HH: We begin with Columnist To the World, Mark Steyn of www.steynonline.com. Merry Christmas, Mark, I hope your Christmas Eve is well launched already.
MS: Yes, it is. Merry Christmas to you, too, Hugh.
HH: Let’s begin with the issue of the report. I hate to bring politics into a holiday, but it seems to me that the Obama camp’s release of the report yesterday was designed to assure that no one talked about it, so we’re going to. What do you make about its timing and what it says?
MS: Well basically, this is an attempt at self-exoneration. I mean, this is slightly absurd. I mean, no one would take this seriously if George W. Bush was issuing reports on what he knew about Iraqi WMD. People would be mocking it and hooting it with derision. I think clearly, releasing it on the 23rd of December is a way to ensure that it stays buried all the way until Hogmanay at least. And they will probably be successful at that. People are not yet ready to hear bad things about the President-elect. That’s both not just a partisan thing. I think that is the natural optimism of the American people in some way.
HH: Now Mark, I got an e-mail, actually a number of e-mails from assistant United States attorneys around the United States, and I posted one at Hughhewitt.com, where he kind of walks us through what the U.S. attorney’s office is doing in Chicago. And it’s not good for Rahm Emanuel. It’s not particularly bad for the President-elect, but it’s the sort of thing, he describes in detail, that Fitzgerald has done in the past to get Scooter Libby tied up in a web of misstatements, any one of which to a federal person is a violation of 18 USC 1001, the False Statements Act.
HH: Do you think Fitzgerald’s playing for keeps here?
MS: Well, my respect for Patrick Fitzgerald has gone up, having seen him put away my friend, Conrad Black, who is spending the first of what could be six Christmases in jail in Florida on a very thin chain of circumstantial evidence that was nevertheless piled up relentlessly and very effectively by Patrick Fitzgerald and his assistant U.S. attorneys in the northern district of Illinois. I regarded him with contempt over the Scooter Libby thing, but one can regard people with contempt and still nevertheless be impressed by their effectiveness. And I think the difficulty for Rahm Emanuel is that it’s really in the interest of every party here to, if you like, set him up as the fall guy. And there will be…he risks approaching a tipping point whereby Obama decides it’s actually better to toss Rahm Emanuel to the wolves, and leap to the clear himself. That’s the difficulty.
HH: Now do you see us getting clear of this? This is a very complicated scandal with Blagojevich about to be indicted and impeached, and he’s not going to go gently into the night. We’ve got a Rahm Emanuel on tape, we’ve got other people on tape. We’ve got Chicago. This makes, actually, Whitewater look tame in comparison when Bill Clinton entered office, and I’m not sure that the President-elect is dealing with it very effectively by not telling us, for example, that he was interviewed by the U.S. attorney’s office for five days. I’m surprised that Mr. Transparency didn’t come clean with that.
MS: Well no, and I think it was clear that this was going on from the moment he gave his first press conference, where there was no outrage. The normal person, if you’ve been the Senator representing the people of Illinois for the last 20 minutes, or however long he was a Senator before he became president, and it emerged that your seat was effectively being auctioned to the guy who could do Governor and Mrs. Blagojevich most good, you would be outraged. And the lack of outrage is what Sherlock Holmes would call the dog that didn’t bark. And the minute he did that, he set himself up for all this, you know, what did Obama know, has he been interviewed. And it’s more dangerous than Whitewater, because it’s understandable. It’s vivid. There are these transcripts of the Governor using the F word every 1.8 nanoseconds. That’s vivid in a way that some obscure, rinky-dink, nickel and dime land scandal in Arkansas isn’t.
HH: First request for a prediction for ’09. Do you think we will still be talking about Blagojevich and the President-elect, now the president’s ties to him and his staff’s ties to him this time next year, Mark Steyn?
MS: Well, we could well be talking about it. The question is whether Obama’s messianic status enables him to waft free and soar above it. And although he’s been, since the election, he’s been downplaying all his sort of healing the planet and lowering the sea level stuff. I think the minute he starts to look like a grubby, little politician, like everyone else from the Chicago machine. It’s really in his interest to become the messiah again and start talking about healing the planet, and if you like, get several thousand feet above this very Earthbound scandal.
