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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

Senator Ted Cruz speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Austin, Texas, last month. Cruz is thinking about running for president in 2016, according to a report in the National Review. (Deborah Cannon/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

Ted Cruz presidential race 2016: Whose worst nightmare?

By Staff Writer / 05.01.13

Fiery Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is thinking about running for president in 2016, according to a report in the National Review. The freshman lawmaker may have been in office only four months, but he has risen quickly to national prominence, and some conservative leaders are privately pushing him to run, reports NR’s Robert Costa.

“There’s not a lot of hesitation there,” says one Cruz donor quoted by Mr. Costa. “He’s fearless”.

Wow – a Cruz run would shake up the race, wouldn’t it? If nothing else a Cruz candidacy would provide the media with lots of spicy stories. This is a guy who’s irritated longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California with what she took to be condescending remarks, charged that Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel may have taken money from foreign governments, and recently called some of his Republican colleagues “squishes” in remarks to a Texas tea party gathering.

The latter led conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin to label Senator Cruz as immature and unsophisticated about the governance of the nation.

“There is being principled, and then there is being a jerk,” Ms. Rubin wrote this week.

Of course, Cruz supporters might label Rubin, a committed supporter of Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, as an accommodator who’s hurting the party from within. Clearly a Cruz candidacy would be somebody’s worst political nightmare. The question is whose. We’ll look at three scenarios:


His supporters say Cruz would be the scourge of the Democrats, a Barry Goldwater truth-teller who’d actually draw votes. In their view, the GOP has been captured by establishment big-government types who aren’t interested in shrinking federal spending or reducing Washington’s influence.

Cruz and fellow tea party favorites Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky are a Republican solution, not a problem, writes conservative pundit Erick Erickson at RedState today. If it was not for them, in Mr. Erickson’s view, the recently defeated Senate gun control bill would have become law.

“Those on the right who attack and assail them for daring to fight for their beliefs while in the Gomorrah that is our nation’s capital are the problem,” writes Erickson.

Other Republicans'

See above. The rest of the GOP might groan if Cruz entered the race. He’d certainly be a foil for Chris Christie – can’t you already see them shouting at each other over whether the New Jersey governor should have praised President Obama’s efforts in the wake of superstorm Sandy? And Cruz would compete with Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and probably others for the role of chief conservative contender. Immigration, an issue on which Cruz is to the right of Rubio, would become even more important.

“How excited do you think establishment Republicans will be after all the post-2012 wooing of Latino voters to see the primaries turn into a referendum on whether the party betrayed conservatism by supporting a path to citizenship?” writes Allapundit today on the conservative site Hot Air!.

His own

It’s also possible that Cruz could be the Rick Perry of 2016 – a candidate who crashes and burns due to his own words. And we don’t just mean calling lawmakers “squishes.” Cruz’s unsubstantiated charges against then-Senator Hagel drew an angry response from GOP Sen. John McCain, even though Senator McCain opposed Hagel’s Pentagon nomination as well.

And Cruz in the past has embraced lots of “conspiracy theories” that now may come back to haunt him, writes Ian Millhiser at the liberal site Think Progress. According to Millhiser, these include charges that communists have infiltrated Harvard Law School (which Cruz attended), that Islamic law threatens the US, and that George Soros has led an international conspiracy to abolish golf.

“If Cruz runs, he would give voice to the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society wing of the Republican Party that the National Review’s founder [William F. Buckley Jr.] fought so hard to purge several decades ago,” writes Millhiser.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire waves as she ends her speech at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., in March. Ayotte, who voted against the gun bill and, notably, was the only senator from the Northeast to vote no on the provision to extend background checks to more gun buyers, have emerged as ground zero in that battle. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Gun control forces take fight to New Hampshire, Sen. Kelly Ayotte

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 05.01.13

If you thought the gun debate ended two weeks ago when the Senate voted against expanded background checks and a host of other gun-control measures, think again.

