the Iraqi law, but that would mean -- that would indicate that there was a functioning Iraqi court system where Westerners could actually get a fair trial. That's not the case right now."

Well, that's not very helpful to the Bush team, is it? The administration has been struggling for many months to put the best spin on the failure of the Iraqi government to meet the benchmarks laid out in Washington...and here is Prince, casually mentioning a failure that is not even addressed in the benchmarks.

When the White House issued its July report card on Iraqi "progress," there was no mention of any criteria for the Iraqi judiciary. Indeed, the judiciary is barely mentioned at all. But now Prince, seeking only to defend his mercenaries, has informed us that the Iraqi judiciary is not even "functioning" in any western sense of the word. Perhaps the White House needs to craft an extra benchmark. We thank Prince for that inadvertent public service.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Christian conservatives and the Huck: perfect together?

Are we perhaps witnessing the political ascendance of Mike Huckabee? Is it possible that restive religious conservatives, widely dissatisfied with their choices in the GOP presidential field, are poised to flock en masse to an ordained Baptist preacher who plays the electric guitar? To an ex-governor from Bill Clinton’s state whose chief claim to fame – until recently – was that he lost 100 pounds? To a guy who, with that kind of name, sounds like he should be cracking cornpone jokes on The Andy Griffith Show?

The answer is yes. Huckabee, notwithstanding his ostensible second-tier status as an ’08 candidate, finished in a virtual tie for first place this weekend in a straw poll of religious conservatives at the Values Voter Summit in Washington (if we include the online voters who chose not to attend), and Huckabee slaughtered the entire GOP field (polling 50 percent, with Mitt Romney a distant second at 10 percent) if we count only the votes that were cast in person, by those who were in the room.

It actually makes perfect sense that grassroots Christian conservatives might be warming to a candidate who has long been right under their noses. Huckabee – in part because he is actually one of them, having been a past leader of Arkansas’ Southern Baptist Convention; in part because he is a gifted communicator; in part because he questions all this stuff about evolution – might be well poised to fill the vacuum that persists on the Republican side.

The vacuum was obvious at the weekend Washington confab. For instance:

Romney (who took 27.62 percent of the total straw poll vote, compared to Huckabee’s 27.15 percent), is still widely perceived by these folks as the quintessential panderer - somebody who’s merely talking a good anti-abortion game, after having previously told Massachusetts voters that he supported abortion “and you will not see me wavering on that.”

Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani is still (rightly) perceived by the religious right as being a New York liberal on abortion. In his Saturday speech, he tried to sell his unpalatable beliefs as a character asset, as proof that he is a man of conviction: “Isn't it better to tell you what I really believe than to change my positions to fit the prevailing winds? I believe trust is more important than 100 percent agreement." The problem with Rudy’s argument is that these people really aren’t interested in disagreement, particularly on an issue (abortion) that they deem to be a deal-breaker. Rudy wound up with 1.85 percent of the total straw poll vote.

John McCain? He got nowhere this weekend. And how about Fred Thompson, who was supposed to swoop into the race and scoop up the Christian conservative vote? Forget about it. He did tell the Summit crowd that if he makes it to the Oval Office, he will immediately start to pray (perhaps as compensation for the fact that he is not a regular churchgoer, a lifestyle choice that displeases some religious right leaders). But Thompson still isn’t wild about the idea of codifying a gay marriage ban in the U.S. Constitution, he still refuses to apologize for the fact that he did lobbying work for an abortion-rights group, and, in his Summit speech, he probably lulled hundreds of eyelids to half mast with some of his less than scintillating bromides (“We must have good laws. We must do our best to stop bad laws”).

By contrast, Huckabee appeared to electrify the crowd with an eloquent appeal to purity: “I come today not as one who comes to you, but as one who comes from you.” He said that Christian conservatives should focus on candidates who “sing from their hearts,” as opposed to those (Romney, apparently) who “just lip-sync the lyrics from our songs….I don't want expediency or electability to replace our vales. We live or die by those values…Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important…Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics. Not now. Not ever.” One conservative blogger at the National Review wrote this weekend that Huckabee “blew the doors off the place.”

