The Has-been

Free As a Bird

Which turkeys will Bush pardon next?

Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005

Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005

Stuffed:In a few hours, President Bush will take part in a time-honored Washington ritual that perfectly epitomizes his political plight, and eerily foreshadows what may become a common ritual for the remainder of his term. It’s time for him to “pardon the turkey.”

Most Thanksgivings, White House aides dread this event because it makes no sense. Just as the rest of the nation starts defrosting their Butterballs and preheating their ovens, the commander in chief lets two birds walk. Then he rushes off to the battlefront to ask the troops whether they want light meat or dark.

But this year, the Bush team must be wincing for another reason: the irresistible symbolism of a president handing out pardons to two turkeys who did nothing for him, while so many in his own party are drooling to get one for themselves. If any late-night comics are working this week, they’ll feast on this for days.

We do not know what these turkeys did to deserve a pardon. All we have to go on is the White House Web site, which says the “2005 National Thanksgiving Turkey and its alternate” come from Minnesota. Until the ceremony later today, they won’t even have names—they’re just Turkey A and Turkey B.

The birds were raised under the direction of National Turkey Federation Chairman Pete Rothfork, who “delegated the day-to-day responsibilities” to James and Vicki Trite. The turkeys were fed corn and soybean meal and “a continuous supply of fresh water.” Clearly, the Trites are not a CIA operation.

In the past, pardoned turkeys were trucked to Frying Pan Park in nearby Fairfax County, Va., where they became former White House sources for Bob Woodward.

This year, the Bush White House can’t take that chance. As soon as Bush signs the papers, these birds are headed to Disneyland.

Tastes Like Chicken: The White House Web site shows it takes a tough staff to spare a tender turkey. For starters, there’s Christopher “Turkey Guy” Smith, the point person for “sportsmen-related issues.” His interview sizzles with enthusiasm (asked the best oil for frying a turkey, he didn’t flinch: “Since I’m from Georgia … I’d have to say peanut oil!”) and unsolicited advice (he commends the calming effects of pork loin, rich in tryptophan). Turkey Guy left the White House this summer to run the Office of External and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Agriculture Department.

Then there’s a photo of Walter Scheib, the White House chef Laura Bush fired earlier this year. His recipes were short on tryptophan. The Web site also highlights Jim Towey, head of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Each year, pardoning the turkey is the biggest achievement on the president’s compassionate conservatism agenda.

For the past three years, the White House has run an annual online contest to name the turkeys the president will pardon. When “Stars and Stripes” beat “Pumpkin and Cranberry” in 2003, Bush said “it was a neck-to-neck race.” Last year, the winning names were “Biscuits and Gravy,” edging out “Patience and Fortitude” and trouncing “Adams and Jefferson.”

For some reason, the names have to run as a ticket. History will never reveal whether “Biscuits and Fortitude” would have beaten out “Patience and Gravy.” (However, we do know what voters would say about “Adams and Quincy.”)

Dumb and Dumber: It’s too late to influence this year’s results, which the president will announce shortly in the Rose Garden. But today won’t be the last round of pardons in this White House.

Which turkeys will Bush pardon next? “Karl and Scooter”? “Yea and Ney“? “Clear and Hold”? “Cut and Run”? “Angelos and Palmeiro“?

Friday, Nov. 18, 2005

Friday, Nov. 18, 2005

Sinker:Back in August, when George W. Bush crossed the Mendoza Line with a disapproval rating in the Gallup Poll of 56 percent, he still had four men left to pass for the title of most unpopular president in modern history: Jimmy Carter (59 percent), George H. W. Bush (60 percent) Richard Nixon (66 percent), and Harry Truman (67 percent). I predicted that the way things were going, he could speed past Carter and Bush 41 “within the next month.”

I was wrong—it took the president two months. This week’s Gallup puts his disapproval at 60 percent, which means father and son share third place on the all-time list. Bush 43 always said he learned an important political lesson from Bush 41, and now we know what it was: Don’t hit bottom too early. If you’re going to be the third-most unpopular president, do it in your second term, so you have some time to stop and smell the Rose Garden.

It’s an awesome achievement for one family to produce two of the four most unpopular presidents in modern times. If there were a Mount Rushmore for rejection, the Bushes would have half the place to themselves.

With the holidays coming, you can bet there will be a lot of good-natured joshing in the highly competitive Bush household about which man deserves full bragging rights. Bush the father, whose favorite sport was speed golf, can boast of his prowess in speed failure. Truman needed seven years to hit bottom, Nixon six, and Bush the son five. The elder Bush tanked in three and a half.

