George Bush we're getting to know better. "If you're for one of my erstwhile opponents," he reportedly joked recently, "that's okay. Just don't work too hard." When I found out Bush had said this, I cringed. Erstwhile means "onetime," "long ago," "former." Bush seems to think it means "distinguished." None of this seems to hurt him. Because another thing CBS asked last week was: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name George W. Bush? The top answer, at 38 percent of Americans, is "son of former president," and there's no other answer that gets more than six. My answer would have been, "Guy who doesn't have a clue what erstwhile means."
Then again, I'm inclined to give George Bush's brain a rest this week. He was the victim of one of the all-time cheapest of cheap media shots, when Andy Hiller of WHDH in Boston asked him to name the leaders of Chechnya, India, Pakistan and Taiwan, and all he could come up with was one out of four. If there is a politician in Washington of either party who could have answered that question?including the President?I'll walk his dog for a year.
No one thought these questions were fair, not even the people who stood to make political hay of them. Not John McCain, not DNC chair Ed Rendell, not Clinton himself, who said, "If Mr. Bush were president, he would soon enough learn their names." The real way one could tell what a cheap shot it was was when that indefatigable bumlicker Paul Begala started kicking Bush. "I defended George W. Bush against what I thought were illegitimate questions," Begala said on MSNBC. "I think these are perfectly legitimate questions." Legitimate questions, to Begala's mind, are questions that Bill Clinton can answer without political embarrassment. Illegitimate questions are questions that embarrass the President. Later, Begala claimed that not only would Clinton?even as governor of Arkansas?have known who those leaders were, he'd also have known "who their brothers-in-law were and what kind of pet they had." Yeah, sure. This of the President who didn't mention foreign policy in his 1992 campaign, who didn't know there was a genocide going on in Rwanda and who didn't know the Russian mafia was laundering oil revenues until this fall. What an eerie slavishness to power Begala has. To put it kindly, he is not the kind of guy one would have wanted as a next-door neighbor in Russia in 1936.
The cheapness of this whole genre of gotcha question came to me the other day when I realized I had no idea what a half-gallon of milk costs. Candidates have to know, though. They spend hours getting briefed by their aides on the price of groceries?I've known two people who've actually done such briefings?just so they don't get coldcocked by some whiner who stands up at a debate and asks if they know how much Thomas' English Muffins cost on sale. And then accuse the candidate of being "out of touch with America."
If "in touch with America" means knowing what groceries cost, let's elect my grandmother. I do most of the shopping in the family and I couldn't tell you within a dollar what milk costs. Unless you're living in a famine, there's no reason to know what milk costs. What, are you going to not buy milk? Are you going to go home and say, "Oh, shit, honey, milk's up to $3.99 a gallon, so don't give the baby his bottle until the price goes down." Or: "They're charging so darn much for milk down at the Safeway that the kids are going to have to take beer to school." Or: "You mind having your cereal with water tomorrow honey? I mean, that milk is going through the roof and the water here is excellent."
Famous Amos I was delighted to find out last week that Israel was sharing its Amos-1 broadcast satellite with Serbia's national television station. First, anything that makes Madeleine Albright mad must serve the cause of international peace. Second, it indicates that Israel understands?and it should understand better than anyone?what a dangerous meeting of radical chic and radical Islam the Kosovo operation brought into play.
And finally, because it reminded me of another Serbian war joke my Yugoslavia-correspondent friend brought back from his latest reporting trip to Belgrade. Dusan and Momcilo are walking down a road. "How is Radovan?" Dusan asks. "Didn't you hear?" Momcilo replies. "Dead. They got him." "What a shame. What happened?" "He got shot. Shot in the finger." Dusan pauses and says, "The finger? I've never heard of anyone dying from getting shot in the finger." "We were trying to figure that out ourselves," says Momcilo, picking his nose.
Auto Pilots There's a vice-presidential motorcade scandal in the South. On Oct. 6, Gore's motorcade was driving down I-40 to reannounce his presidential candidacy in (God knows why) Nashville. Motorist Steven M. Wright entered I-40 on an onramp that had not been blocked, and found himself smack in the middle of Gore's convoy. He was waved to the side of the road by angry cops, panicked, and swerved off the road. The police jumped him, cuffed him and sent him to jail, where he stayed six days.
During that time, the cops found Wright had a brain-fluid disorder that kept him from working, but little else. According to Mike Rice of the Nashville office of the Secret Service, "Our main concern was whether this was intentional or directed toward the Vice President. We determined that it was not." But state trooper Clifford Babits claims Wright was trying to run him over when he swerved off the road. Wright seems likely to face a nightmarish grand jury proceeding.
You can tell a lot about the attitudes of a White House by the traffic patterns in Washington. During the Bush administration you used to see a motorcade every month or so. They happened only on the occasion of big state visits, so you could tell who was going by and why, and so infrequently that they were kind of a thrill. ("Hey, that must be Mitterrand going to the Organization of American States!") In the last six years, there's been a big increase in motorcades; I get passed by several a week. It's a huge inconvenience. Every intersection they pass gets shut down for 10 minutes or so, and the police drive stragglers off the road with a bullying arrogance that would lead one to believe one is living in Peron's Argentina. Obviously, motorcades are being abused to provide mid-level White House staffers a little convenience. It's apparently not just foreign heads of state you can shut down the Washington streets for nowadays, but college buddies of the deputy White House chief of staff who are late for their shuttle flights. This motorcade abuse is of a piece with the administration's traffic policies. This is the White House, after all, that shut down two of the main east-west arteries in downtown Washington, including the 1500-1700 block of Pennsylvania Ave., to provide parking for people who worked in the Old Executive Office Building.
Braun Under At this writing, it looked increasingly likely that Carol Moseley-Braun would be unloaded on New Zealand as the next U.S. ambassador. Jesse Helms had blocked the nomination since Clinton made it a year ago. Helms actually had good reason to do so. In 1995, the IRS asked the Justice Dept. to impanel a grand jury to determine whether Moseley-Braun should be brought to trial for using $200,000 in campaign cash for personal expenditures. The Justice Dept. shut the investigation down. But until last week, the White House wouldn't deliver to Helms the memo in which they did it.
Helms was right to be suspicious. In midweek, however, three things happened: First, the Justice Dept. gave the Senate its memo to read. Second, President Clinton threatened to make a recess appointment of Moseley-Braun?appointing her without Senate approval as soon as Congress went out of session. Third, the President showed himself fully ready to tar Republicans as "racially insensitive" if they hung Moseley-Braun out to dry or pursued an investigation against her.
In a week in which Mississippi Democrat Ronnie Musgrove came from as much as 14 points down to score a shocking upset by winning the governorship (largely by turning out the state's black vote) and the woefully weak Democratic candidate John Street squeaked in as mayor of Philadelphia (largely by turning out the city's black vote), and with Jesse Helms taking the lead role in blocking Moseley-Braun, this was a fight that Clinton wanted and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott decidedly did not. So in the name of fighting racism, it looks like the new, compassionate Republicans are going to treat the people of New Zealand to an ambassador who's under suspicion of being a crook.