Friday, Jan. 17, 2008
Riding the Pine:As the economy and the markets headed south this past week, George Bush faced even worse news about his own economic prospects. With exactly a year till he has to look for work, the president got an early taste of how it feels. Thanks to Major League Baseball owners, who voted Thursday to extend Commissioner Bud Selig’s contract till 2012, Bush just lost the job he has always wanted much more than the one he’s in.
After seven years in the White House, Bush’s apparent interest in the presidency isn’t much greater than America’s interest in keeping him there. Baseball, by contrast, is a pastime he understands—and by all indications, commissioner of baseball is the dream job he has spent his whole career chasing.
One of Bush’s close childhood friends, Doug Hannah, told Vanity Fair’s Gail Sheehy as much in 2000:
“He wanted to be Kenesaw Mountain Landis,” America’s first baseball commissioner, legendary for his power and dictatorial style. “I would have guessed that when George grew up he would be the commissioner of baseball,” says Hannah. “I am still convinced that that is his goal.”One assumes that this close pal of the Republican presidential candidate is speaking with tongue in cheek. But no. “Running for president is a résumé-enhancer for being the commissioner of baseball,” he insists. “And it’s a whole lot better job.”
In a 2002 book, former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent revealed that he and Bush had discussed the job a decade earlier. According to Vincent, Bush thought he was being groomed for the post by Selig (who had replaced Vincent as acting commissioner in 1992). Bush asked Vincent, “What do you think about me becoming commissioner?” and “Do you think I’d be a good commissioner?” He added, “I’ve been thinking about it. Selig tells me that he would love to have me be commissioner and he tells me that he can deliver it.”
Vincent told Bush that Selig wanted the job for himself. Showing the naive, unfounded optimism that has since become his trademark, Bush replied, “He told me that I’m still his man but that it will take some time to work out.”
Fifteen years later, Commissioner Selig must still be working on it. After owners gave him his last contract extension in 2004, Selig all but promised to retire in 2009. He is 73 and will be 78 when his new term runs out in 2012. But now his attitude seems to be that as long as Julio Franco can keep going, so can Bud Selig.
Selig has plenty of selfish reasons to stay put. He’s earning around $15 million, as the sport’s fortunes continue a boom that began in the steroid era. Any new commissioner would have every incentive to blame the game’s drug problems on his predecessor. Selig would rather stick around to take credit for cleaning up baseball than take the fall as the one under whose nose the game was tarnished.
Selig will soon become the second-longest-serving commissioner ever and may want to try to break Landis’s all-time record of 24 years. Judge Landis was hired to rescue baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Selig has a chance to go in the history books for presiding over both scandal and crackdown.
But perhaps Selig is actually doing the owners a favor by staying. If he left next year, the owners would be under enormous pressure to swallow their friend Bush as his replacement. Considering Bush’s unprecedented unpopularity, as well as his expertise in running up losses rather than turning a profit, that would be like the U.S. Olympic Committee deciding in 1981 to tap Jimmy Carter because of his experience with the 1980 boycott. Condi Rice, who wants to be NFL commissioner, faces the same hurdles—her current job isn’t going too well, while the job she wants is taken and the sport is doing famously without her.
It’s also remotely possible that Selig and the owners are still grooming Bush for the commissioner’s job but think he’s too toxic to take a chance on until 2012 or later. That would be the ultimate irony of the Bush presidency: Serving as president didn’t help his résumé any more than it helped the country. … 4:18 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2008 Not Bunched Yet: According to his son Tagg, the two years Mitt Romney spent as a Mormon missionary in France were a defining moment in his political life. The poor fellow made his pitch thousands of times but won precious few converts. Watching his win in Michigan on Tuesday, we now know how Romney must have felt in France the day he finally made a sale.The results in Michigan are bad news for the GOP, which has a vastly better choice in John McCain. But the rest of us can look on the bright side: We still have Mitt Romney to kick around for a while. Viewers at home who dread another season of American Idol can relax, knowing that MittTV will stay on the air for at least a few more weeks.Romney is nothing if not persistent. When a position gets in his way, he changes it. When he tells voters exactly what they want to hear, and that doesn’t work, he moves on to the next state and tells them again.In Michigan, the Romney campaign worked hard to show the world a New Mitt. Ana Marie Cox of Time wrote, “There was a different Mitt on display this morning. … My first reaction was that *this* is a Mitt that could win a general.” That’s a stretch, but the New Mitt spin works for a reason—it has been true all along. Like the virgin snow that blanketed Michigan on primary day, he’s a New Mitt every morning.As Jonathan Cohn wisely noted in the New Republic before the vote, this New Mitt reprises many features of the version he kicked his campaign off with several Mitts ago. That Old Mitt ran as