The Has-been

It’s Not About the Mountain Bike

The real problem with Bush’s holiday is that it won’t stop when he goes back to work.

Friday, Aug. 26, 2005

Friday, Aug. 26, 2005

Groundhog Day Off: George Bush desperately wants history to remember him as the Sept. 11 President. In speeches, he sounds like a wartime Bill Murray, who wakes up every morning only to find that it is still 9/11.

That’s more or less what the country wanted: a commander in chief who’d worry about the war on terror so we didn’t have to. These days, however, Bush doesn’t look like a Sept. 11 President at all. With each passing day, he acts more like the last thing the country wanted: an August President, who leaves all the worrying to us.

August is the siesta month, when we shut down our brains, head on holiday, and spend money while doing nothing to earn it. We go back and forth between a deep desire to squeeze in every last moment of idle repose, and a vague sense of dread about what lies in store.

In other words, we spend August the way George Bush has spent his presidency.

Bush’s August fetish is most visible now, when he’s wrapping up another record-breaking vacation. Yet in many respects, the entire Bush term has been a kind of record-breaking vacation. First president to cut taxes in wartime. First president to go five years without a single veto. Largest surplus squandered; largest deficits left behind.

After all that work, you can see why a guy might want some time off.

Easy Rider: As Lance Armstrong would say, it’s not about the mountain bike. My problem isn’t what Bush does on vacation; it’s that he runs the country like it’s on holiday.

Bush’s approach to most problems—from economic competitiveness to political reform to health care—is the same as his answer to Cindy Sheehan: We’re at war, I don’t have time to see you now. Yet the narrowness and lack of inspiration of his approach to the broader struggle against terror suggest that he is giving the war the same answer.

Politicians should take vacations now and then, if only to give the electorate a breather. When Congress and the president leave Washington for the August recess, it usually has the same effect as a summer thunderstorm, lowering the temperature by breaking tensions that have built up too long. Voters breathe the same sigh of relief as my father-in-law, who greeted this August by noting that the government couldn’t cost the taxpayers more with no one left in Washington.

The best proof of the August recess’s effect as a political tonic—or maybe gin-and-tonic—is what happened in 1994, the year Washington didn’t have one. A decade of post-mortems on the 1994 elections has overlooked one simple theory: By canceling the recess that year in a last-ditch attempt to pass health care, Democratic congressional leaders failed to break the storm clouds building on the horizon. A year later, Republicans made the same mistake by shutting down the federal government during the holidays, which went over about as well as the Grinch’s plan to cancel Christmas in Who-ville. In both 1994 and 1995, voters concluded that the party in charge wasn’t getting the job done and wouldn’t go away.

The Boy of Summer: That last part is one mistake Bush will never make: canceling a vacation. He promised to work hard, play hard, and has kept half that promise. The danger for Bush is that his rush to leave his post in August 2005 may have the same effect that Democrats’ refusal to take a break had in August 1994: It just reminds people that they have to keep worrying, because the job isn’t getting finished. Between the war abroad and the scandals back home, August has been no rest for the weary. … 6:49 A.M. (link)

Clarification: Wednesday’s item  should have made clear that Australian PM John Howard sent troops to support the invasion of Iraq, but has deployed most of the remaining Australian troops in non-combat roles  since that time. The point I was clumsily trying to make was that Iraq did not become the all-consuming issue in Howard’s re-election campaign because Australia has not suffered casualties. As a dedicated Australophile, I certainly didn’t mean to minimize Australia’s longtime support for the U.S. or the courage of Aussie soldiers who’ve put themselves in harm’s way.

Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005

Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005

No Worries: The Has-Been does not pretend to be God’s gift to man-droughts. Indeed, during H-B’s recent visit to Australia, the only drought Aussies seemed to care about was another endless stretch of perfect, cloudless weather in Sydney.