Gun-control advocates are reviving the issue at the state level through ads, town hall meetings, and shaming campaigns in an effort to get lawmakers to change their vote and the Senate to reconsider new gun laws.

New Hampshire and its junior senator, Kelly Ayotte (R), who voted against the gun bill and, notably, was the only senator from the Northeast to vote no on the provision to extend background checks to more gun buyers, have emerged as ground zero in that battle.

Back home in New Hampshire, Senator Ayotte is feeling the heat at town hall meetings, where gun-control advocates are expressing anger. Erica Lafferty, whose mother, Dawn, was gunned down by Newtown, Conn., shooter Adam Lanza in December, confronted Ayotte at a town hall meeting in Warren, N.H., Tuesday.

“You had mentioned ... the burden on owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would harm. I am just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn't more important than that,” Ms. Lafferty asked.

We can’t imagine a more uncomfortable moment.

After expressing condolence for her loss, Ayotte said her position on gun laws hadn’t changed.

“As you and I both know, the issue wasn’t a background check system issue in Sandy Hook,” she said. “Mental health, I hope, is the one thing we can agree on going forward.”

With that, the encounter was done – but it’s likely to be the first of many confrontations Ayotte, and other senators who voted against the gun bill, will face in coming weeks.

In fact, Ayotte is one of a handful of senators – including Arizona’s Jeff Flake (R), Nevada’s Dean Heller (R), North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp (D), and Montana’s Max Baucus (D) – who are drawing fire for their "no" votes on background checks.

(Senator Flake recently said his vote puts his popularity “somewhere just below pond scum.” Indeed, a recent Public Policy Polling survey found him among the least popular senators in the country, with a 34 percent approval rating and a 51 percent disapproval rating, after the gun vote.)

Polls indicate similar trends for some other senators who voted against expanded background checks, including Ayotte. A Public Policy Polling survey also found that half of New Hampshire voters were less likely to support her in 2016 as a result of her vote. Nonetheless, a separate University of New Hampshire poll found her approval rating virtually unchanged, with 50 percent approving of her performance.

You can be sure gun-control advocates are looking to drive those ratings down.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, President Obama’s Organizing for Action, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, shooting victim and former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and some of the Newtown families have determined to carry on the gun-control fight, moving from the halls of Congress to the state level and to the airwaves with their message.

At the New Hampshire town hall meeting, Mayors Against Illegal Guns circulated signs reading #ShameOnYou, which were waved at Ayotte, whom critics have dubbed “NRAyotte.”

The same group also released a TV ad on Tuesday attacking the law enforcement credentials of Ayotte, a former state attorney general known for prosecuting some of New Hampshire's most notorious murder cases, with this message: “Senator Ayotte is giving criminals a pass.”

The National Rifle Association, of course, isn’t just standing by. It, along with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, are coming to Ayotte’s defense, airing ads thanking her and others who voted against the gun bill.

“Kelly Ayotte is not just a senator,” says a radio ad sponsored by NRA New Hampshire. “She’s also a mom who cares about protecting our kids. She knows the only way to prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook is to fix our broken mental health system.”

At this point it’s unlikely Ayotte and other senators will yield to the pressure. (Ayotte isn’t up for reelection until 2016, by which point her team hopes the issue will be a distant memory.)

But as The New York Times notes, “there is precedent for a Republican New Hampshire senator having a change of heart on gun control. Judd Gregg, whom Ms. Ayotte succeeded in 2011, initially voted against the assault weapons ban in 1994. He supported it 10 years later when it came up for renewal, though it ultimately never became law.”

Senator Gregg (R) won reelection after that vote, but Rep. Dick Swett (D) of New Hampshire, who cast one of the deciding votes for the assault weapons ban, didn’t fare so well.

He received death threats, started wearing a bulletproof vest, and told the Times, “It was the worst experience of my life.”

Needless to say, he didn’t win a fourth term.

No doubt Ayotte has taken note. 

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, in March. Ryan said he now supports the right of same-sex couples to adopt children, however he still opposes gay marriage. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

Paul Ryan gay adoption: Is his support a big deal?

