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Friday, March 12, 2010

IDES OF MARCH - 2010

I have celebrated The Ides of March as the political holiday for more than two decades now. It is a day to commemorate our entertainment and edification by political hacks from Pericles to Eric Massa. In doing so we annually mark the day 2,054 years ago now, when the Roman Senator Gaius Cassius Longinus brilliantly settled a political standoff by imposing term limits upon Julius Caesar. As the original winner of the first “Laurel and Dagger” award, Caesar exemplified the combination of professional arrogance and moral ineptitude required to win the “Knife-in-the-Back Plaque”
Having already won immense wealth from power, Caesar hungered for more of both. Warned of the consequences of this policy by pundits, allies and enemies alike, Caesar remained adamant that he was not only smarter than all of them, but that his boldness compensated for his failings. He was not and it did not. What had been bold in a thirty year old enigma was clumsy in a fifty year old familiar opponent. And as behooves a “Senatorial Shiv to the Solar Plexus” at the moment of his demise Caesar was surrounded by his political allies - who were all wielding knives. For if politics is based upon loyalty, then it is also true that no politician ever gets ahead without sacrificing a few friends now and again, and the only difference between a good politician and a great politician is the quality of the friends they leave “twisting slowly, slowly in the wind”, to quote Nixon hit man Charles Colson.
Each year’s winner is the politician who over the previous twelve months best exemplifies arrogance and blindness to danger, such as last years surprise winner, Governor Milorad “Rod” Blagojevich, who continued to conspire to commit illegal acts on telephones he publicly alleged were “tapped” by the FBI. They were. Or consider the example of the pervious winner, New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, who was elected on a promise to “change the ethics of Albany”, while remaining in good standing as Client Nine, who spent $15,000 on employees of the Emperors Club prostitution ring.
This year’s nominees included the Republican Congressional Caucus, which is doggedly pursuing a policy of diminishing options, leading to an increasingly certain political dead-end. There was also Michele Bachmann and Elizabeth Cheney, each of whom displayed a consistent inconsistency which seemes destined to drown her in her own cacophony of contradiction.
Also in the running was Democrat John Edwards, carrying the mantle of Gary Hart, who  invited the media spotlight while committing personal transgressions best commited in the shadows. But this year's winner has managed, in an increasingly bizarre political universe, scored on two of the three options at the same time.
But who will be awarded the Grand Prize this year? There were several possibilities, and a recent poll conducted on The Daily Kos offered the award committee (me) several viable nominees. But this year’s victor, although a late entry, was a stand out doody-head, a politically deaf and dumb arrogant jerk who has angered friends and embarrassed allies in the true spirit of Julius Caesar. He missed only by displaying no sexual picadilos, for which I am grateful. Still, this year’s champion chump is a man who by his grandstanding strike against those he believes betrayed him. has also irreparably damaged his own reputation while simultaneously raising the real possibility that he may spend his final years in debt and in jail. This year’s winner of the Ides of March L and D Award is that pompous and prideful two term senator from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Jim Bunning.
Who is this man? He was a professional baseball player for 17 years. Not surprisingly he batted right and threw right. And Jim Bunning is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he failed to make it into the hall during his 20 years of regular eligibility, and was saved from obscurity in the last possible year by the Veterans Committee.
There may be a couple of explanations for this slight toward a man who pitched two no hitters (one in each league) and a perfect game. First, there is the curious fact, pointed out by Kieth Olbermann on his MLB Blog, that “….not once in four pennant sprints did he finish strongly.” And then there is one other odd statistic. Over his career Bunning faced 15,618 batters. And he hit 160 of them, earning him the title of “Beanball Bunning”.
That number, 160, ranks Bunning 13th on the all time list of pitchers who hit the most batters. Nolan Ryan, also known as a control and intimidation pitcher, faced 22,575 batters (44% more than Bunning) and hit only 158, two less. Jim Bunning did not throw at batters to intimidate. He threw at batters to punish. If your team was getting hits off of Bunning, he would make you pay for it. And it was his “reputation for throwing inside”, and as “one of the few men ever to get Mickey Mantle mad enough to charge from the batters' box” that kept Bunning out of the Hall of Fame until 1996.
Bunning retired as a player following the 1971 season. Philadelphia hired him to manage a Double A minor league team, but he never rose any higher in the organization, and was fired in 1976. Bunning then paid the owners back for this insult by becoming an agent, and negotiating expensive contracts for a half dozen of Philadelphia’s minor league players. Firing Bunning cost the Phillies a couple of million dollars.
In 1977 a funeral director named Fred Earschell paid a visit to Bunning’s home in the upper class enclave of Fort Thomas, a Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati, and urged him to run for the city council. Despite Bunning’s claim that he “never had a desire to be in politics”, he easily won election from a field of 13. And that victory seems to have changed his mind about politics. Bunning served just two years on the city council. He then won election to the Kentucky Senate, and was made minority leader. He lost an election for governor in 1983, but in ’86 he won election to the U.S. 4th District House seat, in what was called the most Republican district in Kentucky. President Bill Clinton said of Bunning, “I tried to work with him a couple times, and he just sent shivers up my spine....this guy is beyond the pale” In 1999, Bunning won election to the United States Senate. He was now 67 years old.
