'You Have a Right to Be Stupid': The Top D.C. Soundbites of 2013
Talk is hardly cheap in the nation's capital, where a slip of the tongue can be a faux pas forever on the history books or a well-placed soundbite can leave more of a positive legacy. From lawmakers famous for their fiery speech, politicians who stepped in it deep, and a president who played catchup with his veep in the race for eyebrow-raising quotes, here are some soundbites that reverberated around Washington and beyond the Beltway in 2013.
The clear champion
Strategic profanity has a glorious history on the Hill, from Dick Cheney telling Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) "go f*@k yourself" to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) calling the cap-and-trade bill (and many other things) a "pile of s*@t." In October, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) added his name to that legendary list. When asked at a fundraiser how civility was faring in the Senate, he replied, “There’s no comity with Harry Reid. I think he’s an absolute a*@hole.”
Hearing soundbite of the year
At a May House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Benghazi, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angrily fired off the quotes that will be used in the highest-dollar campaign ads should she run in 2016: "The fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?"
Obama's greatest hits
President Obama earned PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" award for his whopper "if you like your healthcare plan, you'll be able to keep your healthcare plan." Obama said this 37 times as counted by the fact-checking watchdogs, though repeated it just one time in 2013. The quote that actually got Obama the closest to intervening in an international crisis in 2013 -- the Syria "red line" vow -- was made in 2012. Perhaps the soundbite that summed up his year came toward the end of 2013, in an early December interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "The interesting thing about now having been president for five years is it makes me humbler as opposed to cockier about what you as an individual can do," he said, waxing about how a great president makes a connection with the American people.
The greatest hit award for the commander in chief, though, goes to his quotes comparing a communist stalwart to the Founders at a press availability with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang in July. Obama said Sang concluded the meeting by sharing “a copy of a letter sent by Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman.”
“And we discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson. Ho Chi Minh talks about his interest in cooperation with the United States. And President Sang indicated that even if it’s 67 years later, it’s good that we’re still making progress.”
Best introspective congressional observation
If it's hard to say that one quote about the sky falling is better or carries greater impact than another, at least you can give the prize to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) for quantity. After regular dramatic addresses from the Senate floor advising Americans to wake up about climate change, Whitehouse's 52nd such speech of the year segued into a general smackdown of the legislative branch.
“Maybe this Congress just can’t operate as an institution at an intelligent level. Some Congresses are going to be smarter and more responsible than others — that’s just the natural order of variation. Some Congress is going to be the sorriest Congress ever. Maybe we’re it,” he said.
It was clear from being able to forge a budget deal with liberal stalwarts in the Senate that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has a certain degree of charm in his corner. And that was confirmed by 76-year-old Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who said of the House bicep curler, “Believe it or not, Paul Ryan is a good friend. He calls me Mom. I call him Naughty Boy.”
Get-off-my-lawn (phone) rant
As soon as the FCC began toying with allowing the use of cell phones in-flight, lawmakers began to riot like the panicked passengers in Airplane! Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced a bill with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to ensure only texts and emails would be allowed after takeoff. “This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts," Alexander said. “...When you stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies – babbling about last night’s love life, next week’s schedule, arguments with spouses – it’s not hard to see why the FCC shouldn’t allow cell phone conversations on airplanes."
Progressive Caucus quote of the year
This goes to Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), opining on Hobby Lobby's legal challenge against the mandate to fund contraceptive coverage under Obamacare: "I mean, motherhood is not a hobby. Women’s health is not some arts and craft. I mean, nobody spends more money at the arts and crafts store than I do."
Right vs. right
Enter John Boehner at the end-of-the-year budget negotiations, when some conservative groups came out in opposition to the Ryan-Murray budget deal hours before it was unveiled. “They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous," Boehner said, followed by a lengthier challenge the next day: “I don’t care what they do. It’s just that there just comes a point when some people step over the line. You know, when you criticize something and you have no idea what you’re criticizing, it undermines your credibility.”
