The Has-been

Age Before Beauty

Impotence is as impotence does.

Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005

It’s nearly impossible to write a story about the rise and fall of Viagra without an embarrassing double-entendre, and the Times’s Alex Berenson never had a chance. Every pharmaceutical representative he interviewed sounds straight out of Alec Baldwin’s “Schwetty Balls” sketch on Saturday Night Live.

“We are firmly of the mindset that there is huge opportunity in this category,” a Pfizer executive says about Viagra. “We will stand very positively on the growth of this marketplace,” agrees the head of marketing for Cialis. A Wall Street analyst tells Berenson, “Viagra’s sales boomed, then fell back, and then began to rise again.”

According to Berenson, despite $400 million a year in advertising, the worldwide market for impotence drugs has leveled off at $2.5 billion, about half what analysts had predicted. Doctors are writing 10 percent fewer prescriptions this year than last.

This can hardly be what Republicans hoped for when they passed the huge prescription drug bill. As SNL’s other master of the double-entendre, Christopher Walken’s “The Continental,” always discovers, there’s no point in costly pandering when the subject finds you repulsive.

As the Times reports, Medicare will cover Viagra through the end of next year. Since coverage stops after that, economists might have predicted a run on impotence drugs, rather than a drop-off. Of course, seniors may just be so busy trying to figure out the new Medicare plan that there’s no time to think about anything else.

Striking Out: Drug makers might want to consider a new spokesman. The Times says Viagra has lost its stigma “because of advertising featuring athletes like the baseball player Rafael Palmeiro.” On the other hand, perhaps not everyone is looking for a drug that will make them lie to Congress and test positive for steroids.

But the larger point of Berenson’s story is his fascinating conclusion: Sales are flat not because men have lost faith in impotence drugs, but because they’ve decided impotence isn’t the end of the world. Urologists tell the Times that many older men face two problems the drug can’t cure: No one particularly wants to have sex with them, and they feel like they’ve outgrown it anyway. Many appear to have found the same consolation as Jake in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: more time to fish.

If Washington has anything to say about it, that could be the metaphor for the Bush era: an aging society coming to terms with its own impotence. Yesterday, for example, House Republicans called off their brief fling with fiscal discipline. They added nearly $100 billion over five years to the deficit by passing three new tax cuts, with a fourth on tap for today.

While at first glance those tax cuts may look like another dose of Viagra, they’re really an admission of failure. As David Brooks points out ($), after years in office, conservatism is fat, unattractive, and out of steam. One can just imagine aging conservatives looking themselves in the mirror Monday morning and saying, “Who are we kidding? We lost interest in cutting government long ago.”

Then again, maybe Americans are just tired of the choices being presented. Five years of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have made them suspicious of political Viagra. But Bush’s penchant for failure—in Iraq, in Washington, in New Orleans—has made people weary of American impotence as well.

Against that backdrop, we can take comfort in an aging society’s mature decision to shrug its shoulders at dysfunction. No matter what the politicians or the drug makers tell us, failure is their problem, not ours. … 1:59 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2005

Ho-Ho-Ho: Just when you thought the nation’s political debate couldn’t get any shallower, the New York Times reports that the right wing has a new sales pitch for Samuel Alito: He’s the judge who’ll save Christmas.

“This is going to be the dominant theme on the Alito nomination until the end of the year,” Bush ally Jay Sekulow told the Times. “The convergence of a Supreme Court nomination, the Christmas season, and a judge who has a well-staked-out position on support for religious expression.”

After weeks of having to defend Alito’s personal beliefs on issues certain to come before the Supreme Court, such as civil liberties and abortion, conservatives are bursting with holiday joy over the prospect of magically conjuring a fake issue out of thin air, like Frosty the Snowman. “It is something that the other side can’t really join or debate because they come out looking like the Grinch,” says Manuel Miranda, the conservative who iced Harriet Miers.

Now we see the sum total of what conservatives have learned from two decades of judicial battles: Bork would have been perfect if he’d just put on the Santa suit.

Apart from changing the subject, the right’s goal is to show that, like so many others who have saved Christmas over the years—Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Tiny Tim, Herbie the Dentist—Alito is more sympathetic than the enemy. Sure, he might subject Cindy Lou Who to a strip search, but he won’t let some longhair stop the singing of “Fah who ramus” down in Whoville town square.

