This is my last dispatch of the year - I'm going on holiday break, with the aim to begin anew on Monday, Jan. 4 - and what better way to ring out the old than to bestow the 2009 Public Misconduct Awards? For your consideration, in no particular order:
Most Creative Dessert. Former Louisiana Democratic congressman William Jefferson was convicted in August on 11 criminal counts of bribery and money laundering. He denied all wrongdoing, naturally, despite the fact that the FBI had discovered $90,000 wrapped in foil and hidden inside boxes of frozen pie crusts, all of which were secreted in his freezer. How unpatriotic. Perhaps Rachael Ray can advise on this, but I always thought that apple pie was served with ice cream.
Best Vacation Travel Agent. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gave a major boost to the National Park Service by publicizing the aesthetic and contemplative splendors of the Appalachian Trail - even though, in truth, he left his hiking shoes at home, preferring instead to misspend the taxpayer's money by jetting to a more exotic and erotic locale in pursuit of his soul mate.
Best Customer for a Sealy Posturepedic. Jim Bunning, the lame-duck Kentucky Republican senator, contributed memorably to his party's attack on health care reform, during the opening session of the Senate Finance Committee back in September. After railing about how the effort to bring America up to speed with every other western democracy was nothing more than a conspiracy to "confiscate more money from the taxpayers," Bunning literally fell asleep in his chair. Need I explain the metaphor?
Dumbest Summer Town Hall Moron. Despite the fierce competition in this category, the winner has to be the woman in Massachusetts who accused congressman Barney Frank of supporting a health reform bill that she likened to "Nazi policy." This was not the smartest thing to say to a gay Jew. Which is why Frank deliciously responded, "Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table."
Dumbest Pronouncement by an Ex-President Who Should Stick to Building Houses. I don't believe for a second that President Obama's critics are motivated primarily by racist antipathy. Yet Jimmy Carter said so publicly late in the summer, claiming that "the overwhelming portion" are hostile to Obama's skin color - thereby smearing millions of Americans who assail Obama on matters of policy and ideology. Carter, of course, is not exactly known for his deft political touch, which is one big reason why, during the entire 20th century, he was the sole Democratic incumbent to be fired by the voters.
Most Overrated Salesman. Obama is rightfully renowned for his speechifying, but in his press conferences this year he often struggled to make a concise, off-the-cuff case for health reform. Back in July, a reporter asked him: "Have you told House and Senate leaders which of their ideas are acceptable to you? If so, are you willing to share that stand of yours with the American people?" Here was his answer, verbatim: "Well, before we talk about how to pay for it, let's talk about what exactly needs to be done. And the reason I want to emphasize this is because there's been a lot of misinformation out there. Right now, premiums for families that have health insurance have doubled over the last 10 years. They've gone up three times faster than wages. So what we know is that, if the current trends continue, more and more families are going to lose health care, more and more families are going to be in a position where they keep their health care but it takes a bigger biting out of their budget. Employers are going to put more and more costs on employees or they're just going to stop providing health care altogether. We also know that health care inflation on the curve that it's on, we're guaranteed to see Medicare and Medicaid basically break the federal budget. And we know that we're spending - on average we, here in the United States, are spending about $6,000 more than other advanced countries where they're just as healthy. And I've said this before, if you found out that your neighbor had gotten the same car for $6,000 less, you'd want to figure out how to get that deal. And that's what reform is all about. How can we make sure that we are getting the best bang for our health care dollar. Now, what we did very early on was say two-thirds of the costs of health care reform, which includes providing coverage for people who don't have it, making it more affordable for folks who do, and making sure that we're, over the long term, creating the kinds of systems where prevention and wellness and information technologies make the system more efficient. That the entire cost of that has to be paid for and it has got to be deficit-neutral. And we identified two-thirds of those costs to be paid for by tax dollars that are already being spent right now. So taxpayers are already putting this money into the kitty. The problem is, they're not getting a good deal for the money they're spending. That takes care of about two-thirds of the cost. The remaining one-third is about what the argument has been about of late. What I've said is that there may be a number of different ways to raise money. I put forward what I thought was the best proposal, which was to limit the deductions, the itemized deductions, for the wealthiest Americans. People like myself could take the same percentage deduction that middle class families do. And that would raise sufficient funds for that final one-third. Now so far we haven't seen any of the bills adopt that. There are other ideas that are out there. I continue to think my idea is the best one. But I'm not foreclosing some of these other ideas as the committees are working them through. The one commitment that I've been clear about is I don't want that final one-third of the cost of health care to be completely shouldered on the backs of middle class families who are already struggling in a difficult economy. And so, if I see a proposal that is primarily funded through taxing middle class families, I'm going to be opposed to that because I think there are better ideas to do it..."