By Staff writer / 05.01.13

On Monday, former GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan said he now supports the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. Representative Ryan added that he still opposes gay marriage, however.

The forum was a town-hall meeting in his home state of Wisconsin. Asked a question on gay rights, Ryan said that in 1999 or 2000, he had voted against allowing adoptions by same-sex couples in the District of Columbia, but that he’d be a “yea” on that issue if it came up today.

“I do believe that if there are children who are orphans who do not have a loving person or couple – I think if a person wants to love and raise a child, they ought to be able to do that. Period. I would vote that way. I do believe marriage is between a man and a woman; we just respectfully disagree on that issue,” Ryan said.

The Wisconsin lawmaker elaborated a bit on this position in remarks to a local television reporter, saying he’d felt that way for years, but he’s never talked about it publicly. He gave no indication if a defining moment or event caused the change of heart.

Is this a big deal? Well, it’s a medium-sized deal, at least – one more indication that the political ground on gay rights is shifting rapidly in the United States. Coming after Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio announced that he now supports same-sex marriage, in part because he has a gay son, Ryan’s announcement shows that even fiscally conservative former national-ticket candidates now feel they must make some sort of accommodation to the growing social acceptance of gays in the US.

After all, 61 percent of respondents to a December 2012 Gallup poll said they were in favor of gay couples having adoption rights. And the trend line is moving in a more tolerant direction: In another 2012 Gallup survey, 36 percent of Americans said they've become more accepting of same-sex marriage over the course of their lifetimes.

This is something any politician with national ambitions will have to take into account. And Ryan is widely thought to harbor at least thoughts about a 2016 race for the Oval Office.

If so, he may still have some way to go to attract significant same-sex support. As Rebecca Leber and Zack Ford note at the liberal-leaning ThinkProgress website, Ryan currently has a “zero” rating on gay rights from the Human Rights Campaign.

He supported the Defense of Marriage Act (signed into law by President Clinton in 1996) and opposed the repeal of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay service members.

As Ms. Leber and Mr. Ford note, Ryan may now get further press on the same-sex marriage front. One of the main arguments of gay-marriage opponents is that children are better off with different-sex parents.

“Now it seems he supports allowing same-sex families to raise children, but he still opposes providing those families with the same legal protections afforded to opposite-sex parents,” according to ThinkProgress.

Former US congressman Ron Paul (R) shakes hands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, March 7, 2013. (Chris Wattie/REUTERS)

Ron Paul slams Boston police. Has he gone too far?

By Staff writer / 04.30.13

Former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul has slammed US law enforcement for responding to the Boston Marathon bombing with “police state tactics.”

In a post on the website of libertarian activist Lew Rockwell, Mr. Paul said Monday that the governmental reaction to the tragic explosions was worse than the attack itself. The forced lockdown of much of the Boston area, police riding armored vehicles through the streets, and door-to-door searches without warrants were all reminiscent of a military coup or martial law, Paul added.

“The Boston bombing provided the opportunity for the government to turn what should have been a police investigation into a military-style occupation of an American city,” according to Paul.

Furthermore, this response did not result in the capture of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Paul charged. He was discovered hiding in a boat by a private citizen, who called police.

“And he was identified not by government surveillance cameras, but by private citizens who willingly shared their photographs with the police,” Paul wrote on Lew Rockwell’s site.

Yikes. This isn’t going to go down well in Watertown, is it? Citizens there applauded when police finally carted off Tsarnaev alive. The Boston police commissioner told his troops over the radio that “it’s a proud day to be a Boston police officer.” In the wake of the suspect’s capture the media have generally portrayed law enforcement officers as heroes.

But Paul’s contrarian take perhaps should not be surprising. After all, he’s a committed libertarian who at one point in the GOP presidential debates said that the border fence with Mexico might at some point be used to keep US citizens penned in.

And while Paul’s position here is, um, not in the majority, there are other public figures who charge that the Boston response was overkill. In some ways this is one of those points in the circle of American politics were conservative libertarianism and liberal progressivism meet.