As the Washington Post reported this weekend, conservative groups “plan a major push beginning Monday to portray Alito’s opponents as anti-God.” Of course, liberal groups will have to work overtime to out-crank some of Alito’s supporters, like Pat Robertson, who interrupted an interview with the author of The War on Christmas to observe that Kwanzaa is a Marxist “total fraud.”

Conservatives suggest that Alito’s opponents would filibuster the nomination of God Himself to the court. The right wing seems to have forgotten the scale of Alito’s own ambitions. His high-school newspaper once jokingly reported, “SAM ALITO DEFEATS GOD IN LANDSLIDE ELECTION FOR RULER OF THE UNIVERSE.”

Bad Santa: If there’s anything more painful than Alito running against God, it’s watching him run for Santa. Since Halloween, he has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, bringing each senator a dash of sugar and spin for Christmas. Last week, he told Sen. Arlen Specter that back in 1985, when he outlined a strategy to overturn Roe, he was just expressing a “personal opinion”—not much of a distinction, considering that Alito said in his infamous job application that same year how proud he was to “advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly.”

Meanwhile, Alito has been telling senators how much he resembles his late father. He apparently tries to explain away his early objections to “one man, one vote” as a concerned son’s resentment toward the heartache the court heaped on his father: “In his bedroom at night as a boy, Judge Alito told senators, he could hear his father clicking away at a manual calculator as he struggled to redraw the state’s legislative districts with equal populations.” In Alito’s eyes, the Warren Court was Scrooge, and his father was Bob Cratchit.

Even after all that hard work, a federal court in 1972 struck down New Jersey’s plan as “patently unconstitutional.” Like Batman and Spiderman, the young Alito must have sworn to himself that he would spend the rest of his days working to avenge his father’s loss.

One Pant, One Vote: Presumably, Alito leaves out inconvenient details about his father’s personal opinions, such as the old man’s refusal in the 1970s to allow women in his office to wear pants. You can see why Sam Jr. grew up hating the Warren Court: Once you let everyone vote, it’s only a matter of time before women start wearing pantsuits to work and we’re no longer allowed to give them aprons for Christmas.

In this respect, the younger Alito will bring balance to the Roberts Court, since in the ‘70s the chief justice once went so far as to wear a dress himself to high school.

Last week, Alito tried to distance himself from the Concerned Alumni for Princeton, the granddaddy of the “aprons, not Ivies” movement. He told the Judiciary committee, “I have no recollection of being a member, or attending meetings.” Alito has something in common with George W. Bush after all: Their only comment on the ‘70s is “I have no recollection.”

A woman who later worked with Alito told the Daily Princetonian, “I once joked to him that he must be very disappointed that women were admitted to Princeton, and he just didn’t have a response.” But the Prince found another explanation for Alito’s involvement in CAP—he just wanted to tap the good old-boy network. One Alito contemporary suggested to the Prince that students who joined CAP “wanted to ingratiate themselves so that they had good summer jobs.” Alito’s former roommate says, “He wouldn’t have put that in his job application if he didn’t have a connection.”

In hindsight, it might seem selfish to have spent the ‘70s and ‘80s advancing one extremist personal view after another for the sake of personal career advancement. But what holiday hero hasn’t been willing to do whatever it takes to save Christmas? Frosty didn’t want “two bits of coal for eyes“—he was personally opposed to coal, because of its role in global warming. But he let himself melt to death so children could learn the magic of Christmas.

It’s too early to tell whether Sam Alito wants to be God, or Santa, or just go down in history like Rudolf. But so far, Alito is like a kid before Christmas: Whatever he wants, he’ll say anything to get it. … 2:59 P.M. (link)

Friday, Dec. 2, 2005

One Beer, One Vote: After another week of disheartening Republican congressional scandals in our nation’s capital, the Washington Post recounts a charming story of extortion, fraud, and vote-buying in rural West Virginia. The tale drips with nostalgia for the good old days when bribes came cheap and voters, not officeholders, were the ones taking money.

As the Post explains, Thomas Esposito, the longtime mayor of Logan, W.Va., entered a plea agreement two years ago after being accused of paying the $6,500 bar tab of a local magistrate who was later indicted for extortion. The Justice Department then decided to have Esposito run a fake campaign for the state legislature to serve as “live bait” in a vote-buying sting operation. The FBI had Esposito give two men $2,000 to hand out in street money, then withdrew him from the race. Esposito received 2,000 votes anyway.

Such a scandal might seem quaint here in Washington, where people pay $2,000 to drop by congressional fundraisers every night of the week. But as a parable of our times, this small-town tale of small-change corruption is rich with meaning.

