Monday, August 11, 2008

Baked Alaskan.

By Thomas F. Roeser

Last Week’s column in The Wanderer, oldest national Catholic weekly (with some updating since publication).

Baked Alaskan.

CHICAGO—The indictment and likely conviction last week of the top Senate Republican in seniority—after 40 years brokering deals, most of them fiscally reckless-- underscores the moral decay that has made the GOP only slightly less tolerable in governance than the Democrats.

And the corruption goes far deeper than the $200,000 worth of gifts that Alaska’s Ted Stevens, an Episcopalian, is accused of accepting and not listing on his Senate ethics forms. That’s minor league stuff. For at least a generation, most leading appropriating Republicans like Stevens have dealt under the table with Democrats—not on legislative issues where compromise is acceptable—but sharing the pie on billions of dollars of taxpayers’ expenditures, to keep the same crooked incumbent Demi-publican (or Republic-crat) party afloat, whose slogan is “where’s mine?”

Major media focus is on the 84-year-old Stevens’ money graft but this is peanuts next to the deals he has made to keep himself in power at the expense of the taxpayers as either Senate appropriations chairman or ranking Republican who has a deal going with the Democratic chairman, 90-year-old porker Bobby Byrd (D-WVa.). Still, the private boodle has ended his career. Federal authorities raided Stevens home in the resort town of Girdwood, 40 miles south of Anchorage, last summer. From May, 1999 to August, 2007, say prosecutors, Stevens hid “his continuing receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of things of value from a private corporation”—VECO, a major Alaska oil services company—from his Senate ethics disclosure form. This included major improvements to his vacation home in Alaska, including a new first floor, garage, wraparound deck, plumbing, electrical wiring, car exchanges, a gas grill, furniture and tools. In addition the feds charge he got huge discounts on cars by swapping cheaper models for more expensive ones—receiving a brand new Land Rover for his son worth $44,000 in exchange for a 1964 Mustang worth under $20,000.

But the big scandal is the dexterity with which Stevens primed the pump of federal spending on so many projects with bluster (“I’m a mean SOB” he declared on the Senate floor as his colleagues nodded, knowing he will never forget or forgive one who doesn’t support his spending). Born in Indianapolis, reared in California in modest circumstances, he graduated from UCLA and Harvard law on scholarships. He went to Alaska because it was virgin territory and ripe for a hustler, moving from U.S. attorney in Fairbanks to the legislature and then an appointment to the Senate at age 45. Since then he has been known as the purveyor of what is called in Alaska “Stevens money.”

The snuffling into the federal money trough never stopped. When he was appropriations chairman he ruled the roost but when he wasn’t he cut deals with the Democrat who was…swapping his votes for their projects so he could get repaid in turn. Some of the stuff he did for his state was good: getting the oil pipeline through by one vote in 1973, forcing through repeal of the stupid law banning exports of Alaskan oil, which opened up lush east Asian markets. And he has been the point man for opening up the ANWR to oil drilling. But as the years rolled on, Stevens became both sloppy and greedy. As much federal largesse as he could stuff into his bag, he would assign to Alaska. His state is a semi-welfare state, occupying first in per capita federal spending for more than a dozen years, with $13,800 spent on each Alaskan this year. The economy largely depends on oil and fishing on government-owned land and sea. Each of the state’s 680,000 inhabitants gets an annual payout of $1,654 from the Alaskan oil fund.

In 1998 Stevens held up the entire Senate in his fight to get federal goodies for a tiny Aleutian village of King Cove, gobbling $37.7 million for an airport road, a project that sent lawmakers’ eyes rolling in disbelief.

In the last two years alone, he treated tax money like it was his own personal philanthropy: $17 million for anti-alcohol funding in the state, $5.5 million for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; $35 million for a commission to study Mount McKinley; $10 million for something called the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board; $16.8 million to study sea lions in Alaska; 150,000 for a botanical garden in Anchorage; $900,000 for an aquarium in Ketchikan; $525,000 to upgrade a quarry in Nome; $750,000 to upgrade a quarry for something called the Bering Straits Native Corporation; and millions to pay Japanese technicians to come to Alaska to evaluate salmon eggs (the Japanese said they would only buy them if their technicians could inspect them and without these sales the fisheries would be unprofitable).

The limit seemed to have been reached in 2005 when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla), a cost-conscious conservative, challenged the Old Lion and moved to de-fund the Ketchikan-Gravina bridge which Coburn called “a bridge to nowhere” which would connect the town of Ketchikan (population: 8,900) with an airport on the island of Gravina (population: 50) at a cost to federal taxpayers of $320 million. The bridge would relieve townsmen of having to wait from 15 to 30 minutes for a ferry and be charged $6 per car. Coburn argued the money should be used instead to rebuild a New Orleans bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Stevens took to the floor and shouted: “I will put the Senate on notice—and I don’t kid people—if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money from our state [italics mine] I’ll resign from this body. This is not the Senate I came to. This is not the Senate I’ve devoted 37 years to , if one senator can decide he’ll take all the money from one state to solve a problem of another.”