The generally left-leaning Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, for instance, told PBS host Bill Moyers over the weekend that the public lionization of police in the wake of the Boston bombing isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“The way in which Americans now related to their government, the way in which they get nationalistic pride is through the assertion of this massive military or police force, and very few other things produce that kind of pride,” Greenwald said. “I think [this] shows a lot about our value systems and what the government is failing to do. And that’s the way in which this culture becomes coarsened.”

However, state and local officials have continued to defend their decision to shut down much of Boston for the Tsarnaev manhunt. At the time they did not know whether the suspect had more explosives or fellow conspirators, and they did not want to risk another tragedy.

“I think we did what we should have done and were supposed to do with the always-imperfect information that you have at the time,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) said at a news conference last week.

And Paul in particular is now drawing criticism for the company he keeps. Lew Rockwell, Paul’s former congressional chief of staff, now heads the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a think tank with “deep ties to the neo-Confederate movement,” which believes the wrong side won the Civil War, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

As a Paul employee, Rockwell oversaw newsletters published under the former congressman’s name that contained controversial statements about race, homosexuality, and other hot-button topics.

Furthermore, Paul’s own new organization, the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, has an advisory board that contains a “bevy of conspiracy theorists, cranks, and apologists for some of the worst regimes on the planet,” according to Daily Beast writer James Kirchik.

These include Southwestern Law School professor Butler Shaffer, who has written a post for the Lew Rockwell website titled “9/11 was a conspiracy,” notes the Daily Beast.

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford makes a point to the moderators during a debate with Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in Charleston, S.C., Monday. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Did Mark Sanford blow his last best chance to win votes in House race?

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 04.30.13

As far as political debates go, this one was a real rumble. 

On one side of the ring was South Carolina congressional candidate Mark Sanford (R), a former three-term congressman, two-term governor – and one-time Appalachian Trail devotee – who came across as a neophyte. On the other side was Democratic candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of comedian Stephen Colbert – and the actual political newcomer – who entered the debate swinging.

One week before a special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, the “75-minute slugfest” capped a raucous race that saw the frontrunner (the politically seasoned Mr. Sanford) and the underdog (newcomer Ms. Colbert Busch) switch roles.

Colbert Busch, we hear, threw jabs all evening long. Here's one: After Sanford spoke extensively about his efforts as a lawmaker and governor to cut wasteful spending, Colbert Busch turned to him and let loose this zinger:

“When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn’t mean you take the money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose.”

Kapow! For viewers just tuning in, this was of course a reference to Sanford’s use of state funds to fly to Argentina to visit his mistress, under the pretext of hiking the Appalachian Trail, a public relations fiasco that upended his political career. He later got divorced, was censured by the state Legislature, and paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest ever in South Carolina.

Barely half an hour into the debate, “the elephant in the room raised its trunk and blew,” as The New York Times put it.

The debate moderators and the audience, which hooted and hollered, weren’t much help.

“She went there, Governor Sanford,” one moderator said helpfully as Sanford stammered.

Sanford swung back, calling Colbert Busch a tool of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi who has accepted contributions and endorsements from labor unions, which are unpopular in conservative South Carolina.

Last week, we hear, he debated a cardboard cutout of Ms. Pelosi, and last night he uttered Pelosi’s name so many times that several people following the debate on Twitter suggested someone start a drinking game.


Once the comic book stunts subsided, the dueling duo dug into the issues, where their differences were many, as Politico reports.

Sanford said he opposed expanded background checks for gun buyers and the gun control bill that recently failed in the US Senate; Colbert Busch said she backed it. Sanford said he would vote against comprehensive immigration reform; Colbert Busch said she supports it. Sanford said gay marriage should be left to the states; Colbert Busch said it’s a matter of equality and civil rights.

“Freedom means freedom for everyone,” she said, echoing the words of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In mid-April, documents surfaced that revealed Sanford had trespassed onto his ex-wife’s property, slipping into her home and watching the Super Bowl with their 14-year-old, in violation of court orders.