For starters, why is the FBI running a vote-buying sting in the state House of Delegates in West Virginia when there would appear to be so much more live bait in the United States House of Representatives?

Where’s Abscam when we need it? In 1980, under a Democratic president, the FBI ran a bribery sting that sent a Democratic senator and four Democratic congressmen to jail. When it comes to bribery, the current Republican administration prefers to rely on the private sector.

As a general matter, I’m a big believer in market forces. But privatizing bribery is costing taxpayers a fortune. As Michael Kinsley observes, contractors shelled out $2.4 million to bribe Rep. Duke Cunningham and extorted $163 million in defense contracts in return. In 1980, the FBI persuaded congressmen to throw away their careers for a mere $25,000.

You can say this much about Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, and Duke Cunningham: They may be thieves, but they’ve never been petty ones.

Then again, perhaps the House of Representatives is a giant FBI sting operation and we just don’t know it yet. Maybe Justice Department higher-ups overturned their own lawyers and approved a seemingly illegal redistricting scheme in Texas as part of an elaborate FBI plan to entrap Tom DeLay.

W.Va. Confidential: As further proof, look at the FBI’s impressive get-out-the-vote operation in West Virginia. In 2004, economist Alan Krueger estimated that both parties would pay about $50 a vote to mobilize voters in the presidential election. Michael Moore, who had already convinced voters to pay him a bundle for telling them what they wanted to hear in Fahrenheit 9/11, offered new Kerry voters a three-pack of Fruit of the Loom underwear—which adds up to at least $4.98 a vote, plus shipping.

But according to Gregory Campbell, the lawyer for a retired coal miner who was one of the bagmen in West Virginia, his client pocketed his half of the $2,000 and then said, “I ain’t buying any votes.” Esposito went on to win 2,000 votes even though he had pulled out of the race and the man he paid to pay off voters never lifted a finger.

The FBI’s method—paying a retiree to do nothing—may lack the sophistication of the Democrats’$2 527s or Karl Rove’s vaunted 72-Hour Project, but look at the results: 2,000 votes for $2,000. That’s $1 per vote. Once again, the FBI—one of the most hidebound bureaucracies in the federal government—set the standard for efficiency.

The coal miner’s lawyer tried to have charges dismissed on the grounds that the feds were corrupting democracy: “By placing a false candidate in the election, a sham candidate, one [the government] knew could not take office, every vote that was cast for Esposito was a vote that an honest voter could have cast for an honest candidate.”

The court decided that was too high a burden for modern democracy to meet. How can we distinguish sham candidates from honest ones, when the main difference seems to be that sham candidates hand out bribes and drop out, while honest candidates take bribes and stay in?

In short, the West Virginia case turns a host of modern political assumptions on their head. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but hardly any power corrupts pretty well, too. The federal bureaucracy may be more bloated than the private sector in other areas, but whether you’re looking for someone to hand out bribes or take them, Washington is more efficient by far.

Justice Department gumshoes will drive six hours on winding roads to lower the boom on a crooked county, but won’t take a 10-minute cab ride across town to clean up a crooked country. The FBI has no trouble finding out when the mayor of some town with 1,500 people pays somebody else’s bar bill, but may not notice when foreign terrorists ask for visas to go to flight school.

Finally, Jon Corzine and Michael Bloomberg could have saved millions by hiring every retired coal miner in America to run get-out-the-vote operations from bar stools in Appalachia.

The Untouchables: Ever since its dismal performance before Sept. 11, the FBI has been struggling to find some way to be useful in the war on terror. Bob Novak may be right not to revere J. Edgar Hoover, who knew how to look tough in a dress long before Maggie Thatcher and Peppermint Patty. But at least under Hoover, the FBI always got its man. Under Louis Freeh, the FBI always got its book contract.

But the West Virginia case may be a turning point for the bureau. In two weeks, Iraq will hold parliamentary elections, and our ultimate success there may depend on the level of turnout from Sunni voters. Around 2 million Sunnis cast votes in the referendum on Iraq’s constitution. In a war that has cost the U.S. more than $200 billion, that’s a whopping $100,000 per vote – a hundred thousand times what we pay in the one of the poorest parts of America.

If the Bush administration wants to do more than stay the course in Iraq, it should stop having the Pentagon pay to plant stories in the Iraqi press, and send in an airlift of FBI agents with bagloads of street money.

