Wednesday, Jan. 21 at 1 p.m. ET

Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, Jan. 21 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 everyone. Looking forward to chatting about the new era ahead...


Washington, D.C.: Regarding the oath of office, many people are saying shifting the word "faithfully" to a different place in the sentence did not in any way change the meaning of what was said.

Well, that depends. To use the repeated example of Jack Kilpatrick (writer of "The Writer's Art"), where do you put the word "only" in the phrase "John hit Barack"? There's a significant difference between the phrases "Only John hit Barack," "John only hit Barack," and "John hit Barack only." Strict constitutitonalists will rightfully debate the mistake and, to avoid problems, simply repeat the oath as has been done in the past and end any question.

Somehow it seems pretty clear; at least it does to me.

Repeat the oath for the sake of confirmation.

Ruth Marcus: I have a dusty recollection that Justice Roberts has a longstanding pet peeve with split infinitives. But it's my understanding that the oath-taking doesn't make you president; you become president no matter what at 12 p.m. I wouldn't call for a do-over.


Washington, D.C.: Any chance once he closes Gitmo, he might return the land to the Cubans? Sounds good.

Ruth Marcus: Bet you good tickets to the next inauguration that he doesn't!


Washington, D.C.: It was mentioned on news coverage of the inaugural that 11 of the Supreme Court justices were in attendance. Who was missing, and what could possibly have kept him/her away from the momentous occasion?

Ruth Marcus: Eleven? Last time I checked there were nine, FDR notwithstanding. And I didn't see, at least in a quick check, any stories about how many actually turned up. Sometimes they skip State of the Union speeches, but this one is kind of a biggy.


Bethesda, Md.: Yesterday's historic inauguration was marred by the inept screening of people who had tickets to the capitol lawn area (the 240,000 tickets). Thousands of people in our blue line were denied entry, there was no crowd control, and there was no one to provide information. Today's press reports gloss over these problems, which also impacted at least 1 or 2 other lines. My heart goes out to those who sacrificed and traveled thousands of miles to view this historic day. 'And Then We Knew It Was Too Late' (Post, Jan. 21)

Ruth Marcus: Me too. I was stunned about the lack of adequate signage and information. The officers I dealt with were nice, for the most part, but simply didn't have enough information to be helpful. It was inevitable that there were going to be some problems with a massive event like this, and I'm enormously respectful of the need for security, but some of it just seemed badly, and unnecessarily, done. I got in, thankfully, but afterward was trapped for an hour behind a barricade, one short block from the building I had already been pre-cleared to get into, with a Secret Service office past the barricade even though the street was clear, the new president was still lunching at the Capitol, and there was no evident security issue.


Fairfax County, Va.: Dear Ruth, I realize this is a little off topic, but I was on the Mall yesterday on the slope just below the Washington Monument, and the one thing that I heard people of all races happily quoting afterwards was the Reverend Lowrey!

We really enjoyed the Reverend's lines about "yellow will be mellow; the red man will get ahead, man" and so on. It just tickled us in the crowd. For me, as a middle-aged white woman, it felt like we were hearing new voices at a big public ceremony, fun and accessible but coming from a different place. Just wanted to share that.

Ruth Marcus: I think that line is an oldie but goodie! I kind of liked hinge point of history, myself.


Wokingham, U.K.: Did you, as a writer on political ethics, think that Bush's all-but-failure to pardon people on what might have seemed to be grounds of political sympathy or pressure from friends was something of a step in the right direction for him?

Ruth Marcus: I would have liked to see more pardons, actually, although not "political" ones. I thought the president's general decision (Libby commutation notwithstanding) to stay out of the political pardon mess was very welcome, as was the absence of 11th hour craziness that marked the end of the Clinton presidency.


Northern Virginia: I don't know how they got to eleven justices, but I did see that Sandra Day O'Connor was in attendance, which I thought was great. So in a way, that got the total to ten. Was I the only one wondering if she might be returning to public life?

Ruth Marcus: That's an interesting question. Wonder if there's a good commission to chair or something like that?


New York : I'm very happy that Pres. Obama has been inaugurated, but here's something that would be wonderful for the country which has almost no chance of happening: we badly need the power of the presidency to be drastically curtailed, and for the legislative branch to take back the position of equality that it enjoyed for most of this country's history.

