Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Newt Gingrich Is Crazier Than You Think

He’s fired up the ground zero mosque debate, stirred buzz by visiting Iowa, and is Meet the Press’ favorite guest. Liberals should root for Gingrich in 2012.

Most of my liberal friends are rooting for Sarah Palin to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, believing that, when forced to face up to the oddity of beliefs she’s expressed on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, coupled with her strange, albeit brief history as Alaska’s governor, and throwing in the weirdness of the whole Levi/Bristol soap opera, what you end up with is an Obama landslide.

They may be right.

Sure Sarah and Bristol and Levi would be a lot of fun on a campaign trail. But if we liberal elitists have any sense, we will immediately refudiate that idea and jump on the Newt bandwagon.

But if what you’re looking for in a Republican presidential nominee is someone who holds views no less odd, and yet whose twisted personal history puts Sarah Palin’s silly saga to shame, the great Republican hope of the left can be none other than Newt Gingrich. One day before John H. Richardson’s boffo 8,300-word Gingrich profile, in which his ex-wife, Marianne, spills all for the first time, CNN was reporting that Gingrich was enjoying “plenty of presidential buzz,” what with his sixth recent visit to Iowa, his headlining of two fundraisers, on his way to having out-raised Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee combined. He was doing so while at the same time posing as the leader of America’s forces of religious intolerance, long ago having left Palin in the dust in that category. Finding role models where few American politicians have gone before him, Gingrich thinks the Saudis apparently have things right when it comes to tolerance. “There should be no mosque near ground zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” he pronounces.

In any halfway normal country, such xenophobic sentiments might disqualify the speaker from being spoken of as a future president, at least by its political class. Not here, however. After all, Newt has been saying this kind of thing for his entire political career. And though he has not held any elective position since 1998, and has never been elected anywhere outside his deeply conservative district in suburban Georgia, somehow Meet the Press chose Newt as its single most frequently invited guest in 2009. Pundits and politicians alike treat the man as a serious contender for 2012; a more moderate, seasoned version of what Palin offers, if you will.

But one wonders: Are Americans really ready to elect as president a man who believes that the country is threatened by “a gay and secular fascism” that, he explained, “is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it?” What about one who felt it necessary to tweet—from Auschwitz no less, that Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a “racist,” whose views revealed “a betrayal of a fundamental principle of the American system—that everyone is equal before the law.”

Newt also has some interesting ideas about violence. No matter who is doing the shooting, according to his Newtness, the perpetrator is always the same: liberals. Remember that fellow who went on the April 2007 shooting spree at Virginia Tech? That was the fault of the "liberal elite" for creating “a situation ethics, essentially, zone of not being willing to talk about any of these things.” This is the same elite that, he has explained, "taught self-indulgent, aristocratic values without realizing that if an entire society engaged in the indulgences of an elite few, you could tear the society to shreds." Ditto the violent threats made by crazed right-wingers against Democratic legislators during the passage of health care reform last year. You think the bad guys were the ones making the threats? Nope. “The Democratic leadership,” Newt explained, “has to take some moral responsibility for having behaved with such arrogance, in such a hostile way, that the American people are deeply upset.” But what can you expect from the people Gingrich terms “the enemy of normal Americans?”

Sometimes ordinary Americans are at fault, like during Katrina, where, in the 9th Ward, “22,000 people were so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn't get out of the way of a hurricane."

What would President Gingrich’s foreign policy look like? While most Americans today recoil from the grandiosity of George W. Bush's war plans in Iraq and elsewhere, Gingrich felt they did not go nearly far enough. The correct strategy for the U.S., he argued, "would have built up sufficient economic, political, and military power to confront the four nations [Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia] with a simple choice: Change your behavior or have your regimes changed." On Meet the Press, he also noted, "I believe if you take all the countries I just listed, that you've been covering, put them on a map, look at all the different connectivity, you'd have to say to yourself this is, in fact, World War III."

