Miracle worker.

Miracle worker.

Miracle worker.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Sept. 4 2005 4:05 PM

Miracle Worker

Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept.

(Continued from Page 5)

Roberts is famously overprepared. A legal colleague told the Post's Von Drehle that Roberts' secret is "taking the hostile question that you didn't want to answer and transforming it into an affirmative point that advances your client's cause." A former partner told the New York Timesthat Roberts would demand endless revisions to briefs and launch lengthy debates "over the way certain sentences were phrased."

A Lawyer's Lawyer's Time Sheet: According to Von Drehle, Roberts believed in spending five weeks preparing for a 30-minute argument. We may have finally identified the true source of America's soaring legal costs.


At most, senators have had a few weeks to prepare for Roberts. Roberts has spent 25 years preparing for them. So, on all the obvious questions, Roberts has an overwhelming advantage.

But on screwball questions, that advantage disappears. The model for this line of questioning comes from the late Peter Jennings. In a televised debate during the 2004 primaries, Jennings asked John Edwards to "tell us what you know about the practice of Islam." A thousand debate preps and murder boards could never have prepared Edwards for that question. It made for great television because neither the viewers at home nor the press corps had any idea what he would say, or even what he should say.

Under the circumstances, Edwards handled it well, admitting that "I would never claim to be an expert on Islam." Roberts is famed for both erudition and modesty. Make him choose: Is there any topic on which he would say he'd "never claim to be an expert"?

Call Me Ismael: Asking questions that reveal how a person's mind works is far more revealing than asking a person's views. In a group interview, I once was asked how many levels of allegory I could name in Moby Dick, and why the book was so popular in the Soviet Union. The committee soon saw that my mind didn't work at all. (Update: It still doesn't25 years later, I still can't think of a good answer. One committee member told me I should have said the book justified Soviet whaling policy.)

If Roberts invokes the Ruth Bader Ginsburg precedent and says, "It would be inappropriate to answer questions on the practice of Islam because they might come before the court" or "One thing that is unfair about whaling is that it is not certain, it is not definite, and there doesn't seem to be a reasonable time limitation," Democrats will know they're getting somewhere.

In fact, even leaking in advance that they plan to ask some off-the-wall questions might do Democrats some good. Then Roberts can spend his Labor Day weekend feeling five weeks behind. ... 10:24 A.M. (link)

P.S. Do you have an offbeat question you'd like John Roberts to answer? Send it to thehasbeen@gmail.com.


Monday, Aug. 29, 2005

Hitting Bottom: It's official—George Bush has crossed the Mendoza line. On Friday, Gallup announced that the president's approval has reached a new low of 40 percent, while his disapproval has soared to a new high of 56 percent.

Every second-term president has his eye on the history books—and with these numbers, Bush has secured his place in them. Of the 12 presidents who've served since Gallup started polling in the late 1930s, Bush has entered the ranks of the most unpopular. He's now more unpopular than FDR, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Ford, and Clinton ever were, and has matched the highest disapproval rating of his idol, Ronald Reagan.

Bush's disapproval rose five points in August alone. At his current pace of losing favor, he could speed past two more presidents within the next month: Jimmy Carter, who peaked at 59 percent in mid-1979, and George H.W. Bush, who hit 60 percent in the summer of 1992. That would leave the current Bush just two more men to pass on his way to the top spot: Richard Nixon, who reached 66 percent before resigning in 1974, and Harry Truman, who set Gallup's all-time record at 67percent in January 1952.

Can Bush break the record? The experts say it's nearly impossible in a political climate so much more polarized than the one the men he's competing against faced. To increase his disapproval ratings among Republicans, Bush would have to lose a war, explode the national debt, or preside over a period of steep moral decline. Moreover, as his friends have learned, it's a lot harder breaking records when you have to do it without steroids.

Bush v. History: But don't count Bush out—he thrives on being told a goal is beyond his reach. The president is an intense competitor and stacks up well against the historical competition:

  • Reagan was old and amiable; Bush is young, vigorous, and has a smirk in reserve.
  • Both Carter and Bush 41 were one-term, rookie presidents with no clear plan to gain disfavor and who had to rely entirely on external events going south. Bush 43's chances don't depend on luck: He has a proven strategy to fail at home and abroad.
  • Nixon had to achieve his disapproval ratings almost entirely through scandal, with little help from the economy or world events. The Bush White House is much more versatile: They won't let scandal distract them from screwing up foreign and domestic policy. Already, 62 percent of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction—the highest level in a decade—even before the Bush scandals have begun to take a toll.
  • Truman might seem tough to beat, because Bush has no popular generals to fire. But Truman had several historic achievements under his belt that kept his unpopularity down, such as winning World War II and presiding over the postwar boom. Bush's record is free of any such ballast. In a pinch, the Bush camp can also make a good case that polling on Truman was notoriously unreliable, and that Bush deserves a share of the modern-day record if he reaches Nixon's level.

The Worst Is Not, So Long as We Can Say, This Is the Worst: Best of all, Bush has a luxury that unpopular presidents before him did not: time. His father and Jimmy Carter made the mistake of losing favor in their first term, assuring that voters would not give them a second one. Nixon committed high crimes and misdemeanors that helped him win a second term but prevented him from completing it. Truman's numbers didn't tank until his last year in office.

George W. Bush still has 41 months to turn the rest of the country against him. In the past 41 months, he has cut his popularity by 40 points—from 80 percent to 40 percent. At that rate, he's on track to set a record for presidential approval that could never be broken: zero. ... 8:55 A.M.( link)


Friday, Aug. 26, 2005