Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 14, 2012

The Biden Double Standard

The liberals hyperventilating at the thought of Paul Ryan “a heartbeat away from the presidency” seem completely unaware of who’s filling that slot at the present moment. Why is it that Joe Biden is the only national campaign surrogate who’s never expected to put together an appropriate sentence? Every time he spouts off some wildly offensive stereotype, or makes a glaringly false assertion, journalists treat him like a chatty, precocious four-year-old who has no control over what comes out of his mouth.

“Joe Biden doing his best Joe Biden,” joked Politico about Biden’s latest blunder, which, as Jonathan noted, crossed the line into blatant racial incitement. But the media rarely, if ever, seems to be concerned that this guy they view as a hopeless buffoon is sitting a “heartbeat away from the presidency” — next in line, in an emergency, to deal with a nuclear Iran, the fiscal cliff, Medicare teetering on bankruptcy, and global terrorism. In fact, all the grave murmuring about vice presidents and “heartbeats” only seems to come up during discussions of Republican tickets.

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The liberals hyperventilating at the thought of Paul Ryan “a heartbeat away from the presidency” seem completely unaware of who’s filling that slot at the present moment. Why is it that Joe Biden is the only national campaign surrogate who’s never expected to put together an appropriate sentence? Every time he spouts off some wildly offensive stereotype, or makes a glaringly false assertion, journalists treat him like a chatty, precocious four-year-old who has no control over what comes out of his mouth.

“Joe Biden doing his best Joe Biden,” joked Politico about Biden’s latest blunder, which, as Jonathan noted, crossed the line into blatant racial incitement. But the media rarely, if ever, seems to be concerned that this guy they view as a hopeless buffoon is sitting a “heartbeat away from the presidency” — next in line, in an emergency, to deal with a nuclear Iran, the fiscal cliff, Medicare teetering on bankruptcy, and global terrorism. In fact, all the grave murmuring about vice presidents and “heartbeats” only seems to come up during discussions of Republican tickets.

The Obama campaign is defending Biden’s racially charged comment, and why not? If past Biden-related goofs are any prediction, this controversy may not have much shelf life. Once again, the media may simply shrug and dismiss this as “Biden being Biden.”

That’s unfortunate, because journalists can’t expect to be fair analysts of the race unless they’re willing to hold Biden accountable for remarks that could ruin any other politician’s career. Right now, every move Paul Ryan makes is being evaluated under a microscope — as it should. But is it too much to ask that our sitting vice president be held to the same standards? He is, after all, a heartbeat away from the presidency at this very moment.

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Why Do Voters Back ID? Common Sense

Liberals have spent most of the year trying to convince Americans that voter ID laws are a false front for racist voter suppression. They argue there’s no such thing as voter fraud and that legislation aimed at combating election cheating is merely a Republican plot to steal the election. But, as a new Washington Post poll on the subject demonstrates, the majority aren’t buying it. Almost three quarters — 74 percent — believe voters should be required to show official, government-issued identification when they vote. A clear majority of those polled also think, contrary to liberal allegations, that voter ID laws are rooted in concern about a genuine problem.

These numbers have to concern Democrats who are hoping to whip up a backlash against voter ID legislation by falsely claiming they are a new form of “Jim Crow” laws intended to foster discrimination. Indeed, given the drumbeat of incitement against voter ID laws in the mainstream media, you have to wonder why there is so much resistance to the liberal line on this topic. The answer, however, is quite simple. The public knows that claims that voter fraud is nonexistent run counter to everything they know about politicians, elections and human nature.

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Liberals have spent most of the year trying to convince Americans that voter ID laws are a false front for racist voter suppression. They argue there’s no such thing as voter fraud and that legislation aimed at combating election cheating is merely a Republican plot to steal the election. But, as a new Washington Post poll on the subject demonstrates, the majority aren’t buying it. Almost three quarters — 74 percent — believe voters should be required to show official, government-issued identification when they vote. A clear majority of those polled also think, contrary to liberal allegations, that voter ID laws are rooted in concern about a genuine problem.

These numbers have to concern Democrats who are hoping to whip up a backlash against voter ID legislation by falsely claiming they are a new form of “Jim Crow” laws intended to foster discrimination. Indeed, given the drumbeat of incitement against voter ID laws in the mainstream media, you have to wonder why there is so much resistance to the liberal line on this topic. The answer, however, is quite simple. The public knows that claims that voter fraud is nonexistent run counter to everything they know about politicians, elections and human nature.