But believe it or not, it is in his personal life where Gingrich truly outdoes himself in the category of un-presidential behavior. This was true, or should have been before Esquire convinced Marianne Gingrich to talk, as it was all a matter of the public record for over a decade. (Why so many in the MSM preferred to ignore the evidence before them is the topic for another column.) In any case, this would-be moral leader’s past includes:

• ditching his first wife, who had put him through college, by announcing their separation in the hospital room where she was recovering from ovarian cancer surgery, and telling a friend, “She’s not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of the president. And besides, she has cancer”;

• leaving said woman to depend, literally, on church alms to survive, as he refused to provide child support. (In a campaign leaflet, he argued that his opponent for the seat he eventually won would have to separate from her family to move to Washington and would have to hire a nanny to fulfill her maternal obligations.);

• marrying a much younger woman with whom he had been having an affair —and to whom he had long ago proposed—six months later;

• leaving this woman by calling her at her mother’s home on her mother’s birthday following her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis and announcing their impending divorce.

• marrying yet another woman, described by The Washington Post as a " blonded-up, French-horn-playing Agriculture Committee staffer” 23 years his junior, with whom he had also been having an affair, while leading the forces of impeachment against Bill Clinton for his extracurricular activities with Monica Lewinsky.

(And let’s note I haven’t even mentioned any of the extremely credible ethics charges, like the $4.5 million book advance from Rupert Murdoch he took before he was even sworn in as speaker, and was forced to return, to say nothing of the fact that the House Ethics Committee found him guilty of laundering donations through charities, submitting what he himself characterized as "inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable" testimony…” etc.,

Gingrich considers himself, according to his 1992 doodling, to be an "advocate of civilization, definer of civilization, teacher of the rules of civilization and leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces." Maybe so, but I’m guessing it is a civilization with which most Americans remain unfamiliar and would likely prefer that way.

Sure, Sarah and Bristol and Levi would be a lot of fun on a campaign trail. But if we liberal elitists have any sense, they will immediately refudiate that idea and jump on the Newt bandwagon. After all, people, we control everything. We can make this happen.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.

Palin’s Shopping Spree: Yes, There’s More...

Michael Joseph Gross
Vanity Fair

Bose headphones.
A birthday dress for Bristol.
Campaign documents and e-mails reveal the fine print.

The clothes.
Few aspects of Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy have been more discussed than the $150,000 worth of clothing and accessories bought by the Republican National Committee’s coordinated campaign fund on behalf of the candidate and her family in 2008. Yet interviews with campaign aides and internal campaign e-mails and documents obtained exclusively by Vanity Fair shed new light on the situation, revealing Palin to have been more innocent at the start of this shopping odyssey than has previously been reported—and more knowing and more calculating as time went on.

Initially, Palin objected to the very idea of clothing being purchased for her to wear at the Republican National Convention. When she was first presented with a $3,500 jacket, an aide recalls, the price tag sent her into shock: “I don’t spend that much money on my clothes in a year,” Palin said. “I will not do this.” Aides decided, in future, to cut off the price tags, so Palin wouldn’t quite know how much was being spent. But eventually, they say, Palin grew accustomed to the privilege of a designer wardrobe—not only for herself but also for her family.

On October 21, 2008, Federal Election Commission filings revealed the massive expenditures made on behalf of the candidate, her husband, and her children. As was reported at the time, the vast majority of the purchases—$130,000—were made by Jeff Larson, a Republican consultant in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the 2008 convention was held. Other purchases were made by a stylist, a Dallas fund-raising firm, and campaign staff. In fact, shopping for the Palins involved many campaign staffers: at least eight of the candidate’s aides requested reimbursement for clothing purchases for the Palins that they charged to their personal credit cards. The records of those purchases also reveal that Palin’s later claims—that “we had three days of using clothes that the R.N.C. purchased” (at the Republican National Convention) and that she understood the clothes to have been “loaned to us during the convention”—were completely false. So was the spin of Palin’s campaign spokesperson, who stated on October 22 that “it was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign.” On October 23, in a previously unpublished e-mail (quoted below), Palin wrote that she had no idea the clothes would eventually need to be returned, and suggested that she believed the items were being given to her and her family as gifts. And campaign documents show that, remarkably, the spending continued into October. On the 20th, the day before the clothes-buying sprees were made public, a staffer paid $639.36 for clothes and a coat at Macy’s and Ann Taylor in Reno.