It was one too many personal errors in judgment for the national GOP leadership to bear. It left the former governor to fend for himself just as groups supporting Colbert Busch stepped up the fight, spending nearly $1 million to hammer Sanford on South Carolina airwaves.

Colbert Busch has a 9-point lead over Sanford, according to a survey conducted April 19-21 by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. The election is next Tuesday.

President Obama speaks about immigration reform at a Las Vegas high school earlier this year. Obama won two-thirds of of the Hispanic vote in the November elections in part because of the conservative immigration positions staked out by Republicans in their party primary. (Isaac Brekken/AP/File)

Black voter turnout up, but Dems can't take 'Obama effect' for granted

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 04.29.13

If you had any doubts, it’s now official: President Obama has blacks to thank for his reelection. It turns out that record levels of black voter turnout propelled Obama to victory in 2012. So much so that if blacks had voted at 2004 levels, we’d all be saluting a President Romney right now.

We think Obama has a few million thank you cards to sign.

That’s according to a new Associated Press-Brookings Institution analysis on 2012 election data that contains a few gems that both parties would be wise to examine.

Among the surprises: Latinos aren’t as lucrative, votes-wise, as they appear to be – yet. And Democrats, who appeared to have cemented their role in 2012 as the minority party, shouldn’t get too comfortable.

Here are four lessons the 2012 election post-mortem taught us about the minority vote:

Black voters can turn out

 Voter ID laws. High unemployment among blacks. Low rates of registration. Lack of transportation and access to polling stations.

These were all supposed to keep blacks away from the polls last year, but they didn’t.

Not only did black voters turn out, their turnout levels surpassed that of whites and most minority groups, including Latinos and Asians, in last year’s elections.

Though we don’t have exact data on the 2012 election turnout breakdown just yet, 2008 turnout data represented the smallest gap on record between whites (66.1 percent turnout) and blacks (65.2 percent turnout). According to the AP-Brookings analysis, 2 million to 5 million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008, erasing that narrow lead.

Latinos still lag

The same headlines that warned of plummeting black voter turnout in 2012 also trumpeted the so-called Latin sensation, which was supposed to see record levels of Latinos turn out at the polls.

They did, but not at the levels black voters turned out.

Consider this: While blacks make up about 13 percent of the population and 12 percent of the share of eligible voters, they represented 13 percent of the total 2012 votes cast, thereby “outperforming” their share.

By contrast, Latinos make up 17 percent of the population but just 11 percent of eligible voters and 10 percent of total 2012 votes cast, somewhat underperforming for their share.

In fact, Latinos probably won’t surpass the share of eligible black voters until 2024, according to the AP-Brookings analysis.

Why the lower Latino rates?

Latinos may be growing fast, but they’re still a fairly young cohort, with more than one-third of Latinos (almost 35 percent) younger than the voting age of 18.

What’s more, many Latinos are not yet US citizens and therefore ineligible to vote. Nearly two-thirds of legal Mexican immigrants are not US citizens, according to a Pew Center analysis – and that’s not even counting illegal and undocumented immigrants.

But their day is coming

A proposed immigration bill in the Senate could see nearly 11 million immigrants currently here illegally become eligible for US citizenship – and voting – in as little as 13 years (the bill proposes a 13-year path to citizenship).

If that bill, or some iteration of it, passes, the total share of Latino voters may leap to 16 percent of the electorate by 2026. Under that same scenario, the share of eligible white voters could shrink to less than 64 percent, as the growing minority population edges out white population shares, according to the AP-Brookings report.

“The 2008 election was the first year when the minority vote was important to electing a U.S. president. By 2024, their vote will be essential to victory," William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution said in the report. “Democrats will be looking at a landslide going into 2028 if the new Hispanic voters continue to favor Democrats.”

But Democrats shouldn’t rest too easy

Whatever you heard about the GOP’s minority problem, the rainbow coalition is not a sure bet for Democrats in 2016 or for future elections.