The huge numbers supporting voter ID isn’t hard to figure out. Anyone who travels or has to conduct any sort of transaction with a bank or the government know they are going to be asked to identify themselves in this manner. The notion that something as important as voting should be exempt from such a requirement makes no sense to most people.

And though a not insignificant number worry about voters being discouraged or wrongly having their franchise denied, far more understand it is more likely that politicians and parties are looking to find a way to cook the books and steal a close election than their right to vote will somehow be taken away.

After all, the vast majority of Americans already have a state-issued card with a photo, and states that have passed voter ID laws have made provisions for those without them to get one free of charge. They also know it is no harder to get one of these free ID cards than it is to register to vote in the first place. They rightly wonder why it is some think there is something sinister in having a voter prove they are eligible to vote, because it appears as if opponents of voter ID seem to be taking the position that citizens should never be asked to produce proof of residence in a state, city or district or even that they are actually American citizens. Interestingly enough, as the Post notes in their own analysis of the poll, a solid majority of both the elderly and the poor — groups it is believed will be impacted by such laws — also support voter ID.

The problem for liberals is their repeated claim that voter fraud never happens is given the lie by the controversies that bubble up every time there is a close election. Neither Republicans nor Democrats trust each other not to cheat, as the debacle of Florida in 2000 and the fight about paperless touch screen voting machines showed.

Inclusion is important, which is why states and the parties should promote voter registration drives to ensure that every qualified citizen who wishes to vote has the opportunity. But it is no less important than the need to ensure that our elections are fair and honest. The Post poll demonstrates that when it comes to fraud, most people weren’t born yesterday. They realize that protecting democracy requires vigilance against both exclusion and cheating.

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GOP Convention Looks to the Future

The final slate of speakers at the Republican National Convention is shaping up, and it’s no surprise that Chris Christie and Marco Rubio both scored high-profile slots:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention later this month, USA Today reported. Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will introduce Mitt Romney, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Christie confirmed earlier reports that he would give the 20-minute address, saying he will make an “empathetic” argument for the GOP and voting for Mitt Romney. The Republican governor is on his fourth draft of the speech and “grinding away on it,” he told USA Today.

The choices of Christie and Rubio for prominent roles indicate that the RNC’s convention theme is forward-looking, and reformist rather than rejectionist (a distinction that Michael Gerson articulated in the Washington Post a few months ago).

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The final slate of speakers at the Republican National Convention is shaping up, and it’s no surprise that Chris Christie and Marco Rubio both scored high-profile slots:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention later this month, USA Today reported. Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will introduce Mitt Romney, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Christie confirmed earlier reports that he would give the 20-minute address, saying he will make an “empathetic” argument for the GOP and voting for Mitt Romney. The Republican governor is on his fourth draft of the speech and “grinding away on it,” he told USA Today.

The choices of Christie and Rubio for prominent roles indicate that the RNC’s convention theme is forward-looking, and reformist rather than rejectionist (a distinction that Michael Gerson articulated in the Washington Post a few months ago).

But the list of speakers is also interesting because of who has been excluded. There are libertarian-leaning conservatives, but Ron Paul has been skipped over in favor of his less doctrinal son, Rand. Sarah Palin wasn’t offered a slot, a result of her waning influence in the party and the rise of other conservative favorites who can satisfy the Tea Party base without alienating the center. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney didn’t make the cut either.

Also note that out of the top GOP primary contenders, only Rick Santorum has a speaking role:

Of Romney’s onetime rivals for the Republican nomination — a colorful cast that includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former pizza executive Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) — only former Senator Rick Santorum has been asked to speak.

“The agenda of speakers reflect the priorities the campaign has going into the fall,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “If they were to put someone out there who was not helpful, who was off message or a loud mouth, it would do nothing but hurt their efforts.”

While all of these candidates were at the top of the primary polls at one point or another, the RNC apparently doesn’t see them as the future of the party. The convention will elevate Christie and Rubio, and if Romney loses, they’re likely to be the top contenders — along with Ryan — in 2016.