Enough already! Obama kept right on going, but you get the idea. Say whatever you want about Ronald Reagan, he at least understood that concision was a key facet of good communication.
Phoniest Pseudo-Scandal, Aside from ACORN. Delusional right-wingers, outraged by the sloppy content of some hacked emails, decreed that "Climategate" was prima facie proof that man plays no role in global warming....somehow overlooking the conclusive evidence amassed in recent years by, among others, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences (in conjunction with its counterparts in Britain, China, Germany, and Japan), the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the National Climactic Data Center, more than 900 peer-reviewed scientific papers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and George W. Bush's Climate Change Science Program. No word yet on whether the deniers blame ACORN for organizing that conspiracy.
Most Flexible Interpretation of Family Values. After declaring a few years ago that only straight people should be allowed to wed - because, in his words, "marriage is an extremely important institution in this country" - Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign, a faith-based conservative, proceeded to step outside the institution and boff the wife of one of his top aides...thus demonstrating his apparent belief that an extramarital affair shall be solely between a man and a woman. He then tried to clean up the mess by having his daddy, a Vegas casino mogul, pony up $96,000 for the cuckolded husband, in an effort to buy the guy's silence. Remember how Ensign had been entertaining presidential dreams of his own? Gone now. But he still has the good hair.
Most Honest Declaration of Flexible Principles. Kudos to Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter for his frank admission last April that his party switch was entirely poll-driven: "I have traveled the state and surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls, observed other public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak." That was a refreshing change from the usual politician's pablum about how "the only poll that matters is the one on election day."
Best Coddler of Criminals. It turns out that Mike Huckabee, while serving as Arkansas governor, had a soft spot for convicted dirtbags. If they wanted a pardon or a sentence commutation, all they had to do to get Huckabee's attention was play the Jesus card. Five years ago, we learned about the inmate who got pardoned after claiming that he'd found God, only to celebrate his freedom his strangling a mother of three in Missouri. Then, last month, we learned about the allegedly devout guy who got his sentenced reduced, making him eligible for parole...and then he got paroled, only to celebrate his freedom last month by fatally capping those four cops in Washington state. It also turns out that Huckabee issued 1033 pardons and commutations in 10 years; by contrast, Gov. Bill Clinton had issued 426 in 13 years. Care to guess how far Huckabee will go in the '12 GOP primaries with that thug-friendly record? Or will religious conservative voters give him a pass simply because of the God factor?
Most Unwanted Party Crasher. The White House is no place for people who don't belong there, people with virtually no credibility who just intrude and say mindless things, in a pathetic attempt to hog the spotlight and generate cable TV controversy. But enough about Tareq and Michaele Salahi. I'm actually referring to Dick Cheney.
Worst Jersey Bedfellows Since Tony Soprano Befriended Ronald Zellman. It was a bad summer for Jon Corzine. The guy was busy trying to persuade New Jersey voters to give him a new term as governor, yet his Democratic pals and allies kept getting led away in handcuffs. The mayor of Hoboken? Busted on allegations of taking bribes. The mayor of Ridgefield? Busted on allegations of takling illegal cash. The mayor of Secaucus and a dozen other Hudson County politicians? Busted, too. Corzine's own Community Affair commissioner? He had his house and office searched by the FBI, whereupon Corzine had to fire him. Four months later, the voters fired Corzine. Too bad for him that life didn't imitate art. On HBO, Tony Soprano teamed up sucessfully with fictional state Assemblyman Zellman, and they both made money on the construction of the Museum of Science and Trucking.
Most Hilarious Sarah Palin Whopper. We already know about her biggest lie, the so-called "death panels" (she's still trying to defend that one). And it's already clear she don't know much about history; in her best-selling memoir, she states that Reagan "showed us how to get out of (a recession). If you want real job growth, cut capital gains taxes and slay the death tax once and for all." In reality, of course, Reagan never slayed the death tax - it's alive and well today - and capital gains taxes are lower today than they were under Reagan. No, the laugher of the year can be found at the start of Chapter 3, where she begins with this quote: "Our land is everything to us....I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember our grandfathers paid for it - with their lives." She attributes the quote to legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. In reality, those words were actually uttered by a Native American activist who was defending the Cheyenne and Sioux who fought General Custer at Little Big Horn. His name? John Wooden Legs.
And in the holiday spirit of making lists and checking them twice, I also wrote this freelance piece about the seven noteworthy political deaths of 2009. If not for my decision to make quirky choices, I could easily have included Irving Kristol, an intellectual lion of the conservative movement, and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who at least 'fessed up about his Vietnam war screwups before the end. Dare we hope that Donald Rumsfeld, in his twilight years, will offer a similar accounting about Iraq? That would be a holiday gift indeed.