Throughout October, staff members were still buying clothing and accessories for the Palins. That month’s purchases, which totaled more than $9,000, would seem to stretch the boundaries of what constitutes a legitimate campaign expense. On October 9, a “Jersey for Piper” was purchased at a store called I Love Cincinnati. On October 10, a $316.94 pair of Bose headphones were purchased for Sarah Palin in Pittsburgh. (Separate purchases that day were made for “Intimates” and “Workout Clothes.”) On October 16, a “Jewelry case” purchased in Concord, New Hampshire, was charged to the campaign.

On October 17, the day before Bristol’s birthday, after a senior Palin aide asked a junior aide, in an e-mail, “Do you mind talking w/Bristol about getting an outfit for tomorrow & via the campaign. Thanks,” the response came back: “Yep. I talked to her about it this morning and picked up a few dress options at saks during the event today. And a pair of snazzy shoes to wair on her bday : ).” That same day, the same junior staffer charged $1,312.94 at Saks 5th Avenue in Cincinnati. In campaign records, that expense was labeled as if it were made not for Bristol but for the candidate’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. (The memo line reads “Clothes-SNL.”)

On October 23, two days after stories about Palin’s exorbitant campaign clothing budget first surfaced, Palin e-mailed aides in a fury: “Ridiculous – I’ll try to be patient through this, but this is ridiculous and hypocritical in terms of my values, and prudent use of ‘other people’s money’ – It’s puzzling, even infuriating, why the clothes issue is what it is now. My family was never told that all must be returned ... Not until two days ago when I read we may have a challenge in tracking down [her son] Track’s very expensive sweater(s) (that he didn’t request), as they’re either on base at Ft. Wainwright somewhere, or perhaps even overseas ... I’ve asked many, many times how this was all supposed to work with clothes that were presented me and the kids – who was paying … ” (A close campaign aide says that this is untrue, and that Palin never asked any such questions.)

But in the very next paragraph, Palin was trying to figure out a way to hang on to some of the items: “Do they want the nylons and other things that are pretty worn, returned?” (And she asked a campaign aide, “Do they really want my dirty undergarments?” Indeed, Palin had something of a fixation on the handling of her undergarments, and insisted, when hotel maids did her laundry, that only campaign aides be allowed to touch those particular articles.) Attempting to wrest some control over the situation, she added, “I want say in the charities these will go to.”

By the time she returned to Alaska, after Election Day, Palin’s transformation was complete. An e-mail string dated November 7 includes terse directives to aides to search for particular items of clothing that she wanted to keep: “Remember the five black leather Flyers bags w sweatshirts and jerseys and Flyers propaganda in each bag? Anyone know where they ended up?” One of the aides who were sent to Alaska to retrieve and catalogue the items purchased for Palin recalls that, during these days, mysteriously, “all of a sudden, she couldn’t find stuff.”

Ten Iraq War Legacies

by The Daily Beast

When President Obama announced an official end to combat operations, he acknowledged George Bush’s “support for our troops” as well as his “love of country and commitment to our security.” The Daily Beast surveys the lasting political fallout of Bush’s fateful war.

In an Oval Office address Tuesday night, Barack Obama will announce the official end of combat operations in Iraq. Numbers tell most of the story: 50,000 troops will remain in the country, down from a high of 160,000. More than 4,000 American soldiers have been killed since George W. Bush announced the war’s beginning nearly three thousand days ago. But beyond the numbers, Iraq has left a deep mark on America, its politics, its military, and its place in the world. Here are a few of the legacies of war.

1. The Fall of Neoconservatism

Among the ideological fathers of the war were a group of leading neoconservatives—liberals mugged by reality, in Irving Kristol’s often-repeated phrase. The philosophy guided the foreign policy gurus around Bush, a confidence that the world could be better off if America exported its liberal democratic values at the point of a gun. Over the years, the reasons for invasion grew increasingly shaky—and the absence of WMD’s, the tenacity of the insurgency, the slow progress along the path to democracy, all dimmed the neocons’ ideological standing. Some, like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, fell from favor. Their cousins, liberal hawks, did not fare well either. When too many neoconservatives seemed to be making their way inside John McCain’s inner circle, even fellow Republicans cried foul. But it is a sign of the distressed state of the Democrats’ foreign policy that the neocons are emerging from hiding. Wolfowitz penned an op-ed in the New York Times, offering advice to President Obama on the perils of abandoning Baghdad altogether.