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Ryan Unleashes Liberal Incivility

With the heightened focus on the Republican vice presidential candidate, it was only natural that the Democratic incumbent in that office would say something to get a little attention for himself. Vice President Joseph Biden, the gift that keeps giving to Republicans, wasn’t content to merely criticize Republican policies at a campaign appearance in Danville, Virginia; he claimed the GOP would revive slavery. As the Weekly Standard noted, affecting a drawl for the benefit of his south Virginia audience, Biden lambasted the idea that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would free up Wall Street to create more prosperity:

“Look at their budget, and what they are proposing,” Biden said. “Romney wants to let–he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They going to put y’all back in chains.”

While Democrats may defend this as just another Biden exaggeration, this is a clear-cut case of racial incitement. After all, unless he is referring to Jews being returned to slavery some 3,500 years after the Exodus from Egypt, the only possible allusion here is to the enslavement of African Americans in the south. This is more than just garden-variety political hyperbole. It is an unfortunate example of just how desperate Democrats are to scare voters into backing the president’s re-election.

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With the heightened focus on the Republican vice presidential candidate, it was only natural that the Democratic incumbent in that office would say something to get a little attention for himself. Vice President Joseph Biden, the gift that keeps giving to Republicans, wasn’t content to merely criticize Republican policies at a campaign appearance in Danville, Virginia; he claimed the GOP would revive slavery. As the Weekly Standard noted, affecting a drawl for the benefit of his south Virginia audience, Biden lambasted the idea that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would free up Wall Street to create more prosperity:

“Look at their budget, and what they are proposing,” Biden said. “Romney wants to let–he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They going to put y’all back in chains.”

While Democrats may defend this as just another Biden exaggeration, this is a clear-cut case of racial incitement. After all, unless he is referring to Jews being returned to slavery some 3,500 years after the Exodus from Egypt, the only possible allusion here is to the enslavement of African Americans in the south. This is more than just garden-variety political hyperbole. It is an unfortunate example of just how desperate Democrats are to scare voters into backing the president’s re-election.

We can expect Democratic spin masters to excuse this as merely Joe being Joe, the crazy uncle of our political system whose excesses should be tolerated if not smiled at. But what is on display in this video is a willingness to demonize opponents that eclipses the routine nastiness we’ve become accustomed to during elections. Biden’s comment is at the level of 9/11 truther–let alone an Obama birther. But this is more than just another example of how hypocritical mainstream liberal complaints are about civility in politics.

The Biden blast shows that in this election, there is literally nothing to which the Obama campaign would not stoop in order to besmirch their opponents. If, as Seth wrote earlier today, liberals are prepared to call Romney and Ryan “murderers,” why wouldn’t they claim the GOP is in favor of slavery?

While some conservatives are guilty of uncivil behavior, the Biden gaffe (and it will be interesting to see if liberals are prepared to admit it was a gaffe rather than a justified comment) points out commentator Dennis Prager’s insight about the difference between the left and the right. Most conservatives merely think liberals are wrong. Most liberals really believe most conservatives are evil.

While it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable — a character trait for which Ryan is well-known — to expect civility from someone who thinks his opponent is beyond the pale is to demand more than a partisan such as Biden can manage. As long as liberals are prepared to demonize Republicans in this manner, we must expect more of this kind of despicable behavior from Democrats this fall–if not far worse.

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The “Game Change” Obama Never Existed

Yesterday, Alana asked a perceptive question about President Obama’s self-image as portrayed in Game Change. I think we have the answer. My favorite thing about Game Change–the book about the 2008 presidential campaign that was made into a much-maligned HBO film–is the index. Whoever created the index at the book’s publishing house assumed no one would read it from cover to cover, but instead that its target audience–people who are portrayed in the book–would scour the index for the references they were looking for. So the structure of the index is quintessentially Beltway.

What do I mean? The index entries are organized according to mainstream media conventional wisdom. So under “Obama, Barack Hussein,” there is an entry marked “calmness and self-possession of.” You know, just to help nudge book reviewers in the right direction. But the entry under Obama’s name that takes the cake is the one marked “conventional politics disdained by.” In case you haven’t heard, Barack Obama is a new kind of politician. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that accusing Mitt Romney of murder has become something of a central theme in the campaign to re-elect the president.

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Yesterday, Alana asked a perceptive question about President Obama’s self-image as portrayed in Game Change. I think we have the answer. My favorite thing about Game Change–the book about the 2008 presidential campaign that was made into a much-maligned HBO film–is the index. Whoever created the index at the book’s publishing house assumed no one would read it from cover to cover, but instead that its target audience–people who are portrayed in the book–would scour the index for the references they were looking for. So the structure of the index is quintessentially Beltway.

