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Political commentary from Andrew Malcolm

Category: July 2009

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Swine flu hits Senate pages on Capitol Hill -- maybe

Senate pages in Statuary Hall carrying ballots that will certify Barack Obama as president elect January 8, 2009

Senate pages -- those high school juniors who come to Washington every year to get a first-hand introduction to politics by serving as interns in the Senate while going to school -- are in the news again.

This time, it's not a scandal, like the one that drove Florida Republican Mark Foley from office after it was revealed that he had been sending sexual messages to male pages. Amid the ensuing controversy, which helped propel Democrats back into power in the House in 2006, Foley resigned from Congress and the page board -- which is supposed to monitor the kids' dorm living conditions, schooling and work hours -- was reorganized.

The problem now? Swine flu. At least they think it's a possibility.

Senate Sgt. at Arms Terry Gainer said today that six Senate pages are sick with flu symptoms that could be H1N1. The dreaded swine flu killed more than 150 people in Mexico during an epidemic in the spring. But in this case, two of the pages are already back at work.

Doctors are "not overly concerned" about an outbreak of the virus on Capitol Hill, Gainer told CNN, adding that all 53 students in the Senate page program were told "not to panic," to "wash their hands" and to stay home from work if they don't feel well. That's the official line from health officials as they brace for a possible onslaught of swine flu cases in the fall.

In the meantime, Gainer's assessment: "The sky is not falling."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Senate pages carry ballot boxes through Statuary Hall toward the House Chamber so electoral votes can be counted during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 8, 2009, to officially designate Barack Obama as president-elect. Credit: Getty Images

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Joe Biden update: Lots of closed meetings, a poll number under Cheney

Democrat Vice president Joe Biden gets either on or off of Air Force Two

While the president hops down to North Carolina and back to Virginia today, selling more healthcare plans whose billions of dollars will absolutely positively not add one Chicago dime to the deficit, Vice President Joe Biden has another full day of secret closed meetings in Washington.

According to the Veepster's schedule, after taking Monday off to accompany his wife to the doctor, he'll have a closed briefing on whatever the Recovery Act is or is not doing. Then, for the remainder of the entire day, Biden will have hour after hour of meetings with unidentified people on unidentified subjects. Don't even ask.

In the evening, he'll return to his Delaware home to recover.

Also, some polling news for Biden buffs:

According to a new Washington Post survey, a clear majority of Americans (55%) approve of the job Biden's doing, perhaps because thanks to schedules like today's, they can't know much about what that job he's doing actually is.

Biden's numbers are tied closely to Americans' belief in the economic efficacy of President Obama's stimulus package. Those who think it'll work, like him; those who don't, don't.

Those Biden approval numbers still aren't quite as good as Dick Cheney's April approval of 64% from a 2001 Post poll. But then Cheney is Obama's cousin and talks way less than Biden, who used to call Cheney the most dangerous vice president in U.S. history.

Biden's approval numbers, however, are way better than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's. Which actually isn't saying much because she and George W. Bush are both hovering around the lower 30s nowadays.

According to the Post, 79% of Democrats approve of Joe's job, 54% of independents and 24% of Republicans. Among white Catholics and whites without college degrees, Obama's actually doing better in approval ratings than the guy from Scranton, Pa., who was supposed to help him with that crowd. An ominous sign for a presidential helpmate.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credit: Getty Images

The White House beer day for Crowley and Gates, who are related

Henry Gates Barack Obama and James Crowley

With the recent steady drip-drip of discourse from the White House on police and racial profiling,  we hope the Obama clan also keeps some Guinness on tap.

Turns out that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. may actually be related through Irish ancestry to the police officer who arrested him in his own house earlier this month, according to ABC News.  No, really!

President Obama, who initially said the Cambridge, Mass., police department "acted stupidly," then on second thought sort of recalibrated his comments, has pledged to host the two for a "beer summit" and, hopefully, a make-up at the White House on Thursday. (An earlier version of this post said the meeting would be held today.) 

