The Has-been

Planes, Trains, and Solicitations

How to make your holiday travel plans without bumping into Larry Craig. Update: OMG at ORD!

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 pled 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 5th 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% 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 website. 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 #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 2300-mile drive to Boise could take a week; for best results, avoid the Garden State Parkway.Tip #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 7-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 #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 #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

Mike Huckabee

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)