By American standards, Australia’s biggest problem is just that: a shortage of obvious problems. The Australian economy has grown steadily for 13 years straight. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard supported the Iraq war but sent no combat troops and just won a fourth term by a landslide. Despite a largely uninhabitable center and most of the deadliest creatures on earth, Australians enjoy the sixth-longest life expectancy in the world (the United States is 42nd). All those crocodiles, great white sharks, box jellyfish, and death adders might as well admit that their work on the Australian continent has been an abject failure.

Australia does have some entrenched problems, such as a long-suffering Aboriginal population and a surprisingly high percentage of births outside marriage. But when a serious national problem comes along, such as the emergence of the racist One Nation party a few years back, both major parties generally work together to make it go away. Because each party has a loyal base and competes vigorously to earn the support of middle-class swing voters, Aussie leaders often have to search the horizon for new problems to solve.

Three’s Company: The current government isn’t doing anything yet about the man-drought. But they have big plans to take on another obscure problem: Australia’s declining fertility rate. Like many advanced nations, Australia has a low birth rate: 1.7, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Thanks to immigration, Australia is still growing and in no danger of running out of people. Still, the Howard government isn’t taking any chances. Treasurer Peter Costello, Howard’s deputy and likely successor, is offering parents a $4,000 baby bonus. Costello told Australians that having more children is their “patriotic duty” and urged them to “have one for Mum, one for Dad, and one for the country.” This earned him the infamous headline in one London tabloid: “Bonk Down Under.”

The plan may be working. Last year, the number of Aussie births surged to the highest in a decade. Not bad for a country short of men. There’s no real evidence that the government’s plan had much to do with it, but a headline in the Australian Financial Review proclaimed, “Costello’s Maternity Money Puts Couples in the Mood.”

Strange as the baby bonus may seem, American Democrats might want to take a look. John Edwards proposed a version in the 2004 primaries as a way to help parents of newborns afford family leave. Tony Blair has proposed a more sweeping “baby bond”—a kind of universal savings account for children.

In fact, Democrats could easily argue that baby bonds and bonuses are a better answer to Social Security’s long-term financial challenge than Bush’s private accounts. Markets go up and markets go down, but every child born in 2006 will start paying payroll taxes in the 2030s, when the Social Security system needs it most. Bush would no doubt prefer to rely on immigrants to expand the workforce down the road. Why not try a homegrown answer first?

Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2005

Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2005

Mickey’s Assignment Desk: As if those of us who support expanding trade didn’t face enough hurdles, Australia and New Zealand have found another problem to blame on globalization. Both countries are in the midst of a nationwide “man-drought.”

According to a new report by Australian demographer Bernard Salt, his country now has 20,000 fewer 30-something men than women. Thirty years ago, Australia had the opposite problem: a substantial man surplus. Salt says the ratio of male and female births hasn’t changed. His theory: The globalization of labor draws many Australian men to job opportunities overseas, where they marry and remain abroad or bring their foreign bride home. Either way, they end up throwing the natural balance out of whack.

Salt first noticed the trend in New Zealand, which has a female shortfall of 24,000. By his estimate, a 32-year-old Kiwi woman has as much chance of finding a male partner her own age as does an 82-year-old woman. Salt believes the man-drought could help explain why New Zealand has a female prime minister, governor-general, and chief justice. While men still hold Australia’s top political posts, women are preparing to do without them. Salt told one newspaper, “You have more women buying apartments, taking out finance loans; women are evolving their own single culture.”

It’s not at all clear why globalization would cause men to abandon Australia and New Zealand in higher numbers than women. Nicole Kidman certainly did her part. But Salt warns both countries to adopt “defensive migration strategies over the next ten years to limit both the impact of the brain drain and the man-drought.”

One can only wonder what such policies might entail. Asking Foster’s to run more ads on Spike TV? Hiring John Roberts to start a chain of all-boy boarding schools in the Outback?

Monday, Aug. 22, 2005

Monday, Aug. 22, 2005

School for Scandal: So far, the John Roberts scandal watch has come up empty. But the intense scrutiny of Roberts’ privileged youth may have uncovered another scandal: One of the hottest-selling novels of 2005 turns out to rest on a premise that’s pure fiction.