The crowd also loved his take-no-prisoners stance on abortion. According to Huckabee, not only is abortion a violation of "God's values," it has also forced us to give cheap domestic jobs to immigrants - jobs that could have been filled by the aborted. Yep, that's what the man said on Saturday: "Sometimes we talk about why we're importing so many people in our workforce. It might be (because) for the last 35 years, we have aborted more than a million people who would have been in our workforce, had we not had the holocaust of liberalized abortion under a flawed Supreme Court ruling in 1973." (If Huckabee was ever to win the nomination, I wonder how independent swing voters - who generally support that abortion ruling, as well as immigration - would react to Huckabee's argument?)

Anyway, the Summit vote marks the second time that the ill-financed Huckabee has come from nowhere to duel the well-heeled Romney to a virtual draw. It happened back in August, at the Iowa Republican straw poll. And it also appears that Huckabee is inching upward in the surveys of likely Iowa caucus-goers. The religious right leaders are still wary of him (because he hasn’t raised much money), but the grassroots seems to be increasingly receptive. If this kind of thing keeps happening, Huckabee will surely win the honor that is bestowed upon all ascendant candidates:

He will become a target.

If he starts to get real traction with the religious right, some of his rivals will start to utter insinuations about Huckabee’s dearth of foreign policy experience (an accurate charge), and about how we need national security acumen in this post-9/11 era. Also, expect them to tar Huckabee as a tax-hiker (as a governor faced with budget woes and lousy roads in need of repair money, he did sign hefty sales-tax increases on cigarettes and gasoline).

Indeed, fiscal conservatives are already on his case about his economic record. The Club for Growth, an activist group, ran ads last summer assailing Huckabee as a flagrant tax-and-spender, and, late last week, the veteran conservative activist Richard Viguerie (a legend in the movement) slammed Huckabee for similar reasons, calling him “just another wishy-washy Republican -- inconsistent in policy because he’s inconsistent in principle.”

(Note the potential here for a conservative split over Huckabee, between religious right-wingers who like his social positions and Christian values; and economic right-wingers who dislike his tax-and-spend decisions.)

But if Huckabee does well in Iowa and suddenly takes off for real, how long will it take for somebody to bring up the case of Wayne Dumond?

Remember what happened to Michael Dukakis, in 1988, when the Massachusetts governor was pilloried by the GOP for presiding over a prison furlough program that put rapist Willie Horton into the community, with tragic results? Potentially, Wayne Dumond is Mike Huckabee’s Willie Horton.

The short version: In 1985, in eastern Arkansas, Dumond was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years after he was convicted for kidnapping and raping a teenage cheerleader. Some critics thought the sentence was excessive, particularly considering the fact that, while he was awaiting trial in ‘85, Dumond had been castrated by a pair of masked vigilantes. In 1992, state authorities decreed that Dumond should be allowed to petition the state parole board; he then asked to be freed, but the board said no.

Enter Huckabee, who became governor in 1996. Two months after taking office, he announced that he intended to set Dumond free. Shortly thereafter, the parole board did so. Huckabee congratulated Dumond, and told him in a letter, “I feel that parole is the best way for your reintroduction to society take place.”

Due to various logistics, Dumond wasn’t released until 1999. A year later, he moved to Missouri – where he sexually assaulted and murdered a 39-year-old woman.

When asked about this case recently, Huckabee said, “I did not have this apprehension that something horrible like that would happen…There’s nothing you can say, but my gosh, it’s the thing you pray never happens. And it did.”

Was this a case of Christian forgiveness gone awry? If Mike Huckabee takes off as a candidate – and he still needs a lot more money, if he expects to play in the big primary states on Feb.5 - then he’ll surely be asked to say a lot more.