What do I mean? The index entries are organized according to mainstream media conventional wisdom. So under “Obama, Barack Hussein,” there is an entry marked “calmness and self-possession of.” You know, just to help nudge book reviewers in the right direction. But the entry under Obama’s name that takes the cake is the one marked “conventional politics disdained by.” In case you haven’t heard, Barack Obama is a new kind of politician. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that accusing Mitt Romney of murder has become something of a central theme in the campaign to re-elect the president.

Obama’s refusal to disavow the first ad in the death-by-Romney series was an indication that there would be more to come. And now there is. Today, several outlets have reported on the new AFL-CIO ad, which you can see here. Because of an item in a budget Romney hasn’t voted for and didn’t have anything to do with (Romney is not a member of Congress), Obama ally Richard Trumka is accusing Romney of eventually causing the deaths of many coal miners from black lung disease.

The media is getting in on the action as well. CNN went searching through its archives for footage of leftwing pundits describing Paul Ryan’s budget, and found a doozy: Paul Krugman telling CNN, “To be a little melodramatic, the budget would kill people, no question.”

“Melodramatic” is indeed one way to describe such a statement. Though perhaps Krugman isn’t the best pundit to make that accusation. The New Yorker profile of Krugman revealed that he and his wife threw an Election Day party with a strange theme: guests were directed to a fire pit into which they threw effigies of their most hated politicians. And then there was the Krugman column that opened thus: “A message to progressives: By all means, hang Senator Joe Lieberman in effigy.”

And of course, the addition of Paul Ryan to the GOP ticket practically guarantees the return of the Democrats’ ad in which they dress up as Ryan and throw an old lady off a cliff. But you can hardly blame the Democrats for being so “melodramatic.” It turns out the Ryan proposal is not so easy to attack honestly, especially because it doesn’t impact current retirees. Kirsten Powers tried to get around this yesterday on Fox by simply designating the entire country senior citizens, which led to the following exchange with Charles Krauthammer:

POWERS: It will affect old people, just they’re not old right now. So they will eventually be old.

KRAUTHAMMER: They’re called young people.

Powers says they’ll “eventually be old,” but according to Democratic talking points, Romney won’t let that happen. In any case, where is Obama the intellectual in all this? What happened to the disdaining of conventional politics?

It turns out that if you follow those entries in Game Change, you don’t get examples of Obama practicing a new kind of politics so much as examples of Obama saying he wants to practice a new kind of politics. And that is the most damaging part of the contrast between a Romney-Ryan ticket and an Obama-Biden ticket: the polite charm, policy expertise, and gutsy new politics of real reform in place of the status quo are on the GOP side. Obama’s opponents are everything the media pretended he was. He may have encouraged the flattering depiction, but it’s doubtful he fooled himself into believing it.

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Continued Distortions of Romney’s Tax Plan

The Wall Street Journal  hones in on the big assumption in the Tax Policy Center study that’s driven much of the media coverage and Democratic attacks against Mitt Romney’s tax plan:

The study’s biggest distortion is its raw assertion that Mr. Romney would refuse to close certain loopholes. In the appendix, the Tax Policy Center lists, among others, two giant tax deductions that it says would go untouched: the exclusion of interest on tax-exempt municipal bonds, and the exclusion of interest on life insurance savings. The study claims that Mr. Romney won’t close these because they are incentives for saving and investment.

One problem: Nowhere do Mitt Romney or his advisers say that these deductions can’t be touched. Senior economic adviser Glenn Hubbard says these deductions are definitely “on the table.”

This is the assumption that TPC’s study was based on, despite prior comments from Romney that indicate these deductions and exclusions could still be on the table (and the latest clarification from the Romney campaign they actually are on the table).

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The Wall Street Journal  hones in on the big assumption in the Tax Policy Center study that’s driven much of the media coverage and Democratic attacks against Mitt Romney’s tax plan:

The study’s biggest distortion is its raw assertion that Mr. Romney would refuse to close certain loopholes. In the appendix, the Tax Policy Center lists, among others, two giant tax deductions that it says would go untouched: the exclusion of interest on tax-exempt municipal bonds, and the exclusion of interest on life insurance savings. The study claims that Mr. Romney won’t close these because they are incentives for saving and investment.

