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FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK JANUARY 23, 2006

Notebook

A REFORMED REFORMER The race to succeed Tom DeLay as House Republican Majority Leader isn't exactly a study in contrasts. Both candidates, Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri and Ohio Representative John Boehner, are hard-line social and business conservatives with similar voting records. Seeking some toehold against Blunt, Boehner has ingeniously chosen to cast himself as a reformer who can lead a battered House Republican caucus past the Jack Abramoff scandal. "I cut my teeth here as a reformer," Boehner wrote in a recent campaign-style document.

It's true, of course, that Boehner was in the so-called "Gang of Seven," a group of House Republicans who savaged Democratic leaders over the 1992 House Bank scandal. Now, that wasn't "reform" so much as shameless demagoguery of a substantively trivial offense. (Many House members overdrew checking accounts without penalty, effectively receiving small interest-free loans. Hardly Watergate.) Still, we'll grant that, back then, Boehner did rail against the corruptions of power. He once blasted Bill Clinton, for instance, for "conducting business as usual by cozying up to his fat-cat, special interest labor friends and lobbyists."

But, after House Republicans conquered the House in 1994, Boehner's views about fat cats seemed to, er, evolve. In 1995, he distributed contribution checks from a tobacco company on the House floor at a time when Congress was considering anti-tobacco legislation. He began vacationing in Florida and the Caribbean with leading business lobbyists and hosting weekly political strategy meetings with them on the Hill. Today, the dapper, cigarette-smoking Boehner is a favorite of K Street Republicans, many of whom constitute his kitchen cabinet.

Now, Boehner may be slightly cleaner than Blunt, a DeLay acolyte who is actually married to a lobbyist. But a reformer he ain't. Instead, he's just another example of how House Republicans became what they once professed to hate.

 

GREAT GUY, BUT I WOULDN'T GO TO HAWAII WITH HIM The White House didn't waste a news cycle before, in the wake of Abramoff's plea deal, it started dumping all over DeLay. "[T]op Bush advisers" told Time that DeLay had always been a "necessary burden" for the White House. "They have always seen him as beneath them, more blue collar," one Republican close to the president's inner circle told the magazine. "He's seen as a useful servant, not someone you would want to vacation with." So you can only imagine the gritted teeth through which Bush must have said the following:

"I'm proud of the job my fellow Texan is doing as the majority leader of the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay. He's a great majority leader." —April 1, 2004

"I know my friend from the great state of Texas, Tom DeLay, is with us tonight." —May 5, 2004

"I thank my friend from the great state of Texas, Tom DeLay, for his leadership. I appreciate you, Mr. Leader." —January 28, 2005

"I have confidence in Tom DeLay's leadership, and I have confidence in Tom DeLay. We've worked closely with Tom DeLay and the leaders in the House to get a lot done during the last four years, and I'm looking forward to working with him to get a lot done during the next four years." —March 17, 2005

"I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country." —April 26, 2005

But it is true: It appears that Bush has never invited DeLay to go on a vacation with him.

 

TONGUE-TIED  It looks like Bush, famously communication-challenged, is getting a little bit better at language. At a conference of American university presidents on January 5, Bush unveiled his National Security Language Initiative, a much- needed scheme to attract more American students to the study of "critical languages" like Arabic, Farsi, and Korean. The initiative, inspired by projects to encourage Russian study during the cold war, would earmark $114 million in fiscal year 2007 as "seed money" to establish critical language instruction in primary schools, support college-level language training, and establish a national corps of "reserve" linguists that could be called up to serve the government during times of need.

With less than 2 percent of American high school students currently studying these critical languages, Bush's push to improve Americans' understanding of foreign language and culture is a step in the right direction. And it sure looks great in light of the flak Bush has taken for underestimating the importance of cultural sensitivity to winning hearts and minds in the war against terrorism. (Make no mistake, Bush gets it now: As he explained to his audience of academics last week, "When somebody comes to me and speaks Texan, I know they appreciate the Texas culture.")

Unfortunately, $114 million won't necessarily change America's historical lack of emphasis on the study of foreign languages, and it remains to be seen whether the lightly funded initiative will be anything more than symbolic.

To gauge the likely impact of the plan, let's play a little numbers game. Number of additional students who will study foreign languages on Gilman and Fulbright scholarships under the new initiative: about 350. Number of military linguists sacked between fiscal years 1994 and 2003 for being gay: 322 (see Nathaniel Frank, "Stonewalled," January 24, 2005). Amount of money designated to support critical language study in K-12 schools through the Department of Education's Foreign Language Assistance Program under the new initiative: $24 million. Amount of money requested for fiscal year 2006 to fund abstinence-only education in those same schools: $206 million--$39 million more than the year before. Unfortunately, despite the fanfare, it seems anti-seed money is still more important to this administration.

 

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS  "Monkey and Morals" (December 12, 2005) wrongly identified James D. Watson as "the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule." In fact, Watson was one of the scientists who contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA. We regret the error.

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posted in: from the back of the book, bill clinton, bush, john boehner, roy blunt, tom delay, caribbean, congress, house, florida, missouri, ohio, texas

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