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Winners, Losers and Young'uns

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009 7:58 AM

Here's what we don't know:

Who will replace Richardson at Commerce. Whether Burris will be a senator. Whether Caroline will be a senator. Whether Franken will be a senator. When Congress will cough up a stimulus package. Whether the Eagles can beat the Giants.

Here's what we do know:

Sasha and Malia started at Sidwell yesterday.

Now I was perfectly prepared to go off on a rant about the media's boneheaded failure to leave these two girls alone. They didn't ask to be in the spotlight. They're 10 and 7, for crying out loud. What is the public interest in trailing these young schoolkids and making it impossible for them to lead a normal life?

But then I went to Obama's transition site and there's an item on Sasha and Malia's first day of school, complete with family photos.

Which means either:

a) Barack and Michelle aren't as uptight over shielding their kids as we've been led to believe -- remember the "Access Hollywood" interview -- or,

b) The parents concluded that there was such voracious media interest in the girls that they had little choice but to feed the beast, perhaps in the hope that the photographers would back off if everyone had access to some family pictures.

I still think journalists ought to cool it when it comes to the new Sidwell students. Go crazy over something that really matters, like the family's new dog.

Maybe the administration will give the pooch its own blog.

As for the serial Senate standoffs, I've got to say, the situation is just getting weird. You have, you know, the daughter of a slain president who hasn't, you know, been in the public spotlight, or bothered to vote all the time, but, you know, she's a Kennedy. You have a less-than-inspiring African American picked by a governor caught on tape trying to sell the seat, but who now can paint the all-white Senate as faintly racist for not seating his man. You have the author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," who has toned down his act and wound up on top in a byzantine recount that would be funny if anyone understood it.

What a circus.

Throw in a dash of why-was-Richardson-nominated-if-he's-under investigation and you have an unflattering aroma in the runup to Obama's inauguration.

Of course, each situation is different, involving the separate political worlds of New Mexico, Illinois, Minnesota and New York. And while Obama can be faulted for picking Richardson, he has no tie to any of these scandalettes (including the Blago mess, despite last month's media drumbeat that O or one of his advisers might have offered the governor more than bleeping appreciation).

But for Republicans who've been beaten up over Mark Foley, Larry Craig, David Vitter and Ted Stevens, this is a chance to spin a narrative about a "pay to play" Democratic culture. This is a stretch, but the GOP is aided by the House ethics probe of Charlie Rangel, who among other things is accused of not properly reporting income on a Caribbean property and using House stationery to solicit money for a school named after him at a City University college.

Upside: Things aren't dull around here as we lurch into 2009.

The finger pointing is under way on the Commerce withdrawal.

Guess who's leaking to Politico:

"Barack Obama's transition team pressed Bill Richardson about a federal probe into 'pay-to-play' allegations against his office -- the same investigation Richardson cited Sunday in withdrawing his name as commerce secretary. But a Democratic source said Obama's questioners came away empty handed. 'Those guys were pressed for information and they gave nothing,' the source said."

At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey calls such leaks "a pretty lame attempt to shift blame away from the incoming administration. They should have done their own homework on Richardson once they heard about the investigation. In the end, they have the responsibility to make acceptable appointments for Cabinet positions. If the extent of the vetting Team Obama is doing is reading resum├ęs and accepting explanations for federal investigations without question or further checking, then they're pretty obviously incompetent at it."

Have I missed something? Has anyone questioned the vetting of any other Cabinet nominee?

But some on the left are also unsympathetic, with Mother Jones saying:

"It may be premature to say that Obama and his team have too high a tolerance for corruption. But this first self-destruct among his cabinet picks could well prove all the more damaging because it's something they should have seen coming from miles away."

Are there echoes of the Richardson probe, involving a New Mexico contract for a contributor, in this NYT piece?

"A developer in New York state donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton's foundation in November 2004, around the same time that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman's mall project.

