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Foot in Mouth Disease

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009 10:12 AM

I'm going to skip over the day's big winner, Carrie Prejean -- hey, all three cable nets carried the presser in which she got to keep her beauty pageant crown -- to focus on one of the week's losers.

I can't quite figure out Michael Steele. He's obviously a sharp guy, and one of his strengths, when he ran for Republican chairman -- aside from bringing a largely white party into the Obama era -- was his ease in media forums. He was a hip guy, not some stiff party apparatchik.

Instead, he has displayed an unerring ability to talk his way into trouble.

Of course, I might have gotten a clue in 2006 when Steele, at a background lunch with reporters, said that being a Republican was like wearing a scarlet R, that the Iraq war "didn't work" and that Katrina was "a monumental failure of government." Steele was just being honest, but it didn't help his Senate campaign in Maryland when he was outed after a Dana Milbank column quoting his anonymous remarks.

You would think the guy who ripped Rush Limbaugh on CNN, then groveled to apologize, would have learned to watch his tongue around microphones. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

Steele's latest gem, which I mentioned yesterday, came when he was filling in on Bill Bennett's radio show. He had this to say about Mitt Romney's candidacy: "It was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism."

Even if that's true, should the party chairman be touting religious prejudice by GOP primary voters?

There is something about Bennett's "Morning in America" that seems to lure Steele into blunders, as if he's trying too hard to please the conservative callers. Here are some others compiled by Democratic sources:

On Obama's preference for a Supreme Court nominee who shows empathy: "I don't need some judge sitting up there feeling bad for my opponent because of their life circumstances or their condition. And short changing me and my opportunity to get fair treatment under the law. Crazy nonsense empathetic. I'll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind. Craziness." (May)

On a caller's comment about the president: "It's just like the L.A. Times said last year or two years ago: He is the magic Negro.": "Yeah he -- [laughing]. You read that too, huh?" (May)

On whether the country is in a recession: "The malls are just as packed on Saturday." (April)

On climate change: "We are cooling. We are not warming. The warming you see out there, the supposed warming, and I use my finger quotation marks here, is part of the cooling process." (March)

Steele is in a difficult spot, fronting a party that controls nothing in Washington while the president is quite popular. But the gaffe-machine label can be a sticky one. It might behoove him to become more disciplined, or to back away from the microphones for a while.

At Real Clear Politics, Republican-leaning blogger Jay Cost has had enough:

"One could imagine the DNC working this into a general election campaign ad. The kicker is pretty obvious: 'Mitt Romney's own boss doesn't think he's honest. Why should you?' . . .

"For a pundit or radio personality, being a 'free spirit' and 'saying what he thinks' are assets. However, they are liabilities in an RNC Chairman. Ideally speaking, the chairman of a national committee should be boring, bland, and say only what will maximize contributions. There is a reason why your average party chairman is a lousy television guest who rarely strays from the talking points: that is what's good for the party . . .

"The party cannot afford to have its national committee chairman doubling as a controversial pundit. It's time for Michael Steele to resign.

Second, the RNC chairman has no business talking about a tension that exists within his party, unless the goal is to minimize it."

As a journalist, though, I'm strongly against boring party chairmen.

Hurtful Humor

Speaking of ill-considered remarks, the reaction to Wanda Sykes's 20th-hijacker joke about Rush Limbaugh has been pretty negative, even from many liberals, even from Keith Olbermann. But now a few defenders are raising their voices, including Joan Walsh in Salon:

"Sure it was off-color and, um, slightly out there -- but that's the point. Or it used to be. Even if I didn't already love Sykes, my point of view would be: Once a barely elected president who started a devastating war on false pretenses can joke about those pretenses at that same dinner (Remember Bush looking behind sofas for WMDs? ) it's hard to ever be offensive again . . .

"OK, I personally wouldn't make a joke about someone's kidneys failing on cable news--I am a serious unpaid news pundit, and I want to be asked back! But I also wouldn't mock Michael J. Fox and his Parkinson's tremors, as Rush Limbaugh did, or wax hysterical about having to grab my ankles for our new black president, as, yes, Limbaugh did . . .

"Watching Sykes, I was so pleased. I thought: My God, there's never been a better match for Limbaugh. He's an entertainer and a comedian -- I despise him, but every once in a while he's funny -- and he's regularly off color; Sykes is all those things while, in my opinion, funnier and less cruel."

