Daniel Kurtzman

The 25 Dumbest Quotes of 2004

25. "This is the best election night in history." -Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Nov. 2, 2004, just before 8 p.m. EST

24. "This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex." -CBS Anchor Dan Rather, on election night

23. "As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." -Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, responding to a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq who asked him why troops had to dig through scrap metal to armor vehicles

22. "I heard there's rumors on the Internets that we're going to have a draft." -President George W. Bush, during the second presidential debate

21. "You've done a nice job decorating the White House." -Pop star Jessica Simpson, upon being introduced to Interior Secretary Gale Norton while touring the White House

20. "Go fuck yourself." -Vice President Dick Cheney to Sen. Patrick Leahy, during an angry exchange on the Senate floor about profiteering by Halliburton

19. "I even accept for the sake of argument that sexual orgies eliminate social tensions and ought to be encouraged." -Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking at Harvard

18. "You forgot Poland." -President Bush to Sen. John Kerry during the first presidential debate, after Kerry failed to mention Poland's contributions to the Iraq war coalition

17. "I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel." -Sen. Zell Miller to Chris Matthews, during a heated interview on "Hardball"

16. "We are in a three-way split decision for third place." -Sen. Joe Lieberman, on his fifth place finish in the New Hampshire primary

15. "If I could only go through the ducts and leap out onstage in a cape – that's my dream." -Ralph Nader, on the presidential debates

14. "You bet we might have." -Sen. Kerry, asked if he would have gone to war against Saddam Hussein if he refused to disarm

13. "Gammie, we love you dearly, but you're just not very hip. She thinks 'Sex and the City' is something married people do, but never talk about." -Jenna Bush, speaking at the Republican convention

12. "All of a sudden, we see riots, we see protests, we see people clashing. The next thing we know, there is injured or there is dead people. We don't want to get to that extent." -California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the dangers posed by gay marriage

11. "I couldn't get a job with CIA today. I am not qualified." -CIA Director Porter Goss, in a March 3, 2004 interview that was conducted while he was still in Congress and which was cut from "Fahrenheit 9/11"

10. "I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it...I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn't yet...I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't – you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one." -President Bush, after being asked in a news conference to name the biggest mistake he had made

9. "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere!" -President Bush, joking about his administration's failure to find WMDs in Iraq as he narrated a comic slideshow during the Radio & TV Correspondents' Association dinner

8. "So anyway I'd be rubbing your big boobs and getting your nipples really hard, kinda' kissing your neck from behind...and then I would take the other hand with the falafel thing and I'd just put it on your p – -y but you'd have to do it really light, just kind of a tease business..." ˜-Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, as quoted in a sexual harassment suit filed against him by a Fox News producer

7. "Wolf, be excited. This is Joementum here in New Hampshire." -Sen. Joe Lieberman to Wolf Blitzer, on his momentum leading up to the New Hampshire Primary

6. "Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country." -President Bush

5. "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." -Sen. Kerry, on voting against a military funding bill for U.S. troops in Iraq

4. "Go, balloons. Go, balloons. Go, balloons ... What's happening balloons? There's not enough coming down. All balloons! Why the hell is nothing falling? What the fuck are you guys doing up there?" -Democratic Convention producer Don Mischer, overheard on CNN having an apoplectic seizure when the balloons failed to drop from the ceiling of the Fleet Center in Boston

3. "As I was telling my husb-" -National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, overheard making a slip of the tongue at a Washington dinner party. Rice, who is unmarried, stopping herself abruptly, before saying, "As I was telling President Bush."

2. "Not only are we going to New Hampshire ... we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York! And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House, Yeeeeeaaaaaargh!" -Presidential candidate Howard Dean's Iowa concession speech

1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." -President Bush

Primary Highlights and Lowlights

For a contest originally billed as a snooze fest, the Democratic presidential race turned out to be a surprisingly wild and entertaining ride. As the curtain falls on the primary season, here's a look at some of the most memorable feats, foibles and dubious achievements from the Democratic campaign trail.

The envelopes, please:

Best anti-Bush sound bite: Describing President Bush's tax cuts during a debate in South Carolina, Al Sharpton said, "It's like Jim Jones giving you Kool-Aid. It tastes good, but it will kill you."