The constitutional rot has got to be cleaned away, and this is more than investigations and prosecutions, which aren't going to happen anyway. Unfortunately, we've seen over the past eight years that Senators and Congresspersons, where they are not grimly marching in lock step with the president of their own party, will at best make a few pathetic bleats of disapproval, a la Sen. Spector, and then vote the president's way anyway.

These men and women care about raising money and getting re-elected, first second and always, and they have debased their own institution, to our detriment. It will be no different now with Reid and Pelosi, and with a Democrat as president, the two parties will now just switch positions and steal each other's lines. We are left with the prospect of Pres. Obama voluntary relinquishing the most excessive of his own powers, a dubious prospect at that, and one which can be reversed anyway by the next Bush/Cheney. We've ought to start with the war powers, as each unnecessary war in our history-- and almost none of them have been necessary -- has had catastrophic results for our culture and way of life. We need strict requirements and time limits against a president's unilateral use of force, and no substantial military intervention of any kind without the declaration of war that the Founders demanded. Signing statements should be rendered null and void.

A new beginning? How about some 'bipartisanship' in Congress which works for all of us, for a change?

Ruth Marcus: We'll see about bipartisanship. I was reading old Senate Judiciary Committee hearings the other night -- pathetic, I know -- about Eric Holder and the FALN pardons and what was most striking was the way everybody had simply switched places. Republican senators were railing about the abuse of executive privilege, etc. Plus ca change.


Franconia, Va.: Heartfelt thanks to the Smithsonian museums for serving as impromptu warming and rest stations for many of us. They relaxed the rules at the one I visited and let people eat and drink in the galleries and collapse on the floor against the walls. It was the right thing to do.

I had an absolutely wonderful time watching the swearing in from just below the Washington Monument and I just stopped into a museum as a precaution, not really believing I was cold. A half hour later, I had finally warmed up and realized these institutions were quite literally life savers. Thank you Smithsonian museums. I am glad not to be dealing with frostbite today.

Ruth Marcus: Good to know. Thanks Smithsonian!


"I have a dusty recollection that Justice Roberts has a longstanding pet peeve with split infinitives.": This just goes to show you what embarrassingly silly pedants people who object to split infinitives are.

Ruth Marcus: Oh well, rules are rules. I try not to split, but sometimes you have to. But I just went back and looked at the oath, and I'm wrong, too: when the chief justice moved around the faithfully, I was thinking he had a problem with "to faithfully executive." But it's "will faithfully execute."

No matter. Obama's still president.

_______________________ After Flub, Experts Say, A Do-Over Couldn't Hurt (Post, Jan. 21)

Ruth Marcus: on that topic


Chicago: All 9 sitting justices were at the swearing-in ceremony. You can count them in the photos, spread across three rows at the front of the stage to Obama's left.

Ruth Marcus: Noted. And Justice O'Connor makes 10.


Washington, D.C.: I hope that yesterday was the high water mark of the security industrial complex. I didn't have any problems getting to the Mall because (1) I walked from Arlington, and (2) I didn't attempt to walk past the Washington Monument. Even so, I noticed barriers and fences that made little or no sense, and seemed to create more problems than they solved. Other than checking their tickets, it didn't make any sense to screen the people going to the ticketed standing room areas. I mean none of the other areas on the Mall were subject to security screening. Do you think that Obama will push back on some of the security "experts", many of whom are contractors or representatives of law enforcement agencies attempting to justify their existence? Also, can we please please re-open E Street south of the White House (I realize that Penn. Ave. is probably closed for good).

Ruth Marcus: I'm with you on the security industrial complex (nice phrase.) But I suspect we're going to see little improvement and perhaps more hassle since this president wants to get out and about more. Inside the bubble, though, it's not evident how seemingly silly some of the security is, so I wouldn't hope much that he'll push back.

Even on E Street!


Inaugural Poetry: I am no fan of free verse (being from the same school as Robert Frost who likened it to playing tennis without a net). Yesterday helped confirm me in my view that much of contemporary poetry is no more than good (if sometimes over flowery) rhetoric. Based on what I heard yesterday, Obama is a better poet than the professional poet who followed. Can Obama name himself poet laureate?