2. The Rise of the Wounded

As Anne Applebaum wrote in The Washington Post this week, Iraq has been a far less deadly place than Vietnam for American soldiers: 4,400 have died compared to 60,000 lives lost in Southeast Asia. Yet that seemingly encouraging statistic holds a scary truth: The number of soldiers who suffered violent injuries and survived has greatly increased. While we can pat ourselves on the back for advances in medical technology, we have a long way to go in figuring out how to care for the wounded.

3. The Permanent Mercenary Army

In 2007, there were somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 armed security contractors at work in Iraq. The most prominent firm was Blackwater, the North Carolina-based contractor, which was awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in State Department contracts, including responsibility for guarding the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. There have always been private actors in the military arena, but the company’s role as an army without a flag had unprecedented power. Eventually, the contractor’s activities were curtailed by the Iraqi government, tired of firefights involving American guards. Blackwater has now changed its name—call it Xe, please—but it also changed how America goes to war.

4. The Death of the Coalition

America was able to cobble together a collection of states to send forces to Iraq, most notably Britain and Spain. But many of the countries sent small delegations, and the coalition was widely derided as window-dressing for America’s determination to go to war in the face of sketchy evidence about Iraq’s WMDs. The leaders of those supporting countries were made to suffer for their cooperation at the polls, and Britain—America’s closest ally—is still reeling from Tony Blair’s controversial decision to follow President Bush so faithfully into the fight. One country—Georgia—sent thousands of soldiers but watched the U.S. stand by as Russian forces crossed its borders. The discovery, after Saddam’s fall, that he did not in fact possess weapons of mass destruction severely dented America’s credibility—and it will be much more politically difficult to mount such a coalition again.

5. Return of the Superstar General

The Iraq War gave us Gen. David Petraeus, thereby reintroducing the superstar general to the American public. Perhaps not since the days of Eisenhower and MacArthur has a man in uniform loomed so large. Petraeus, to be sure, did not save the world, but a war-weary nation, starved of heroes, has latched onto him. It was the counter-insurgency strategy, honed by Petraeus in Iraq, that is now our best hope of ending the daunting conflict in Afghanistan. All of the furor over the West Point-trained, Princeton-schooled leader has lead more than a few to wonder whether Petraeus would consider running for the presidency.

6. America’s Standing in the World

Barack Obama campaigned on the promise that he would return America’s standing in the world to pre-Bush levels. But he’s finding an unpopular war hard to shake. This spring, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of countries polled approved of his international policies. On Iraq, however, 11 out of 20 disapproved. The antipathy toward America in the Middle East continues even after the architects of the Iraq war have exited the stage. Twenty-six percent of Jordanians approve of the president and only 23 percent of Turks. Even less promising, Obama’s popularity has fallen since coming into office among Muslim peoples.

7. The Rise of Middle East Democracy

The lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction will endure as a fault line in American politics for generations to come. But one clear good came of the controversial campaign: The world was treated to the sight of an oppressed people going to the polls and proudly portraying purple fingers, the colorful sign that they had, for the first time in their lives, chosen their own political leaders. As Iraq is now learning, one election does not guarantee the survival of a political system, and the challenges ahead are formidable. But the breakthrough is undeniable.

8. The Dawning of the Netroots

The anti-war left, a powerful force in the Vietnam era, was outmaneuvered politically in the Reagan era, and eclipsed by a more muscular brand of liberalism in the 1990s. But the Iraq conflict helped stoke the antiwar movement. Furious over the mainstream media’s acquiescence to the Bush post-9/11 story line, these liberals met up online, helped propel a more pointed brand of partisan journalism and commentary—and organized to help elect like-minded advocates to political office.