a successful entrepreneur with his eye on the future. In his announcement speech, he mentioned “innovation” 11 times and “transformation” another four times. But out on the campaign trail in Iowa, Romney decided to stop talking about transformation and show social conservatives how much he could transform. Transformer Mitt couldn’t get any traction—and in Iowa and New Hampshire, Silver Medal Mitt hit his glass ceiling. That, too, was a familiar role for him: In the 2002 Winter Olympics that launched his political career, the United States brought home more silver medals than any Olympics in our history. But in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney apparently used his time on the lower pedestal well. He didn’t get to give any victory speeches, so he got to hear one. In her New Hampshire comeback speech, Hillary Clinton said she had found her voice. On the stump in Michigan, the Romney campaign began making the same argument—that he, too, had found his voice. Of course, they made no mention of where he found it.Romney didn’t stop there. He focused like a laser beam on the economy. He welled up on the trail. He set out to beat McCain among women. In his victory speech, he claimed his comeback was part of a comeback for America. Don’t look now, Republicans, but after Romney spent all that time searching and searching, in Michigan the New Mitt tried to transform himself into Hillary Clinton. At this rate, he might even endorse his own Massachusetts health-care plan.The highlight of Mitt’s Michigan campaign was the kind of moment we Romnologists live for. As Politico reported Monday, Romney held an emotional photo-op over the weekend in the kitchen of an unemployed single mother:
“It means a real tough setting for a mom with two sons,” Romney said. “One son is still in high school. Another son [is] getting ready to go off into the police academy in the west.”For a moment, he was able to forget his lucky life and vast fortune long enough to feel her pain. Yet as Politico pointed out, the one thing he neglected to mention was that the woman’s son happens to be on the Romney campaign payroll in Michigan.Michigan was hardly a perfect test. Turnout was light; the Detroit Free-Press sent reporters to blog from polling stations, and many had trouble finding many voters. We still don’t know whether Mitt can move voters whose children don’t work for him or win primaries in states not shaped like a mitten.But with Romney’s comeback, the conservative crack-up is now complete. The Republican Party has three distinct camps—social conservatives, national-greatness conservatives, and economic conservatives. In the first three key states, each faction can now claim a victory.The nominee will likely be whichever of the remaining contestants—probably McCain, possibly Romney—manages to lay claim to two out of three of those camps. If that’s the case, Romney Bunch fans can rejoice: It may soon be Transformer Mitt’s turn to make a comeback. … 12:22 A.M. (link)
Sunday, Jan. 13, 2008
Tagg and the Gang:Americans across the spectrum have good reason to savor John McCain’s heroic comeback, a triumph of principle over opportunism in a party that chose the opposite eight years ago. If McCain holds on to win the nomination, the GOP and the national debate will be better for it. Still, doing the right thing often comes at a cost: If McCain wins Michigan on Tuesday, America will have to get used to life without the Romneys.For the past year, the Romney clan has welcomed us into their lives on an unprecedented scale. They had us over for Christmas to see Mitt get out his legal pad and ask his family whether to run. His refreshing wife, Ann, showed us how much she has to put up with. The Five Brothers took us around the country on a MasterCard tour of sporting events, sharing their dumb jokes and fraternal banter. Every step of the way, Tagg revealed family secrets and spoke great truths, rarely on purpose.Mitt never does anything by accident, but even he has shown his own charm as the hopelessly square dad, a throwback to ‘60s sitcoms when every normal family was a pretend one. The Romneys was designed to be the most manipulative, invasive, manufactured reality show in political history. In spite of itself, it turned out to be revealing anyway. Like The Office, The Romneys has proved that fake reality TV is better becauseit has a script. Yet now that we’re all hooked, the suits want to pull the plug, just when it was getting good. You can’t blame Republican voters for wanting something more authentic, from Mike Huckabee’s homespun cornball to McCain’s straight talk. But let’s face it: Those two are never going to invite a camera crew over to film their Christmas. Well, Huckabee might, but not in a way we’d want to keep watching.The great irony of Romney ‘08 is that much of what he wants us to believe—from family values to leadership skills—might well have proved to be real, if he weren’t running such a transparently phony campaign that makes everything ring false.Romney won’t let his bid go dark without a fight. He has called for change, welled up with emotion, and embraced the home state he left 40 years ago. He and McCain are tied in the polls in Michigan.Perhaps trying to tap into viewer nostalgia, the Romney campaign released a new video last week to remind us how much we’ll miss the show if it gets canceled. The video, titled “At the Lake With the Romneys,” is a curious way to try to revive a struggling campaign. From the first frame, it shows a candidate literally out of season: “This summer, Gov. Romney worked for 31 straight days before taking a day off. This is how he spent that day.” In Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney fell short for seeming inauthentic and out-of-touch, a thousand-watt smile when the electorate is looking for grit and conviction. In Michigan, where the economic climate (not to mention the weather) is even chillier, voters might wonder what to make of Mitt aimlessly water skiing his way through a video essay on what he did last summer.”At the Lake” was released the day after Romney lost New Hampshire, and oddly enough, the whole thing takes place at his vacation home—in New Hampshire. While the premise is Mitt Romney’s Day Off, Mitt is no Ferris Bueller. Like his campaign, the video eschews Matthew Broderick for the high-strung manner of Richard Dreyfuss—as son Matt hints when he explains that they’re at “Lake Winnipesaukee, from the famed movie What About Bob?