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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Inauguration Under Fire?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2005; 11:11 AM

No one seriously thinks that the Bush inaugural festivities, scheduled to transpire two weeks from today, are going to be called off.

But there's some chatter on the Web about it.

_____More Media Notes_____
Pretty Ugly, Pretty Fast (washingtonpost.com, Jan 5, 2005)
Tsunami Politics (washingtonpost.com, Jan 4, 2005)
Social Insecurity (washingtonpost.com, Dec 17, 2004)
Open Season on Rummy? (washingtonpost.com, Dec 16, 2004)
On Jailing Reporters (washingtonpost.com, Dec 15, 2004)
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More Discussions

Of course, anyone can chat about anything online, from a bum to a billionaire. And in this case it's a billionaire (more on that in a moment).

For my part, I don't think much of the Bush-should-just-be-sworn-in-and-then-send-out-for-Chinese argument. The death and devastation in Asia remains horrible and nearly unthinkable, but the notion that the president and his supporters should therefore be deprived of their celebration seems tenuous at best. No presidential inauguration has ever been canceled (though William Henry Harrison's long speech in frigid weather in 1841 led to a fatal case of pneumonia). Not during the world wars. Not during Korea or Vietnam.

Is it somehow inappropriate for Americans to have a good time in the aftermath of the tsunamis, which has prompted $350 million in federal aid, many millions more in citizen contributions and a fundraising effort led by two former presidents?

The leading deep-six-the-parties voice is that of Mark Cuban, the fabulously wealthy Internet entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who blogs in his spare time. He writes:

"It's up to President Bush to set an example.

"How about it Mr. President? Can you take the first step? I can help you figure out where to start. Start by canceling your inauguration parties and festivities.

"Could there be anything more confusing and shocking than to read that our country was offering $35mm in aid to the areas affected by the Tsunamis, but that the cost of inauguration parties would be about $40mm? Does anyone else think that this is wrong?

"I realize that the cost for the inauguration is being picked up by corporate sponsors and people purchasing outrageously priced tickets. The question is why.

"Why are all these corporations and people spending all that money? Hey I love a good party, but there ain't no party like a $10,000 per ticket party. It's a 10k dollar [butt] kissing. As an accountant/fund raiser when asked about the high prices to attend the Inaugural events told the NY Times, 'it's the cost of playing the game.' Mr. President, it's time to change the game.

"In your re-election campaign, you talked a lot about leadership. Your ability to lead in times like these. Your ability to set an example. Mr President, it's time to show that leadership. It's time to set an example. Cancel all but the most basic inauguration requirements. It should be the easiest decision of your 2nd term."

No cigar, Cuban.

Those dismissing the idea include blogger Rex Hammock:

"I'm tuning out the misguided attempts by some to come up with moral or monetary equivalences to the tsunami and to suggest that we should cancel this or that and give the money to relief. Stop with the politicizing of this tragedy, people. Even Mark Cuban, my favorite billionaire blogger, has called for the cancellation of the presidential inauguration festivities so that funds can be diverted to tsunami relief. Huh? Why not call for the cancellation of the NBA season and take all the dollars advertisers have committed for broadcasting it and send those funds to tsunami relief? What, the advertisers won't do that? Have you asked?

"What will canceling a two hundred year old national celebration of democracy do to promote tsunami relief? Much better, gather all those barons of industry together in D.C. in a few weeks and make them challenge each other to prove they can be more generous than each other. Let the President use his inaugural address to articulate our nation's commitment to feeding those who hunger. Let's agree this is a cause we can all agree on. This is not liberal or conservative."

National Review's David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, also weighs in:

"Have you also heard these media complaints that it is unseemly for George W. Bush to spend $30 to $40 million on his inaugural festivities in the aftermath of the terrible natural disaster in South Asia?

"Some points of reference.

"January 1993. War rages through Bosnia. Massacres and mass rapes -- 'ethnic cleansing' has forced Muslim Bosnians to flee their native towns. Sarajevo is a city under siege with electricity, water, and other necessities of life sporadic at best. Bill Clinton spends $33 million on his first inaugural.

"January 1997. In the aftermath of the 1996 Rwandan massacres, an estimated 3 million refugees are living crowded into camps in desperate need of external humanitarian assistance. Following the Rwandan war, Zaire is now spinning into civil war and brutal violence. Bill Clinton spends $29.6 million on his second inaugural.

"My point? Well I don't have one really. This is a big planet, rife with violence and human suffering, to which Americans have consistently responded with generosity. At the same time, the United States is a lively, competitive two-party democracy that fights a grueling presidential election every four years -- after which the winners naturally wish to celebrate their victory.