Worst catchphrase: Before losing the New Hampshire primary, Joe Lieberman declared that his campaign was gaining "Joementum." After he dropped his presidential bid a week later, Slate correspondent William Saletan paid tribute to Lieberman in a "Joebituary," writing that he had suffered "Joemiliation" and wound up as "Joadkill" after going "Joe-for-7" in the primaries. "Joe revoir, Joe. Joerivederci. Hasta Joe Vista. ... There is no Joe in Mudville."

Lowest campaign moment: After a series of stumbles late last year, John Kerry's campaign reached its nadir when he appeared on "The Tonight Show" and received second-billing to a puppet act. Worse, the puppet trash-talked him. "What's going on with this show?" asked Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a foul-mouthed Rottweiler voiced by comedian Robert Smigel. "(Arnold Schwarzenegger) can take over the show, but John Kerry, a war veteran, has to follow a freaking dog puppet?" He then offered this assessment of the candidate: "The poop I made in the dressing room has more heat than John Kerry."

Most amusing debate interchange: Appearing before an audience of young voters, the Democratic hopefuls were asked which of their fellow candidates they would most like to party with. Sharpton answered, "Mrs. Kerry -- I'm sorry." To which John Kerry replied: "I was going to choose Carol Moseley Braun, but now I'm going to have to choose you so I can keep an eye on my wife."

A close second: During a debate in Iowa, Dick Gephardt said, "Everybody up here, except Dennis (Kucinich), voted for NAFTA and voted for the China agreement." John Edwards replied: "I didn't vote for NAFTA. I campaigned against NAFTA." Gephardt: "Well, John, you weren't in Congress when NAFTA came up, so you couldn't vote." Edwards: "But you just said I voted for it." Gephardt: "I understand." Edwards: You understand?" (Laughter.)

Best analogy: During a debate in Iowa, Braun said, "I'm reminded of the true story of my parents' worst argument. The toilet broke, and there was water going everywhere. My mother sent my father to the hardware store. He came back with a new lawnmower. That's really what's happened to us in this country. We were chasing bin Laden, and they gave it up."

Best anti-Kerry sound bite: Speaking about the Democrats in an address to the Republican Governors Association, Bush said, "The candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions: for tax cuts and against them ... for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act, in favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."

Best campaign rally chant: At an Iowa campaign rally, Gephardt ticked off a litany of Bush administration failings and capped it off by saying, "And now he says we need to go to Mars!" The crowd began chanting: "Send Bush to Mars! Send Bush to Mars!"

Biggest scandal that wasn't: Despite titillating allegations peddled by Internet bottom-feeder Matt Drudge that Kerry had an affair with an intern, the story proved to be bogus. After most media outlets ignored the unsubstantiated report, Drudge wrote a follow-up claiming the woman in question instead had an affair with a longtime Kerry aide. Later, Drudge had the audacity to complain to USA Today that "major media ought to be ashamed of themselves" for not pursuing a "red-hot story."

Least ready for prime time: Howard Dean's infamous primal scream wouldn't have been nearly as damaging if it had not been part of a larger pattern of gaffes and baffling sound bites. Take, for example, the following impromptu discourse he delivered while teaching an eighth-grade science class in Wisconsin: "Now that we're on dog pee, we can have an interesting conversation about that. I do not recommend drinking urine...but if you drink water straight from the river, you have a greater chance of getting an infection than you do if you drink urine."

Most eligible bachelor: Aside from driving around in a bus that ran on vegetable oil, Kucinich's campaign will probably be best remembered for his efforts to score with the ladies. The bachelor candidate went on a date with a woman who won an Internet contest titled "Who Wants to Be a First Lady," and also got matched up with actress Jennifer Tilly, who was one of three contestants who vied for a date with him on "The Tonight Show."

Worst case of denial: With the vote tally in New Hampshire showing Lieberman coming in fifth behind Wesley Clark and Edwards, the "Loserman" half of the 2000 "Sore-Loserman" ticket made this jubilant announcement to supporters: "We are in a three-way split decision for third place."

Clearest sign of a doomed candidacy: During an appearance on "The Tonight Show," Gephardt admitted that while he was in the airport in his hometown of St. Louis, he was asked to settle a bet between two women wondering if he was a CNN weatherman or Dan Quayle.