9. Barack Obama

The skinny guy with a funny name would have never emerged from the Democratic primary were it not for his vociferous opposition to the Iraq War. By coming out against the war in 2002—calling it “a dumb war. A rash war.”—he established his lefty bona fides. That proved crucial in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, who was stuck having to defend her Senate votes for the war before an increasingly restive base (it was also one of the few points of genuine disagreement between the two candidates). In the end, Obama’s antiwar stance propelled him past the heavily favored Clinton and an historic election to the White House.

10. Death of Tyrants

In addition to the dawning democracy, the war had another indisputable consequence: it ended the reign of terror perpetuated by Saddam Hussein. It ended his life and those of his miscreant sons Uday and Qusay, not to mention Abu Zarqawi and many of his henchmen in al Qaeda in Iraq. A land where telling a joke about Saddam was a capital crime has been freed forever from his ruthless possession.

Illegal immigration to U.S. down almost 67% since 2000

The number of illegal immigrants entering the United States has plunged by almost two-thirds in the past decade, a dramatic shift after years of growth in the population, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Between 2000 and 2005, an average of 850,000 people a year entered the United States without authorization, according to the report released Wednesday. As the economy plunged into recession between 2007 and 2009, that number fell to 300,000.

The sharp drop-off has contributed to an 8 percent decrease in the estimated number of illegal immigrants living in the United States, from a peak of 12 million in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2009, the report said. Of the 11.1 million, 8.9 million came from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Virginia, Florida and Nevada were among the states with steepest declines in their populations of illegal immigrants.

The new figures come amid a heated national debate over efforts by Arizona and other jurisdictions to identify people who are here illegally and push to have them deported.

Douglas Massey, a Princeton University sociologist who studies migration, said the recession and lack of jobs are major factors in the decline of those entering the country illegally.

The unemployment rate for unauthorized immigrants is 10.4 percent higher than that of either U.S.-born residents or legal immigrants, the Pew report said.

Massey said other likely reasons for the decline include an increase in law enforcement and deportations, and enactment of stricter legislation against illegal immigrants. He also pointed to more guest-worker spots, from 104,000 in 2000 to 302,000 in 2009 -- allowing more immigrants to come to the United States legally.

"Life's gotten pretty miserable for immigrants in the United States," he said, noting that even for legal immigrants, many of whom have relatives who are unauthorized, the increased scrutiny has been stressful.

Still, the flow of legal immigrants into the United States has increased slightly over the past decade, according to the report, noting that the trends have reduced the percentage of immigrants who are here illegally, from 31 percent of all immigrants in 2007 to 29 percent in 2009.

Although an earlier Pew study pointed to signs of fewer illegal immigrants in recent years, the new report reveals the first statistically significant reversal in the growth of the population in the past 20 years, said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew.

Passel, an author of the new report, noted that in recent years, illegal entry has gotten more expensive, harder and more dangerous.

"We know that it's harder to sneak across the border than it was four or five years ago, and especially than it was 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "Virtually everyone who sneaks across the border uses a coyote now, and the cost has gone up. The increase of the border patrol around cities and ports of entry has pushed the flows across the border into more remote places."

The report's findings were hailed by Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration controls.

The figures contradict "the idea that the only options before us are mass expulsions or mass amnesty," he said. "This finding points to the middle way, of a consistent decrease of the illegal population over time through enforcement."

Large declines in illegal immigrants in Florida and Nevada are likely because of the mortgage and foreclosure crises and the loss of thousands of construction jobs, which immigrants often fill, Passel and Massey said. Florida's illegal immigrant population fell by 375,000, to an estimated 675,000, between 2008 and 2009, and Nevada's decreased by 50,000, to an estimated 180,000 during that period.

The number in Virginia fell by 65,000, to 240,000, which Passel attributed to the economy as well as stricter legislation passed in Prince William County in 2007 and 2008.

The nationwide trajectory will likely depend on the strength of the country's economic recovery and the level of enforcement of immigration laws, Passel said.

"In the past the flows have moved in line with the state of the U.S. economy," he said. "But we have stepped up enforcement right now. Right now, both are working in the same direction. If the economy turns around and enforcement is increased, we don't know."

Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post