Wednesday, Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. ET

Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 7, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns, her posts on the Post Partisan blog and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Ruth Marcus: Hi everybody, and Happy 2009. Looking forward to many fun chats in the new year.


Bellingham, Wash.: Couple questions, First, I know Senators fancy themselves as independent but what's up with Diane Feinstein bucking Obama and the Dems on the Illinois Senate seat AND Leon Panetta all in one day? Is she still cheesed that HRC didn't win the nomination? Did George Tenet's lifetime of "intelligence" service prove to Feinstein that experience trumps competence over at CIA?

Second, re: Rod Balgojevich and Roland Burris, I know it would be strictly symbolic, but why are these two still Democrats? One is under arrest and was told in no uncertain terms NOT to appoint a new Senator and the other accepts an appointment and very publicly pushes to be accepted. What would the Dem party stand to lose by simply kicking these two out of the party? Anyway sorry for the length here and thanks so much for your chats...

Ruth Marcus: Well, on Feinstein, not clear any more that she's bucking anyone on Burris; Obama and the Dems seem to be catching up to her. She was obviously ticked off, understandably so, about not being consulted on Panetta. And I think in general a lot of Democrats on the Hill want to make clear that they're not about to roll over for the new administration. I think that's a good thing, and there are legitimate questions about Panetta's experience. I covered him as White House COS and I have a lot of respect for his competence, experience, integrity, etc., and I woudl defer to my colleague David Ignatius on how that would translate to CIA and be balanced against lack of intelligence experience. Is it not possible to have experience and competence?

On kicking out Burris and Blago--I dunno, can you get excommunicated as a Democrat? Is there a mechanism for that? Who decides?


Anonymous: Has there been any progress with regards to seating a replacement for Hillary's senate seat? Thank you.

Ruth Marcus: More meetings, and the Sheldon Silver endorsement suggested that the money is on Carolin Kennedy. But no specific progress that I'm aware of, the plan seems to be to wait until Sen. Clinton is confirmed, and her hearings are set for, I believe, next week.


Blair House situation: Props to Kamen et alia for figuring out why the Obamas had to rent a hotel room in order for their children to go to school. However, as a former Texan and Southerner, I am deeply ashamed and angry at Bush for refusing to show the Obamas proper hospitality so he could honor Blair and Howard with Presidential Poodle medals. 119 Rooms, 70,000 Square Feet and One Lucky Australian (Post, Jan. 7)

Ruth Marcus: I completely agree. I read somethwere that Blair House has 19 bedrooms, and surely the Obamas could have been accommodated. Otherwise the outgoing administration has been pretty civil and upstanding in dealing witht he Obama transition so I'm not sure what is going on here.


Seattle: What's your take on Burris's appointment? I have a bunch of conflicting thoughts because of the different considerations. Gov. Blagovich is innocent until proven guilty, but impeachment or indictment is a matter of months, not the days that Fitzgerald was given to work with. Burris doesn't seem to be "paying" for the seat, but I think that Blagovich chose him simply to piss off Democrats.

Ruth Marcus: I think it's a hard call but having been accused, credibly, of trying to get personal gain in exchange for the Senate seat it seems to me Blagojevich has forfeited his right to fill it and should not be allowed to do so.


Minneapolis: George H.W. Bush didn't have intelligence experience when he was head of CIA. It seems to me that what CIA needs right now is a credible, effective manager who can tune the operation up without getting in the way of the spooks. Seems to me that Pannetta is a good choice for that.

Ruth Marcus: That's a fair analysis but I would want to understand more about how much the CIA director needs a grounding in intelligence issues, and how much grounding Panetta had as COS or elsewhere, before making that conclusion. This may be a bad analogy, but I would not want an attorney general who is not an attorney despite the turmoil and management problems at DOJ.


East Cleveland, Ohio: Ruth -- do you think Obama would be wise to appoint Ralph Nader as the head of the FTC?

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure if you are meaning to be funny but this is a question that I'm not permitted to answer, since my husband, Jon Leibowitz, is a (Democratic) FTC Commissioner. So I think I'll avoid opining on Ralph Nader's fitness for that job!


Re: Panetta: There seems to be two things going on with Finestein's umbrage at the Panetta pick. First, that she wasn't yet informed, which seems to be a matter of the pick being leaked, rather than a deliberate act. Second, though, is that Panetta is an effective politician with support and rapport in Congress who won't be dependent on her as Committee Chairman to get things done with Congress, and it may be his independence from her that irks her.

Ruth Marcus: Well, as I've said, there's also the possibility of the third, which is that she is also genuinely worried about the substance.


can you get excommunicated as a Democrat? Is there a mechanism for that? Who decides? : Of course not. That's ridiculous. You can call yourself any party you want to. The point is not their political affiliations but their current occupations; Blago is still the gov and entitled, alas, to appoint anyone he wants. (Not that he shouldn't have resigned as soon as those taped phone calls came to light, but I guess that would be like expecting Bush to apologize for Iraq.)