One can only imagine how the proceedings will end, given that professor Gates,  who is half-Irish, says he can trace his ancestry to the Niall of the Nine Hostages, one of Ireland's most prolific warriors, to whom Sgt. James Crowley also attributes his family roots.

However boozy it may get -- maybe with a late-evening rendition of Molly Malone?  -- hopefully it won't set Obama back on the cigs

These kind of familiar relationships do tend to crop up in Washington: Obama is eighth cousin to former Vice President Dick Cheney, and Obama is also related to six other U.S. presidents through his mother, S. Ann Soetoro, and the former British prime minister, Winston Churchill.

Churchill's wartime ally, Franklin Roosevelt, was related to 11 presidents by blood or marriage, while the Bush family is distantly related to the British queen. Barbara Pierce Bush, the former first lady, is a great-great-great niece of the 14th president, Franklin Pierce. At least 16 other presidents were of Scot-Irish descent, including Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Woodrow Wilson.  

IrishCentral.com reports that up to 3 million Irish Americans may be descended from Niall, the Irish "High King" at Tara, the ancient center of Ireland from AD 379 to AD 405. He was said to have struck the fear o' death into the hearts of the English, the Scots, the French and even the Romans.

But we want to know just what the "birthers" will make of Obama's role in all of  this?

-- Craig Howie   

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Photos: Henry Louis Gates Jr., President Obama and James Crowley. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

What Sotomayor Senate vote really portends for Obama's future

Democrat president Barack Obama and his first Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor

President Obama heads out this morning on another presidential sales trip. You'll never guess what he's going to talk about.

Prediction: It won't be missile defense. Hint: It's something we'll all soon need some healthcare to handle any more talk of.

He'll talk about healthcare reform some more in Raleigh, N.C., and again answer some staged questions from employees at a Virginia supermarket.

Hopefully, this time the White House advance team has briefed the store manager on what to say when the TV crews surround him afterward. (Remember, the Caterpillar president last winter contradicting Obama's speech claim that the urgently needed and then-still eagerly awaited economic stimulus would allow the plant to hire back laid-off workers?)

Obama departs with an unsurprising Senate Judiciary Committee vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor in his aide's briefcase. (Sotomayor vote details over here.) He'll probably ...

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Sotomayor clears Senate committee, but gun lobby pressuring Republicans to vote no on Senate floor (Updated with video)

Judge Sonia Sotomayor testifying during Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on her nomination to the Supreme Court

(Updated 9:31 a.m.: Sonia Sotomayor wins the backing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. See the 13-6 committee roll call vote on the video below. Her nomination now goes to the full Senate for a vote, possibly next week. For Californians, or those who simply like Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein, we've also included at the bottom a video of her brief statement in support of the judge.)

When President Obama's first nomination for the Supreme Court reaches the Senate floor, probably next week, the dilemma for Republican senators will be choosing between their gun-loving constituents and their Latino ones.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is about to confirm Judge Sonia Sotomayor (see the excellent piece by my Ticket colleague Kate Linthicum on how to pronounce her name). Judging from their speeches so far this morning, all the committee's Republicans -- except South Carolina's Lindsey Graham -- are expected to vote no.

One reason: the National Rifle Assn. has been ratcheting up the pressure in recent days to oppose Sotomayor, calling her "hostile" to the 2nd Amendment and promising to use the confirmation vote when the powerful lobby group calculates its ratings of lawmakers' voting records. 

Four Latino congressmen -- who are considered pro-gun -- fired back. “We are concerned that your opposition will alienate Hispanic NRA members and dismayed that you may unnecessarily force some well-intentioned senators to choose between disappointing the NRA or....

... infuriating their Hispanic constituents,” wrote Reps. Joe Baca of Rialto, Solomon P. Ortiz and Silvestre Reyes of Texas and John Salazar of Colorado.