In fact, 2012 may have been an exceptional year. That’s because Romney was an exceptionally poor candidate for motivating white voters, let alone minorities, to the polls. And Obama was an exceptionally strong candidate for motivating minorities. That’s a scenario Democrats may not be able to replicate again soon.

“The 2012 turnout … suggests … there is an 'Obama effect' where people were motivated to support Barack Obama,” Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, told the AP. “But it also means that black turnout may not always be higher, if future races aren't as salient.”

Or, as GOP consultant Whit Ayres told the AP, “It remains to be seen how successful Democrats are if you don't have Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.”

What’s more, the GOP is well aware of its “minority problem” and working overtime to reverse it, starting with comprehensive immigration reform legislation that could make Latinos and Asians more receptive to the GOP in coming elections.

President Obama makes light of his wife Michelle Obama's new bangs when he showed the audience a photo of himself and the first lady side by side, both with bangs, at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington on Saturday night. (The White House/Reuters)

Obama bangs: With jokes like this, who needs Conan O'Brien? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 04.29.13

President Obama joked about bangs at the White House Correspondents Association dinner on Saturday night, in case you haven’t heard. Bangs, as in hair hanging over your forehead like a curtain. His hair.

It came near the beginning of his very funny turn at the podium. Mr. Obama remarked that the presidency can take its toll on anyone, and he realizes he’ll need a burst of energy and some new approaches to energize his second term. He and his aides have talked about that, he said.

“We were willing to try anything. So we borrowed one of Michelle’s tricks,” said Obama.

Then he showed the audience a photo of himself and the First Lady side by side, both with bangs. It looked great on her. On him it looked like a fringed dish rag.

“I thought this looked pretty good, but no bounce,” said Obama to huge laughs from the crowd.

Overall, Obama was pretty much en fuego. That’s the norm now for presidents – they get professional comedy help with their WHCA speeches and as a result their lines are every bit as good as those of the hired entertainment, in this case Conan O’Brien.

Obama took a stab at a certain news networks recent missteps, for instance, “I know CNN has taken some knocks lately, but the fact is I admire their commitment to cover all sides of a story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate.”

He went on to poke at other networks and then said, “The fact is I really do respect the press. I recognize that the press and I have different jobs to do. My job is to be president; your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better.”

Ouch. Touché, Mr. President, touché.

What’s going on here is that White House staffs realize that a dinner famously described as Washington’s “nerd prom” is not really that. It’s a gathering of celebrities and power brokers which is televised, and is thus another opportunity for the orchestrated light media appearances at which Obama does so well. It’s like appearing on “The View” or slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon.

In return, the White House Correspondents Association profits from his appearance. We’re not questioning its nonprofit status, as it spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on journalism scholarships every year. We’re just saying the dinner is a huge cash cow.

Look at the latest Form 990 IRS report from the WHCA that’s available, from 2011. Gross receipts from the dinner that year were about $621,000. Expenses were about $435,000, according to our reading of the document. Even political science majors can do that math.

Comedian Seth Meyers was the keynote speaker that year, and the Form 990 lists $10,000 spent on entertainment. Frankly, Obama’s speech last night was pretty funny. Our suggestion to the WHCA: do away with the paid guys, and lengthen the president’s speech. He does it for free! That way the dinner can clear even more.

Kris Jenner (l.) with Sofia Vergara (c.) and Kim Kardashian during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner last year, in Washington. The White House Correspondents' Dinner has become more of a star-studded, glitzy, Hollywood East elite, inside-the-Beltway bash than a scholarship and awards dinner for journalists. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

E! live at White House Correspondents' Dinner. Is that good for journalism?

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 04.26.13

Nerd prom? Ha. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is as much a nerd prom as the Super Bowl is a tailgate party.

It’s more of a star-studded, glitzy, Hollywood East elite, inside-the-Beltway bash than a scholarship and awards dinner for journalists.

