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Troubled Waters

By Russ Smith | Posted 1/5/2005

Traditionally, the first several months of a president’s second term are low-key, as the opposition party and media take the pulse of the mood in Washington and decide on a politically advantageous time to wage a counteroffensive.

Manners don’t apply when it comes to George W. Bush—arguably the most divisive and historically significant chief executive since FDR—and so the mainstream press has begun its campaign against the president even before his Jan. 20 inauguration. Judging by the news coverage and opinion pages of dailies like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Sun, you’d think the 2004 election was still underway. The newspapers, acting as surrogates for the Democratic leaders who haven’t yet figured out a coordinated plan for both opposing Bush and protecting their own careers, have been relentless in their criticism of the president.

So far, it’s the Los Angeles Times (like The Sun, owned by Tribune Co.) that’s led the charge against Bush. On Dec. 31 the LAT published a front-page article about the “wealth of gifts” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received in the past six years—including $1,200 worth of tires—and solicited comments from a number of lawyers who questioned the ethics of the court’s youngest member. The ferocity of Richard A. Serrano and David G. Savage’s report leads one to believe that Thomas, a likely candidate for chief justice once the cancer-stricken and elderly William Rehnquist retires, is a crook on a par with Ivan Boesky or any number of former Enron or WorldCom executives.

Thomas’ take was $42,200 since 1998; in his complete 13-year tenure on the bench, the black justice, who’s a left-wing hobgoblin rivaling Donald Rumsfeld, has accepted a total of $47,745 of gifts. In the middle of the story it’s noted that liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accepted $100,000 in 1996 from the philanthropic Kaul Foundation and then donated the money to 26 charities, including “law schools, women’s organizations and theatrical companies.” It’s not mentioned whether the “women’s organizations” are pro-abortion advocates.

In addition, a Jan. 1 LAT editorial, headlined “Wishful Thinking,” said, “We wish all Supreme Court Justices, eight of whom are 65 or older, at least four more years of health and a desire to show up for work.” (Demonstrating that the paper isn’t solely out to destroy Thomas’ career, the editorial also wished that “Condoleezza Rice would get her his wish to run the National Football League soon and decide to leave the State Department.”)

This gratuitous pre-emptive attack on Thomas, a fine man whom I hope Bush nominates to replace Rehnquist, is just the opening salvo against the unconscionably maligned justice that will begin in earnest in about a month. Should Thomas get the nod from Bush, his Senate confirmation hearings are bound to be explosive.

On the one hand, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto wrote on Dec. 31, Democrats are in a bind: If they excoriate Thomas with as much relish as during his 1991 confirmation hearings (when the party held a Senate majority), they run the risk of alienating Americans, many of whom would be pleased to see the first black chief justice. That could present problems for the 2006 midterm elections.

Yet it’s inconceivable, at least to me, that politically immune senators like Ted Kennedy (who ought to rot in hell for his demagogic hit job on Robert Bork) and Joe Biden will be able to squelch a full-bore grandstanding effort to smear Thomas further. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, without public support from his allies, has started already, calling Thomas an “embarrassment” to the court, while praising Antonin Scalia (just as conservative as Thomas), in the space of a couple of minutes on Meet the Press last month.

During the last 10 days, the leading liberal newspapers have even exploited the Asian tsunami natural disaster to take partisan potshots at Bush. A Dec. 30 Sun editorial said: “Yesterday, President Bush took a break from his vacation clearing brush on the ranch in Crawford, Texas, to announce that the United States is committed to a long-term engagement” in aiding the decimated Indian Ocean nations. The Sun applauded the government’s increase from $15 million to $35 million in assistance (since raised to $350 million) but suggested it was because of criticism of the administration’s “initial tightwad commitment.”

The New York Times, also on Dec. 30, editorialized (“Are We Stingy? Yes”) that “President Bush finally roused himself yesterday from his vacation in Crawford, Tex., to telephone his sympathy to the leaders of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.” The Los Angeles Times’ Jan. 2 editorial was equally incendiary, saying, “If a tsunami were to strike Northern Europe, killing more than 100,000 people from Ireland to Sweden, does anybody think it would take President Bush 72 hours to speak up about the tragedy and call leaders of the devastated countries?”

This was a fast-moving story, with a horrifying new tally of the dead arriving every 12 hours. Now, not even two weeks after the underwater earthquake occurred, the enormous amount of financial aid and other contributions is unrivaled in current times. The media’s petulant, and cheap, shots at Bush are indicative of a very ugly upcoming political year.

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