“Wrong state, wrong year, wrong season—and yet, as with any great reality show, even dated episodes of The Romneys are addictive. Every scene perfectly captures Mitt’s talent for the ridiculous, as well as the sense of loss we’ll all feel without Tagg and the gang in our lives.Mitt tills the grounds with a tractor (the undocumented immigrants must have had the day off, too). Throngs of grandkids watch him water ski, and once the jet boat goes fast enough, his hair actually moves a little. When his volleyball team scores on a lucky bounce, he jokes, “That’s the nature of my life.” Lightning strikes, thunder roars, a campfire crackles, and Mitt touts his experience at making s’mores. In the scramble to set off expensive fireworks, he calls one son “you moron!” Moments after Mitt says, “Holy cow!” another son says, “Holy crap!” Then, with nary a buzzword, slogan, or “I approved this message,” the video and the fireworks tail off in darkness.The campaign must be hoping that thousands of Michigan Republicans will reach the last frame and start wailing, “Can this be the end?” While a Romney loss in Michigan will prompt patriotic, high-minded pundits to clink their crystal over the bullet the country just dodged, the low-brow crowd will wonder how to go cold turkey after our yearlong saccharin fix.Some bloggers are urging Democrats to cross over and vote for Romney in Michigan to keep his campaign alive. I don’t love the show that much. Here’s a better idea: If the Republican Party fails to see his (comic) potential, Mitt Romney should not lose heart. With his fortune, he could easily bankroll a third- (or, if Bloomberg runs, fourth-) party bid. He won’t get far with Republicans or Democrats, but he can target undecided voters with the message, “So am I.”That won’t be enough to win the White House, but it will keep the show alive, and tide fans over till Tagg runs for president. With the Writers Guild on strike, the networks are flooding prime time with reality shows, but none like this. Mitt was right about one thing: The Romney Bunch is just too good to be wasted on the Romneys. … 12:53 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008
What Hillary Won: When Harry Houdini barnstormed the country a century ago, his opening act was to escape from a straitjacket while being hanged by his ankles from the top of the local newspaper building. Huge, morbid crowds would gather in the streets below, determined to see him plunge several stories to certain death.
A century from now, that’s the story they’ll be telling about Hillary Clinton. Just yesterday, the whole mainstream media was in New Hampshire, hanging her out a window by her ankles. This time, the hordes were certain there could be no escape. When yet another Clinton pulled off an impossible feat, a gobsmacked political world gasped as one: She’s done it again!
Clinton World has been through our share of near-death experiences, but none as staggering as this one. In ‘92, Bill Clinton had two weeks to come back from the dead in New Hampshire, and even then he came in second. Hillary Clinton had 96 hours to right herself and stave off a tidal wave of support for Barack Obama. It was a little like telling Lazarus that if he could somehow figure out how to rise from the dead, he’d still have to part the Red Sea.
The story of Hillary Clinton’s demise proved not only premature, but one of the most errant headlines since “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Drudge Report led with an “Is Hillary Finished?” siren all Tuesday—even as the night wore on, when it was right next to election results showing her leading. Conservative pundits and mainstream journalists alike rushed to write that the era of both Clintons was over. By Tuesday afternoon, political futures markets were giving 20-1 odds on Hillary winning New Hampshire.
Not that any Clintonites were rushing to put bets down on Intrade. We hoped for a comeback down the road, but we figured to lose New Hampshire by double digits. About all we had going for us was the Clintons’ lifelong winning streak whenever the conventional wisdom has completely turned against them.
How’d Hillary do it? The only route she knows—the hard way. She mentioned “grit” in her victory speech, and I suspect that’s what voters saw that made them break her way down the stretch. Just as New Hampshire voters learned something about Bill Clinton when his back was to the wall in ‘92, they watched Hillary Clinton in her darkest hour and decided she has what it takes.
Two moments will draw the most attention. First, the laugh she got at Saturday night’s debate when the moderator pressed her about a poll questioning her likability, and she joked, “That hurts my feelings, but I’ll try to go on.” Second, the tears that welled up in her eyes on Monday as she explained to a New Hampshire woman why she keeps going.