"Inaugural festivities are a ritual of American democracy. They are attended by tens of thousands of people, and so they are unsurprisingly expensive. But the taxpayer does not pay the bill for these celebrations: the parties do, with funds they raise from willing donors. The taxpayer does pay for security -- of which there will be more than ever in 2005 -- to enable peaceful demonstrators to come and express their views. That's part of the ritual of democracy too."

A few Dems apparently want to block the Bush inauguration in a very different way, says the New York Post:

"Three New York Democrats, including mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, are among a small number of congressmen who are formally protesting President Bush's election, The Post has learned.

"Weiner's signature in support of a highly controversial letter sent yesterday to Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as president of the Senate, and other congressional leaders comes as a surprise because the other lawmakers are among the most liberal, stridently anti-Bush members of Congress.

"Weiner, who has a relatively moderate voting record and is now trying to oust Mayor Bloomberg, raised eyebrows by jumping on board because he is not generally associated with the mostly far-left-leaning congressmen trying to unseat Bush.

"They include such figures as Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who visited Baghdad before the war and said he trusted Saddam Hussein more than Bush, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), who ran a long-shot bid for president last year as the left-most Democratic candidate, and independent Rep. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who is a socialist.

The letter, which expresses 'grave doubts' about whether Bush legally won the election, is considered so extreme that its supporters in the House of Representatives have been unable to find a single Democratic senator to back it."

Bush is beginning the lawsuit-limiting push he has advocated since his days in Austin, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

"President Bush on Wednesday demanded congressional action this year to rein in "junk" lawsuits against doctors and hospitals, saying the time had come to impose federal restraints on a system traditionally left to the states. Taking his tort reform campaign to a southern Illinois county known as a hotbed of civil litigation, Bush said the prospect of big jury awards in medical malpractice cases was causing insurance rates to soar and doctors to abandon their practices.

"'What's happening all across this country is that lawyers are filing baseless suits against hospitals and doctors. ... They know the medical liability system is tilted in their favor,' Bush told a group of medical professionals and business allies...

"Bush's broadside was the opening round in a legislative battle between some of the United States' most powerful and well-financed interest groups. Doctors, hospitals, drug makers and other manufacturers who want to limit litigation expenses are lining up against the trial attorneys who represent plaintiffs in personal injury cases."

Looks like that Washington Post scoop on the administration being likely to reduce future retirement benefits (though there will be an argument about the meaning of the word "reduce") was on target. The Wall Street Journal has the captured document:

"The White House, in a private memo to conservative allies, strongly argues that Social Security benefits paid to future retirees must be significantly reduced. The memo disputes those on the right who insist that creating private investment accounts is all that's needed to fix the retirement system.

"To fail to make benefit cuts while diverting payroll taxes to workers' personal accounts, the memo argues, would be irresponsible and 'have serious short-term economic consequences.'

"The memo, contained in a Monday e-mail from Peter Wehner, President Bush's director of strategic initiatives, was marked 'not for attribution.' It reflects the White House's behind-the-scenes efforts to avert a split in Republican ranks over the politically charged Social Security issue. The Wall Street Journal reviewed a copy of the memo, which wasn't released publicly, and it's unclear how wide a distribution it had. There are indications that it went to legislators and a number of influential conservatives outside Congress."

The New York Times is the latest to write about a GOP split on Social Security:

"As he begins deciding on details of his plan to add personal investment accounts to Social Security, President Bush is confronting a deep split within his own party over how to proceed.

"Two Republican camps are pitted against each other over how big the accounts should be and whether the president should embrace cuts in benefits.

"Mr. Bush intends to step up his involvement in the issue in coming days. He is meeting with Republican leaders at the White House on Thursday and giving a speech next week. In addition, he is dispatching his Treasury secretary, John W. Snow, to New York to reassure Wall Street that his approach, which could involve trillions of dollars in new government borrowing, is consistent with efforts to reduce the budget deficit and improve the nation's financial condition.

"But even as groups opposed to Mr. Bush's call for personal accounts intensify their efforts, the White House is still trying to develop a plan that can hold Republicans together while attracting at least a handful of Democrats in Congress, say administration officials, conservative activists, members of Congress and economists.

"The main issues, they said, are whether Mr. Bush should back a proposal to reduce substantially the guaranteed government retirement benefit through a change in the way the benefit is calculated, and whether workers should be allowed to contribute all of their Social Security payroll taxes into their accounts or only a part."

