In its bid for history, the Bush White House gets stuffed.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Nov. 20 2007 2:51 PM

Truman Loses!

In its bid for history, the Bush White House gets stuffed.

80_thehasbeen

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)

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Monday, Nov. 19, 2007

Wing & Prayer: Tomorrow, for the next to the last time, President Bush will go to the Rose Garden for the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon. Bush rushed through the 2001 ceremony in just four minutes. This year, like last, he is more likely to linger, savoring each remaining drop of relevancy and proud to be trusted with at least one exercise of executive power.

It's not fair to suggest that over time, pets begin to resemble their masters. But Bush does have more in common with the turkeys than ever. As Peter Baker points out in today's Washington Post, Bush told one biographer, "Now I'm an October-November man." Unfortunately for Bush, time has passed him by. Both parties are in such a hurry to choose his successor that they're jumped to the same conclusion as American retailers: it's December already.

Republicans and Democrats aren't the only ones ready to turn the page on the Bush White House. So, it seems, is the Bush White House.

Like Bush, the previous two second-term presidents faced a hostile Congress in their last two years in office. But unlike Bush, both Reagan and Clinton used their sway with the American people to bring Congress to the table, and welcomed the chance to find common ground. Reagan worked with Democrats – including an up-and-coming governor named Clinton – to pass the Family Support Act of 1988. Clinton persuaded reluctant Republicans to fund his domestic agenda, from reducing class size to opening new markets in poor and rural areas.

By contrast, Bush seems to have given up on working with the Congress or winning back the American people – or perhaps taken note that they have long since given up on him. Even loyalist Karl Rove, in his debut column for Newsweek, doesn't mention Bush by name, advising GOP candidates on how to overcome "the low approval rates of the Republican president." The only audience Bush has left is history, which may not have much use for him, either.

The White House is so intent on the history books that appropriately enough, tomorrow Bush may even pin hopes for his legacy on a turkey. Usually, entries in the annual contest to name two turkeys come from Thanksgiving history and tradition, like this year's "May & Flower." But an unlikely 2007 entry stands out as Bush's own sentimental favorite: "Truman & Sixty."

The professed reason for "Truman & Sixty" is that Harry Truman granted the first turkey pardon 60 years ago. But for this White House, those two words are more about Bush: "Truman" (an unpopular president rescued by historians half a century later) and "Sixty" (Bush's best-case disapproval rating, as well as his age when he lost Congress). That's the only way to explain an entry that could draw the lowest vote total since "Harvest & Bounty" and "Plymouth & Mayflower" got 3% each in 2003. (This year, the smart money is on "Wing & Prayer.")

The Bush White House put one other curious entry on this year's ballot: "Jake & Tom," which sounds a lot more modern than such past same-sex pairings as "Washington & Lincoln" or "Lewis & Clark." At first glance, this seemed like an historic breakthrough for a president whose response to Brokeback Mountain was, "I'd be glad to talk about ranching." Back in the day, the conservative base might have lit up the White House switchboard, demanding to know what this administration will force America's schoolchildren to vote on next? "Will & Grace"? "Truman & Capote"?

Alas, the White House remains a few centuries behind on gay rights, and "Jake & Tom" is not some gossip item about Gyllenhaal & Cruise. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), "Jake" is the term for a juvenile male turkey; "Tom" is the name for an adult male. You can tell the two apart by their feathers: the juvenile has an erratic tail.

Father and son turkeys may not be quite the historical spin the Bush White House was looking for. But even 43 has something to be thankful for. At his first ceremony in 2001, Bush joked that one of the two turkeys he pardoned was in a secure and undisclosed location. Nowadays, the roles are reversed, and Bush is the one in the safest place to go unnoticed – his own White House. ... 4:42 P.M. (link)

Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007

Ron Paul Ron Paul: The most surprising aspect of the picket lines in Hollywood is not that writers would strike. The writer in each of us goes on strike every day. For most, the surprise is more fundamental: Writers get paid?

In politics, a speechwriter will be lucky to earn as much from an entire campaign of speeches as a consultant pulls down every two weeks to tell the candidate not to use them. On the Web, bloggers have learned what journalists and freelancers have known for generations: There is no such thing as a writer's market. With or without subsidy, words are always in surplus, and it's always a reader's market.

While we all hope Hollywood writers will be pencils up again soon, this could be the big break bloggers have been waiting for. Thanks to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, millions of members of "Stewart Colbert Nation" have become political junkies—and rather than settle for reruns, they are bound to scour the Web looking for material good enough to satisfy their fix.

My advice to satire-starved citizens is to cut out the middleman and go straight to the source. You don't need some costly professional to raise an eyebrow for you; with practice, you can learn to raise your own.

For example, over at the Five Brothers blog, the writers haven't gone on strike. On Monday, Ann Romney posted a recipe for white chili. Add your own Utah Jazz crowd joke, and it's ready to serve.