And upon reaching the Senate, something changed in Bunning. Unfortunately, it was not his personality. It was his work ethic. To quote a liberal blogger, as a senior member of the ruling party, “In 2001, Senator Bunning voted for the first round of Bush tax cuts that weren`t paid for. Two years later, he voted for a second round of Bush tax cuts that weren`t paid for. That same year, he voted for the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit that, you guessed it, wasn`t paid for.” At the same time his popularity in Kentucky was beginning to fade.
Bunning entered the 2004 election with a $4 million campaign war chest. His Democratic opponent had only $600,000. Then it became public that Bunning was touring the state with an extra large tax payer funded security detail. When questioned, Bunning warned, “There may be strangers among us.” Bunning claimed that his wife had been physically attacked by Democratic Party workers, but no proof was ever offered. When these flashes of paranoia caused his poll numbers to slip, his response caused them to slip even more. He told a local reporter, “I don’t watch the national news, and I don’t read the paper. I haven’t done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.” Bunning finally agreed to a debate with his opponent, but insisted that it not be televised live. Even then, at the last second, he flew to Washington and made his debate appearance via satellite from the RNC offices, reading his responses off a teleprompter. Things got so bad that in the last weeks of the election Bunning was forced to spend $800,000 of his own money to buy television ads. Bunning won by just one percentage point.
In 2006 Time Magazine tagged Bunning as one of America’s Five Worst Senators, noting his “lackluster performance” and that he showed “little interest in policy unless it involves baseball”. It also mentioned his hostility towards his own staff and his fellow Senators, and his “bizarre behavior.” A September 2009 statewide opinion poll gave Bunning an approval rating of 35%, with a disapproval rating of 55%. That same year, the Congressional Quarterly ranked Senators, giving the most powerful a rating of 1. Bunning was ranked at 78.
Bunning was AWOL for most of January 2009, and when reached by phone he refused to tell the reporter where he had been or was. As of April 2009, Bunning had $263,000 in his war chest, three-quarters of which came from outside of Kentucky. His approval rating in the state was down to 28%. Kentucky Secretary of State Republican Trey Grayson smelled blood in water and announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for Bunning’s job. In a speech on May 8, Bunning announced, “The battle is going to be long, but I am prepared to fight for my values.” And ten days later he announced, “If Mitch McConnell (Republican Senate Minority Leader, also from Kentucky) doesn’t endorse me, it could be the best thing that ever happened to me in Kentucky.” Then he threatened sue his own party if they ran somebody against him. When the chairman of the RNC publicly assured Bunning they would not be supporting any Republicans other than him, the Senator made more friends by telling the Louisville Courier-Journal, “I don’t believe anything John Cornyn (RNC Chair) says."
Finally, in July of 2009, Bunning was forced to bow to the inevitable. He announced that he was giving up his hopes for re-election because he could not raise enough money to be competitive. The only question left was how he intended upon making the Republican Party pay for not supporting him. And in February of 2010 we found out. By staging a one man filibuster Jim Bunning decided to cut off unemployment benefits for 300,000 Americans, and cut off payment to Federal Inspectors, without whom a dozen highway projects could not continue, killing even more jobs. The Democrats were outraged. The Republicans were appalled. Buunning justified his actions the guise of protesting deficit spending, something he had showed no interest in from his first appearance in the Senate in 1998, to just days before his filibuster when he did not even bother to show up for a vote on a “Pay-as’you-go” measure.
To “Beanball Bunning”, a few hit batters is the price you have to pay to get your revenge. And he considered that hitting the 60,000 unemployed Kentuckians left without cash to pay their grocery bills as the batters on the opposing team who had to take the hit to punish the Republican Leadership for not supporting him. And with any luck and if the Democratic Party ever decides to fight for something, they will accept Bunning’s gift and bean the “Party of No” right in the head with Bunning's pitch. Which was "Beanball's" intent.
The problem for Bunning himself is that his notoriety has drawn attention to his own Achilles Heel, the tax-exempt Jim Bunning Foundation, which has a bank balance of $146, 342. Three people sit on the board that runs the foundation, Bunning, his wife, and a Cincinnati baseball memorabilia collector. The foundation has only one employee, Jim Bunning. He works for the foundation for one hour a week, signing memorabilia, for which he is paid $13,000 a year, 36% of the foundations annual outlay.
According to the Louisville Courier, the Bunning Foundation “…divided $18,200 among 25 recipients. Bunning's current church…received $5,250, by far the largest single donation…"  Melanie Slone, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, described the ratio of Bunning's salary to gifts by the Bunning Foundation as “…very troubling.” And Daniel Birochoff, President of the American Institute if Philanthropy said, “"For (Bunning) to be taking more for himself than he gives to the charities just doesn't look good, no matter how you cut it. The IRS doesn't want people to just set up their weekend hobbies as nonprofit foundations so they can take advantage of the tax-protection rules.” And yet that is exactly what Bunning has done, secure that as a Senator he will be not be treated like an average tax payer.
As "Beanball" Bunning moves into retirement, he will receive $83,000 in tax payer funded retirement each year, plus full benefits, including the generous health care plan that his party is determined the average American shall be denied access to. So for the inequity and the outrageous arrogance of his actions, for the selfish foolhardiness and mean spirited greed he has always displayed, the obvious choice for the 2010 winner of the Laurel and Dagger Ides of March Award is Senator Jim Bunning, selfish greedy political hack desguised as a conservative. Congratulations, Senator!
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