One problem: Nowhere do Mitt Romney or his advisers say that these deductions can’t be touched. Senior economic adviser Glenn Hubbard says these deductions are definitely “on the table.”

This is the assumption that TPC’s study was based on, despite prior comments from Romney that indicate these deductions and exclusions could still be on the table (and the latest clarification from the Romney campaign they actually are on the table).

At AEI, Matt Jensen offers a critique of the TPC study, and finds that this one tweak would demolish TPC’s conclusion that the plan would shift the tax burden to the middle class:

The first aspect that stands out is that Governor Romney has yet to detail what tax expenditures he’d repeal, but TPC assumes that many items are either “on the table” or “off the table.” While some of these assumptions make a lot of sense, others make less.

For example, a couple of items that TPC assumes are off the table are the exclusion of interest on tax exempt bonds and the exclusion of interest on life insurance savings. While Governor Romney has professed a desire to keep rates on savings and investment low, maintaining these exclusions is not necessarily what he meant. In fact, both of these exclusions largely benefit the wealthy, and, according to the Treasury Department, added together their repeal would net upwards of $90 billion that could be redistributed to lower-income individuals. That would go a long way towards balancing out the supposed $86 billion windfall for the rich and tax hike on the middle class and poor, and it could make the impossible suddenly possible.

TPC has acknowledged that there are alternative scenarios that aren’t covered in its initial study. Unfortunately, rather than serve as a theoretical exercise, the TPC study has been appropriated as a political attack by the Obama campaign. Romney is now being accused of supposedly proposing tax hikes on the middle class, when there are scenarios in which his tax plan could work without increasing the middle class tax burden. While the Romney campaign could help resolve this by actually releasing more details on his tax plan, TPC could also avoid being used as a partisan bludgeon by analyzing multiple possible scenarios.

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No Surprise: Adelson in the Cross Hairs

Those with wealth have to know media and government scrutiny comes with their money. And if such persons choose to involve themselves in politics, then that scrutiny is bound to be even greater. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire supporter of Jewish philanthropies and Republican political candidates, probably understood this long before he became the subject of so much attention this year. But the focus on Adelson today makes it more clear than ever that the controversial campaign donor’s willingness to put himself in the spotlight means his business dealings are going to be gone over with a fine tooth comb by both the media and federal authorities as they search for something with which to hang him.

Adelson is the subject of a lengthy investigative piece that appears on the front page of today’s New York Times. According to the story, a former “front man” in China for the casino mogul’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation is being investigated about funds that may have been used to bribe foreign officials in connection with the company’s efforts to expand their business there. If true, that would violate U.S. laws that forbid such shenanigans. It’s a messy and complicated tale that has drawn the attention of Chinese authorities, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Times and the Wall Street Journal. But it is far from clear that Adelson has violated any law or done anything that any other big business–which chooses to operate in a country where corruption is rife and the rule of law is a hazy concept–hasn’t done. It may well be that anyone whose prosperity is derived from gambling is going to be subjected to such investigations. But the idea that he has mixed “politics and profits” as the Times put it, seems to imply there is something not kosher about him even if no wrongdoing can be proved. That leaves cynical observers wondering whether the outrage about Adelson’s dealings would be quite so acute if he were not a leading backer of conservative and Israeli causes.

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Those with wealth have to know media and government scrutiny comes with their money. And if such persons choose to involve themselves in politics, then that scrutiny is bound to be even greater. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire supporter of Jewish philanthropies and Republican political candidates, probably understood this long before he became the subject of so much attention this year. But the focus on Adelson today makes it more clear than ever that the controversial campaign donor’s willingness to put himself in the spotlight means his business dealings are going to be gone over with a fine tooth comb by both the media and federal authorities as they search for something with which to hang him.

Adelson is the subject of a lengthy investigative piece that appears on the front page of today’s New York Times. According to the story, a former “front man” in China for the casino mogul’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation is being investigated about funds that may have been used to bribe foreign officials in connection with the company’s efforts to expand their business there. If true, that would violate U.S. laws that forbid such shenanigans. It’s a messy and complicated tale that has drawn the attention of Chinese authorities, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Times and the Wall Street Journal. But it is far from clear that Adelson has violated any law or done anything that any other big business–which chooses to operate in a country where corruption is rife and the rule of law is a hazy concept–hasn’t done. It may well be that anyone whose prosperity is derived from gambling is going to be subjected to such investigations. But the idea that he has mixed “politics and profits” as the Times put it, seems to imply there is something not kosher about him even if no wrongdoing can be proved. That leaves cynical observers wondering whether the outrage about Adelson’s dealings would be quite so acute if he were not a leading backer of conservative and Israeli causes.