This spring, Curtis Sittenfeld  lit up the style pages and the best-seller lists with her first novel,  Prep. The book tells the story of Lee Fiora, a girl from South Bend, Ind., who heads East to Ault, a tony, private boarding school for rich kids. Lee’s Midwestern mores are no match for Ault’s arid elitism, and by junior year she is as heartless, insufferable, and dull as the sons and daughters of families who have attended Ault for generations.

Prep’s main selling point was its ring of truth. Sittenfeld, who went to Groton, remembers all the reasons boarding school made her miserable, and she sets them out in vivid detail to get even.

Now, thanks to reams of Roberts profiles, we know that Lee Fiora didn’t have to travel 1,000 miles East to find a tony, private boarding school. There was one in her own backyard.

Little Big Man: Roberts prepped at La Lumiere, an exclusive private boarding school in LaPorte, Ind.—just 25 miles form South Bend. Like Sittenfeld’s anti-hero, Cross Sugarman, Roberts was the BMOC: getting elected proctor, captaining sports teams, and getting into Harvard. Unlike Sugarman, Roberts didn’t set out to bed every woman in the class face book. He was too busy fighting to keep the school from going co-ed, so there weren’t any.

For the most part, Prep is the tale of the excruciatingly tedious youth he could have had if he weren’t so interested in Latin class. As The New Yorker review put it, “Any feelings of nostalgia for adolescence should be dispelled by the exacting intimacies of this first novel.”

The high point of Lee Fiora’s high-school career is when she spills her woes to a New York Times reporter, who writes a page-one story Roberts would not like to be in, about all the ways that wealthy kids at boarding schools look down on scholarship students.

La Lumiere is co-ed now, so Lee Fiora could have gone there and made Peppermint Patty an honest woman. If she had, she might help us understand why John Roberts went to boarding school a few minutes from his parents’ home.

Thursday, Aug. 18, 2005

Thursday, Aug. 18, 2005

Home Course: For months, GOP leaders have insisted that indicted globetrotter Jack Abramoff is an aberration in the Republican Party. They could be right. After Gov. Bob Taft’s ethics indictment yesterday, it’s clear not every Republican is accepting all-expenses-paid golf trips to St. Andrews. Some are perfectly content to have their golf paid for even on courses in Ohio.

Taft comes from one of the longest political dynasties in America. His great-grandfather, William Howard Taft, was quite a golfer, too. When my grandfather was a boy, he watched President Taft play a round of golf on a course in northern Idaho. My grandfather came away impressed, not because Taft scored well, but because his stomach stuck out so far, he couldn’t possibly see the ball he was swinging at.

The charges against Bob Taft aren’t as colorful as those against Abramoff. As far as we know, none of Taft’s playing partners were later gunned down in gangland-style killings. But the Taft scandal might end up doing more political damage, if it helps cost Republicans the all-important Ohio governorship.

After a week that began with the Abramoff indictment and ends with the Taft indictment, Tom DeLay might want to adjust his talking points. Forget all that talk about activist judges. It’s time to warn the base about “grand jury overreach” and “prosecutorial oligarchy.”

More Winners: Readers have flooded the Has-Been with suggestions on what to call the space-that-has-not-been-named between the public and private sectors.

Alan Leo suggests “the plutonic sector.” Beating Frank Luntz at his own game, Elizabeth Grambling writes, “You say ‘influence peddling.’ … I say ‘inspiration marketing.’ “

Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005

Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005

Boys Will Be Boys: After reading the hilarious profile of John Roberts in Tuesday’s Washington Times, Dahlia Lithwick decided he’s “too nice to be crazy.” She argues that the cautiousness that kept him from sneaking off into the woods to smoke in high school “may be the same quality that keeps him from torching Roe v. Wade.”

She’s probably right. But the most interesting revelation in the Washington Times isn’t that Roberts was a strait-laced proctor, or that his roommate and lifelong friend can’t remember his date to the senior prom. The big news is that at least once in the past 35 years, John Roberts actually went public with a strong opinion on a controversial subject: writing an editorial for the school paper vehemently opposing coeducation at his all-boys prep school.