Ruth Marcus: Ok, except who gets to decide that he is "entitled." Hard legal question, certainly.


Burke, Va.: The hissy fit over Panetta is absurd. How effective have CIA directors from the traditional mold been since the Iranian revolution? Answer: Not at all. I think the Democrats lack the fortitude to say a liberal can be the director of the CIA. Remember when Ted Sorenson was replaced, after a similar firestorm, by Admiral Whatshisname. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief because he was an Admiral. What was his name anyway?

Ruth Marcus: Pardon me if I object to the term "hissy fit." Sorry, I don't think you would use this term if it were Sen. Don Feinstein.


Boston: Riddle me this. Why has the Clinton Foundation taken between $10-25 million from a government (Saudi Arabia) that, per the State Department Web site, considers women "HOUSEHOLD PROPERTY?"

If any country considered a racial minority "household property" (which, by the way, is a direct quote from the State Department Travel Advisory about Saudi Arabia), people would be apoplectic that people took their money.

Maybe the better question isn't why did they take the money, but where's the outrage that should ostensibly be shaming them into returning it?

Ruth Marcus: But we have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, we sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia,

Ruth Marcus: we have all sorts of other interests involving Saudi Arabia, so I think that expecting the Clinton Foundation to turn down their money--the Bush library certainly didn't--goes too far. As odious as their position on women is.


Upper East Side, NYC: Ruth,

It seems like every time I open my mouth, or go out of my way to visit people in Rochester or some other unbelievable place, my polling numbers go down.

Don't these people know I've ghost-written books about poetry and used my family letterhead to get my rich friends to donate money to schools?

Even worse, people under 40 don't seem to know who I am at all! That's what I get for hailing my own cabs. I may as well go back to my married name.

Could you write another glowing column about how dreamy it would be for me to become Senator?

Your friend,

Princess Caroline

Ruth Marcus: Dear Princess,

Thanks so much for reading the column. As you know, I think it would be better if there were a special election to replace Sen. Clinton.




Richmond, Va. : Re: sometimes there is one president and sometimes there isn't. You know, I'm an Obama supporter, so don't take this question as too cynical, but how come Obama says there is one president on, say, foreign policy and then acts as if there are two, on, well, you know, the economy. I've never seen -- have you -- so many news conferences dressed up as presidential news conferences by the one president who isn't a president. How come Obama hasn't stayed out of the spotlight on such weighty matters (no matter how much WE ALL WANT TO KNOW) until after he is sworn in. I'm no fan of Bush's, but it is a bit insulting, isn't it to take over -- ah, selectively?

Ruth Marcus: I do think that there is a clear difference between foreign policy and economic policy. It would be incredibly irresponsible of Obama not to be developing a stimulus--sorry, recovery--package until he takes office. But the United States needs to speeak with one voice in foreign policy, and I think he is right to be silent here.


"entitled": The Illinois legislature entitled the sitting governor to appoint replacement senators.

There's not much of a legal question there.

Which is why I was surprised by the Dems reactions when he did appoint someone - shouldn't they have had a plan in place for that? I think that they should have embraced the choice of Burris as a obvious "clean" choice - even suggesting then that he was just a placeholder - that resolved what could have been a sticky situation. And then called on Blago to resign again.

Ruth Marcus: Well, they had previously told Blago that they would not seat an appointment.

And entitled--well, the Illinois legislature is not the only one that gives the entitlement. What if there were a clearly fraudulent election--would the Senate then be required to seat the elected senator? No--it gets to judge the legitimacy of the election. Perhaps the same for this, I hope, unique, appointment situation.


Washington, D.C.: Can't find a single person who will quarrel with Panetta's selection by name in today's lead story. Especially odious is this bit:

Obama and Panetta "should think twice about pledges they make now" about the handling of terrorism detainees, another former senior official said, "because they may come back to haunt them in the future if some dire circumstances occur."

The Post ought to put names on these people, especially if they're going to make such grim projections. Then we'll see how brave they are. Obama Is Under Fire Over Panetta Selection (Post, Jan. 7)

Ruth Marcus: It's very esy to say that all sources should be quoted by name. But if you have that rule you will also have much less information shared with readers.


Madison, Wisc.: Thanks for your article today and for taking questions. In your column, you state, "The country cannot afford a 111th Congress as gridlocked as the 110th. Nor should it settle for a rubber-stamp Democratic Congress doing the bidding of the new Democratic president."

I'm less concerned about Democratic rubber-stamping than Republican obstructionism. Given the more radical nature of the (remaining) House Republicans, shouldn't Obama be prepared to bulldoze legislation if bipartisanship doesn't work?

Ruth Marcus: Well, the House is a body that operates by majority rule, so I don't think the obstructionism will be a particular problem there. The Senate is another matter, and I think that fair treatment and opportunity for hearing, debate, amendment, etc--in other words, as much regular order as possible under the emergency circumstances--will improve the chances for bipartisan agreement.


Princeton, N.J.: Regarding Blago, has presumption of innocence gone the way of habeas corpus? Doesn't Illinois law require him to appoint a Senator?