The assumption underlying these investigations is that Adelson’s successful efforts to open gambling casinos in Macao as well as his unsuccessful attempt to do business in mainline China itself had to be crooked or at least the result of some sort of bribery. Given the level of corruption in China, a country that combines authoritarian communist politics with wild and woolly capitalism, it’s difficult to assert that any business dealings there, especially concerning gambling, were pristine. But a close reading of both the Times investigation as well as the one conducted by the Journal, shows the case is more about such assumptions than any actual proof of law-breaking by Adelson.

The most damning piece of evidence about Adelson in the Times feature isn’t new. It’s the oft-told story of how Adelson used his access to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to convince him to shelve a congressional resolution opposing the holding of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in order to please his Chinese interlocutors. That wasn’t to the credit of either Adelson or DeLay, but it wasn’t illegal. Given the fact that virtually the entire American political establishment — including those with no ties to the casino owner — made a conscious decision a decade or more ago to treat the issue of Chinese human rights violations as a minor obstacle to better relations with Beijing that was best ignored, it’s difficult to get too worked up about Adelson’s minor role in this shift.

Nor is it easy to manufacture outrage about corruption in Macao or China. The practice of hiring local fixers called guanxi to smooth the path of foreign businessman there is well-known. The line between the apparently common practice of paying such people sums of money to gain government permission to operate in the country and bribery may be so thin as to be almost non-existent.

Nevertheless, Adelson’s company is going to be given a thorough going over by U.S. authorities. Sands is cooperating with the government, and if they are penalized or prosecuted, the legal process will be long and as complicated as the investigation. We can only hope justice will be done one way or another.

But all one has to do is to read many of the hundreds of comments posted by readers in response to the Times article to understand that any public anger about Adelson has more to do with his public identity as an unashamed backer of Israel and Jewish causes and his support for Republican candidates. The anti-Semitic nature of these comments is repulsive. No matter what you think of gambling or even Adelson’s politics, the prime motivation for those who claim to support further investigation of Sands’ activities in China seems to be to discredit anyone who has the chutzpah to use his wealth to bolster Israel or conservative politics. The bottom line here is that while we cannot know the ultimate outcome of this investigation, the one thing Adelson is definitely guilty of is using his money to promote ideas the left despises.

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Review: Dreams of His Father in Cairo

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.

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What the Media Got Wrong Yesterday

Mary Katharine Ham catches several media distortions about Paul Ryan yesterday, including the misleading claim that Ryan voted to ban abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. In fact, Ryan was one of more than 60 co-sponsors of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which doesn’t technically ban anything. As Ramesh Ponnuru explains, the act simply affirms the right of state legislatures to protect unborn life. The question of how to act on that right is up to the individual legislatures:

The first item: “He supports the Sanctity of Human Life Act (emphasis in original). Odell wrote that the bill “seeks to ban all abortions, including in instances of rape and incest.” Ryan may, for all I know, believe that abortion should be illegal with exceptions only to save a mother’s life. But has he really co-sponsored a bill to effect this policy? No. The bill declares that fertilization marks the beginning of a human life and then “affirms that the Congress, each State, the District of Columbia, and all United States territories have the authority to protect the lives of all human beings residing in its respective jurisdictions.” In other words, it doesn’t ban anything: It merely affirms that legislatures have the authority to protect unborn life. If Odell wishes to argue that a legislature moved by the convictions of the bill must, to be consistent, ban abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest, she can do so. It’s not in the bill.

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Mary Katharine Ham catches several media distortions about Paul Ryan yesterday, including the misleading claim that Ryan voted to ban abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. In fact, Ryan was one of more than 60 co-sponsors of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which doesn’t technically ban anything. As Ramesh Ponnuru explains, the act simply affirms the right of state legislatures to protect unborn life. The question of how to act on that right is up to the individual legislatures:

The first item: “He supports the Sanctity of Human Life Act (emphasis in original). Odell wrote that the bill “seeks to ban all abortions, including in instances of rape and incest.” Ryan may, for all I know, believe that abortion should be illegal with exceptions only to save a mother’s life. But has he really co-sponsored a bill to effect this policy? No. The bill declares that fertilization marks the beginning of a human life and then “affirms that the Congress, each State, the District of Columbia, and all United States territories have the authority to protect the lives of all human beings residing in its respective jurisdictions.” In other words, it doesn’t ban anything: It merely affirms that legislatures have the authority to protect unborn life. If Odell wishes to argue that a legislature moved by the convictions of the bill must, to be consistent, ban abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest, she can do so. It’s not in the bill.