As Illinois Democrat Sen. Richard J. Durbin put it this morning, Sotomayor was only following the law in the case that inspired NRA opposition.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Videos courtesy of C-SPAN. Photo: Jason Reed / Reuters

Senate considers 10% tax on plastic surgery to pay for healthcare reform

File photo of king of pop Michael Jackson after plastic surgery

In a town where everyone is trying to find the funds to pay for President Obama's ambitious effort to reform healthcare -- currently estimated to cost $1 trillion over the next 10 years --  it was probably inevitable that someone would zero in on plastic surgery.

Americans spend a bundle every year on face-lifts, tummy tucks, breast implants, nose jobs, hair plugs and the like. In fact, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery says we cough up about $12.4 million a year on cosmetic procedures.

See above, the "after" picture on Michael Jackson's infamous face work.

So earlier this month, when Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus scratched heads with Budget Director Peter Orszag over how to pay for Obamacare, the idea was on the table. Baucus emerged from the meeting to tell reporters he had heard some "interesting," "creative" and "kind of fun" ideas on how to finance the massive overhaul of the nation's healthcare system.

Not everyone thinks the tax will make much of a dent in healthcare costs. Malcolm Roth, vice president for health policy and advocacy at the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, said a similar tax in New Jersey  only brought in about 25% of the funds lawmakers expected when they passed it in 2004.

A plastic surgeon at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Roth also tried to make cosmetic procedures more politically correct. He disputed that the tax would hurt the wealthy, arguing that most patients save for years for treasured procedures. Plus, he said, the tax would discriminate against women, who make up 86% of the patient list.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Getty Images

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Barack Obama's tweet suggests Twittering your Congress member on healthcare reform

Obama-twitter-map Things to do this morning, according to President Obama:

Eat healthy (so much for that bacon-wrapped Krispy Kreme) and Twitter my congresswoman.

Obama has sent a tweet on the exploding social network encouraging his Twitter followers to send messages urging their Congress members to support healthcare reform.

"Are you calling & writing members of congress re: health insurance reform?" Obama's tweet asked. "Now you can tweet them too."

The link goes to a page on BarackObama.com called Tweet Your Senator. In addition to a tool for finding your senator by inputting a Zip Code and quickly posting to your profile, there's a nifty map that plots similar tweets from around the country.

Judging by all of the activity on the map, Obama is successfully leveraging some of his 1.8 million Twitter followers to help pass his healthcare legislation. Plus the regular e-mails to millions on his vast fundraising list. (Now, aren't you glad you gave away your address?)

Meanwhile, the White House eagerly tries to inflate its Twitter follower count to a million in order to achieve the same muscle as the president -- or Ashton Kutcher, for that matter, who is almost 3 million strong.

-- Mark Milian

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Repeat after us: Sotomayor is pronounced soh-toh-my-YOR

Soto When newscasters and radio journalists announced in May that President Obama had nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, there was a collective pause . . .

Just how do you pronounce that name? 

Some said it SOH’-tuh-my-or, stretching out the first syllable of the judge's last name.

Others said it SAD’-ah-my-er, imbuing the name with a New York twang.

Spanish speakers around the world cringed. They know that Sotomayor is, according to the rules of the language, supposed to be pronounced with an emphasis on the final syllable, like this: soh-toh-my-YOR.'

One would hope that after months of intense vetting of the nominee, Americans might have her name down by now. But at Sotomayor's confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in recent weeks, the newly anointed Minnesota Sen. Al Franken mangled it, calling her, SU’-do-mah-yare.

Even Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of the judge's most ardent defenders, repeatedly stumbled over her name. (One would think Leahy would be sensitive to this sort of thing given his name, which, by the way,  does not rhyme with "leafy." It's LAY-hee.)

The Republicans on the committee, on the other hand, did a pretty good job with Sotomayor's name.

Mark Krikorian can't be happy about that. Krikorian is the director of the Center for Immigration Studies (a think tank that calls for tougher immigration laws) who drew fire from the left in May when he wrote on his blog that  "putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English" and "is something we shouldn't be giving in to."

Krikorian tried to turn the pronunciation of Sotomayor's name into metaphor for multiculturalism, saying "There are basically two options — the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there's a lot more of the latter going on than there should be."