Bush is pushing this boulder up a pretty steep hill.

The Gonzales confirmation battle, which begins today, is really heating up. Andrew Sullivan reacts to the latest news reports:

"We find that not only did Gonzales pen the memo that gave the president legal carte blanche to waive the Geneva Conventions, but that he also requested the infamous Bybee memo that all but defined torture out of existence. Those Democrats who are jittery about using the hearings to illuminate what Gonzales helped bring about should get over the jitters. If the opponents of Gonzales are smart, they'll focus more on the torture at Guantanamo Bay and around the globe than on Abu Ghraib.

"The evidence shows that this was decidedly not an isolated matter; and, whatever the intentions of the president, defense secretary, attorney general and assistant attorney-general, their decisions clearly made such horrors possible. I know no one is ever responsible in the Bush administration for any mistakes, and I still think Bush should get the benefit of the doubt in picking his cabinet. But that doesn't mean these hearings shouldn't be used to highlight what is still going on. I have a feeling Gonzales may face a much tougher time than we now expect."

Salon flatly declares Alberto "The Torturer General" in this piece by Marguerite Feitlowitz:

"Alberto Gonzales has paved the way of his own advancement with memos that are intellectually slovenly, that impute definitive powers to the executive, and whose attempts at shirking the basic moral precepts of international humanitarian law are not very skillful. If he is confirmed as attorney general, our nation will be shamed, shunned and endangered."

Slate's Tim Noah says this NYT piece is not exactly the first time Denny Hastert has declared that he is really, truly in charge:

"In a story headlined, 'Quietly But Firmly, Hastert Asserts His Power,' the Jan. 3 New York Times sought to dispel a misperception that has arisen concerning House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R., Ill. The misperception is that Hastert is a mere front man to the person who really controls the House, Majority Leader Tom 'the Hammer' DeLay, R., Tex."

After citing similar Hastert quotes over the years in the AP, Roll Call and Washington Post, Noah says: "There's a very real possibility that Hastert and his fellow Republicans in Congress will spend the rest of his speakership denying that Hastert is DeLay's flunky. But would it be necessary to declare over and over again that Hastert is independent and powerful and not a front man if Hastert really were independent and powerful and not a front man? Just asking."

If you want the lowdown on Tucker-Carlson-to-MSNBC and CNN blowing up "Crossfire," here are the details.

Here's an interesting critique on Social Security coverage from New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston, in a posting on Jim Romenesko's media site:

"Americans confused about Social Security are no doubt more confused by these two very different ledes by the Associated Press. Each ran, or was aired, widely, a news search this morning at Google shows.

"Early report (bold added): WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is focusing on a Social Security proposal that would allow younger workers to invest up to 4 percent of their payroll taxes in private accounts, with contributions limited to about $1,000 to $1,300 a year, an official said Tuesday.

"Later report: WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is focusing on a Social Security proposal that would allow younger workers to invest nearly two-thirds of their payroll taxes in private accounts, with contributions limited to about $1,000 to $1,300 a year, an administration official said yesterday.

"The difference here is huge --16-fold when viewed as a percentage of wages that could go into such accounts. The first lede suggests, wrongly, that Mr. Bush wants to let the undefined 'younger workers' divert slightly less than a half of one percent of their wages into these investment accounts. The second version implies investing more than 8 percent. These figures assume that the diversion would apply to both the FICA tax deducted from paychecks and the employer match, though the AP report is uninforming on this crucial issue, even in updates filed long after the initial version. It will be interesting to see in the days ahead how many editorials, columns and letters to the editor reflect the serious confusion created by the mistake and the vagueness in the early AP story, as well as what steps, if any, AP takes in future reports to clarify the record for those it has confused."

Update: The Washington Post may have been among the culprits here. A correction in this morning's paper says yesterday's story "incorrectly said that workers would be allowed to put as much as 4 percent of their payroll taxes into a private investment account. Under the proposal, as much as 4 percent of workers' wages could be put in the accounts."

The Tyndall Report, a media industry newsletter, has some interesting year-end figures, including the top dozen network correspondents in terms of airtime in 2004:

NBC's David Gregory (337 minutes); ABC's Terry Moran (297); CBS's John Roberts (277)' ABC's Martha Raddatz (275); NBC's Andrea Mitchell (264); NBC's Lisa Myers (251); NBC's Jim Miklaszewski (248); CBS's Kimberly Dozier (242); NBC's Pete Williams (226); CBS's Jim Axelrod (218); NBC's Robert Bazell (214), and CBS's David Martin (213).

All of whom should immediately demand raises.

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