Daniel Kurtzman is a San Francisco writer and a former Washington correspondent.

The Return of Irony

They told us Sept. 11 marked the end of irony in America.

The obituaries were written by hyperventilating pundits everywhere, who were quick to declare a seismic shift in our cultural landscape and the death of humor as we knew it.

At first, it looked as if they were right. Following the terrorist attacks, the late-night talk show hosts canceled their broadcasts, humor publications like the Onion temporarily stopped publishing, comedy clubs were virtually deserted, and even the notoriously free-wheeling Internet became a joke-free zone. America was in no mood to laugh and we wondered if we ever would be.

After a brief pause for grief and reflection, however, comedy slowly began to make a comeback. By the time we had mobilized for war in Afghanistan, America's humorists had begun to unleash their own salvo of jokes, satirical barbs and Web-based parodies aimed at lifting the country's spirits and cutting our new enemies down to size.

As the nation began the healing process, humor provided a much-needed salve, if not a way to momentarily escape the grim news of the day. Even New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani urged us to lighten up. "I'm here to give you permission to laugh," he said at the opening of a charity benefit in October. "If you don't, I'll have you arrested."

In the year since, our need for comic relief has not diminished -- if anything, demand for it has grown.

Far from being marginalized as frivolous and irrelevant, comedy continues to help us cope, and in many ways has served as a barometer for the way the mood of the country has changed. The fact that we can now poke fun at things like terror alerts, excessive homeland security measures, President Bush's blunderings and the hypocrisies of U.S. foreign policy underscores exactly how far we have come. It may not signal a return to political mockery as usual, but the sense of self-examination that has crept back into humor may be one sign of a return to normalcy.

The road back began hesitantly, almost apologetically, with David Letterman's return to the airwaves a week after the attacks. Forgoing his usual comic monologue, Letterman instead offered an emotional tribute to New York, setting a tone the rest of the late-night comics followed as they sought to strike the right balance between expressions of grief and the need for levity. "They said to get back to work," said "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart. "There were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying, which I would have gladly taken. So I came back here."

The jokes were tentative at first, steering clear of the tragedy itself. President Bush was off-limits (as Jay Leno wryly observed, "We can't do Bush jokes anymore; he's smart now.") Instead, the most successful humor targeted America's response to the tragedy and the absurdities of the emerging war on terrorism.

One of the boldest stabs at humor came from the Onion, a satirical weekly newspaper based in New York. Known for its biting social satire and dead-on news spoofs, the Onion took direct aim at the fallout from the attacks with a special report featuring such headlines as "America Vows to Defeat Whoever We're at War With," "Hijackers Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell," and "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule."

Hailed as one of the best comic achievements of the post-Sept. 11 period, the Onion provided cathartic laughs by tapping into raw emotion and subtle ironies. "We really were just trying to capture the sadness and anger everyone was feeling, and somehow it came out as humor," said Robert Siegel, the Onion's editor in chief.

"The Daily Show," Comedy Central's popular news-parody program, hit its stride when it began poking fun at media coverage of "America's new war." Dubbing its own coverage "America Freaks Out" and "Operation Enduring Coverage," the show aptly captured the way the media was preying on the nation's jittery mood, while lampooning its slick marketing of the war on terrorism.

During the anthrax scare, for example, the "Daily Show" introduced its own CNN-style news ticker, which scrolled through such breaking news items as "White Powder Found on Donut in St. Louis," "91 Percent of Americans 'Want Mommy,' " and "Oh God Oh God Oh . . ."

"Since we couldn't make fun of the events themselves, we could make fun of some of the coverage of the events," said "Daily Show" correspondent Mo Rocca. At first, that was challenging because "the mainstream news coverage of the events was remarkably restrained and responsible. But when Ashleigh Banfield started dyeing her hair and Geraldo apparently started throwing himself into the cross fire, things started moving for us again."

The biggest comedic punching bag, of course, turned out to be Osama bin Laden, continuing a long-standing tradition of demonizing and mocking our enemies during wartime. In the same way that Saddam Hussein was parodied during the Gulf War and Hitler was ridiculed during World War II, bin Laden became the new national laughingstock.

