Liars, Damned Liars, and Harry Reid
Harry Reid wants to see more of Mitt Romney's past income-tax filings. Debbie Wasserman Schultz wants to see 23 years of his taxes. This, from the die-hard supporters of a candidate who will not release his college transcripts or so much more.
I want to know how Barack Obama got into Columbia University for undergraduate school. I want to see his application. Did he seek extra consideration, as did Elizabeth Warren in applying for her academic opportunities, by claiming to be a member of a demographic group favored by affirmative action? I imagine that he did not falsely claim special treatment on a theory of being foreign-born, but I would like to know for sure. It is immaterial where he was born -- I want to know whether he claimed on his applications, as his book publisher later would write about him, that he had overcome the disadvantages of being foreign-born. What did he write to the dean of admissions of Columbia University about his childhood, his education, his background? Every college-transfer application to Columbia requires that the student write a narrative, tell his story, explain why he deserves a crack at the Ivy League after a brief sojourn at a lesser institution.
I want to know who funded his college education. Columbia costs an arm and a leg. Did Barack Obama have benefactors, admirers of his youthful promise, paying his way? Did he take loans? If so, how did he qualify? Or did he win exceptional scholarship and grant-funding? If he received assistance -- and good for him if he did -- what was the narrative that he presented to qualify? Did he speak of the challenges of being reared in Hawaii, a black youngster reared by a white grandmother who stood in as surrogate for his mom? Did he speak of having overcome educational disadvantages overseas? Did he boost his appeal for assistance by claiming to be foreign-born? Like Harry Reid and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, I also want to know more about the leader of the free world.
During his time at Columbia, what were his grades? Everyone is entitled to a bad grade or two or three. You run into a tough professor or one who, though brilliant, is garbled and incoherent. Or someone whose code you simply cannot crack. However, a student who glides from Columbia University into Harvard Law School typically will have quite impressive a string of fabulous grades. I want to know what his grades were at Columbia. We all gained the opportunity to learn Al Gore's grades at Harvard, as well as John Kerry's and George W. Bush's grades at Yale. We learned that Bush, a "C" student with a 77 average, had scored one point higher than Kerry, who graduated with a 76 GPA. Bush got a "D" in astronomy, while Kerry scored four "D" grades as a freshman. That year alone, Kerry scored 68 in each of two history courses and a 69 in political science. Indeed, the media could compare them. I want to know Barack Obama's grades at my alma mater. It seems that a 78 average is all it would take to register Barack Obama as a genius on the "American Presidency Academic Scale." Why is a brilliant thinker, whose ostensible brilliance raised him to be president of Harvard Law Review even though he never published any scholarship on his own, holding back?
Wasserman Schultz wants to see Romney's tax returns from 23 years ago? I want to see Barack Obama's application to Harvard Law School. Did he simply attach a fabulous, superlative transcript of straight As earned at Columbia with letters of recommendation from the university's most prominent faculty members, along with a sparkling grade on the uniform Law School Admissions Test? If so, good for him. He should be proud to share it with the public. I want to see it.
What did he tell Harvard in the all-important personal essay that applicants must submit with their packages? Was it an essay about how he had spent his summer? Was it about the disadvantages he had to overcome in his life? There is no reason for a person reared by his grandmother to be ashamed to share that document with the public.
Indeed, even for the staunchest conservatives, that account was one of the most compelling aspects of Bill Clinton's life narrative: a youngster reared by his grandmother in Arkansas while his divorced mom struggled to earn a nursing degree in Louisiana. What was Barack Obama's narrative? Did he describe awkwardness and perhaps virulent racism encountered as a young black man in Hawaii? That story can be compelling, even now, offering all of us what he likes to call a "teachable moment."
Did he describe attending school in Indonesia or somewhere else? What was his story? By what formula did his application win him acceptance to Harvard Law, and how did he pay for those three years of incredibly challenging tuition? With grants and scholarships? A rich uncle about whom we have not heard? How did he get there? How did he qualify for financial assistance? What makes one set of financial disclosures more relevant than another? I want to know.
American laws easily can be drafted to require presidential candidates to release five years of tax returns, ten years, even 23 years. Harry Reid is the Senate majority leader, and he can move the machinery to bring such a bill for a vote. The day that law is passed, we all will demand that all candidates from all parties release all mandated tax returns. However, that day is not this day. Mitt Romney has complied with the law. If the Democrats want to argue that "tradition" implies that presidential candidates should release more tax returns, then tradition also teaches that presidential candidates should release school transcripts. For example, at Harvard, Al Gore earned a "D" in Natural Sciences 6 ("Man's Place in Nature") and a C+ in Natural Sciences 118. On his College Board Achievement Tests he earned 488 out of 800 in physics and 519 out of 800 in chemistry. It is helpful and even important for Americans to know the hard-science skills of a man who came before us as inventor of the internet and before our Republic as the Philosopher-King of Global Warming.
The double standard proffered by Reid and by Wasserman Schultz is despicable, even as it is frustrating that Romney's surrogates have been hesitant to demand more self-revelation from Obama.
Finally, another word about law. Most Americans do not realize that, as a matter of law, a politician knowingly may lie and defame anyone as long as he is speaking in a legislative session within the legislative chambers of government. Whether a City Council representative legislating at a formal zoning hearing, a state legislator in the Assembly chambers, or a United States senator debating on the Senate floor, she may say anything she pleases and may knowingly lie and defame with complete immunity.
Deriving from legal sources like the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 6, this "safe harbor" to slander and defame shamelessly is known as the "legislative privilege." At its finest, the legislative privilege exists to assure unfettered debate, permitting robust criticism of government without fear of being sued for tortious defamation. However, Harry Reid does not embody its finest. Note that Harry Reid, when speaking outside the safety of the legislative chamber, speaks of having heard rumors about Mitt Romney but never states outright that Mitt Romney cheated on taxes except when Reid is on the Senate floor, artificially protected from being sued as a "dirty liar." Thus, he not only is a "dirty liar," but he is also a coward. If the lines at Chick-fil-A are too long, you can always find at least that one chicken in the United States Senate.
Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.