In case you've missed the latest episodes of Five Brothers, here's a quick recap of the season so far. The Romney boys stopped by Fox & Friends for an interview—and just missed Florence Henderson from The Brady Bunch. Host Alisyn Camerota blogged that the brothers are "all handsome," but inadvertently caused a panic when she wrote that "most of them are spoken for." Devoted Romney followers everywhere had the same question: "most"?

In one particularly touching episode, Tagg 'fessed up that he had once been "young and foolish" enough to think about leaving the GOP, but was glad he stuck with "Dad's message of strength" instead.

Retrospection turned to genuine drama when the Southern California fires forced hard-luck Matt and his family to evacuate. Happily, their home was spared. As usual, Tagg and Ben provided comic relief by going to Fenway to watch the Red Sox the same night.

In the annual Halloween episode, Craigwho looks least like his fatherdressed up as Mitt, married Pocahontas, and raised an adorable lion-child.

With all due respect to the sidelined scribes of Stewart Colbert Nation, you can't write this stuff. Just this week, Tagg went on YouTube and found a British phone salesman to sing opera at Mitt's Inauguration.

Hollywood writers want a share of new media residuals for a reason: Millions of people around the world are watching. Campaign Web sites, by contrast, could use the work. Imagine what it must be like to write the blog at JoinRudy2008.com. While by all accounts, Giuliani's Internet efforts have been a disaster, he's still the Republican front-runner. Yet in a welcome and utterly ill-advised moment of transparency, the Giuliani campaign decided to post the number of views next to every blog post. Giuliani's problem is the polar opposite of Hollywood's: His blog is in the midst of a prolonged reader's strike.

Over the past week, the blog's central daily feature, "Hizzoner's Highlights," averaged 38 views. Given that the size of Giuliani's own campaign staff must be several times that, the number of people willing to read about his day who aren't already on his payroll is zero, or perhaps less. That's despite every effort by Hizzoner's writers to spice up the plot, as in this photo of Giuliani at someone's dinner table in New Hampshire, using their finest silver to water a sapling called "Rudy's Tree."

By late this afternoon, today's supposedly blockbuster announcement of Pat Robertson's endorsement had eight views, while today's highlights had a total of five. And that's on a big day.

The Giuliani reader's strike underscores one of the strangest plot twists in the Republican campaign so far: the inverse relationship between enthusiasm and support. In the polls, almost nobody's for Ron Paul. But on the Internet, where he raised an astonishing $4 million in one day, he's the runaway favorite.

A recent presidential campaign Web site traffic chart compiled by the Internet tracking service Hitwise shows the Democratic side running true to form: HillaryClinton.com the front-runner with 20 percent of the total hits, BarackObama.com in second with 12 percent, JohnEdwards.com in third at 4 percent. On the Republican side, however, the popularity curve is upside-down. Ron Paul, last in the polls, is in first with 20 percent; Huckabee, fourth or fifth in the polls, is in second at 16 percent; Fred Thompson, missing and presumed dead in the real world, comes in third at 6 percent. The Websites for actual front-runners Giuliani, Romney, and McCain are barely above 4 percent, 3 percent, and 2 percent.

Why does the Republican second-tier have a Second Life on the 'net? We know it's not the writers. Perhaps, in Huckabee's case, it's the prelude to a genuine, real-world breakthrough. Or perhaps, in the face of grim political realities, escape is just more entertaining. ... 4:20 P.M. (link)

Friday, Nov. 2, 2007

Special Favors: This week,Republican leaders officially gave up hope that Larry Craig will ever leave. A day after Craig passed Mr. Potato Head as the most popular Halloween costume in Idaho history, The Hill reported that the GOP has abandoned the last siege engine it had left against him, by agreeing to let the man keep his earmarks.

Never mind that Craig pled guilty, humiliated himself, and double-crossed his state: As a member of Congress, he is guaranteed the right to keep spending under the Speech, Debate, and Earmark Clause of the Constitution. That means the senator can get back to more conventional hypocrisies, like sponsoring balanced-budget amendments while boasting about bringing home the bacon.

After three decades of pork, what does an appropriator choose as his final special favors? Most of the 22 items on Craig's list are standard fare: $200,000 for a "gravity pressure delivery system"; $4 million for "vacuum sampling pathogen collection"; $1.5 million for "coordination, facilitation, administrative support, and cost-shared weed control."

But in his swan song, Craig has graciously offered to cooperate with the authorities. According to the Taxpayers for Common Sense earmark database, he found $1 million so the Idaho State Police can improve "criminal information sharing." He earmarked another $100,000 for the Idaho Department of Corrections to take part in the National Consortium of Offender Management Systems.