People who "despise" Rush seem willing to cut Wanda endless slack. What if a conservative comedian had mocked Olbermann and expressed the hope that his kidneys would fail? Wouldn't the same folks be yelling about right-wing hatred?

Righty bloggers, such as Leon de Winter at Pajamas Media, continue to focus on Obama laughing at the jokes, which I think is a fair point:

"The president didn't have the guts to leave, to correct Ms. Sykes, or to express his opposition. He laughed because he apparently was entertained by the idea offered by Sykes, that this critic, a right-wing radio host who openly disagrees with the president's plans, would die because of failing kidneys."

The London Telegraph's Toby Harnden is appalled by the reaction:

"Whatever one thinks of Rush Limbaugh, why is the Left so eager to defend the aspiration that his 'kidneys fail'? How hard is it to say that wishing major organ failure on a political opponent is no laughing matter?"

Yoo Don't Say

The Philadelphia Inquirer has hired as a monthly columnist former Justice Department official John Yoo. His claim to fame? Writing the torture memos in 2002 and 2003.

The move brings this blast from Philly Daily News columnist Will Bunch:

"The Inquirer thus handed Yoo a loud megaphone on what was once a hallowed piece of real estate in American journalism. . . .

"It was Yoo's immoral guidance that aided the United States in sanctioning the torture practice known as waterboarding -- used in the Spanish Inquisition, by despots such as Pol Pot and by Chinese Communists in the Korean War to obtain false confessions from Americans -- as well as slamming detainees into walls, part of a harsh interrogation regime that has been linked to the deaths of at least a dozen U.S, detainees and possibly more."

The response from Inquirer Editorial Page Editor Harold Jackson: "We did not blindly enter into our agreement. He's a Philadelphian, and very knowledgeable about the legal subjects he discusses in his commentaries."

You know, he might have made an argument about freedom of speech or the value in publishing unpopular opinions. Instead his defense of Yoo is he's a local boy?

Doomsday Strategy

Some have doubted George Stephanopoulos's scoop on John Edwards staffers plotting to wreck his 2008 candidacy, but the Nation's Ari Berman has real-time confirmation:

"I distinctly recall a conversation with an Edwards confidante at the Democratic convention in August that lends some credence to the 'sabotage strategy.' I asked the Edwards insider -- who asked not to be named -- whether the staff knew about Edwards' affair (and possible love child) and whether they had planned to do anything about it. 'We would have prevented Edwards from becoming the nominee had he won Iowa,' this person told me based on my recollection of the conversation, 'because we believed some portion of the rumors to be true.' "

Roger Simon thinks the aides should be excommunicated or something:

"This is extraordinary on any number of levels.

"First, the sabotage staffers were being no more moral than Edwards. If they were really shocked and appalled by the rumors of his affair, they could have confronted him and demanded that he withdraw from the race or that he reveal the truth to the voters.

"Instead, they decided to cash their paychecks week after week and plot their candidate's destruction behind his back. How ethically superior of them! How very, very high road of them!

"Second, many Edwards staffers were doing such a crappy job anyway, they didn't need to do anything special to sabotage his campaign. Edwards came in second in Iowa, third in New Hampshire, third in Nevada, third in his home state of South Carolina and fourth in Florida, after which he dropped out.

"Third, just how were the staffers going to 'sabotage' Edwards? By revealing the affair to the media themselves? I doubt it. The National Enquirer and the blogosphere had been reporting the rumors for months. The mainstream media wanted some proof before they went with the story. Sure, the sabo-staffers could have made big news if they had gone public with their suspicions. But none had the guts for that."

A Book, You Betcha

Sarah Palin, on her memoirs coming out in the spring of 2010: "There's been so much written about and spoken about in the mainstream media and in the anonymous blogosphere world, that this will be a wonderful, refreshing chance for me to get to tell my story, that a lot of people have asked about, unfiltered."

At the Table

Most of the reaction to health industry groups telling the president they'll cut costs has been along the lines of Uh-huh. Right. Show me the money.

But National Review's Rich Lowry sees the mere fact of the offer as a capitulation:

"The health-care industry just flopped on the floor and exposed its belly to President Barack Obama in a craven gesture of submission.