On the other hand, Bush the son may not have to wait long before he has the crown to himself. His unpopularity has been rising two points a month all year, which gives him an outside shot of catching Nixon by January.

The Bush White House is certainly doing everything in its power to fail on all fronts. Soaring heating oil prices, Republican chaos in Congress, and more trouble from the special prosecutor will help. But with Iraqi elections and the State of the Union coming up, it could take Bush as much as six months to pass Nixon and Truman. The president needs to remember the patience that got him this far: Rome wasn’t lost in a day.

Comeback Kid: Here’s one Gallup finding that won’t come up over Thanksgiving dinner at the first family’s: Americans now say by a 48-to-36 percent margin that they trusted Bill Clinton more than they trust George Bush.

Even Mickey Kaus is caught up in the wave of Clinton nostalgia. While the rest of the blogosphere is off chasing Bush, Cheney, and Woodward conspiracies, Mickey is reviving that once-common trope, the Clinton conspiracy.

Mickey’s theory is that when President Clinton lambasted the Bush administration this week for making a mess of the war in Iraq, he was trying to win liberal support for Sen. Clinton, who voted to authorize it. Mickey attempts to compare this to our mutual obsession, welfare reform, which President Clinton supported but some on the left hoped First Lady Clinton would oppose.

But as Mickey remembers, President Clinton kept his promise to end welfare as we know it, and Hillary Clinton supported it. On Iraq, both Clintons have been consistently tough- and fair-minded—supporting the troops at every step and praising the removal of Saddam and the approval of an Iraqi Constitution, while harshly criticizing the administration for the way it has prosecuted the war and its failure to present a strategy that’s working.

In his speech this week, President Clinton didn’t call for withdrawal from Iraq; he once again gave a commander in chief’s critique of what the administration has done wrong there: “We never sent enough troops and didn’t have enough troops to control or seal the borders. And as the borders were unsealed, the terrorists came in. That was the central mistake, and we’re still living with that.”

Sen. Clinton returned from the Middle East with a similar message, reminding her colleagues that in Israel and Jordan she “saw first-hand the true devastation that terrorism can inflict on a nation,” but repeating her impatience with the administration’s failure to present a strategy that’s working.

Counterinsurgents: While I don’t buy Mickey’s latest theory on Iraq, I have long agreed with another one he championed this week in Kausfiles: that good news in Iraq would help Democrats more than Republicans.

If you look back over the last three decades of modern politics, Republicans have usually prospered by failing to fix the problems they rail against: crime, welfare, big government, security. By contrast, whenever Democrats have fixed those problems, we’ve made the wedge issues go away and left conservatives sputtering for relevance. The same is true with Iraq, and with the broader war on terrorism: The sooner we can show America how to start winning again, the sooner Democrats will start winning again.

Some argue that conservatives’ consistent failure is the political equivalent of planned obsolescence: They always propose solutions that fall apart so that voters will have to keep coming back to buy a new version. In this view, Republicans are like the Black Sox, losing on purpose.

But I’m not much on conspiracy theories. I prefer to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt: They don’t set out to fail, they just happen to be good at it.

Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2005

Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2005

Back When: For the last five years, I’ve kept a close eye on the job market for Has-Beens. When Clinton left office, I told my good friend Gene Sperling to forget about the 22 million good jobs he created in the 1990s and create two good jobs for us.

Alas, except for college presidents, most of us are still waiting for the Has-Been Bubble to materialize. But Gene just published a smart book called The Pro-Growth Progressive, which you should buy now and give to all your friends and family this holiday season. (Full disclosure: Gene mentioned me in the book so I would do just that.)

As David Greenberg wrote on Monday, Hofstra University held a conference last week on “William Jefferson Clinton: The ‘New Democrat’ from Hope.” It was like a Star Trek convention for Has-Beens.

One man asked all of us to autograph baseballs for his collection, which now numbers in the thousands. Another activist came to the retrospective to complain that we spend too much time talking about the past. Lady, if you had to spend a whole decade listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” you’d think about the past, too.

Professor Greenberg makes the self-interested argument that a disinterested observer can make best sense of history and that not being present at the creation works to historians’ advantage. I can’t pretend to be disinterested, but I think he’s wrong.

As a general rule, historians are more likely to be honest than hacks. But for something as complex as a presidency, an honest eyewitness—if you can find one—has a much richer perspective than an academic who has to sift through a host of self-serving accounts and can’t see the forest for the dead-trees.