"Hillary Clinton helped enact legislation allowing the developer, Robert Congel, to use tax-exempt bonds to help finance the construction of the Destiny USA entertainment and shopping complex, an expansion of the Carousel Center in Syracuse.

"She also helped secure a provision in a highway bill that set aside $5 million for Destiny USA roadway construction."

What about the surprise choice of Leon Panetta to head the CIA?

The Clinton White House chief of staff "is regarded as a bright political operative and highly capable manager," says the L.A. Times.

"If confirmed by the Senate, he would be among the few directors in agency history with no prior experience at one of the nation's spy services . . .

"Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who this week begins her tenure as the first female head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was not consulted on the choice and indicated she might oppose it. 'I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director,' Feinstein said. 'My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.'

"Panetta would join a CIA trying to stay abreast of the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the pursuit of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The Panetta choice, says the New York Times, "appears to reflect the difficulty Mr. Obama has encountered in finding a candidate who is capable of taking charge of the agency but is not tied to the interrogation and detention program run by the C.I.A. under President Bush.

"Aides have said that Mr. Obama had originally hoped to select a C.I.A. director with extensive field experience, especially in combating terrorist networks. But his first choice for the job, John O. Brennan, had to withdraw his name amid criticism over his alleged role in the formation of the agency's detention and interrogation program after the Sept. 11 attacks."

And there's this controversy, noted by the Washington Times:

"Social conservatives and pro-life activists are mobilizing against President-elect Barack Obama's pick Monday for the No. 3 Justice Department job, a lawyer who aided the effort to remove Terry Schiavo's feeding tube during the landmark right-to-die case four years ago.

"It is unusual for special interest groups to wage a fight over a sub-Cabinet appointment, but conservatives eager to press the Republican Party to mount some form of opposition to the emerging Obama administration say Thomas J. Perrelli's resume as a private lawyer and his appointment Monday as the nation's associate attorney general may provide the rallying cry."

They really want to refight the Schiavo battle? Perhaps they've forgotten that the Republicans no longer run Washington.

Minnesota's high court has rejected Norm Coleman's challenge to the recount, leaving Franken ahead by 215 votes. The Wall Street Journal editorial page heartily disapproves:

"Minnesotans like to think that their state isn't like New Jersey or Louisiana, and typically it isn't. But we can't recall a similar recount involving optical scanning machines that has changed so many votes, and in which nearly every crucial decision worked to the advantage of the same candidate. The Coleman campaign clearly misjudged the politics here, and the apparent willingness of a partisan like [Mark] Ritchie to help his preferred candidate, Mr. Franken. If the Canvassing Board certifies Mr. Franken as the winner based on the current count, it will be anointing a tainted and undeserving senator."

TPM's Josh Marshall says the Journal is out to lunch:

"Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is an elected Democrat. He serves on the canvassing board automatically. For the rest he picked two Republican state Supreme Court Justices (justices appointed by Gov. Pawlenty (R)), one Independent judge appointed to the bench by former Gov. Jesse Ventura, and a fourth county judge who may be a Democrat or an Independent (we don't know because it was a non-partisan election).

"Needless to say, the Journal doesn't mention this."

But perhaps a Franken victory wouldn't be bad for the GOP, if this Daily Beast post by Benjamin Sarlin is on the mark:

"Franken's prominence comes at a time in which Republicans have struggled to find an easy Democratic bogeyman. Barack Obama is still overwhelmingly popular. Hillary Clinton, formerly the party's nemesis, earned a newfound respect among conservatives as the voice of moderation on withdrawal from Iraq. Rod Blagojevich is too local. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are a particular favorite of Matt Drudge, but relentless attacks on them failed to prevent heavy losses in 2006 and 2008. Ted Kennedy, suffering from brain cancer, is off limits.