His resignation threat was viewed by most of his Republican and Democratic colleagues with alarm, not because they were endeared with the crotchety, profane Stevens but because as appropriations head, he was the body’s top broker of projects for their states. So they rallied and beat back the Coburn amendment 82 to 15.

Stevens’ role meant during the Clinton administration depended on support he got from the Oval Office for his Alaska projects. He paid Clinton back in spades in December, ,1998. That month Henry Hyde (R-IL), chairman of House Judiciary personally brought the House-passed bill of impeachment to the Senate to vote for conviction. There were two charges, one definitely provable, perjury under oath, the other less so—obstruction of justice.

Hyde, a close friend of this writer, was confident that any reasonable senator would vote to convict the president on perjury which special prosecutor Kenneth Starr had proven beyond a shadow of doubt with confiscated emails and computer hard-drive from Monica Lewinsky. Sixty-seven votes or two-thirds of the Senate were needed to convict. But when Hyde met privately with a group of leading Republican senators (along with the House prosecutor, Chicagoan David Schippers), it was Stevens who declared that Bill Clinton would not be convicted. He looked across the table at Hyde and said these words (according to Schippers who was interviewed by this writer):

“I don’t care if you prove that [Clinton] raped a woman and then stood up and shot her dead—you are not going to get sixty-seven votes.”

The nervous GOP leader, Trent Lott who was worried that the Clintons would leak stuff on his suspected indiscretions as a male cheerleader at Old Miss, smiled weakly. Stevens’ words meant far more than they conveyed. They meant Stevens would do all he could to save Clinton with whom he had several deals cooking. Hyde then knew conviction of Clinton was likely lost. Old Lion Stevens covered his tracks while working in behalf of Clinton. Working behind the scenes, he got malleable Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to vote “not proven.” He collared liberal Republicans John Chafee (RI), Susan Collins (Maine), Fred Thompson (Tenn.) who needed an appropriation from Stevens for his state and John Warner (Virginia) who he knew was “always available for a deal.”

Then Stevens blurred his own record to give himself an argument for folks back home. While voting “not guilty” on the issue of perjury—the one count that could have easily convicted Clinton—he turned around and voted “guilty” on obstruction of justice, the harder-to-prove count to cover himself with conservatives and yet not hurt Clinton. At the last minute, rounding a turn in the Senate cloakroom he nailed another “not guilty” on perjury for his bag—conservative Richard Shelby (Ala.). Shelby was ready to vote Clinton guilty on perjury but really needed money for a dam in Alabama so as to make his reelection come easier. Result after bargaining with Stevens, Shelby voted “not guilty” on perjury. Clinton was spared conviction he richly deserved for perjury 45 “for” and 55 “against.” Freeing Clinton of obstruction was a piece of cake when even easy-going John Warner joined Stevens in voting “guilty” for a tally of 50 guilty and 50 not-guilty, still far from the 67 needed. That’s how the Senate’s ace dealmaker has always operated.

When he narrowly beat Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to save his expensive “bridge to nowhere,” the officious Stevens walked over to Coburn’s desk, leaned over and snarled in his ear: “You don’t care how you harm the Republican party, do ya, Tom?” “No, Ted,” said the evangelical Coburn, a medical doctor, calmly, “you’re the one who’s killing the party.” Last week Coburn was proved right. Stevens is very likely to lose re-nomination later this month and a Democrat is heavily favored to fill his Senate seat. If Stevens were to resign his seat now and be replaced on the ticket by a Republican, the GOP might hold the seat but the old man is going to go down fighting and bring his party in Alaska with him.

The Presidency: Enough Gaffes to Go Around.

Slowly but surely the Electoral College map is swinging rightward to favor John McCain, despite the fact that voters want change, despise George W. Bush and have a cynical view of Republicans except for national security.’s most recent poll shows Obama dipping below the win mark of 270 votes for 238. McCain has 163 and toss-up states total 137. That’s despite the fact that McCain made a huge gaffe in his supposed area of expertise on “Good Morning America” when asked how serious the situation in Afghanistan is. “I think it’s serious,” said the 22-year senator. “It’s a serious situation but there’s a lot of things we need to do. We have a lot of work to do and I’m afraid it’s a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border.”

One problem. Iraq and Pakistan don’t share a border. Afghanistan and Pakistan do. Yet the public isn’t watching him but is watching Obama. For that reason, the election is Obama’s today but his to lose. What worries Chicago’s David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist, is that Obama is doing fairly well in that department. He s currently viewed as favorable by 51% (Rasmussen report) and McCain by 55%. This is the lowest rating for Obama since he wrapped up the nomination. The Illinoisan is viewed favorably by 83% of Democrats, 22% of Republicans and 47% of unaffiliated voters. McCain: 87% favorable by Republicans (a big change), 26% by Democrats and 61% by unaffiliated voters, a figure that is growing seemingly with every poll. Even more devastating is that only 31% of white voters tell The New York Times that they have a favorable impression of Obama compared with 83% of blacks. Last week Colorado went from Obama up five to McCain up two; Michigan from Obama plus six to plus four, Minnesota from Obama up 17 to up two and Wisconsin from a 13-point Obama lead to an 11-point lead.