Response to Krikorian's posting was swift and mostly critical. Mariela Rosario wrote at Latina.com, "Our names are a fundamental part of our identities. We have the right to have them correctly pronounced." Andrew Leonard, writing on Salon.com, said one might imagine that "if Republicans want to have any chance of winning future elections in the Southwest, griping about pronunciation is probably not a smart strategy." Maria Hinojosa, who hosts NPR's Latino USA, had a more humorous take here.

The senators on the Judiciary Committee will again be tested on their pronunciation of Sotomayor's name today, when they vote on whether to recommend her nomination to the Senate. In the meantime, we humbly offer up some study tips.

David Letterman has a very funny round-up on how NOT to pronounce Sotomayor's name. And we can tell you how to say it correctly.

Please, repeat after us: 

SOHN-ya soh-toh-my-YOR

-- Kate Linthicum (LIN-thi-cum)

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Photo: Charles Dharapak / AP

Hawaii tries again to snuff Barack Obama birth certificate controversy

Well, surely this will settle finally once and for all that Barack Hussein Obama was really, actually and factually born in the United States and, therefore, is fully qualified according to the U.S. Constitution to be the president that he has been since he took the oath of office on Jan. 20 and a second time shortly after, just to make sure.

Not!

In yet another quite possibly futile attempt to silence the zombie birther controversy that won't die, the director of Hawaii's State Department of Health, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, has just repeated her statement from October that she has personally and with her very own official eyes seen the "original vital records" regarding Obama's birth in Honolulu's Kapiolani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital on Aug. 4, 1961.

At Monday's White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs also sought to dismiss the issue as "fictional nonsense," suggesting the so-called birthers would never be happy with any evidence.

Nevermind that Obama might have been born on Mars for all anyone cares. The stubborn story of the refusal of many to stop questioning his birthplace as American and....

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Kentucky's GOP Sen. Jim Bunning officially ends 2010 reelection bid

Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, the most vulnerable GOP senator up for re-election in 2010

It used to be that the favored public reason for giving up something was the fervent and newly discovered desire by the departee for more quality time with the family.

There was a whiff of that in Sarah Palin's recent retirement rhetoric, though no one expects her to hole up by the big picture window in her lakeside Wasilla pad and watch the ice come in this fall.

The newest reason is money. Illinois' demonized Democrat interim Sen. Roland Burris used it recently to explain his new-found desire to retire next year and not seek a formal election to Barack Obama's old seat as the Senate's sole black.

Now, today comes Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky.

Jim Bunning

The strange thing is, unlike the old "family time" line, in both senators' cases the publicly stated reason is most probably true.

Also, they would have lost in the end anyway. So why go out in flames when they can go home in faux dignity and peacefully eat Shredded Wheat at the kitchen table?

In a bitter surrender letter today, Bunning made it official that he would not seek reelection, suggesting that some collegial undercutting was responsible for his inability to raise sufficient funds. Double-dealing? In U.S. politics?

Those muffled cheers you may hear come from the GOP Senate caucus, which promised last winter not to fund a primary challenger to Bunning but, as The Ticket reported in February, worked quietly to ensure today's decision.

In recent years, the 77-year-old second-term Republican has at times taken to speaking in tongues in public, alluding to "strangers among us" to explain upping his security detail and tossing off a prediction that a cancer-stricken Supreme Court justice would be dead in a few months.

With fellow Kentuckian and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's close call in his reelection last fall, Bunning's Bluegrass seat looked like a loss next year to pad the Democratic majority if the incumbent tried to hold it. Now, the way is cleared for young blood, most likely Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

In recent years Bunning has seemed like a Hall of Fame pitcher who keeps showing up for spring training well past his prime. Oh, wait. That is Bunning, who became only the second pitcher ever to earn 100 wins and 1,000 strikeouts in both the American and the other league that hasn't won an All-Star Game this century (Cy Young was first).

Bunning officially ended his baseball career in 1971 with 2,855 strikeouts, 224 wins and 184 losses.

Exactly 40 years later he'll officially end his Senate career 2-0.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Getty Images

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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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