It’s not for naught that veteran TV journalist Tom Brokaw, who stopped attending the dinner some years ago, turned down an invitation to this year’s gala Saturday night.

“The breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan,” he told Politico recently of his becoming an outspoken critic of the event last year. “What we’re doing with that dinner, as it has been constituted for the past several years,” he added, “is saying, ‘We’re Versailles. The rest of you eat cake.’ ”


The White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) is a tax-exempt nonprofit that has actually awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to budding journalists since 1991. Last year it awarded 16 college students $132,200 in scholarships.

But let’s be honest. We all know what this is really about: the celeb-studded guest list, the red carpet, the entertainment, and yes, the after-parties. (At least a dozen media organizations, from Vanity Fair to Bloomberg Media to MSNBC, host chichi after-parties in such venues as the French and Italian embassies.)

Oh, and the money. In 2010, the latest year for which tax records are available for the organization, the WHCA spent $432,443 on the shindig, including $378,092 on renting the facility (the swanky Washington Hilton) and associated costs. Media organizations drop $2,750 per table of 10.

But, as the Washington Post points out, that’s small change. When you count the before- and after-parties, some media groups will dole out as much as $200,000 on the weekend’s activities.

You know it’s gotten out of hand when corporate underwriters are called in to sponsor some of the media-hosted after-parties. Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, Smartwater, and Bacardi will provide the refreshments at MSNBC’s party. Five corporate sponsors, including Mercedez-Benz and Corona Light, were listed on the invitation for an event hosted by Capitol File magazine.

But this, we think, is when things hit rock bottom. For the first time in White House Correspondents’ Dinner history, E! Entertainment network announced that it will livestream the red carpet at the so-called nerd prom. What an honor. Like when Kim Kardashian offers to write the forward for your book on the Armenian genocide.

Sure, we know what some of you are thinking: Loosen up, let go. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner long ago gave up pretending that it’s a serious affair.

But here’s the thing. Like financial institutions, media organizations rely on their reputations in exchange for reader trust and credibility. And it’s no secret that the media’s credibility is under perennial siege. (Some 60 percent of Americans said they had little or no trust in mass media, according to a Sep. 2012 Gallup poll cheerfully titled "US Distrust in Media Hits New High.")

In other words, the media need a White House Correspondents’ Dinner like Donald Trump needs self-esteem training.

As Brokaw said about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on “Meet the Press” in May 2012, “If there’s ever an event that separates the press from the people it’s supposed to serve, symbolically, it’s that one. It is time to rethink it.”

From left, President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Jimmy Carter arrive for the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on Thursday, in Dallas. (David J. Phillip/AP)

George W. Bush on the rebound? Nothing like a presidential library to help. (+video)

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 04.25.13

Can a library redefine a presidency?

If George W. Bush’s new library is any indication, you bet.

Like memoirs and a sudden interest in Third World health issues, presidential libraries are one of the many devices in the grand toolbox of “Post-Presidential Image Rehabilitation.” In other words, rewriting history.

In fact, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which is enjoying a Grand Old Party of an opening Thursday as all five living presidents descend on the Southern Methodist University in Dallas for its dedication, has actually gotten some good reviews.

The Daily Beast calls it “bold,” “honest,” “gracious,” “respectful,” and “humble.” (Oh wait, that’s Mark McKinnon, former Bush media adviser, writing for the site.)

In all seriousness, we’ve got to hand it to Dubya – and what must be one of the most practiced PR teams in history – on this one. From what we’ve seen and heard, the library comes across as a thoughtful tribute to a nation.

And, thanks to the above-mentioned PR team, the broader image rehab project is already working. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday showed Bush’s approval rating has climbed to 47 percent, up from a bruising 23 percent when he left office.

The presidential library in Dallas and its version of the Bush years, along with a healthy dose of amnesia, can only help.

