Monday, May 3, 2010

Keeping abreast of Attorney General Cuccinelli

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli continues to amuse.

The a.g. couldn't do a better job of keeping his name in the press if he were trying. Maybe he is. After all, he has gubernatorial ambitions in 2013. And I guess being repeatedly mocked by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show does raise his name recognition.

His latest comedy tour de force involves a John Ashcroft impersonation.

Former U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft raised eyebrows when he draped togas over the bare breasted statuary at the Department of Justice.

Cuccinelli's foray into the realm of priggish prudery came at the expense of the seal of Virginia. The seal, which is repeated on the state flag, portrays the goddess of virtue standing triumphant over a deposed  tyrant. One breast is exposed.

But not on the lapel pin recreation of the seal that Cuccinelli recently passed out to staff members of the attorney general's office. Virtue finds herself covered in a breast plate in that rendition.

The a.g. joked that her less risque apparel was more appropriate.

Perhaps Cuccinelli wanted to make sure that impressionable children weren't corrupted by the depiction of that topless hussy, Virtue. I can put his mind at ease. I spent my adolescent and teen years in Virginia and, like most teenage boys had a  more active fantasy sex life than real sex life. But I gaurantee that the state seal was never a factor.

As an example of being prissy and silly, the above would suffice. But Cuccinelli didn't stop there. Because he didn't invent his new version of the seal. He copied it. Where did he copy it from? The battle flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry, Army of the Confederacy. That's right, the Confedracy.

Can't you just see Gov. Bob McDonnell doing a slow Moe burn and giving Cuccinelli the Three Stooges eyepoke on that one?

After all, the furor over McDonnell designating April as Confederate History Month had just about died down. What better way to revive it?

And it's not like Cuccinelli had not been doing his best to embarass the commonwealth and the governor on  his own.

First, Cuccinelli issued an opinion on gay rights at Virginia's public colleges that no one apparently asked for that made the state look backward and homophobic. It also distracted attention from the governor's jobs plan and General Assembly agenda. McDonnell was eventually forced to issue a proclamation that said basically that at least he wasn't a bigot and that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in state government would not be tolerated in his administration. Of course, it doesn't have the force of law as did previous gubernatorial orders.

Then Cuccinelli made it into the news again when he decided to sue the federal government over health care reform, citing states rights and arguing the propostition that a single state can nullify acts of the U.S. Congress. So, essentially, he's asking the Supreme Court to overturn the results of the Civil War. That's a precedent even the Roberts court is likely to respect.

He took a little ribbing over this, but it could have been worse. Cuccinelli has been caught on tape agreeing with a "birthers" premise that President Obama might have been born in Kenya:

So, we're lucky Cuccinelli isn't challenging health care reform on the basis that it can't be valid because it was signed into law by Obama who can't legitimately be president.

None of this is a suprise to anyone who's been following state politics for a few years. It's just what we expected. We knew that Cuccinelli came from the far, far right of the Virginia Republican Party. You can't get any farther to the right. He makes Bob McDonnell, a staunch conservative himself, look like a bleeding heart liberal. In short, he's a wing nut. This isn't news to anyone who is paying attention.

In a post Monday, Vivian J. Paige, dismissing the seal story as minor, says that the state's mainstream media should have done a better job in alerting voters to Cuccinelli's views before the election.

While I sympathize with Vivian's views, I have some reservations. I've covered a number of attorney general campaigns and served as a press secretary for an unsuccesful attorney general candidate, so I've got some insight into how the campaign the press corps relate.

First, nothing the media wrote or broadcast about Ken Cuccinelli would have made much difference in 2009. If he'd started  babbling about black helicopters and the CIA reading his mind or Obama's "real birth certificate" in public, it wouldnt' have mattered. Not in the face of the Republican tidal wave that swept across the state. Cuccinelli had an "R"  behind his name on the ballot, so he was destined to win. He probably could have had a  "W" for wing nut and won too, as long as he didn't have a "D" for Democrat.

Second, nobody cares about or wants to hear much from the attorney general candidates. Editors don't care, reporters don't care and the voters apparently don't care. As a political reporter you get one shot at a profile of each of the candidates and after that they go back to being eclipsed by the gubernatorial race, as are the lieutenant governor candidates. As a former press secretary, I can tell you that its really hard to get the press to look away fromt he guys at the top of the ticket and write something substantive about down ticket races. The only time it's happened recently was in 1997, when a number of newspapers statewide pointed out the radical views of GOP l.g.. candidate Mike Farris, who lost while the rest of his ticket won. The media felt free to do that when then U.S. Sen. John Warner, a Republican, chose not to endorse Farris.

That brings me to my third objection to Vivian's premise -- it's not the job of the mainstream media to define the candidates. That's the job of the canidates themselves and their opponents. Democrat Steve Shannon ran a lackluster campaign at best and failed to make Cuccinelli's views an issue. During the campaign the Gazette, like most other papers, ran a profile of Cuccinelli. I pointed out  his political background and some of the controversies he's been involved in. I didn't draw conclusions or attach labels, because that's not my job. Newspapers operate under a standard of objectivity today that treats each side of a dispute or issue as equally valid. Under those contraints the most we can expect from reporters is that they accuratley report the statements and records of the candidates so the voters can make up their own minds.

It is the job of editorial writers and, these days, bloggers to draw conclusions from the candidates' records. Many editorial pages, even some who endorsed McDonnell for governor, opposed Cuccinelli. And Democratic bloggers were all over him. In fact, late in the campaign there was an online effort to shift resources to the attorney general race to try to keep Cuccinelli out of office, because he was viewed as dangerous.

But it wasn't enough. Not in the face of the McDonnell landslide.

And Cuccinelli now looks more ludicrous than dangerous.

But that's not what everyone thinks. There are conservative blogs in Virginia that believe McDonnell is "not conservative enough" or a "sellout" and that Cuccinelli is a hero, advancing the flag of true conservatism under heavy liberal fire.

So maybe he is dangerous.

Or maybe Virginia is in danger of becoming permanently ludicrous, like Texas or South Carolina.

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