Here is the text of the actual bill:

  1. In the exercise of the powers of the Congress, including Congress’ power under article I, section 8 of the Constitution, to make necessary and proper laws, and Congress’ power under section 5 of the 14th article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States–
  • (1) the Congress declares that–
    1. (A) the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being, and is the paramount and most fundamental right of a person; and
      (B) the life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, irrespective of sex, health, function or disability, defect, stage of biological development, or condition of dependency, at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood; and
  • (2) the Congress affirms that the Congress, each State, the District of Columbia, and all United States territories have the authority to protect the lives of all human beings residing in its respective jurisdictions.

The act is an affirmation of when life begins, but it leaves the enforcement and specifics up to the state legislatures (or, up to subsequent acts by Congress).

But the media coverage wasn’t all bad yesterday. As Guy Benson notes, Wolf Blitzer shredded Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s claim that Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan wouldn’t exempt people over the age of 55:

DWS has no defense on this, short of outright lying, which she valiantly attempts to do before getting swatted down by Blitzer. Democrats know that Ryan’s proposed Medicare reform wouldn’t go into effect for anyone over the age of 55 — but if they acknowledge that, then the Mediscaring in Florida becomes far less effective. That’s why DWS dug in so hard on this. In the end, she finally had to admit the truth; but let’s see how many in the media call her on it if she continues to distort Ryan’s plan.

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Imagine: Turkish TV Censors John Lennon

When organizers of the 30th Olympic Games in London—the most politically correct in history—decided that “Imagine,” the late John Lennon paean to world peace should  feature in the closing ceremony, little did they realize they would so greatly offend official Turkish sensibilities.

From the Hurriyet Daily News:

A presenter for Turkish state broadcaster TRT omitted part of iconic British musician John Lennon’s lyrics that call for “no religion” during the broadcasting of the Olympic Games’ closing ceremonies, NTV reported on its website. One of Lennon’s most famous songs, “Imagine,” was included in the Aug. 12 ceremonies and was translated into Turkish by the TRT presenter as it played in the background. The verses of the song which called for people to imagine a world with no countries and no reason to kill or die for were correctly translated into Turkish, but the presenter skipped the part where Lennon sang for “no religion.” The presenter translated the remainder of the lyrics correctly.

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When organizers of the 30th Olympic Games in London—the most politically correct in history—decided that “Imagine,” the late John Lennon paean to world peace should  feature in the closing ceremony, little did they realize they would so greatly offend official Turkish sensibilities.

From the Hurriyet Daily News:

A presenter for Turkish state broadcaster TRT omitted part of iconic British musician John Lennon’s lyrics that call for “no religion” during the broadcasting of the Olympic Games’ closing ceremonies, NTV reported on its website. One of Lennon’s most famous songs, “Imagine,” was included in the Aug. 12 ceremonies and was translated into Turkish by the TRT presenter as it played in the background. The verses of the song which called for people to imagine a world with no countries and no reason to kill or die for were correctly translated into Turkish, but the presenter skipped the part where Lennon sang for “no religion.” The presenter translated the remainder of the lyrics correctly.

Now I’m no atheist, but I’m not going to begrudge the late Lennon his philosophy. Still, as Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan bases Turkey’s bid to host the Olympics in religion rather than peace and brotherhood, it is worth asking what else will Turkey seek to censor.

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Is This the Ryan Teachable Moment?

Liberals are catching their breath after spending the first few days after Mitt Romney’s announcement of his vice presidential choice huffing and puffing about how happy they are to have Paul Ryan to attack this fall. But amid the complacent over-confidence, some are claiming to welcome the opportunity to have a debate about debt and the budget that Ryan’s presence on a national ticket will ensure. On the New York Times’ op-ed page, Joe Nocera attempts to broach the discussion in a serious manner while on the paper’s website, the less serious Roger Cohen also writes that such a debate would be good. Both seem to assume that most Americans share their prejudices about Ryan’s “radical” ideas about shrinking government but understand that the instinctive liberal refusal to contemplate a limit to federal spending is bad for the country’s long-term security.