The connection Bill Clinton made with New Hampshire voters like that helped sustain him throughout his presidency. Whatever else happens in this remarkable race, what Hillary Clinton won Tuesday was much more than a primary. In New Hampshire, she found her voice, and her cause, in the indelible bond she forged with the people who stood by her when she promised to stand up for them. As one of the many pundits who got it wrong might put it, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the last dog shall never die. … 5:09 A.M. (link)
Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007 Powerball: For much of American history, the responsibility of leading the strongest nation on earth gave our presidents power too vast to measure. At the beginning of the last century, Theodore Roosevelt believed the president should “carry a big stick”—and he wasn’t trying to sound like Dick Cheney. For the last half-century, a military aide has shadowed the president, carrying launch codes in a nuclear football.When historians sum up America’s standing at the dawn of the 21st century, they might look at page A19 of Monday’s Washington Post: The president of the United States, once the mightiest figure on the planet, now carries a power meter.Michael Abramowitz of the Post reports that almost every weekend, the presidential motorcade takes Bush and eight to 10 mountain-biking buddies to a Secret Service training facility, where he can “ride hard,” listen to country music on his iPod, and help the service build more trails. A legislative aide and fellow rider told the Post that Bush takes these 90-minute workouts so seriously, he recently obtained a power meter to measure how much wattage he can produce.The great paradox of presidential power is that presidents never bother to measure it as long as they still have some, then search in vain for even the smallest trace once it’s gone. Bush could have chosen any number of reliable presidential power meters—the Gallup poll, for instance—absolutely free. Instead, he opted for one of the most expensive new fitness toys on the market, costing $1,600 or more. When the Dallas Morning News asked fitness experts what they wanted to give or receive this holiday season, a triathlon coach suggested the power meter: “It’s this year’s hot gizmo for cyclists.”In the good old days, the president appointed a council on physical fitness. But for Bush, the pursuit of fitness has become the presidency’s entire job description. According to the Post, Bush is “obsessed with the metrics of biking,” such as the calories burned and miles traveled each weekend. That helps him escape the pressures of the workweek, when he’s busy ignoring the metrics of governing.As any aides who haven’t already left try to put the best face on his anemic approval rating, Bush’s power meter is a poignant reminder of how much his presidency has atrophied. At the same time, it’s a potent symbol of why George W. Bush has been the perfect president for the steroid era. The Mitchell report doesn’t quite name Bush as a party to the steroid scandal, but the trail of evidence runs alarmingly close to his skybox. Mitchell didn’t have subpoena power, so the report reads like a National Intelligence Estimate of Major League Baseball: Until the key players are more forthcoming, it’s hard to be certain what they were doing and none too reassuring to be told that they’ve stopped. Guilt by association is not the same as actual guilt. But if friends don’t let friends do performance-enhancing drugs, the former Texas Rangers owner has a few too many buddies on Mitchell’s list.Before the Mitchell report, two of the biggest steroid suspects were ex-Rangers from the Bush years, Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro. Canseco wrote the book on drugs in baseball. Palmeiro lied to Congress about it under oath. While most baseball players steer clear of politics, Palmeiro gave Bush’s 2004 campaign the maximum of $4,000.Mitchell added some new names to Bush’s friends list. Roger Clemens, the biggest fish in Mitchell’s dragnet, is a longtime Bushie. A Clemens profile last year in USA Today said “he has a standing invitation to dine at the White House.” Clemens is so close to the Bushes, he built a horseshoe pit at his house for George H.W. Bush. Andy Pettitte, who has now admitted using human growth hormone, once joined Clemens in a video tribute called “Happy 80th Birthday, 41.” When George W. Bush threw out the first pitch in Cincinnati last year, Kent Mercker (also accused of buying growth hormone) showed his support by waving a Bush-Cheney hat.The Bush campaign called top fund-raisers “Rangers,” but contributors included Mets, Orioles, and Yankees as well. Palmeiro was not alone: Mike Stanton, who gave $3,200 to clubhouse drug dealer Kirk Radomski in 2003, gave $750 to the Republican National Committee the following year. John Giambi—the proud father of Jason and Jeremy, who’ve both admitted using steroids—was an early supporter of Bush’s 2000 campaign. The Mitchell report reproduces two checks Mo Vaughn wrote Radomski for $5,400. Last year, Vaughn gave $5,000 to a conservative PAC that has given to George Allen, Larry Craig, and the Bush campaign.Jose Canseco claims the Mitchell report is incomplete because it left out Alex Rodriguez. While A-Rod denies using steroids, he did give Bush $2,000. By contrast, Hank Aaron, who played his entire career without an asterisk, has contributed to staunch opponents of Bush like Max Cleland and Hillary Clinton.Two years ago, Bush defended his friend Palmeiro when he tested positive after testifying negative. Last week, Bush sought to deflect attention from friends listed in the Mitchell report: “I think it’s best that all of us not jump to any conclusions on individual players named.”But the most damning evidence of Bush’s complicity in baseball’s era of denial is his own role in the trade that helped start it all. In the summer of ‘92, as it became apparent that his father would lose the White House, Bush was desperate to get the Rangers into the playoffs for the first time in the 30-year history of the franchise. He had his eye on Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire’s gargantuan Bash Brother with the Oakland A’s, who had led the majors in home runs the year before.Meanwhile, out in Oakland, A’s manager Tony LaRussa and coach Dave McKay were already convinced Canseco was taking steroids. According to the Mitchell report, A’s general manager (and later MLB exec) Sandy Alderson considered testing him. While Alderson claims that Canseco’s trade to Texas was “not out of any concern relating to his alleged involvement with steroids,” the evidence in the Mitchell report hints otherwise.The great unanswered question is one Mitchell doesn’t ask: If it’s possible the A’s knew enough to trade Canseco because of steroids, did Bush go after Canseco for the same reason? He already had three players who would turn up in the Mitchell report for later allegations of drug use—Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, and Kevin Brown. Without drug testing in place, it was almost impossible to get caught, and baseball was years from cracking down. To a highly competitive, power-hitter-hungry baseball executive like Bush, Canseco might have seemed a risk worth taking.That would make A-Rod the second biggest omission from the Mitchell report. The biggest is George Bush’s own explanation for pursuing a have-needle-will-travel slugger in the first place. Here’s what Bush told the New York Times at the time about why he traded for Jose Canseco:
“We needed to change the chemistry. …”Stop the presses! When he’s done reading his power meter, the president would like to make a confession. … 9:24 A.M. (link)
Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007
** Urgent Travel Advisory **: Panic struck the nation’s airways again today, as yet another major hub has been added to TSA’s Not Safe To Stopover list. Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver were bad enough, but now Chicago O’Hare—the second-largest airport on the planet—is off limits. An alert Slate reader writes:
“I recently had a Larry Craig sighting at ORD. Nowhere is safe!”