Why didn't you ask Harley to have a special election to replace Trent since that happens to be what Miss law required (as opposed to NY law)?

Ruth Marcus: The presumption of innocence is vitally important--in the criminal context. But it has less force when there is a public servant who has been accused of criminal activity. This is why, for example, Congress has rules requiring that people who are under indictment be removed from committee chairmanships, etc.


Scientology question: In the wake of the Travoltas' son's death, any chance the Obama administration will look into revoking Scientology's religious designation (with its attendant tax breaks)? Also, could you please link to Richard Leiby's great Washington Post expose on Scientology that ran a few years ago? This links to a chat Leiby did about Scientology, which includes links to his other pieces.

Ruth Marcus: Zero chance.


Minneapolis: Thomas Tamm, the whistleblower who revealed information about the illegal NSA spying program, is being investigated by the Justice Department for his actions. Do you believe that Mr. Tamm should face more legal scrutiny for his actions than those who developed and approved the programs the first place? If so, why?

Ruth Marcus: I would be extremely reluctant to see Mr. Tamm prosecuted, based on what I know, and also extremely surprised if that were to happen under the Obama administration.


Washington, DC: I can't believe that the White House is expected to dis-invite the former head of state of a major ally AFTER he accepted the invitation to stay at Blair House, just to accommodate the Obamas, who wanted to arrive earlier than expected. Would Obama really want Howard treated that way? I doubt it.

Ruth Marcus: They have 19 bedrooms!


Washington, D.C.: In your column offering multiple arguments against prosecution of senior Bush administration officials for potential lawbreaking, you eventually come around to the point that prosecution is justified if there is genuine evidence of crimes.

Senior Bush administration officials specifically authorized waterboarding, among other "enhanced interrogation techniques." If you believe waterboarding is torture - and it is often held up as a paradigm case of torture - under the Torture Act, then the undisputed fact that it was authorized and carried out means that a crime was committed. Do you not believe that waterboarding is torture?

Similarly, it is undisputed that the Bush administration authorized warrantless electronic surveillance outside of the FISA statute, which states that it is the exclusive means for carrying out such surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes. Do you believe the President can disregard that statute? If not, was a crime not committed in authorizing such an end-run around the statute?

Ruth Marcus: The problem I see is that there were legal opinions, however wrong, justifying all such conduct. I would be reluctant to prosecute someone who relied in good faith on those flawed opinions, and reluctant to prosecute lawyers for coming to incorrect legal conclusions.


Bethesda, Md.: The word "State" is in the name of my graduate school university. I'm distressed by the Obama's reliance on Ivy Leaguers and, yes, the possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy. I feel more and more marginalized for not having the connections, money, and background to get into the "right" schools, even through I worked my butt off and had, I feel, truly fabulous thinkers as profs at my land-grant U -- none of whom are getting cabinet appointments. Is this another sign of the divide between the have and have-nots or do I have a chip on my shoulder?

Ruth Marcus: Boy I'm struggling with how to answer this. (Full disclosure, Yale '79, Harvard Law School '84). I've been very impressed with the quality of the Obama appointees, although struck, as you are, by the pretty heavy preponderance of Ivy League credentials. I guess--and I'm going to get in trouble h ere, I'm sure--I'd rather have Harvard than Regent University, or whatever. And I'm not convinced that otherwise worthy candidates lacking fancy degrees are getting turned away....


Blair House Kerfuffle: The official story is not that John Howard's staying in Blair House, with its 19 bedrooms, is the problem. The problem, officially, is that there are all sorts of official functions, parties, meetings, etc. scheduled for Blair House until January 15. The task of keeping the Obamas secure would be compromised by all the previously-scheduled events at Blair House.

Ruth Marcus: Oh please. No one gets in without a lot of background checks, ssn's, dob, etc.


... who are under indictment ...: But Blago is not even under indictment. Suppose I or Fitz accused Obama of beating his wife. No appointments?

Ruth Marcus: He's been criminally charged. The indictment is forthcoming. The presumption of innocence doesn't require people to put on blinders. Would you have the Illinois Legislature wait until he's convicted?


Prescott, Ariz.: How does your opinion that people are more scared of their name being sullied, being hauled before Congress, and having to take a low-paying job at the Heritage Foundation instead of a posh lobbying job -- rather than being scared of being criminally prosecuted -- work out here in the normal world? I mean, is there anything analogous that applies to us little people? I ask because it is you villagers that have been pressing "deterrence" and mandatory sentences on us little people, and now it seems you are saying that people aren't really scared of going to jail.

Ruth Marcus: Village? What village. Sorry, I really bristle at these sweeping statements, for example about pushing mandatory sentences. I said that people are deterred by things OTHER than going to jail--yes, like being hauled before Congress--and, most fundamentally, that there is a role for prosecutorial discretion, both here in the village and outside.


Ruth Marcus: Well, that was bracing! I look forward to being back in a few weeks -- the first full day of the Obama administration.

Until then, thanks for reading.


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