This shows that despite their glib self-assurance that Americans can be Mediscared out of listening to Ryan’s ideas about reforming the government, some on the left are beginning to understand that Democrats must come up with an answer to the challenge posed by the intellectual leader of the GOP. Read Virginia Postrel’s suggestion yesterday in Bloomberg that the Republicans place Ryan front and center in a series of infomercials about the fiscal crisis this fall. The model would be the half hour prime time commercials that were broadcast by Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992 in which the eccentric and wealthy independent galvanized public attention on the budget with hand-held charts and lectures. While this idea may give heart attacks to some of Mitt Romney’s media consultants, it has some merit. For all of the arguments we’ve heard lately about the public’s willingness to listen to serious budget proposals like the one promoted by the GOP veep, the Republicans ought not to ignore the possibility that giving Ryan the opportunity to present his ideas is the last thing President Obama should want.

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Liberals are catching their breath after spending the first few days after Mitt Romney’s announcement of his vice presidential choice huffing and puffing about how happy they are to have Paul Ryan to attack this fall. But amid the complacent over-confidence, some are claiming to welcome the opportunity to have a debate about debt and the budget that Ryan’s presence on a national ticket will ensure. On the New York Times’ op-ed page, Joe Nocera attempts to broach the discussion in a serious manner while on the paper’s website, the less serious Roger Cohen also writes that such a debate would be good. Both seem to assume that most Americans share their prejudices about Ryan’s “radical” ideas about shrinking government but understand that the instinctive liberal refusal to contemplate a limit to federal spending is bad for the country’s long-term security.

This shows that despite their glib self-assurance that Americans can be Mediscared out of listening to Ryan’s ideas about reforming the government, some on the left are beginning to understand that Democrats must come up with an answer to the challenge posed by the intellectual leader of the GOP. Read Virginia Postrel’s suggestion yesterday in Bloomberg that the Republicans place Ryan front and center in a series of infomercials about the fiscal crisis this fall. The model would be the half hour prime time commercials that were broadcast by Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992 in which the eccentric and wealthy independent galvanized public attention on the budget with hand-held charts and lectures. While this idea may give heart attacks to some of Mitt Romney’s media consultants, it has some merit. For all of the arguments we’ve heard lately about the public’s willingness to listen to serious budget proposals like the one promoted by the GOP veep, the Republicans ought not to ignore the possibility that giving Ryan the opportunity to present his ideas is the last thing President Obama should want.

Liberals have been telling themselves the more Americans learn about what Ryan believes, the less likely they will be to vote for Romney. They believe, as Cohen says, that Ryan is the most radical Republican leader since Barry Goldwater and are sure that this guarantees a victory for the Democrats. But the genius of Ryan’s appeal is that he combines Ronald Reagan’s down home geniality with the sort of wonkish command of economics we have rarely seen in a national candidate. Rather than hoping Republicans will feature Ryan and his proposals, Democrats should fear the exposure he will get. The more people listen to Ryan’s notions about economic freedom and reining in the cycle of federal spending and taxing, the less likely they will be to accept the Democrats’ lame defense of the status quo.

There are good arguments against allowing Ryan to overshadow the top of the ticket. And, as Postrel admits, Ryan videos about the budget could provide Democrats with more material to attack. But as she rightly points out, the danger to the GOP isn’t that they would provide Obama’s campaign with ammunition, but that the attention span of the American people in 2012 is so much shorter than it was in 1992 that no one would listen to Ryan the way they did to Perot. But as she writes, no one expected the public to listen to Perot then either. The reason they did is there was a palpable hunger for new ideas and serious proposals about a problem most thinking people cared about. Ultimately, the voters rightly decided Perot wasn’t the sort of person who should be trusted with nuclear weapons, but his message resonated.

Republicans are capable of doing better than Perot’s primitive ads and they have a far better spokesman. It’s also possible to promote these ideas in a way in which the pecking order on the ticket is not reversed. Twenty years after Perot changed American politics, it may well be time for another lecture series on the budget and the size of the government that will ensure we have the serious debate about the fiscal crisis the country needs and deserves. Rather than a bonanza for the Democrats, the teachable moment for Paul Ryan’s ideas may have arrived.

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