Take Me, I’m Yours: Consider the most intriguing historical document of the moment: Sam Alito’s conservative confession. Any honest eyewitness would know firsthand that Alito was either a shameless true believer or, just as bad, a shameless willing-to-pretender.

By contrast, the historian has to judge that document against the unreliable, self-serving spin of Alito’s colleagues, most of whom will cover for him, and the even less reliable and still more self-serving spin of Alito himself.

On Tuesday, Alito apparently told senators that in 1985 he was “an advocate seeking a job” and should be forgiven for being willing to say anything to get it. Now he’s an advocate seeking a place in the history books, which makes him even more willing to say anything to get it.

These days, it’s hard for members of the Bush administration to stop thinking about tomorrow and what they’ll do as Has-Beens. Some, like Karl Rove, just want to leave on their own terms. Others, like Condi Rice, have their eye on bigger prizes.

Rice claims her dream is to be commissioner of the National Football League. With each new poll, Bush must long for the day when he can pursue the job he has always wanted, as commissioner of Major League Baseball. (Full disclosure: I wanted it first. Then again, so does everyone else. Even Associate Nerd wannabe Sam Alito claims he used to want that job, back when he wasn’t sure he could land a Supreme Court seat here or in Italy.)

When Major League Baseball and the Players Association agreed to tougher steroid penalties yesterday, the current commissioner, Bud Selig, took credit. But in truth, the league and the players only agreed to stiffen penalties because Sen. John McCain threatened legislation that would force them to do it, anyway.

In other words, much as Bush wants to leave the presidency to become baseball commissioner, the job isn’t open: McCain’s already got it.

“Greenie, You’re Doing a Heckuva Job”: In addition to steroids, the new agreement cracks down on amphetamines—or “greenies”—which some players say losing teams use to spike the clubhouse coffee. Players will have to get their giddy-up the old-fashioned way—with illegal booster shots of B-12.

The only baseball man to complain about the new steroids-testing policy is the biggest name ever caught using them, Rafael Palmeiro. “It’s unfair to get a 50-game suspension when it’s not an intentional act,” Palmeiro said. “This was not intentionally done by myself.”

Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2005

Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2005

Elephant Man: Since Halloween, Sam Alito has been dressing up as a mild-mannered civil servant who followed his father into the family business. Unlike the nakedly careerist John Roberts, who bounded from one Reaganite political post to the next, Alito was supposed to have spent his youth as a career bureaucrat in short sleeves and a pocket protector.

Newly released papers from the Reagan library show that Alito was as much of a right-wing suck-up as Roberts. In a 1985 job application to become a deputy assistant attorney general under Ed Meese, Alito boasted of his long-standing conservative credentials: “The greatest influences on my views were the writings of William F. Buckley Jr., the National Review, and Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign”—when Alito was all of 14.

“I am and always have been a conservative,” Alito promised. He gave a definition of conservatism that began with “limited government” and ended with “the legitimacy of a government role in protecting traditional values.”

Alito strained to touch every Meese button, claiming he became interested in constitutional law because of judicial overreach by the Warren Court, went to Yale to study judicial restraint, became a prosecutor “because of my strong views regarding law enforcement,” helped the solicitor general’s office fight quotas and abortion, and applauded the conservative remaking of the bench under “Attorney General Meese’s leadership.”

Alito went on to brag about his modest but heartfelt campaign contributions to Republicans, New Jersey pols, and the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which helped Republicans take the Senate in 1980. He mentioned articles he had recently submitted to the National Review and American Spectator, which would be worth reviewing now.

Looking Backward: In perhaps his most pathetic prostration, Alito stressed his involvement with Concerned Alumni of Princeton, a reactionary group formed in 1972, the year he graduated, primarily to whine about how much the place had gone downhill since co-education. The group paid for a 1972 presidential preference poll of Princeton faculty, which showed McGovern running ahead of Nixon by a margin of 7-1. A spokesman for the group called those results a “heartening” improvement from 1968, when a Daily Princetonian poll had shown Humphrey leading by 9-1 over Nixon, who was tied with Dick Gregory.

As best I can tell, CAP became defunct in 1986, a year after Alito got the job with Meese. In the good old days, the Princeton band regularly lampooned the group as CRAP. At the Harvard game in 1974, the band used that same motif to prophetically suggest that concerned alumni in Cambridge had formed their own reactionary organization, ”the Harvard Johns.” Roberts was a junior at the time and must have thought they were serious.