United Airlines shares are expected to plunge in after-hours trading … 5:01 P.M.
Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007 Travels Without Larry: With the holidays fast approaching, Americans are already bracing for the high anxieties of holiday travel: missed flights, lost luggage, weather delays, and explaining to the children why that TSA agent gets to open all their presents. But this weekend’s latest expose in the Idaho Statesman gives millions traveling through the nation’s crowded airports a whole new worry: how to get home for the holidays without being solicited by Larry Craig.For the savvy traveler, avoiding Craig used to be a snap. Voters in Idaho and elsewhere were horrified when he pleaded guilty to solicitation in the Minneapolis airport and disgusted when he stayed in office anyway. But most travelers agreed that he couldn’t have picked a better airport for us to dodge. In May—a few days before Craig’s arrest—U.S. News ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul the fifth most miserable airport in America, out of 47. No one shed any tears about swearing off Northwest Airlines, and its route between Minneapolis and Washington National gets mediocre ratings.But on Sunday, the Statesman threw a wrench into travelers’ plans with the chilling account of a man who claimed that in 2006—using the identical gestures that got himself arrested in Minneapolis—Craig solicited sex in the men’s room of the Denver airport. Denver is the fifth-most-traveled airport in America and the 10th busiest in the world. It handled 47 million passengers in 2006, and is growing 9 percent a year, the fourth-fastest growth rate on earth.A traveler with no family in Minnesota or the Dakotas could go a lifetime without a layover in Minneapolis. But taking Denver off the grid is the 21st-century equivalent of pulling the golden stake out of the transcontinental railroad. Without Denver, westbound travelers face a Hobson’s choice of either the inevitable delays and impossible crowds of weather-prone O’Hare, or the inconvenience of flying almost to Mexico to transfer through Dallas-Fort Worth.The eyewitness account in the Statesman ranks with Home Alone and Plains, Trains, and Automobiles on any all-time list of travel horror stories. A 46-year-old gay man was flying from Boise to Washington, and found himself with the same itinerary as Craig and his wife, Suzanne. The Statesman recounts his story in cinematic detail:
During the layover in Denver, the man said he was in a men’s restroom stall when a hand came under the divider and reached toward him. The hand was palm up, as the officer in Minnesota also described, and slid toward him for two or three seconds. The man said he noticed unpolished, dark, lace-up shoes worn by the man in the next stall. He did not respond to the gesture.“I freaked out,” said the man, who was traveling with his long-time partner. “I finished my business and left.”The man said he then waited outside the men’s restroom on a bench. Shortly after, a man wearing the shoes he saw in the adjacent stall exited. The man was Larry Craig.“Those shoes came out, and I looked up, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’”Many of the eight men quoted in the Statesman—whom CBS dubbed “Eight Men Out”—gave accounts so graphic, the newspaper had to post warnings about explicit descriptions in the audio clips on the Web site. Reporter Dan Popkey admitted to Editor & Publisher, “I don’t like writing about anal sex for people who don’t want to read about it over their corn flakes.”While not as graphic, the tale of the hapless traveler is potentially the most damaging, suggesting that even under his wife’s nose, Craig could be a serial airport stalker. Coupled with earlier allegations that Craig had sex in the restrooms at Union Station, the Denver airport revelation underscores a growing fear that TSA may have missed the greatest threat to our transportation system: the danger of being asked for sex by Larry Craig.Careful travelers need to take matters into their own hands. In that spirit, here’s a handy Travelers’ Guide to Avoiding Larry Craig this holiday season:Tip No. 1: Drive wherever possible. Holiday travelers in and around Washington, D.C., need to beware: Craig has most of the exits covered. With Union Station just two blocks from Senate office buildings, train travel is out. Craig lives on a houseboat in the Potomac, so the waterways are blocked, too. Reagan National, the nearest airport, is practically a second home for members of Congress from faraway places. While driving poses its own hazards, especially in the winter, the risk of a Craig sighting is zero.Possible downsides: This time of year, the 2,300-mile drive to Boise could take a week; for best results, avoid the Garden State Parkway.Tip No. 2: If you must fly, don’t drink. If you’ve already booked tickets through Minneapolis or Denver and can’t get your money back, don’t despair. Veteran travelers will remember that in the early days after 9/11, the FAA banned passengers from leaving their seats within 30 minutes of takeoff or landing in D.C. Based on that experience, some experts believe it is theoretically possible to complete the entire seven-hour journey from one coast to the other, including stopover, without ever going near a single bathroom. Unpleasant as that sounds, the alternative is worse.Note for future travel: Now