That would give Bush and the Republicans a new slogan for 2006: “Crime doesn’t pay—but corruption saves!” … 1:59 P.M. (link)

Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2005

Hugged by Reality: In his cleverly titled piece, “The Bush Hugger,” John Dickerson points out that John McCain and George Bush have been spending a lot more time together than seemed possible after the bitter 2000 primaries. But the real question is, who’s hugging whom?

To be sure, McCain may have something to gain in conservative circles from warmer relations with the White House. No matter how much Bush stumbles with the broader electorate, his White House is still the center of the Republican universe. Presidential aides understand, but never forget, when Republicans like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Rick Santorum run for cover when their boss comes to town. The more unpopular the president becomes, the more grateful his team is for any show of support on any issue. These days, Bush is a very cheap date indeed.

But McCain probably wouldn’t run from the president even if he weren’t running for president. It’s no surprise for McCain to forgive Bush; he forgave the Viet Cong. He’s a rebel, but he’s also a soldier with a deep respect for the office of his commander in chief. While he may be a Bull Moose Republican, he’s a lifelong one, and not about to switch parties now.

The more telling transformation over the last two years has been Bush’s emergence as a McCain hugger. Unlike the senator from Arizona, Bush is not the sort to embrace those who disagree with him, as McCain has so often done—and continues to do. McCain is a serial apologizer, admitting mistakes as soon as he makes them; Bush makes a lot more but hasn’t thought of one yet.

So, why has a White House once off limits to McCainiacs found a front-row seat for McCain himself? Because for the last two years, Bush has needed McCain even more than K Street republicans hate him. The Bush campaign showcased McCain at the 2004 convention, and the president kept him by his side on the campaign trail.

This year, with war and scandal jeopardizing his presidency, Bush needs to hug a reform-minded war hero even more. Vice President Cheney’s public star has fallen even farther than Bush’s. Doing events with McCain is proof that Bush understands you don’t campaign with the vice president you have, you campaign with the vice president you might wish or want to have.

Moose and Squirrel: Dickerson wonders why Bush’s unpopularity doesn’t rub off on McCain. The question also works in reverse: Why won’t any of McCain’s popularity rub off on Bush?

The answer is simple, and it helps explain why he’s willing to risk a Bush embrace: This president is no John McCain. No matter how often the two hug, voters can see they’re just friends.

In fact, the real irony is that even as he stands next to Bush on the stump, McCain has painted a clearer picture than any other wannabe of just how different a president he would be from George Bush.

Every day, in every way, McCain reminds Republicans that he represents the main-street conservatism that Bush left behind. “I’m so disgusted with the way my party is wasting money,” he told Stephen Moore of the  Wall Street Journal. “It’s embarrassing.” Moore concluded that “more than any other first-tier GOP candidate in 2008, Mr. McCain has shrewdly tapped into the rage that conservatives are feeling” over the Medicare drug bill, runaway spending, and congressional pork.

Likewise, McCain’s support for the mission in Iraq but outspoken impatience with Rumsfeld and the Bush administration’s bumbling execution of the war appeals to Republicans who take the old-fashioned view that America should only go to wars if it intends to win them.

Don’t let the hugs fool you. McCain isn’t soft-pedaling his differences with Bushism. He’s standing on top of the Straight Talk Express, shouting them at the top of his lungs.

Earlier this month, he wrote a Newsweek cover story disputing the White House on torture. He routinely defends his opposition to Bush’s tax cuts as “way too tilted to the rich.”

While most Republicans are hiding from the ethics scandals, McCain has been turning up the heat. Whatever else comes of his Senate investigation into the Abramoff affair, no one will think McCain is crossing his fingers when he pledges to restore integrity to Washington.

The Dark Side: As in 2000, McCain still has to endure the Republican ordeal by primary. That torture is like the medieval ordeal by water, when they tied the accused’s hands, threw him in a pond, then condemned him to die if he floated or let him drown if he sank. McCain will need the skill of Houdini to tell the truth and survive.

If McCain somehow wins his party’s nomination, Democrats will try to taint him with the far right’s worst positions and Bush’s worst mistakes. But in the meantime, Democratic hopefuls should steal a page from McCain about how to stay afloat themselves: If you want Bush’s job, tell the country what you’ll do differently if you get it.