"Groups like America's Health Insurance Plans and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America -- key players in defeating Hillary Care in 1994 -- sent Obama a letter voluntarily offering to control costs. They can't spell out with specificity how they'll conjure up $2 trillion in savings during the next decade, but that's beside the point. Less important than the (un)reality of the pledge is its symbolism.

"Groups that could be expected to resist the further nationalization of health care are shouldering their way to the bargaining table in the hopes of protecting themselves from the worst of legislation they consider inevitable. For a president who made a cottage industry of hope during his campaign, Obama is benefiting from rank fear in his dealings with potentially recalcitrant business interests, from Chrysler's secured creditors to the health-care industry -- get on board or get run over."

But doesn't every interest group calculate whether it's better to oppose legislation or try to change it, depending on the chances of passage?

And They Can't Even Vote

Michelle Malkin was a vocal opponent of the Obama stimulus bill, so she delights in following the money:

"Hey, how's that porkulus working out?

"It's going to dead people:

"Millions of Americans on Social Security are receiving $250 checks as part of the president's stimulus plan -- including an Anne Arundel woman who died more than 40 years ago.

"The woman's son, 83-year-old James Hagner, said he got the surprise when he checked his mailbox late last week."

Not exactly confidence-inspiring. Would these be the same folks now running Chrysler and GM?

What Would Dad Do?

One of my pet peeves in journalism is when someone is asked what a deceased person would have thought about such-and-such. The only honest answer is, who the hell knows?

Christopher Buckley, who is plugging the book he wrote about his famous parents, fielded such a question about his father from Chris Matthews:

"Chris asked, 'Did your dad vote for Obama?' I said I rather doubted it, as he'd died in February 2008. Chris grinned in a Cheshire Cat way, recovering in about .002 seconds . . . 'Yeah, OK, but would he have voted for him?' Chris pressed.

"I cleared my throat and said well, it's tricky, you know, trying to channel the ghost of one's dad. Hamlet tried it and look what --

"Yeah, yeah, Chris said; or something like that -- not buying my equivocation and pressing on with the subjunctive. Come on. Would he have voted for him?

"I said it was possible. My father would have been impressed by Barack Obama's mind and style and grace of manner, as well as by -- I'm certain -- his abilities as a writer. Whether he'd have pulled the lever for him . . . I'll revert to my Hamlet-qualm."

Lose My Number

Michael Goldfarb is back at the Weekly Standard after his stint as a McCain press person, and TPM reports on his falling out with a former campaign colleague:

"McCain research director-cum-press secretary Brian Rogers will begin working as the research director for Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection. On the campaign trail, Rogers worked alongside deputy communications director Michael Goldfarb, who responded to the announcement with poise and professional courtesy. 'Everybody knew Rogers was a tree-hugger,' Goldfarb noted by email, 'but I didn't think he'd take it this far. He's dead to me.' "

I guess that buries the idea of principled opposition.

Still Mad

Dan Baum has been Twittering about his clashes with David Remnick and how the New Yorker dumped him, albeit a couple of years after the fact.

Trumping the Rules

Here's the lowdown on The Donald praising his new favorite beauty queen, despite the racy photos that she didn't disclose to the pageant, including some new topless ones that surfaced yesterday:

"Miss California is keeping her crown," TV Guide reports.

"Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA pageant, announced Tuesday that he didn't object to semi-topless photos of first runner-up Carrie Prejean that recently surfaced online. Prejean charged that some of the photos are fake, and denounced pageant judge and celebrity blogger Perez Hilton for what she called a 'self-promoting and hateful' campaign against her.

"Trump said Prejean gave a 'very, very honest answer when given a very tough question. . . . It's the same answer that the president of the United States gave. It's the same answer that many people gave.'

"Trump said he reviewed the semi-topless photos that Prejean said she submitted to modeling agencies. 'We've made a determination that the pictures taken were acceptable, they were fine, in many cases they were actually lovely pictures, and in some cases they were modeling pictures.' "

In the New York Post, columnist Andrea Peyser calls the left's treatment of Prejean "disgraceful":

"Carrie has become the victim of nothing less than a hate crime. Just don't ask Rosie O'Donnell to stand up for the beauty's civil rights. Ditto Sean Penn. Or the American Civil Liberties Union, for starters."

But if you take a step back, everyone wins. Trump gets coverage for his silly pageant, Prejean, who was back on Hannity last night, keeps her title despite the ugly campaign against her. And Perez is more famous than he was last month.

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