Not a year passes without more gems from the lips of our vice president. Though the competition is always stiff, the winner this year is Biden's odd reference to Deliverance at a benefit dinner for a volunteer legal group that helps domestic violence survivors. “After those guys tied that one guy to the tree and raped him, man-raped him in the film, why didn’t the guy go the sheriff?" he said. "They don’t want to get raped again by the system.”
Hill meltdown of the year
Lots of lawmakers take their turn on the floor for a good old-fashioned rant, but it was the monologue of one of the seen but rarely heard staffers in the chamber that caught Hill denizens off-guard. During a late-night House session Oct. 16 to end the shutdown, stenographer Dianne Reidy took the dais for a rant about Freemasons: “He will not be mocked, He will not be mocked — don’t touch me — He will not be mocked. The greatest deception here, is that this is not one nation under God. It never was. Had it been… it would not have been.… No. It would not have been. The Constitution would not have been written by Freemasons… and go against God. You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve two masters. Praise be to God, Lord Jesus Christ.” Reidy was led away by security, sent for a psych evaluation and placed on administrative leave, and reportedly still works in the House these days but in a low-profile capacity.
The congressman who brought us the “sugar-coated Satan sandwich” in reference to a 2011 bipartisan debt compromise invoked Lucifer again this year, saying the devil's approval rating is better than Congress'. In October, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) was commenting on Congress' low approval numbers. “Now it’s already dropped down to 10 percent. And I think Satan is probably at 12 percent. So we are in real bad shape here."
Most insensitive shutdown quote
When some lawmakers tried to restore funding program-by-program during the government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to allow the piecemeal votes. One of these dealt with funding trials for kids with cancer. CNN's Dana Bash asked Reid at a press conference, "If you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn’t you do it?”
“Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force Base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own. This is — to have someone of your intelligence suggest such a thing may be irresponsible,” Reid told her.
Reid later tried to explain his comment: "I am not known for being real articulate, but what I was trying to say is that we can’t be piecemealing all this stuff."
Biggest verbal grenades
Baby, it's violent imagery out here. Senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer on Obamacare defund and shutdown threats at the end of September: “What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest." Harry Reid: "We will not bow to Tea Party anarchists who deny the mere fact that Obamacare is the law." Former Clinton chief of staff and new Obama adviser John Podesta in an interview with Politico this fall called the GOP "a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress."
Greatest Iran nuclear deal reality check
Everyone eager to cut a deal with Iran in 2013 hailed its new president, Hassan Rouhani, as a 180-degree turnaround from the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era, but his September interview with NBC said loud and clear that it's the same old regime in Tehran. Asked about Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, Rouhani said, “I’m not a historian. I’m a politician.”
Lack of foreign policy prescience award
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Malaysia Institute of Defence and Security at the end of August: "Sure, any open conflict is always possible. But I have great confidence in the responsible leadership and people of China, as well as the United States." A couple months later, "responsible" China established an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, a provocative move seen by many analysts as a direct sign that Beijing doesn't fear Washington one whit.
Most cringe-worthy comment from the Pentagon
Hagel quotes usually show a loose grasp of the issues or meander from the point, but a June soundbite wandered deep into Biden facepalm territory. In an address at the University of Nebraska, Hagel took questions from the audience and called on an Indian-American. “Way up in the back there.… You’re not a member of the Taliban are you?” Hagel said.
“Mr. Secretary, I’m Robin Gandhi. I’m an assistant professor at UNO,” the professor responded.
Race-based intra-Congress spat
At the start of 2013, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) climbed the steps to the upper chamber to the cheers of colleagues from both houses after a lengthy recovery from a stroke. By May the love was gone in some corners when Kirk, along with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), proposed rounding up 18,000 members of Chicago's largest gang, the Gangster Disciples, to get a handle on the crime scourge. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), telling the Chicago Sun-Times that he was "really very upset with Mark," called the Republican's approach an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.”