McCain told the Journal, “I want to reform education, reform Medicare and Social Security, reform lobbying and campaigns. Reform immigration. Reform. Reform. Reform.” Considering how much welfare reform helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992 and education reform launched George Bush in 2000, Democrats might want to take back the reform mantle before John McCain leaves both parties hugging the status quo. … 1:07 P.M. (link)

Monday, Nov. 29, 2005

Recipe for Disaster: On a cold, rainy Tuesday, George Bush ushered in the bleakest Thanksgiving of his presidency by pardoning a couple of turkeys. He christened them with names the public chose in an online poll: “Marshmallow” and “Yam.” Yam didn’t even bother to show up.

Jaded observers can see whatever they want to in these events. Most of us saw turkeys. But annual rituals at the White House also serve another purpose. Like family traditions, they’re a chance to take stock of how everyone’s doing compared to past years. That’s what makes traditions so poignant: Nothing changes except the mood.

At this particular ritual, the president makes the same joke every year, declaring the naming contest a “neck and neck race.” (Two years ago, he alarmed the traditional-values crowd by saying “neck-to-neck.”) Every year, the vice president stands mute at his side, looking bemused and hungry, like a cross between Ed McMahon and the evil Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. Every year, the president takes a moment to thank our troops, then poses for a photo op that must make the troops thankful that the eagle, not the turkey, is the bird they’re fighting for.

The mood, however, is different every year. Two years ago, Bush joked about the turkeys’ luxurious rooms at the Hotel Washington and how much the runner-up turkey’s role resembled the vice president’s. Last year’s ceremony was positively jubilant. Still riding high after his re-election victory, Bush congratulated the winning turkey for “a race well run.” He gave most of the credit to two 527s: “Barnyard Animals for Truth” and “Fahrenheit 375 Degrees at 10 Minutes Per Pound” then saved his biggest joke for last: “Now it’s a time for healing.”

This year, rain drove the event from the Rose Garden into the dreary auditorium of the Old Executive Office Building, which looks better suited for a school play or a 4-H auction. Bush labored through the ceremony, stammering, “This is what we call—the White House is called the people’s house, and we’re going to call Marshmallow and Yam the people’s turkey …s.”

Ballot Stuffing: Even the results of the online poll were disappointing. Turnout fell 35 percent. Either those 527s really matter, or turkey namers are as depressed as the rest of Bush’s base. In past years, the White House got the winners it wanted: In 2004, “Biscuits and Gravy” beat “Patience and Fortitude” (which couldn’t have survived the primaries this year); “Stars and Stripes” whipped “Pumpkin and Cranberry” the year before that.

This year’s surprise winner was the unappetizing “Marshmallow and Yam,” which edged “Wattle and Snood,” 27 percent to 26 percent. Like most voters, I assumed “Wattle and Snood” was the law firm handling Karl Rove’s defense. Instead, wattle is the red, fleshy growth under a turkey’s throat, and snood is the red, fleshy growth that hangs over its bill. Experts could have been describing the president and vice president when they wrote, “If a turkey isn’t feeling well, the snood and wattle become very pale.”

The names the White House wanted this year lagged behind: “Blessing and Bounty” tied for second-to-last with the slogan on which Bush has staked his entire presidency, “Democracy and Freedom.” Don’t tell the Iraqis, but even when Bush sponsors the contest, the only opponents “Democracy and Freedom” can outpoll right now are “Corn and Maize.”

In a White House desperate for any sign of progress, the president must wish he could go back and change his Second Inaugural to read, “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of Marshmallow and Yam.”

Tryptophan Mail: Yesterday, on Meet the Press, Sen. John Warner spoke for restless Republicans everywhere in pleading with the White House to revive FDR’s tradition of the “fireside chat.” The chat itself might not do much to show Bush’s strategy for success in Iraq, but the fireside would do a fine job of showing Bush’s strategy for how hard-strapped Americans can survive a winter of soaring heating oil prices here at home.

Slate readers huddled around the fire this weekend seemed in no mood to thank or pardon their leaders in Washington. The which-turkeys-will-Bush-pardon-next contest produced the obvious suspects—”Jack and Tom,” “Ari and Judy,” “Judy and Bob”—as well as the more philosophical “Duck and Cover,” “Shock and Awe,” and “Foot and Mouth.” One reader nominated me for inventing the word “drueling,” which sounds like some kind of spitting competition but was actually just an unforgivable misspelling.

The award for best movie title goes to danielle for “Harriet and Samuel.” But the overall winner comes from Jason Warehouse, who captured the grim, unsavory confusion of the Bush White House with his entry, “Utter Disconnect from Political Reality” and “Cranberries.” … 1:36 P.M. (link)