Nowhere was that more apparent than on the Internet, where bin Laden bashing became wild sport. Web humorists devised what seemed like a million comic ways to capture and blow up the terrorist mastermind in a series of games and cartoon animations that succeeded brilliantly where the U.S. military was failing. Other parodies drew upon references from American popular culture, mocking bin Laden and the Taliban in joke ads for Jihad Joe and Taliban Barbie dolls, as well as in rewrites of classic songs titled "50 Ways to Kill bin Laden" and "Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

But for all the popularity of these jokes, humor researcher Paul Lewis believes it is also important to note what we were not laughing at in the aftermath of Sept. 11. He was struck by the almost total absence of the kind of tasteless jokes that have accompanied other tragedies, like the Challenger disaster. "There were not that many degrees of separation between the victims of Sept. 11 and everyone else in American culture," said Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College. "The same thing that accounts for Bush's popularity accounts for the fact that we weren't telling jokes about the 9/11 victims."

A year later, we still don't joke about the tragedy itself. But other targets that once were sacrosanct are no longer. President Bush is fair game for humor again, albeit in a slightly different way. "The Bush jokes before were Bush as the bumbler, Bush as inarticulate, Bush as a fool. Now it's a new Bush joke, because this is still an extraordinarily popular president," Rocca of the "Daily Show" said. "Now he's Bush as the sometimes bumbler who's in bed with big oil and with corporate corruption."

If Bush still has any comedic Teflon, it is wearing thin. Comedians now joke about everything from the president taking a month off to unwind (Letterman: "When does he wind?") to his motivations for a possible war with Iraq (Leno, during a recent heat wave, said he was "sweating like Saddam Hussein watching Bush's poll numbers drop.")

Comedians are now also finding fodder in things like John Ashcroft's Operation TIPS citizen-snoop program, Tom Ridge's color-coded alert system, and even FBI and CIA intelligence failures.

Last fall, when jingoism ruled and "America, love it or leave it" was the watchword, voicing any such skepticism of government policy would have been considered comedic suicide, if not a deportable offense. Bill Maher, former host of the now-defunct "Politically Incorrect," learned that the hard way after he was excoriated for making some ill-timed remarks last September criticizing certain past U.S. military actions as "cowardly."

But even if we are more self-critical and given to mockery these days, that does not necessarily signal a full return to normal or that the shift in mood has been universal. To be sure, there are still many for whom the wounds of Sept. 11 remain too raw for humor to serve as any sort of meaningful balm. And now, amid the wave of corporate scandals that have undermined faith in American business, the looming threat of more terrorist attacks, and the possibility of war with Iraq, some of us still find precious little to laugh about in the day's news.

But part of America's indomitable spirit has always been our ability to laugh during difficult times. It is an act of defiance that remains not only a fundamental part of how we cope, but who we are.

"Many things about America changed, but you can't kill humor, any more than you can kill a human emotion," Siegel of the Onion said. "You can't kill sadness or fear or joy. Obviously people are going to laugh and people will still be sarcastic and snide and ironic and winking and insincere. That's a good thing. That's a sign of the return to normalcy."

Daniel Kurtzman is a San Francisco writer and former Washington political correspondent. He runs About.com's political humor Web site (politicalhumor.about.com).

George Bush Channels George Orwell

Here's a question for constitutional scholars: Can a sitting president be charged with plagiarism?

As President Bush wages his war against terrorism and moves to create a huge homeland security apparatus, he appears to be borrowing heavily, if not ripping off ideas outright, from George Orwell. The work in question is 1984, the prophetic novel about a government that controls the masses by spreading propaganda, cracking down on subversive thought and altering history to suit its needs. It was intended to be read as a warning about the evils of totalitarianism -- not a how-to manual.

Granted, we're a long way from resembling the kind of authoritarian state Orwell depicted, but some of the similarities are starting to get a bit eerie.

Permanent War

In 1984, the state remained perpetually at war against a vague and ever- changing enemy. The war took place largely in the abstract, but it served as a convenient vehicle to fuel hatred, nurture fear and justify the regime's autocratic practices.