Race-based intra-party intra-Congress spat
After Ahmadinejad said at the beginning of the year that he wanted to be the first human sent to space by Iranian scientists, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted, “So Ahmadinejad wants to be first Iranian in space – wasn’t he just there last week? ‘Iran launches monkey into space.'" Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), of Palestinian descent, fired back, “Maybe you should wisen up & not make racist jokes.”
Weirdest PR statement
Here we have a bipartisan tie. Crusading against the name of the Washington Redskins, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) issued a press release saying she had "joined with nine Members of Congress and more than 50 organizations in urging Mr. Dan Snyder, the owner of the NFL’s Washington XXXskins football team, to change his team’s racist name.… In letters addressed to Owner Dan Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and Fed Ex CEO Frederick Smith (the XXXskins main corporate sponsor), Congresswoman McCollum called on the executives to end their profiteering from this racist team name."
Though not editing a football team to make it sound like a porn flick, the office of Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) did accidentally bump off one of his colleagues: “RENACCI STATEMENT ON PASSING OF CONGRESSMAN JOE WILSON." Five minutes later, it was followed by a press release correcting the name of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) to former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio), who passed away at age 70 in April.
Code Pink punk of the year
Code Pinkers are as omnipresent around D.C. as carts selling half-smokes. They manage to get into a lot of events but quickly get the heave-ho after their first antiwar outburst. What was extraordinary about founder Medea Benjamin's feat at a May national security speech was just how long she kept Obama on the topic of… her.
"Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?" Benjamin heckled after interrupting his address.
"We’re addressing that, ma’am," Obama said. When Benjamin continued, so did the president. "The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously -- obviously I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong." He then quickly wrapped up the rest of his prepared remarks.
Worst excuse for Oval Office huddles
When asked at a May House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing what were some of the reasons he may have had to visit the White House 118 times in 2010 and 2011, former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman responded: "The Easter egg roll with my kids."
John Kerry masterpiece of the year
Since John Kerry was appointed secretary of State, every transcript of a meeting with embassy staff or a foreign minister is about three times longer than it needs to be. Kerry always tries to inject a few words of his host country's language, link his visit to a personal experience or two, and share his philosophical ramblings about the topic at hand. There is no such thing as a short answer from Kerry, but there are many head-scratching soundbites that come from his mouth. In February, Kerry told a crowd of German youths asking about how Muslims are treated in the U.S., “In America, you have a right to be stupid if you want to be, and you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be, and we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that."
Michelle's oops moment
The first lady in an April interview with a Vermont TV station: “Believe me, as a busy single mother -- or I shouldn’t say single -- as a busy mother, sometimes when you’ve got a husband who is president it can feel a little single."
UN General Assembly quote of the year
Obama: "The world is more stable than it was five years ago."
NSA observation of 2013
Obama at an August press conference: “If I tell Michelle that I did the dishes — now, granted, in the White House I don’t do the dishes that much. But back in the day — and she’s a little skeptical. Well, I’d like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes. And not just have her take my word for it. And so, you know, the program is — I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused."
Keenest observation of the Obama scandals by a Nixon administration official
Dwight Chapin, former deputy assistant to President Richard Nixon and the first member of the White House team to resign as the Watergate scandal unfolded, to PJM at the National Archives during the height of conflagration of the NSA, IRS, Benghazi and AP phone records seizure scandals in June: “These things seem to be compounded by time — that’s what happened with Watergate. This is the drip, drip, drip, drip. The biggest drip factor is probably the IRS thing.”
Biggest rebuke from a Watergate reporter
At the beginning of the year, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post said Gene Sperling, then head of Obama's White House Economic Council, told him he would "regret" continuing to publicly disagree with the administration, this time on sequestration. "It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters, you're going to regret doing something that you believe in," the Watergate reporter told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. Woodward told MSNBC that Obama's decision to not move an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in protest of sequestration cuts was a "kind of madness I haven't seen in a long time."
Eric Holder's quote of the year
The attorney general at a May House Judiciary Committee hearing, when asked about the Justice Department's snooping on the Associated Press' phone records: "This is both an ongoing matter and ongoing matter about which I know nothing."