Ruth Marcus: Don't know that he's ever written poetry, but he is quite the writer. I did not love yesterday's poem but I kind of liked its straightforward tone, which had the air of working people.


Re: Executive Power: I'm encouraged by Obama's OLC appointments (hires? Not sure what they are exactly). They all were very critical of the unitary executive theory as a legal matter, so hopefully they will be consistent now that Obama's in office. I also was heartened by Obama saying he's like to do stem cells through the legislature instead of using executive power (and was amused by some media people saying he was backing off his promise by doing so - apparently they like royalty).

Ruth Marcus: With you on that. Appointments, I think, through the deputy level. I've known Dawn Johnsen for a long time, and she is very strong and very practical, not about to give away presidential power but obviously very different from the more recent occupants of that office. And I thought Obama's comment on stem cells was very thoughtful...and a good approach if the Hill will get to it.


Rochester, NY: You've come out strongly against investigating any past misdeeds of the Bush administration, regardless of whether or not they were clearly illegal.

Let me ask you this: are you ever in favor prosecuting White House officials for anything, ever? Or do you essentially accept the Nixonian formulation "if the president does it, it's legal."

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, but you're not quoting or understanding me accurately, at all, and, for the record, "I am not a Nixonian." Here's the column again,


Columbia, MD: Regarding your column today, I remember something I wrote in high school -- mid-'80s. In English class, we were asked to make predictions for the future. I remember writing that I believed we'd see an African American elected president before we would elect a woman. I believed we would see an African American president in my lifetime. Sadly, I don't see the country electing a woman in my lifetime. I will be happy when this country one day elects an African American woman (or any woman for that matter). Until then, all this election proved to me was that anyone can grow up to be president, unless you're a woman. Making A New America

Ruth Marcus: I'm sorry you feel that way. I expected the opposite (woman first) but I remain hopeful of living to see both.


Albany, N.Y.: I'm concerned that Obama didn't emphasize sacrifice enough in his speech. Do you think that middle class people realize that they're sacrificing things like Social Security and health care in order for the country to get back on its feet?

Ruth Marcus: I think he's talked a lot about sacrifice and hard choices in recent days, in his speech and elsewhere. He has not yet been specific about what he means. The speech was not the place for that, but I am anxious to see him put some meat on the bones.


Scotia, NY : I work with a fellow, a Harvard Law grad, who took pains yesterday to point out that both Pres. Obama and J. Roberts are products of his alma mater as well. Today, I told him that it takes two Harvard graduates to screw up a simple oath of office!

Ruth Marcus: Very funny. Full disclosure, though, I graduated from Harvard Law School.


DC: Tell us - will Obama put the "Taxation without Representation" license plates back on the limo? Please say yes.

Ruth Marcus: Don't know. That would be nice -- but even nicer would be for him to put some muscle behind an actual vote, for which there are more than enough votes in the House and Senate. He didn't seem especially interested in spending much political capital on that when he came in the other day.


Evansville, Ind.: When will Obama reveal that he is really Osama and a secret Muslim terrorist?

Ruth Marcus: The second inaugural address.


Bronx, NY : Are you aware of the fact, that under the terms of international agreements that we are signatories to, that Obama has an obligation under international law to investigate the Bush/Cheney alleged crimes? Or do you think we should abrogate all of our international agreements, and become a rogue regime, like Iran or North Korea? Its a slippery slope we're on here, Madam.

Ruth Marcus: Yes, we should become like North Korea. Come on. People can reasonably disagree about the importance of pursuing investigations without amping up the hyperbole this way.


Bow, N.H.: What will become of Dr. Dean's 50-state strategy? Does that strategy (and focus on systems and apparatus) get any credit for the 2006 and 2008 Democratic gains, or is it really just personal -- anti-Bush and pro-Obama?

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure about Gov. Kaine's plans; he came to The Post the other day but I missed him. I think that clearly some of the 50-state strategy was helpful, but even more was something you left out--not just the personal anti-Bush, pro-Obama, but the enormous organizational force that the Obama campaign assembled and mobilized and is now looking for new ways to deploy.