While there's irony in every earmark, these are rich indeed. Craig was banking on the poor quality of criminal information sharing when he pled guilty in August and assumed the people of Idaho would never find out. As he told the Idaho Statesman in April, "I don't go around anywhere hitting on men, and by God, if I did, I wouldn't do it in Boise, Idaho! Jiminy!"

If anywhere needs an upgrade in "offender management," the Republican caucus might be a good place to start. The right to keep earmarking gives Craig an excuse to pretend nothing ever happened, issuing self-serving press statements like this one: "I'm very pleased with the level of support the Senate has shown for these Idaho projects, which will help our law enforcement agencies improve their efforts to protect our children and share information."

Meanwhile, Craig's colleagues in the Senate are forced to clean up after him. For example, the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill includes a $200,000 earmark for Minneapolis-St. Paul "to create an electronic charging process to allow for electronic signature of court charging documents."

When Craig filled out his guilty plea, he had to mail it in. Now his lawyers are trying to argue that he was deprived of due process because no judge was present to make sure Craig knew what he was doing.

Perhaps the new electronic system can solve that problem, by asking defendants to check a box accepting that their political life is over. Thanks to Craig, guilty parties won't have to wait in line at the Republican convention. … 2:08 P.M. (link)

Monday, Oct. 29, 2007

Cry Me a Lawyer: Last month, I lamented that Larry Craig "has more lawyers than a Boston Legal washroom." I spoke too soon. In the latest sign of Idaho's growing cultural influence, the writers at ABC's Boston Legal have ripped another plot from the headlines and put William Shatner's character, Denny Crane, in Larry Craig's shoes. According to longtime Idaho reporter Randy Stapilus and the Web site Spoilerfix, two undercover cops accuse Denny Crane of soliciting restroom sex in the Nov. 13 episode, "Oral Contracts."

Spoilerfix doesn't reveal any other parallels between Denny Crane and Larry Craig, except for one: No matter the outcome of his case, Crane plans to remain in the job for the rest of the season. You don't have to be Al Gore  to win an Emmy.

Beyond the superficial similarity of the names Denny Crane and Larry Craig, it's easy to see why the show's writers couldn't resist the temptation to exploit the longest running joke of the fall season. Denny Crane is a classic Hollywood conservative, who joins Stephen Colbert, Thurston Howell III, Alex Keaton, and Krusty the Clown on Wikipedia's list of "Fictional United States Republicans." TV conservatives always play the part for laughs; Craig plays it straight, with the same result.

In this case, fiction cannot be stranger than truth, but perhaps it will be more revealing. Spoilerfix says Alan Shore (James Spader) will defend Crane, so we'll finally get a glimpse of how a spirited defense might have sounded if Craig hadn't pled guilty. Of course, unlike Craig, Crane has five ex-wives and several co-workers who can vouch for his womanizing. He also has better writers, who won't humiliate him with Craig lines like "Jiminy!" and "Oh, crimey!"

Spoilerfix doesn't say whether Crane's restroom encounter is a one-off deal or will come back to haunt him. The site says that in the next week's episode, Shatner's character tries to join the National Guard, but is rejected. Craig knows the feeling. In 1972, the Guard discharged him after six months for an unspecified "physical disqualification." Ironically, Craig told the Idaho Statesman his ailment was "flat feet."

Not to be outdone, Craig's office announced last week that his if-I-only-had-a-lawyer routine was itself a fiction. Back in September, days after the scandal first broke, the press reported that Craig was hiring Michael Vick's attorney, Billy Martin. But now a Craig spokesman admits that it was the other way around—Michael Vick hired Larry Craig's lawyer. Martin, a renowned criminal defense lawyer, has been working for Craig since February, four months before the senator's arrest. Throughout that same period, Craig also has been paying PR consultant Judy Smith, who has done work for Rep. William Jefferson, Clarence Thomas, and Monica Lewinsky.

Craig's spokesman insists the senator never spoke to Martin about his arrest. Craig did call Martin the day he head-faked his intent to resign, but dialed the wrong number and left a voicemail for "Billy" on the answering machine of a woman named Alice.

Like their client, Martin and Smith haven't exactly been forthcoming. In the brief he wrote on Craig's behalf, asking a judge to withdraw the guilty plea on the grounds that the senator "did not exercise his right to counsel," Martin didn't bother to tell the court that he was already working as Craig's criminal defense counsel at the time. On Sept. 1, Smith wrote a highly misleading press release that declared, "Today, Senator Larry Craig announced that he has retained Washington DC attorney Billy Martin as legal counsel"—even though Craig had actually retained him seven months earlier.

Some have criticized Craig for paying Martin and Smith out of his campaign funds. But I'm all for it. The more he drains that account, the more certain we can be that he'll never run again. And if the past few months are any indication of the kind of press and legal representation Craig gets, even with professional help, he'd better spend it all. ... 1:19 P.M. (link)