"So Franken provides an inviting target. His style of politics runs directly counter to the civility preached by the incoming president. Franken is author of bestsellers like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, which trashed conservative talk hosts like Bill O'Reilly and baited some to respond with their own heated attacks.

"Even while on the campaign trail, where Franken tried to project a senatorial gravitas, he found time to hit the right where it hurt. Politico reported that he was behind one of the most brutal Saturday Night Live sketches of the election, in which John McCain approves a series of increasingly horrifying attack ads against Obama ('Barack Obama has fathered two black children...in wedlock').

"If Obama's strategy is to dial back the blue/red civil war into a detente, Franken's is to escalate it to World War III. Now Franken is poised to become that rare politician whose very existence is a wedge issue to be exploited."

Unless he spends the next six years being unfunny.

Tina Brown compares Ms. Kennedy's low-energy aura to that of a British aristocrat to the manner born:

"Caroline's whole demeanor, with its combination of slouchiness and snippiness (also very royal) when her rank is challenged ('Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman's magazine or something? . . . I thought you were the crack political team here'), proclaims the sad truth of her life: that being the heir to a legacy fraught with so much tragedy is a heavy-hearted chore--especially when you have no real visceral feel for the spirit that forged it. All those meetings with the great and the good at the Kennedy Library. All those requests from new biographers for interviews to turn down. All those battening social climbers, from as early as kindergarten, when the play-dates were about the moms who wanted to meet Jackie. All the lies--or, worse, truths--written about your family. It was, y'know, draining . . .

"Caroline has been raised all her life as a Bouvier, not a Kennedy--and a reticent female Bouvier at that."

How's the Tim Kaine selection playing? Washington Monthly's Steve Benen is in the doesn't-matter camp:

"Here's the real angle to keep in mind: with a Democratic president, the DNC will be, for all intents and purposes, an extension of the White House political operation. Obama's team will set the party agenda, and Kaine was probably selected because he's a close Obama ally who'll follow the president's lead. Kaine isn't nearly as progressive as most of the Democratic base would prefer for a chairman, but at the DNC, the governor won't help set the agenda for the party."

The Bush Farewell Tour continues, with Fred Barnes (along with Bill Kristol) the latest to dine with the outgoing incumbent:

"Bush's critics -- and especially the left-wing haters -- are going to be disappointed when they see his demeanor as he leaves his eight-year presidency. In our conversation, he wasn't bitter or downcast or pessimistic, nor was he boastful or disdainful. He appears comfortable with what he expects his legacy will be, including a battle against Islamist terrorists that endure under President Obama . . .

"During our conversation, Bush occasionally spoke off the record and several times 'really' off the record . . .

"Bush was asked if he made progress in some areas for which he hasn't and probably won't get credit. Topping his list was his unsuccessful drive in 2005 to reform Social Security. Bush said his effort showed it's politically safe to campaign on changing Social Security and then actually seek to change it."

It did take some courage for Bush to push a revamp of Social Security. But would you brag about a proposal that was so thoroughly rejected it never even got a committee vote in a Congress controlled by your party?

Barnes's bottom line: "He's proud of what he achieved. And proud he should be." Many other conservative writers are, by this point, less enchanted with Bush.

Brit Hume's successor took over Fox's Washington newscast last night. Here's a look at Bret Baier.

For those of us who sound off (at limited length) on Twitter, this recent spat of hack jobs isn't good news. How about some security, guys?

"A flurry of high-profile Twitter accounts have been hacked, most prominently the Fox News account, which has declared that Bill O'Reilly is gay.

"Fox News' Twitter posted an update, since deleted, Monday morning announcing, 'Bill O Riley is gay.' [Note: the hacker can't even spell.]

"CNN's Rick Sanchez, a prominent Twitter user, was also hacked. His malicious tweet read, 'i am high on crack right now might not be coming to work today.'

"Britney Spears's Twitter also fell victim, with hackers announcing that her --"

Well, that's enough of that. A guy's gotta have some standards.

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