Obama’s gaffes have not been geographic but glaring ego hubris. In late June for a press conference in Chicago, his staff assemble a presidential-looking seal on his rostrums where he spoke. The oversized blue seal was emblazoned with the Latin phrase Vero Possumus meaning “yes, we can!” Andrew Malcolm of the Los Angeles Times wrote he “has decided not to wait for any of the formalities of a presidential election or even a nomination which he still hasn’t official won yet.” The seal was dumped the next day.

The next month, after a brilliant tour in the Middle East where the Iraqi premier seemed to endorse him and kiss him on both cheeks, came his speech to 200,000 at Victory Column in Berlin. There his messianic ego seemed to control him. “Tonight I speak to you as…a citizen of the world!” he said. There was a low rumble from his blue-collar labor union backers back in Chicago who wanted someone to put the U.S. back to work in manufacturing jobs not be a citizen of the world.

By the end of July when he had returned to the U.S. there was an adoration session for him with fellow Democratic lawmakers in the Cannon House Office building caucus room. Capitol police cleared the aisles as they do for an incoming president and committee chairmen arrived early as they do for the State of the Union. Cops and secret service hustled him in a side door as they do an incumbent president. And this is what he said, according to a liberal reporter, Dana Milbank of the pro-Obama Washington Post:

“This is the moment…that the world is waiting for…I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to its best traditions [italics mine].”

On the way to a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the Willard Hotel, believe it or not a full block of F Street was closed and some 40 security and motorcade vehicles filled the street. Later, after a meeting with the Pakistan premier, he issued a presidential-style statement: “I had a productive and wide-ranging discussion…I look forward to working with the democratically-elected government of Pakistan.” At a Jewish deli I frequent on Saturday afternoons, a blue-collar Democratic joint, somebody cracked: “All he needs now is a cape.”

In late July, in Missouri, Obama made what may have been not just a gaffe but a fatal miscalculation when he told an audience that the McCain campaign is going to “try to make you scared of me. You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He’s risky. That’s essentially the argument they’re making [italics mine].” It was an attempt to churn up anger against fancied racism. The Sleepy Eye of the electorate may just have opened wide at that point, evidence that Obama will use race to gain sympathy.

Not that the Republicans didn’t ever recently use the race card. In 2006 the RNC produced a TV commercial against outstanding, relatively conservative black Tennessee senate candidate, Cong. Harold Ford that featured a provocative white woman winking at the camera and saying “Harold—call me!” That was one of the most scurrilous commercials I’ve seen which contributed to Ford’s loss in Tennessee. But now Obama himself seemingly played the card and the reception he got across the country wasn’t pretty.

By early August, political analysts decided on Obama’s trademark. All presidential candidates have them. Daddy Bush was “a nice guy but out of touch.” Bill Clinton: “smart but randy.” Bob Dole: “heroic but too old.” Gore: “a fibber and a bore.” George W. Bush: “pleasant but dumb.” Obama has now become “charismatic but arrogant.”

Veep Possibilities.

Mark down Sen. Evan Bayh (Indiana) as top-drawer for Obama running mate but Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is right up there. Kaine is a Catholic, called “devout” by the media--but then all Democrat Catholics pols usually are so called by journalists. Kaine may have a claim however since he took a year off from Harvard law school to work as a missionary with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Honduras. But sure enough, he’s an agonized Catholic “pro-abort” as he told TV interviewer Charlie Rose, stressing that he’s personally opposed to abortion—but…a stand first taken by Jimmy Carter. But he won’t have to worry about a Catholic prelate blistering him for his abortion stance. Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo has greased the skids already by declaring he is for “an integrated approach to right to life” and in Arlington, Bishop Paul Loverde has a similar stance.

On the Republican side, if McCain doesn’t pick Mitt Romney of Michigan he may be regarded as eccentric, a speculation he has faced often before. Romney seems to be the only one who can fortify the candidate’s shaky views on the economy plus having a chance to carry the state where his father Governor George was immensely popular and which Mitt carried easily in this year’s primary. Yet Romney’s Rube Goldberg health care program in Massachusetts, devised when Mitt was a liberal Republican, has been drawing fire for being as much a boondoggle as the Democrats can devise. It may be that the best candidate McCain can pick is John Kasich, the former Ohio congressman who has been a Fox network TV host. Kasich is blue-collar, pro-life and could go a long way for the ticket to carry essential Ohio.

1 comment:

  1. What a shame that well grounded, moral, and intelligent men like Tom Coburn get so little recognition.