Like Roberts, Alito will try to maintain that youthful statements like “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion” were taken out of context. He was just telling his conservative bosses everything they wanted to hear so they’d give him a promotion. Judge Alito hasn’t done that in at least two weeks. … 12:41 a.m. (link)

Update: Some enterprising reporter should wander over to the Library of Congress and check out the papers  of National Review publisher William Rusher. Boxes 142-46 of Rusher’s papers contain the minutes, publications, and financial records of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, as well as a “list of supporters.” If Alito was telling Meese the truth about his steadfast support for the group, this could be a treasure trove of early Alitism.

Another CAP ringleader was Alito’s classmate, Thomas Harding Jones ‘72, who interned in the Nixon White House and wrote his senior thesis on “The Decision Making of Richard M. Nixon.” It’s not clear whether Jones’s grade on the subject was any better than Nixon’s. Jones interned in the Nixon White House in 1971 and even shows up in transcripts of the Nixon tapes for an eight-minute meeting in the Oval Office with Nixon and future Watergate co-conspirator Jeb Stuart Magruder, who was then deputy director of the Commitee to Re-Elect the President. According to notes of the meeting, Jones and the others used their visit to praise Nixon’s decision-making on the war in Southeast Asia.

Jones’s thesis topic suggests what he wanted to be when he grew up: Richard Nixon. He’s now a show business talent manager in Manhattan. … 11:06 A.M.

Monday, Nov. 14, 2005

Monday, Nov. 14, 2005

Wedgies: After weeks of spinning their wheels on abortion, opponents of Judge Alito’s nomination have a new strategy: the kitchen sink. “Raising all aspects of his record are important,” Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice tells the New York Times. The stop-Alito coalition plans to run ads highlighting Alito’s views in favor of strip searches for 10-year-old girls and firing workers with AIDS and against the Family and Medical Leave Act. In the words of Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, they want America to “look at the whole man.”

Alito supporters, meanwhile, fired back that the left doesn’t know a whole man when they see him. One spokesman attacked the ads as “wildly inaccurate” and “character assassination” even though they haven’t even been cut yet. Another spokesman welcomed the opportunity to attack the liberal groups over gay rights.

Less than a week after voters rejected them in Virginia, wedge issues are back. One side says Sam Alito wants to strip search 10-year-old girls. The other side says at least he’s not a gay rights group.

Ironically, Bush’s failures as president may be helping him get away with moving the court to the right. It’s hard enough to get the electorate to notice a Supreme Court battle in good times. With so many other worries, many Americans are more exercised about their next mortgage payment than about the next opening on the court. If nothing else, the ad wars will help settle one debate: hard-pressed families who had to cancel cable TV to pay their heating bill can feel better about their decision.

The Big Picture: Nevertheless, opponents are right to try to make Alito’s fate turn on more than Roe. However much Judge Alito wants government to meddle in Americans’ private lives, the broader threat is how much he might seek to limit the national government’s role in helping Americans solve their problems. The real impact of the Roberts Court won’t be that justices have trouble legislating from the bench; it will be that anyone who supports an affirmative role for government could have a much harder time legislating from Congress.

Sadly, it’s almost impossible to have a real debate about a nominee’s philosophy unless he or she is willing to play along. Bork did, and lost; Roberts didn’t, and won. The Roberts precedent is one Alito is sure to honor: that discussing narrow-minded views on past or present issues might prejudice his ability to be narrow-minded in cases that will come before the court later.

When a nominee will neither confirm nor deny that his judicial philosophy is outside the mainstream, opponents’ only hope besides scandal is that like Bork and Thomas, his personality and temperament come across as outside the mainstream. So far, Alito has come off as a nice man with a few disturbingly nerdy tendencies, like suiting up in full baseball uniform to coach Little League games.

Garden State: If I could spare a few million for advertising, I’d spend less time trying to convince Americans that Sam Alito is a strip-searcher and more time hinting that he’s the next Ed Grimley.

My first ad would show those yearbook photos  of Alito, along with the New York Daily Newsheadline: “Old-School Family Man: Calls Mother Every Day.” Every day? Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss his mother’s admission that Alito is very conservative and opposed to abortion.

The Daily News story says it all: “A shy and scholarly homebody, Alito is a gourmet cook and avid gardener who has a stone in his West Caldwell garden carved with the words ‘L’Amour Grandit Ici’ - love grows here.”

Whether you think “Love Grows Here” is a secret, coded message to fundamentalist churches or a tripped-out hippie excuse for the horticulture of the 1960s, liberals and conservatives should be able to agree: not in our backyards.

Even John Roberts, who wrote an entire White House memo in French, wasn’t weird enough to expose his family to precious, vapid, kitschy sentiments—and then put on faux-Gallic airs about it.