Here’s how Bush – according to his brand spanking new library – wants to be remembered:

As a wartime president

Looming large in the center of the museum is a mangled steel beam from the World Trade Center, dramatically showcasing the 9/11 attacks, and by extension, Bush’s leadership as a wartime president. It’s no surprise this is a focal point of the Presidential Center – 9/11 was a turning point not only for the presidency, but also for the nation. Echoing across the library are the wails of the sirens that blared on 9/11 and, according to Politico, Bush bellowing, “Today our nation saw evil.”

… But a statesman, not a warmonger

He may be a wartime president, but he’s no warmonger, Bush’s library wants you to think. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely downplayed, folded into one display on the Global War on Terror in an exhibit called, in classic Bush fashion, “Defending Freedom.” (Not to be confused with Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the Bush Freedom Agenda.)

And while Bush wasn’t the most refined of statesmen, perhaps, (remember the German Chancellor neck rub, the African dance party, and the Saudi sword dance?), as Politico points out, the first thing greeting visitors at the Bush theater is an oversize painting of him with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

As a compassionate conservative

You won’t find a whole lot of politics or election memorabilia in the Bush library. (Notably, not a whiff of the controversial, and oft-caricatured, figures of Senior Adviser Karl Rove, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.) Nor will you find any reminders of Bush’s staunch opposition to gay marriage and abortion – positions that may not stand the test of time.

What you will find is a case for Bush as a compassionate conservative, with big displays on his more overlooked causes like No Child Left Behind, the faith-based initiative, and his campaigns to encourage volunteerism and to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa.

As the mid-range department store so aptly put it, it’s the softer side of Bush.

As a resolute leader who faced difficult decisions

There was a lot of controversy in the Bush years – from WMDs and the Iraq invasion to Hurricane Katrina – and the library’s handling of it was masterful.

Rather than ignoring the controversy (too obvious) or glorifying Bush’s agenda (too vulnerable), the presidential center decided to put visitors in Dubya’s shoes, shedding light on the enormity of the decisions he faced.

That’s how the “Decision Points” theater was born, an interactive experience in which guests consider four major dilemmas Bush faced – the Iraq invasion, the troop surge, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis – and based on advice from advisers, choose their own response. Bush then appears on a video explaining his own decisions and how he arrived at them.

Given the sensitivity of the issues explored, this little device is brilliant.

As is Bush’s fifth decision: to take a page from Winston Churchill’s book on securing his legacy.

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” the British prime minister once said. 

President Obama and his daughters Malia (r.) and Sasha leave Easter service at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington on March 31. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters/File)

Obama’s tattoo plan: Tattoos for Dad, too. Will that gambit work?

By Staff Writer / 04.25.13

Have you heard about the Obama family plan to keep daughters Sasha and Malia from getting tattoos? President Obama talked about it yesterday on the “Today” show. It’s sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too.

“Michelle and I have used the strategy when it comes to things like tattoos – what we’ve said to the girls, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,” Mr. Obama told “Today” journalist Savannah Guthrie. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.”

Wow, that’s interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem. But here’s our question: Will that really work?

No, as a parent of two teenagers, Decoder does not think it is a successful long-run strategy, either.

Oh sure, it’s worked for now. They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.

So they’d get thrown out, for being under age and because few tattoo parlors care to have Secret Service watchdogs at their door.

But the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do.

Oh, were we projecting there?

Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because.

As Connor Simpson notes on the Atlantic Wire, “these are young women who take cellphone photos and, yes, go on spring break. You don’t stop them. You can only hope to contain them.”

And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.

Slate’s “Browbeat” culture blog has imagined this future, and it isn’t pretty. How will Obama negotiate with House Republicans on the budget with a Mike Tyson-like web of ink encircling his eye?

No, once they get old enough to be out of your daily control, the best way to keep them from getting tattoos might be bribes. Tell them as long as they remain tat-free, they can use Camp David for parties, say.

Or Obama might convince some senator to slip a rider in an appropriations bill that simply makes it illegal to give the children of any current or former US chief executive a tattoo. As LBJ once said in another context when someone told him a bill was a bad idea, “Well then what the [expletive] is the presidency for?”

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