Here’s what Roberts wrote in 1972 for the La Lumiere school paper, The Torch:

The presence of the opposite sex in the classroom will be confining rather than catholicizing. … I would prefer to discuss Shakespeare’s double entendre and the latus rectum of conic sections without a [b]londe giggling and blushing behind me.

That ought to alarm James Dobson: Not every 17-year-old can condescend in French and Latin. But conservatives can rest assured that whether or not Roberts is reluctant to overturn Roe now, he would never have voted for it in the first place. Anyone who dismissed all women as giggling blondes in 1972 certainly wouldn’t have found a right to privacy in the Constitution in 1973.

Roberts wrote of his horror that girls would spoil the playing fields of La Lumiere: “Imagine the five cheerleaders on the sidelines, with block ‘L’s’ on their chests, screaming, ‘Give me an “L.”!’ Give me a break!” He’d better hope Sen. Lott doesn’t put a hold on his nomination.

The sneers are hard to explain away, even three decades later. Perhaps the White House can defend Roberts’ position as a research-based case for the merits of single-sex education, or the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Latin, or a pioneering show of interest in the abstinence movement.

Good Grief: The Washington Times story suggests a more self-serving possibility. In a school production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Roberts “was cast as Peppermint Patty and donned a dress for the production.” In its role as conservative apologist, the Times guesses that Roberts got the part because of “his small build or a strong-natured willingness to endure ribbing from his classmates.”

A real investigative newspaper—say, the New York Post—would have asked the tougher question: Since everyone was always mistaking her for a boy, why did Roberts play Peppermint Patty in a dress?

Don’t get me wrong: I respect a man who’s not afraid to put on a dress now and then. Let’s just hope that wasn’t the real reason Roberts opposed co-education. I’d hate to think he was simply afraid that when it came time to cast the next good part, some blushing blonde would give him too much competition. … 1:23 A.M. (link)

** Update – He Was Only Acting: Peppermint Patty may have haunted John Roberts long beyond adolescence. The New York Times uncovers another possible instance of the Master Thespian resenting his competition.

As an associate counsel under Reagan, Roberts wrote a memo on whether it was legal to help a production of “This Is America, Charlie Brown” at the White House. Roberts OK’d the idea, but only after insisting that Reagan not appear with Charlie Brown and Snoopy in the final scene: “I must recommend against this proposed return to the president’s previous career.”

Monday, Aug. 15, 2005

Monday, Aug. 15, 2005

Arms and The Man: You’d think conservatives would be rejoicing now that they control all three arms of government. Instead, they’re trying to saw one of those arms off. The Timesreports that at yesterday’s “Justice Sunday II” telecast in Nashville, conservative Catholic leader William Donohue proposed requiring a unanimous vote of all nine justices for the Supreme Court to overturn as unconstitutional a law passed by Congress.

Note to Democrats: Take the deal! While conservatives are still sore at the Supreme Court for rulings in the ‘60s and ‘70s on abortion and school prayer, the current court has spent the last decade overturning or limiting laws like the Brady Bill that assert the national government’s role in solving national problems.

One of Democrats’ greatest fears about Judge Roberts is that his vote will cramp the court’s view of the Commerce Clause still further. That concern is shared by many business groups, which prefer national laws to a patchwork of 50 state laws.

Tony Perkins, who organized the event, said, “We pray for Judge Roberts that he would, in fact, be a justice who would honor the Constitution.” But most speakers seemed more interested in throwing Article III over the side.

The Few, the Proud: Why are social conservatives so willing to saw the judicial branch out from under themselves? Fundamentalists claim they don’t want their morality handed down from nine lifetime government employees in Washington. Tom DeLay denounced the court as “judicial autocracy.” The right’s spiritual leader, James Dobson, called it “an oligarchy” and “government by the few.” If you closed your eyes, you might think they were congressional Democrats complaining about the House rules committee.