that Craig stands accused in Denver as well as Minneapolis, cancel your trip to watch both parties honor him at their 2008 conventions.Tip No. 3: There’s no place like home. Travel is not for everyone. Thanks to modern technology, such as a video camera on your laptop, you can see your family as much as you like with absolutely no chance of running into Larry Craig. A travel advisory is in effect for residents of Idaho and D.C. Ironically, Boise may be the safest place to be: Craig told the Statesman earlier this year that if he ever went cruising, he wouldn’t do it in Boise, Idaho.Tip No. 4: If you decide to travel, some risks are better than others. All holiday travel is a gamble, but with careful planning, you can reduce the odds of ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, new airline reservation search engines like Kayak and Orbitz allow you to sort flights not just by price, but by another important factor: length of stopover.For instance, at first glance, United’s best deals from D.C. to Boise involve changing planes at O’Hare—which has no reported Craig sightings, despite being the second-busiest airport in the world. But look again: Saving a few hundred dollars doesn’t sound like such a good deal when it means a layover that could stretch to three hours. Consider a lower-risk option—Delta through Salt Lake.Best bet: Give yourself some peace of mind this holiday season, and pay a little more for a shorter layover. Your luggage maynot make it, but no one will ever have to read about it in the Statesman. … 6:48 P.M. (link)
Friday, Nov. 30, 2007
No Weigh: With Mike Huckabee suddenly a serious threat to win the Republican nomination, it’s time to ask a pressing question: Do we really want another president whose biggest fear is getting fat?
By all accounts, Gov. Huckabee is funny, compassionate, and sincere in his conservative convictions. Many of his Republican rivals try to hide the skeletons in their closet, from illegal immigrants in their yards to shady billing records in their love nests. Huckabee doesn’t run from the ominous figure in his past, which is about as far from a skeleton as you could get. Instead, the governor has gone out of his way to boast about what’s in his closet: a rack of suits that no longer fit.
Huckabee has been widely praised, and justly so, for shedding 110 pounds and for speaking out against childhood obesity—a worthy cause that others, including Bill Clinton and Bill Richardson, have led as well. Huckabee’s book, Quit Digging Your Own Grave With a Knife and Fork, put him on the political map. Until recent weeks, the only thing most people knew about Mike Huckabee is that he used to be obese. In a country obsessed with his losing weight, he makes the most of it: He’s a bigger man because he’s smaller than he used to be.
Huckabee’s triumph over his own imperfections makes him a refreshing alternative to Romney, who comes across as too perfect, and Giuliani, whose campaign slogan is nobody’s perfect and who has done altogether too well in staying on message. Weight loss has some policy benefits, too. At a time when Republicans don’t have much else to say to Americans about health care, Huck offers his own story as a do-it-yourself substitute for a credible health-care plan.
Yet, as Huckabee rises from curiosity to contender, a potential downside of downsizing becomes clear. The man is better off than he was 110 pounds ago, but does Mike Huckabee have too much riding on whether he can stay thin?
Appearance is an issue for anyone in the public eye. But for most politicians, weight is a harmless subject of idle speculation. When pundits couldn’t think of any other way to guess whether Al Gore would run for president, they joked about watching his waistline. Now he can tip the scale however he likes, and chalk up the difference to the weight of all the awards he’s holding.
But for Huckabee, getting thin did so much to get him into the game that keeping the weight off could become an unconscious test of whether he’s really who he says he is. Americans don’t seem to care how much our presidents weigh. We come in all shapes and sizes and are in no position to judge. But we do tend to judge public figures by the standards they set for themselves. If the first thing most voters associate with Mike Huckabee is that he once was fat but now is thin, they might not know what to think if he turns out otherwise. And if he puts obesity at the center of his agenda, Americans won’t waste much time thanking him for telling us what we want to hear before we start watching fluctuations in his weight more closely than his poll ratings.
In the unlikely event that Barack Obama put on some pounds, his team could just say he’s trying to quit smoking. John Edwards has already laid the groundwork by pointing out that he has given up Diet Coke. As a cyborg who can morph into any form, Romney doesn’t have to worry. But if Huckabee starts to balloon, he’s no longer a fresh face; he’s another flip-flopping phony diet doctor. It would be like campaigning as Abraham Lincoln and governing like William Howard Taft.
Being under enormous pressure to stay trim only makes the task harder. Sooner or later, almost every celebrity who became famous for losing weight comes to regret it. Kirstie Alley, Elvis Presley, and Anna Nicole Smith are all proof that the worst diet plan in the world is to have everyone watching.