Pittsburgh: Am I the only one to be bothered by the fact that twice lately (including in his inaugural speech yesterday) Barack Obama has made reference to Americans as being descended from immigrants? This excludes the people who were already well-established here before the first Europeans arrived, and those kidnapped and brought here against their will, like so much chattel. I realize he himself is descended from immigrants, but do wish he'd show greater sensitivity to, among others, his wife's and daughters' ancestors. Could someone maybe point out this deficiency to him?

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, but this seems like stretching to be offended to me. He's not sensitive enough to the feelings of descendants of slaves? Native Americans, you may have a point. But America is a nation of immigrants, albeit some unwilling immigrants, and the more we recognize and celebrate that, the better off we are. I am thinking, for example, of FDR's magnificent greeting to the DAR, "Fellow Immigrants," although a quicky search suggests that might be apocryphal.


Re: sacrifice: Let's face it, the American middle class needs to face up to a future without bloated entitlements. That means retiring later, drawing less Social Security, and having fewer health care benefits. It might mean fewer plasma tvs and trips to the Applebee's salad bar, too. Do you think Obama has the guts to be straight with people about this?

Ruth Marcus: Well, maybe the Applebee's. Retiring later? Fewer health care benefits? Much more doubtful. We'll see.


Alexandria, Va.: Do you think we'll ever see a Jewish president in our lifetime?

Ruth Marcus: My Jewish mother asked me that this morning--and said I should have put that in my column. Maybe, but less likely, I think, than first woman.


The spirit of bipartisanship: I thought that the many embraces between Bush and Obama, and especially Obama escorting Bush through the Capitol to Executive One was an act of real menchkite (had to sprinkle in a little Yiddish!). I really hope that this spirit of bipartisanship and basic human decency catches on in a city and political system in dire need of both.

Ruth Marcus: Me too, and I hate to sound cynical, but we have been here before. I reread previous Washington Post editorials on Inauguration Day, and we're always bemoaning partisanship, praising the new guy for promising a better tone this time around, etc. It's a little depressing. But 43 and 44 did a nice job on the transition, I thought, with the exception of Blair House.


Princeton, N.J.: Abdul Razzaq Hekmati was regarded in Afghanistan as a war hero, famous for his resistance to the Russian occupation in the 1980s and later for a daring prison break he organized for three opponents of the Taliban government in 1999. In 2003 he was arrested by the US Army and sent to Guantanamo. He was kept there without the faintest vestige of due process. On 12/30/2007 he died after a long a painful battle with cancer. He died without his family and friends, thousands of miles from the country he loved.

Is there any hope we can persuade the Afghan people and, indeed, the rest of the world that we are a good and decent people?

Ruth Marcus: I don't know about this story. I do think there is hope. You can see in the response of other countries to Obama's election the desire to find a way to feel good about the Untied States again.


Lake Carmel, NY : I'm listening to Sen. Kyl "grill" Timothy Geitner, and Hillary is also about to be confirmed today, thanks to a delay engineered by Sen. Cornyn, and I wonder, is there a point to all of this? Everyone knows that each member of Pres. Obama's cabinet is going to be accepted, so what does the GOP hope for here, to convince their base that they aren't push-overs? Is there anything else going on here, because it doesn't seem very spirited from my perspective anyway. What am I missing?

Ruth Marcus: Well, I think there's a difference between the two episodes. Don't see any point to Sen. Cornyn's action, but I do think the Geithner tax issue, and, indeed, other questions about Geithner, deserve serious exploration. Hearings aren't supposed to be charades/formalities. The Senate's a co-equal branch. But, as I said before, it's a lot easier to talk about bipartisanship than practice it.


"Maybe, but less likely, I think, than first woman.": But more likely than a "non-believer."

Ruth Marcus: Fair point!


Re: investigations: You write "People can reasonably disagree about the importance of pursuing investigations without amping up the hyperbole this way."

I agree completely. Why people would get so mad about something like torture is beyond me. I mean, it's not like Bush had an affair with an intern or anything, right?

Ruth Marcus: I'm going to keep trying here. It's possible to find torture abhorrent, as I do, without thinking that there is much to gain, and a significant amount to lose, by pursuing criminal prosecutions.


Anonymous: The limo plates say USA 1

Ruth Marcus: Yes, but are they the "taxation without representation" plates that DC has?


