The 2009 Daily Beast Political Awards
From Gov. Sanford’s overshare and Joe Wilson’s outburst to Caroline Kennedy’s immolation and Charlie Rangel’s ethics, 2009 was a long, strange trip. Samuel P. Jacobs honors its heroes and villains.
If 2009 wasn’t the most productive year Washington has ever seen, it was one of the strangest. A congressman who hid his illegal bounty in the ice box was sent the slammer. Another couldn’t withhold his yelping during the State of the Union. There were epic fights and epic leaks. Email snafus and marital ones, too. In honor of year’s great and not so great, The Daily Beast presents the year’s awards in politics.
The Winston Churchill Award Given to the person who displayed great political courage this year. Winner: Mir Houssein Mousavi
The Iranian opposition candidate stood up to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, giving life to the kind of popular protest that had not been seen in Tehran in a generation. Six months after the disputed election, the ruling regime continues to harass Mousavi, surrounding his place of work and threatening to arrest him. Signs of bravery could be found throughout Iran this year: nighttime chanting from the rooftops, the thousands of students who dared go out into the streets, women who wore the green, which became the color of defiance, but no profile of courage was more visible than that of Mousavi’s.
The Muskie Award Given to the person who most exemplified Edward Muskie’s self-immolating style. Winner: Caroline Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy’s path to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Hillary Clinton was clear—until Kennedy started getting in her own way. Like Muskie, who crumbled under the weight of bad messaging—and those controversial tears—during the 1972 presidential campaign, Kennedy couldn’t seem to get her talking points straight. In the course of a New York One interview, Kennedy used 168 “you knows” in a mere 30 minutes, raising questions about the communications skills she herself said were key for higher office. Soon after a number of similarly awkward media appearances, she was no longer interested in the seat. Friends said they were “surprised” and unprepared for the sudden switch. Kennedy angered Uncle Teddy’s circle by using his brain cancer as the reason for her abrupt decision to withdraw from consideration for the post, which was eventually filled when New York Gov. David Paterson tapped Kirsten Gillibrand.
The Mark Felt Award Named for Watergate’s infamous Deep Throat, this prize is given to the year’s best political leaker. Winner: Gen. Stanley McChrystal (and staff)
How do you measure the impact of a political leak? Headlines are one measure. The leaked report authored by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, advising the president to add 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, certainly made news, starting with Bob Woodward’s Sept. 21 banner piece and stretching outward to the rest of the national dailies for the rest of the month. But the McChrystal report leak did more than attract attention; it materially affected the war strategy in Afghanistan. The news of the top commander’s desires forced Obama’s plans like nothing else, eventually getting the call for 30,000 American troops and 5,000 others.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Award Given to the biggest crime of the year involving freezers. Winner: Rep. William Jefferson
Whatever you do, don’t keep the evidence of your crime in the icebox. That goes for serial killers as well as public officials. The Honorable William J. Jefferson, former representative from Louisiana, left $90,000 in his freezer. The cold hard cash helped seal his conviction for 11 federal charges, including bribery, this summer. In November, Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Jefferson’s attorneys maintained their client had done nothing criminal—and took offense to the claims that he was an easy mark. “William Jefferson is more than the punchline of a late night talk-show joke or the one-dimensional character depicted in the prosecution’s arguments,” they said. Jefferson’s lawyers used their client’s rags-to-riches biography as an explanation for his behavior. Of the first African American to represent Louisiana since Reconstruction, lawyer Robert Trout said, “He has led an extraordinary life.”
The Zell Miller Award Given to the person who abandoned his party this year with the greatest fervor. Winner: Sen. Arlen Specter
“My change in party affiliation does not mean I will be a party-line voter,” Specter promised when he bolted the Republican Party after decades of service and became a Democrat last April. Turns out, the senator has voted with his new friends 95.6 percent of the time, according to The Washington Post. Specter’s party switch was a last-ditch effort to hold onto his Senate seat, fleeing from candidate Pat Toomey who turned out to be more popular among Pennsylvania conservatives. But not all Democrats in the state welcomed Specter with open arms. Rep. Joe Sestak announced last summer that he plans to challenge Specter to a primary duel when the incumbent stands for reelection next year.
The Clarence Thomas Award Given to the year’s most awkward black Republican. Winner: Michael Steele
You got a black president? Well, we got a black party chairman. That, on the face of it, was the cynical reaction of the Republican National Committee when it elevated a former lieutenant governor of Maryland as the head of its party in January. Quickly, Steele stressed that Republicans needed a “hip-hop” makeover. Steele swapped lines with Chuck D in a television debate. He quoted Kool Moe Dee. He offered “slum love” to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. He said Republicans needed to improve their image with everyone, “including one-armed midgets.” The hits, needless to say, just kept coming. With the clock running out on 2009, Steele made news once more, as former RNC chairs challenged his decision to accept speaking fees. GOP leaders have responded by trying to distance Steele from setting party policy.