But there’s an even better reason not to want a president whose greatest fear is getting fat: George W. Bush. Presidential historians have found no correlation between body mass and greatness. But recent history suggests a direct correlation between how much time presidents spend worrying about keeping fit and how much time they have left to solve the nation’s problems. Bush is legendary for his exercise routines. He used to run regularly with Condi Rice, obviously a failed foreign-policy training regimen for both of them. He brings along a mountain bike wherever he goes, and once plowed down a bobby in Scotland.
The clear conclusion: Bush works out, but his policies don’t. After seven years, he’s in a lot better shape than the country.
Since the American fitness craze took off a few decades ago, the track record for other fat-fleeing presidents is not much better. Bush’s father stayed trim by obsessively playing speed golf for four years. That kept him a thin man with an even thinner record. Jimmy Carter’s presidency all but ended in 1979 when he became a symbol of American impotence as he collapsed while jogging.
By contrast, it’s pretty clear that the two most successful presidents of the past 30 years, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, didn’t wake up every morning wondering what they weren’t going to eat that day. Clinton played golf, in no particular hurry; Reagan chopped wood. For both of them, exercise was more a chance to slow down and get away from the pressures of the office, not add to them.
In the role of underdog, Huck has so far seemed relaxed enough to keep things in perspective. Even though he lost 110 pounds—nearly the size of an entire Dennis Kucinich—Huckabee hasn’t suddenly decided his personal savior is Jared, not Jesus.
Gain or lose, Huckabee’s conservative policy agenda will be more than enough to sink any candidate. But we can’t be too careful. In choosing presidents, we should be wary of what haunts them, because elections are often a choice between the lesser of two demons.Already the warning signs are flashing. Huck’s first ad stars Chuck Norris, who looks like he’s auditioning to be President Huckabee’s personal trainer. We’ll all be rooting for Huckabee to stay in shape and inspire others to follow suit. But every now and then, cutaway shots from the campaign trail show a side view that makes a voter worry that a little of the Old Huck might be primed for a comeback. … 6:14 P.M. (link)
Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007
Outta There: As any conservative will tell you, people vote with their feet. Just ask Larry Craig. But that’s bad news for a Republican Party whose leaders are looking at the GOP’s future and deciding to walk away. The sudden, simultaneous departure of both former Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott has been treated as a coincidence, not a trend. But congressional resignations tend to be an even more accurate forecast than Intrade. If you’re checking the parties’ vital signs, consider this: The GOP lost the two longest-serving congressional leaders in Republican history—in the same week.Hastert served as speaker for eight years. The Republican whose record he broke, Joseph Cannon, has a House office building named after him (as does Nicholas Longworth, a Republican speaker for six years). While Hastert signaled his departure in the last Congress—in part to keep the caucus from sacking him as speaker—he left more quickly than expected.Lott was in an even bigger rush, and his exit may be more revealing. Since the two parties officially began naming Senate floor leaders back in the 1920s, Lott’s nearly six years as majority leader were the longest of any Republican. If not for his suicidal remarks at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, Lott might have passed lions like LBJ, Robert Byrd, George Mitchell, and Alben Barkley to become the second-longest serving majority leader in history, behind Mike Mansfield.Lott, 66, and Hastert, 65, are at the age when anyone in a normal line of work might retire. But by Washington standards, they’re practically middle-aged, still young enough to run for president, stand many more times for re-election, or serve a couple decades on the Supreme Court.Hastert was already planning to leave before he helped hand Democrats back the House. But Lott had five years left in his Senate term, and last year made a stunning comeback by a single vote to become minority whip, the No. 2 Republican leader.So, why the rush? While Timothy Noah suggests scandal, it looks to me more like another example of Kinsley’s Law that the real scandal is what’s legal.Lott has been around long enough to know to get out when the going is good. And for retiring members of Congress these days, time is money. In the decade since Lott took over the Senate and Hastert began his ascent up the leadership ladder, the lobbying business in Washington has exploded, and so have the ranks of former Cabinet officials, members of Congress, and staff willing to cash in on it. The Center for Public Integrity estimates that nearly half the members who’ve left since 1998 have become lobbyists, and the number of former congressmen and agency heads turned lobbyists has doubled in the past decade.As Jeff Birnbaum and Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post report today, if Lott becomes a lobbyist, he will become the first senator in history to leave midway through his term to lobby. Lott, Hastert, and others on the Hill have an extra incentive to get out now. In January, a new revolving-door provision takes effect that will double the waiting period between leaving Congress and lobbying from one year to two. Resigning now frees them to start buttonholing their former colleagues by next Thanksgiving.Most observers have long pooh-poohed the so-called cooling-off period, because while they’re waiting to lobby their old colleagues, former members can still be paid handsomely to attract clients and offer their inside expertise. Former Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles, who left in 2004 to start his own lobbying firm, told the Hill that the two-year ban “wouldn’t make much of a difference” to blue-chip former members. Lott himself concedes that he has talked to other members turned lobbyists, who told him “what