Lightning Round?: Wow, I'm having trouble keeping up with everything that's happened to the new president in just 24 hours. Does the staff get IV drips of energy drinks?

Ruth Marcus: I hope so. I think the staff is probably exhausted and overwhelmed. Also exhilarated.


Falls Church, Va.: "all this election proved to me was that anyone can grow up to be president, unless you're a woman."

Indeed. Look how the press immediately questioned Sarah Palin's ability to be a mother while out on the campaign trail, while never raising any question about Obama's (or any other male candidate's) ability to be a father while campaigning.

Ruth Marcus: Going to take issue with that one, since I was among those critical of Gov. Palin. I don't think the questioning was so much about her ability to be a mother on the campaign trail as it was about the particular needs that her family was facing and the implications for them of her candidacy. I hope I would have said the same about a male candidate.


Alexandria, Va.: I am really unhappy that the R's in Congress are questioning Hillary over Bill's fundraising for his library. Did they ask President Bush, Jr., about his father's fundraising for his library? I bet not!

Ruth Marcus: To continue in my argumentative streak: I don't think you have to be an R to have questions about Clinton's fundraising. There is a difference between parents and spouses, and, more important, I do not think Bush 41 was actively fundraising while his son was president in the way that Clinton plans to while his wife is Secretary of State.


pursuing criminal prosecutions: But many of us do not want criminal prosecutions which would be almost impossible to achieve since most of the evidence (e-mails, et al) has been "lost." We simply want the facts about torture, illegal spying, habeas, etc. made public so the next time a President seeks to break the law, he will think twice.

Ruth Marcus: That's a different question. I'm more agnostic on investigation in a non criminal sense. What I'd like to know is, what needs investigating that has not already been investigated? What information that could reasonably be made public has not already emerged? But do you really think the prospect of investigation would have deterred Bush? Didn't seem so.


Brooklyn: "Do you think we'll ever see a Jewish president in our lifetime?"

Look out for Bloomberg in 2016. I would have said no to this question before this year. I never thought I'd ever see a black president in my lifetime. Never. And I'm in my 30s, so I didn't think it was going to happen in the next 50 years either.

But Obama has changed absolutely everything.

Ruth Marcus: Be fun to watch. And good for the consultants to make money from!


RE: Pittsburgh's Comments: The President made explicit reference to the labor of slaves ( "those who worked under the crack of a whip") when he spoke of those who came before us, and who worked to make a better life for those who cam after.

Ruth Marcus: Noted.


Chicago IL: It's depressing to see the Clinton/anti-Obama people are still with us. A single candidate is way too small a sample size from which to make these ridiculously overbroad assertions like "a woman can't be president." She didn't win. Nor did Chris Dodd, or Joe Biden, or in fact any other white man to run this time. What does it tell us other than than Obama was deemed the best candidate?

Ruth Marcus: And noted.


No Investigations: Fine. No investigations of torture. Where exactly is the deterrence against such future conduct, under the Marcus Plan? Everybody got away with murder during Iran Contra, thanks to the Bush pardons, and it has come back to bite us, but good.

Ruth Marcus: Going to refer you back to the column where I talked about this is some detail,


Fairfax, Va.: Apparently the president is not redecorating the Oval Office but keeping the same desk and the Laura Bush-designed rug. That sure seems frugal and smart at a time like this. I like the early symbols of financial restraint like this (more painful will be the senior staff's salary freeze, in this expensive region -- poor them).

Or maybe President Clinton was just being honest at the gathering of the presidents photo op when he so famously said "I looove this rug." Must be a nice rug.

Ruth Marcus: And definitely noted. I thought it was a good idea not to start redecorating.


Boston: I know that all Presidents come in promising bipartisanship. But Obama has put some action behind it. Not only the stuff he's done during the transition, but during the campaign he seemed to put a lot of effort into criticizing the current administration without criticizing generic "conservatives" or "Republicans." Given how Bush used "liberal" as a pejorative and couldn't be bothered to call it the DemocratIC Party, I'm hoping for more this time.

Ruth Marcus: Fingers crossed. Ok, we've run out of time, but I'll come back for a definitive assessment of the Obama administration two weeks in!


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