The John Deutch Award Given to the person with this year’s most embarrassing computer problems. Winner: Phil Jones, climate researcher
Former CIA Director John Deutch became a poster child for how not to handle sensitive information in the mid-1990s, when America’s top spy was investigated for having classified materials on his unclassified home laptop (Deutch was eventually pardoned by President Clinton). University of East Anglia climatologist Phil Jones followed in his footsteps when some emails of his leaked to the press. "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years… to hide the decline," Jones wrote in one message. For climate-change deniers, Jones’ email and others written by his colleagues, which seemed to hint at censorship and misuse of research data, became the leading indicator of a global-warming conspiracy being perpetrated by the likes of Al Gore and his fellow Chicken Littles. Gore struck back, telling The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, “I haven't seen anything that poses the slightest challenge to the scientific consensus over the prevailing evidence that’s just overwhelming.”
The Iraqi Shoe-Thrower Award Given to the person displaying the worst behavior toward a president. Winner: Rep. Joe Wilson
Hey, adults can disagree about the proper way to provide health care for millions of Americans. What they can’t do is yell “You lie!” during the State of the Union. Although Wilson’s wrath seemed to come out of nowhere, The Daily Beast reported, the outburst was hardly out of character for the South Carolina Republican. His antics have steadily increased in volume since he arrived in Congress in 2001 In the runup to the Iraq War, Wilson accused one Democratic opponent of hating America. Wilson defended fellow Sen. Strom Thurmond when few others would. Yet the combustible congressman once said, "I hope that people understand that when I take a position, it's actually a thoughtful position. It's not a knee-jerk position, and it's based on the facts as I know them. That's the type of congressman I'd like to be." If only.
The Overshare Award Given to the person who told us far more than we wanted to hear this year. Winner: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford
It was the press conference to end all press conferences. After going out of pocket, the lustlorn governor seemed to go out of his mind, rambling on at startling length about his affair with an Argentinian lover and his heart’s deepest secrets. “What I have found, in this job, is that one desperately needs a break from the bubble, wherein every word, every moment is recorded,” Sanford said, having just returned from a dangerous liaison. “I'm a bottom-line kind of…guy. I lay it out. It's going to hurt, and we'll let the chips fall where they may,” he added. And after what could have been the big finish, Sanford just continued sharing: “And so the bottom line is this,” Sanford said, “I — I've been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a — which started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. It began very innocently, as I suspect many of these things do, in just a casual email back and forth, in advice on one's life there and advice here.” Thanks for sharing.
The Mack McLarty Award Given to the old home-state friend that the White House wished it left back home. Winner: Desiree Rogers
Bert Lance, Roger Clinton, the Rodham brothers—the list of names of those who were better off left at home when their friends and family moved into the White House is a long and storied one. The Bushes wanted to keep Karl Rove out of the sight of a congressional hearing. For the Obamas, it’s Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary, who they would like to keep under wraps. Rogers’ ties to the Obamas go back decades: Her ex-husband played basketball with Michelle’s brother Craig Robinson at Princeton. Rogers’ longing for the spotlight eventually burned her and her benefactors. She was caught enjoying the Obama’s first State Dinner when she probably should have been working the velvet rope making sure that party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi never got in. The Daily Beast predicts she’ll be relocated to another job sooner rather than later.
The Howell Raines Award Given to this year’s liberal media star who bullied the liberal president. Winner: Paul Krugman
Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times heavyweight, battered the Obama administration from inauguration onward. Heck, even his ideological opposite David Brooks was far warmer to the Obamas. He smacked at the president from the cover of Newsweek, proclaiming, “Obama is Wrong.” He was the Obamas’ goldilocks: The stimulus was too cool for Krugman; the administrations’ ties to Wall Street were too hot. "No one has as big a megaphone as I have," Krugman crowed to Newsweek. "Aside from the world going to hell, it's great." A sampling of Krugman headlines over the last year show why he’s become the administration’s bête noire: “ Mission Not Accomplished” (Oct. 20); “ Obama’s Trust Problem” (Aug. 21); “ Not Enough Audacity” (June 26); “ The Big Dither” (March 6).
The Dan Rostenkowski Award Given to this year’s most ethically embattled congressman. Winner: Rep. Charles Rangel
Rangel is a man after old Rosty’s heart. Rostenkowski served Illinois in the House for four decades and served 15 months in the big house for running two-bit scams out of his office (He kept ghost employees on the payroll and traded House-provided stamps for cash). Although working hard to placate supports (“The dude just ate a fish sandwich at my political club,” one New York party official told a reporter), Rangel is in danger of following in Rosty’s footsteps. The longtime Harlem congressman is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, accused of keeping four rent-stabilized apartments in his name, saving thousands of dollars per month on rent. The investigations grow wider and wider stretching all the way from Harlem to the Dominican Republic, where the New York pol owns a villa. Rangel’s failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxable income. Once one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, Rangel is struggling to keep a grip on his House Ways and Means Committee chairmanship and the loyalty of colleagues. For his part, Rangel has maintained that he has not engaged in any wrongdoing, and says the committee’s probe will clear his name. “My credibility has never been challenged, except by a couple of reporters,” Rangel has said.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.