you do anyways is called ‘consulting,’ not direct lobbying.” But Lott’s hasty departure (and a flurry of Hill staff resignations that are predicted by year end) suggests that the cooling-off period has a far greater impact on congressional behavior than members and former members admit. The Hill analyzed the lobbying activities of a dozen ex-senators and found that the average billings of the accounts they worked on jumped from $1 million in their first year—when they couldn’t lobby directly—to $1.8 million in their second year, when the ban no longer applied. Former Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan told the paper that the two-year ban might not affect a retiring member’s marketability, but would affect his or her compensation. If Congress were serious about closing the revolving door, it would enact a much longer cooling-off period—five years or more—for former members of Congress, senior administration officials, and senior staff. Many would still go onto become lobbyists, but it would no longer be the default profession and de facto college and retirement plan.As Jeanne Cummings of Politico points out, Lott’s resignation is a case study in the current state of political career planning. Not only is Lott leaving to lobby, but the heir apparent to his Senate seat—Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering—may pass up the chance because he had already announced his own plans to step down and explore the private sector. Lott’s replacement is up to Haley Barbour, who made what by today’s standards is the comparatively noble sacrifice of giving up a lucrative lobbying practice to become governor of Mississippi.Staff take the fall for everything in Washington, but ironically, the lobbying gold rush is one place where staff are a big part of the problem. In recent years, many congressional leaders have watched with envy as staffers young enough to be their children have quadrupled their salaries by heading to K Street. In a Washington Post retrospective on Lott, a widely respected former aide reminisced that when Lott and Nickles negotiated with wealthy Clintonites Bob Rubin and Erskine Bowles, they felt like “two Republicans who didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” Yet to some degree, members now have a twinge of that same feeling when they’re lobbied by former staff. Presumably, when Lott becomes a lobbyist (like Nickles, and the Lott aide who told the story), coin will no longer be a problem.Many members go into lobbying by default, as the most lucrative if not most interesting option available. But Trent Lott was born for the job and oddly enough, might enjoy it even if it didn’t pay so well. Like his old friend, former Senate colleague, and potential business partner John Breaux, he’s a consummate deal maker. And as he proved in his narrow comeback victory in the race for whip, he’s the best vote counter in his party.Throughout the four decades since he came to Washington, Trent Lott has been a symbol of what has become of it. In his fascinating new book The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America, Ron Brownstein singles out Lott—who was raised a Democrat but became (along with Thad Cochran) the first Republican congressman re-elected from Mississippi since Reconstruction—as a harbinger of what he calls “the great sorting out” that led conservative Southern Democrats to the GOP and moderate Northern Republicans to become Democrats.Once in Congress, Lott led another trend, as part of a generation of young Turks who cut their conservative teeth in the House and brought the same ideological edge to the once-genteel and bipartisan Senate. Now, assuming he becomes a successful lobbyist, Lott will epitomize Washington’s latest transformation into a city where at least one of the streets is paved in gold.In the long run, it would be in both parties’ best interests to stop the gold rush. But Republicans in particular should have an urgent motive to close the revolving door. If they have too many more weeks like this past one, Larry Craig might be the last one left to turn out the lights. … 12:28 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007
From the Rafters: The Republican campaign to try to make Bush the next Truman fell flat again today, as the White House’s handpicked entry “Truman & Sixty” finished dead last in the annual Thanksgiving turkey naming contest. The electorate’s message to Bush was clear: We know the difference between a president and a turkey, and you’re no Harry Truman. Against the weakest field of names in memory, “Truman & Sixty” came in a distant sixth, with a mere 6%. No former president had ever finished in single digits before. The 5th-place entry, “Gobbler & Rafter,” received twice as many votes, even though exit polls would have been hard-pressed to find many voters who know that “rafter” is the name for a flock of turkeys.The winning entry, “May & Flower,” finished with 24%, edging out “Wish & Bone” at 23% and “Wing & Prayer” at 20%. No doubt buoyed by last-minute votes from Slate readers, “Jake & Tom” beat expectations by surging to 15% – surpassing past buddy pairings like “Lewis & Clark,” “Washington & Lincoln,” and “Adams & Jefferson.”Despite the pounding “Truman & Sixty” took at the polls, Bush tried to force the analogy again at the Rose Garden ceremony Tuesday morning. He paraphrased Truman in his opening joke, telling the pardoned turkeys, “You cannot take the heat – and you’re definitely going to stay out of the kitchen.”While that line barely produced a twitter, May & Flower stole the show a few moments later. Upstaging the president at his own event, the turkeys interrupted Bush’s speech three times. For years, White House stenographers have allowed themselves just two parenthetical insertions into the official transcripts of presidential speeches: “(Applause.)” and “(Laughter.)”. May & Flower weren’t doing either. So in what may be a first, that section of Tuesday’s official White House transcript reads, “(Turkeys gobbling.)“After heckling the president during his speech, May was remarkably deferential in the photo op. While most turkeys spread their feathers and preen for the cameras, May immediately sat down. Viewers were left to wonder: Who is that strange duck, and what’s he doing in the White House? … 2:49 P.M. (link)