In truth, social conservatives are perfectly comfortable with autocracy—provided they can push it around. Dobson said yesterday, “It doesn’t matter what we think. The court rules.” Donohue explained the strategy: “It’s time we move from the center of the bus and that we take control of the wheel.”

Friday, Aug. 12, 2005

Friday, Aug. 12, 2005

Say No More: The trouble with most Presidential candidates is that they’ll say anything just to get elected. The trouble with Supreme Court nominees is that they’ll say nothing just to get confirmed.

The Post reports that in 1981, John Roberts sent a memo to Sandra Day O’Connor advising her to plead the 5th if asked about her views on legal questions. Roberts warned that answering questions would raise the “appearance of impropriety” and prejudice her views in future cases before the Court.

Roberts has an excuse: It was his first job. But if it’s improper for future Court justices to discuss specific legal questions and precedents, why do we need law schools?

In a few weeks, thousands of first-years will raise their hands for the first time in Civil Procedure class and begin compromising their futures as blank-slate Supreme Court justices. Pity the 1-L who shows up unprepared for class and tries to convince the professor that answering any questions would raise an “appearance of impropriety.”

With profound understatement, the Post says: “The memo appears to raise the possibility that Roberts will himself be reluctant to be pinned down on specific cases during confirmation hearings.” The lawyer’s lawyer declines to comment on advice of counsel.

Channel Surfing: On Tuesday, the New York Times explained why Westchester County district attorney Jeanine Pirro agreed to run for the Senate against Hillary Clinton: “Even in defeat, Ms. Pirro has told friends, her resulting fame could pave the way for another statewide office, or, perhaps, give her a greater role on television, where she has been a legal analyst for Fox News.”

Although by no means impartial, The Has-Been considers it a breakthrough when a Senate race is now just a stepping stone to Fox News. In the past, prime seats at Fox and elsewhere were reserved for true has-beens looking for something to do after leaving Congress. Newt Gingrich, John Kasich, Martin Frost, and Susan Molinari are among the former members who have gone on to be part of the Fox family.

Skipping Congress to go straight into punditry has its advantages. Governing can be boring work. Fox pays better and earns higher ratings than C-SPAN, especially in the 18-44 demographic prized by advertisers. Besides, what can freshmen possibly get done, anyway?

Of course, Rick Lazio, the last guy to run against Hillary Clinton, went on to a brief stint as a guest host on Fox. But he did it the hard way, as a washed-up congressman.

Jeanine Pirro will never get as much airtime on Fox as Hillary Clinton. But if Pirro’s strategy works, she’ll pioneer a lucrative new career path for up-and-coming has-beens: like low-budget Disney sequels, we can bypass theaters and go straight to DVD and video.

Kiss and Make Up: Pirro will face stiff competition from conservative idol Rep. Katherine Harris, who announced her own Senate candidacy in Florida this week. Harris says she’s deeply hurt by how press coverage of the 2000 recount misled the nation into thinking she was shallow, partisan, and obsessed with makeup. To dispel that impression, she staged an announcement that was shallow, partisan, and obsessed with makeup.

In her announcement speech, Harris called herself “conservative but progressive, pro-small business, pro-economy, and anti-tax.” She attacked Sen. Bill Nelson as “one of the most liberal” Democrats in the Senate. Harris told reporters, “I’d like to say I trail by an eyelash” and recalled her childhood as a time “when blue eyeshadow was quite the fashion.”

No one could fault Harris for wanting to change her image from 2000. But those crocodile tears are smearing her mascara. Harris knows that in this race, as in her election to the House, her 2000 image is all she has going for her. Her website says as much, boasting that Harris “already benefits from tremendous residual name I.D.”

Residue Is Destiny: Harris has herself to blame for partisan scars from 2000. If she wants a second look, she’d do better to highlight an area where she has a right to be angry: the concerted efforts by an ungrateful White House to keep her out of the race. GOP strategists continue to hold out hope for a better candidate, just as they maneuvered to pave the way for Senator Mel Martinez in 2004.