Bush's war against terrorism has become almost as amorphous. Although we are told the president's resolve is steady and the mission clear, we seem to know less and less about the enemy we are fighting. What began as a war against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda quickly morphed into a war against Afghanistan, followed by dire warnings about an "Axis of Evil," the targeting of terrorists in some 50 to 60 countries, and now the beginnings of a major campaign against Iraq. Exactly what will constitute success in this war remains unclear, but the one thing the Bush administration has made certain is that the war will continue "indefinitely."

Ministry Of Truth

Serving as the propaganda arm of the ruling party in 1984, the Ministry of Truth not only spread lies to suit its strategic goals, but constantly rewrote and falsified history. It is a practice that has become increasingly commonplace in the Bush White House, where presidential transcripts are routinely sanitized to remove the president's gaffes, accounts of intelligence warnings prior to Sept. 11 get spottier with each retelling, and the facts surrounding Bush's past financial dealings are subject to continual revision.

The Bush administration has been surprisingly up front about its intentions of propagating falsehoods. In February, for example, the Pentagon announced a plan to create an Office of Strategic Influence to provide false news and information abroad to help manipulate public opinion and further its military objectives. Following a public outcry, the Pentagon said it would close the office -- news that would have sounded more convincing had it not come from a place that just announced it was planning to spread misinformation.

Infallible Leader

An omnipresent and all-powerful leader, Big Brother commanded the total, unquestioning support of the people. He was both adored and feared, and no one dared speak out against him, lest they be met by the wrath of the state.

President Bush may not be as menacing a figure, but he has hardly concealed his desire for greater powers. Never mind that he has mentioned -- on no fewer than three occasions -- how much easier things would be if he were dictator. By abandoning many of the checks and balances established in the Constitution to keep any one branch of government from becoming too powerful, Bush has already achieved the greatest expansion of executive powers since Nixon. His approval ratings remain remarkably high, and his minions have worked hard to cultivate an image of infallibility. Nowhere was that more apparent than during a recent commencement address Bush gave at Ohio State, where students were threatened with arrest and expulsion if they protested the speech. They were ordered to give him a "thunderous ovation," and they did.

Big Brother Is Watching

The ever-watchful eye of Big Brother kept constant tabs on the citizens of Orwell's totalitarian state, using two-way telescreens to monitor people's every move while simultaneously broadcasting party propaganda.

While that technology may not have arrived yet, public video surveillance has become all the rage in law enforcement, with cameras being deployed everywhere from sporting events to public beaches. The Bush administration has also announced plans to recruit millions of Americans to form a corps of citizen spies who will serve as "extra eyes and ears for law enforcement," reporting any suspicious activity as part of a program dubbed Operation TIPS -- Terrorism Information and Prevention System.

And thanks to the hastily passed USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department has sweeping new powers to monitor phone conversations, Internet usage, business transactions and library reading records. Best of all, law enforcement need not be burdened any longer with such inconveniences as probable cause.

Thought Police

Charged with eradicating dissent and ferreting out resistance, the ever- present Thought Police described in "1984" carefully monitored all unorthodox or potentially subversive thoughts. The Bush administration is not prosecuting thought crime yet, but members have been quick to question the patriotism of anyone who dares criticize their handling of the war on terrorism or homeland defense. Take, for example, the way Attorney General John Ashcroft answered critics of his anti-terrorism measures, saying that opponents of the administration "only aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America's enemies."

Even more ominous was the stern warning White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer sent to Americans after Bill Maher, host of the now defunct "Politically Incorrect," called past U.S. military actions "cowardly." Said Fleischer, "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

What would it take to turn America into the kind of society that Orwell warned about, a society that envisions war as peace, freedom as slavery and ignorance as strength? Would it happen overnight, or would it involve a gradual erosion of freedoms with the people's consent?

Because we are a nation at war -- as we are constantly reminded -- most Americans say they are willing to sacrifice many of our freedoms in return for the promise of greater security. We have been asked to put our blind faith in government and most of us have done so with patriotic fervor. But when the government abuses that trust and begins to stamp out the freedom of dissent that is the hallmark of a democratic society, can there be any turning back?

So powerful was the state's control over people's minds in 1984 that, eventually, everyone came to love Big Brother. Perhaps in time we all will, too.

Daniel Kurtzman is a San Francisco writer and former Washington political correspondent.


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.