HH: How did you like the shirts off, buffed up Obama that we saw from Hawaii yesterday?
MS: Well, (laughing) you know, I never saw Calvin Coolidge naked, I never saw Chester A. Arthur naked. I don’t have a need…
HH: I don’t even want to think of Taft naked.
MS: No (laughing). I don’t have a need to see presidents naked. But I was in a store today, and I see that Jennifer Aniston is nude on the cover of GQ. And the idea that Obama is just another nude celebrity, in a way, is quite fitting, I think.
HH: (laughing) Now Mark Steyn, I want to turn to something very serious. Last night, I had a conversation at a party with a senior, I mean very senior automobile company executive from one of the transplants, not one of the Big 3, but from one of the transplants.
HH: And he is concerned about a very odd thing – The Madoff scandal. He said…now he agrees with me that the size of it is not significant to move economies, but that it feed this distrust, this fear about Wall Street. Now Madoff’s a crook, his crime is not emblematic of investment professionals. But I’m afraid, he’s afraid that it will take on an emblematic sort of texture. What do you think?
MS: Well yes, I think that’s the danger. The thing is, what do regular folks just want to invest in? Where do they save for their retirement? Often, they have their capital in houses. Well you know, house prices have taken a nose dive. They have money in their 401K’s. Their 401K’s have devalued recently. You go up from that, you get into more sophisticated forms of investment, and you find that even the clever stuff that the clever people do isn’t safe. And of course, this is reality. I mean, nobody says you buy a house for $100,000, and you do nothing with it, and suddenly it’s worth half a million. I mean, there’s no reason why in a sense your investment should float free of gravity and just soar up as they always say in those commercials. You know, it goes up, but it could also go down. The danger is that all these things corrode the structures of American investment, and people start hoarding money, they start using their money in less productive ways. You know, they’re back to sort of keeping it in the shoebox under the bed mentality, and that is not good in the long run for the U.S. economy.
HH: Now I also had two conversations yesterday with the very estimable Brian Wesbury, chief economist of First Trust Portfolios, and Richard McKenzie, a very accomplished economist whose book, Why Popcorn Costs So Much At The Movies, is one of the best books of ’08.
HH: They both believe we could have rapid and very significant turnarounds because this is not an underlying, this is not a fundamentals recession. It’s a panic-driven recession. What’s your sense of this?
MS: Yes, and I think that goes back to what I was saying earlier. It’s really a perception recession.
MS: I mean the thing is, if your 401K has lost money, lost value, that’s bad news for you. But you don’t use your 401K when you go to the grocery store to buy your food every week. You don’t use your 401K when you fill up your car. So in a sense, this isn’t 1929. And this ludicrous thing where, you know, Obama and a lot of other people are saying oh, it’s the worst economy, worst economic downturn since the Great Depression…incidentally, the Great Depression was made great by FDR.
MS: 1929, unemployment, shortly afterwards, after the 1929 crash, was 6%. It was government interference which managed to multiply that by five times, and that’s the danger here, that Obama makes the same mistakes as FDR did in the early 30s.
HH: Although we have to be fair, unemployment had gone to 27% by the time he got there in ’33. He just did nothing to change it.
MS: No…and yeah, let’s be bipartisan here. When I blame FDR for prolonging the Depression, we should also blame Herbert Hoover for his reaction in 1929, too. But the point is, there is a great, there is a track record in this country of government interference in normal corrections making things worse, and that’s a bigger danger than a couple of banks going out of business, or even GM collapsing.
HH: So 30 seconds to your last prediction with me, and thank you for a great 2008 on the radio, Mark Steyn. Is the economy going to be in growth mode by the end of 2009?
MS: I don’t think so, but as I said, I think that’s due to more to what this government is likely to do than to anything else.
HH: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, Mark Steyn, www.steynonline.com if you want A Marshmallow World, a wonderful Chrismas carol from Mark and Jessica. Go to www.steynonline.com for A Marshmallow World.
End of interview.