The Audacity of Honesty

About a year ago, when legendary conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey died, obituaries recalled that he opposed Richard Nixon expanding the Vietnam War by saying, “Mr. President, I love you, but you’re wrong.”

Well, Mr. President, I love you, but you’re wrong.

Harry, Shelley, Dina and Oscar, I love you, too, but you’re also wrong.

Recently, President Obama said, “When times are tough, you tighten your belts. … You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices.”

Nevada’s congressional delegation, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and publisher-turned-GOP spokesman Sherman Frederick responded angrily and/or unhappily. The governor wanted a personal apology, and if you can’t see irony in Jim Gibbons demanding an apology from anyone for anything, you can’t see irony. Goodman even said he wouldn’t greet Obama if he came to Las Vegas.

Making matters worse, Obama had made what many considered an anti-Las Vegas comment a year ago. Thumping for his stimulus bill, Obama said, “You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime.” That inspired similar denunciations, especially since the state is busted flatter than a pancake, thanks partly to the economy and partly to horrible leadership from those most demanding of apologies.

Now to the problems with the controversy over Obama’s comments:

• He was absolutely right. Granted, some don’t “prioritize”: They lack the money but come to Las Vegas and blow what little they have anyway. But putting necessities above tourism and fun isn’t insane. So, why raise a ruckus?

Because he said something before that wasn’t wrong but made less sense. Obama wanted to discourage wasteful spending by businesses using stimulus money for conventions. Las Vegas is a cheaper convention destination than other cities. Meeting here would use money more wisely than going to supposedly less high-rolling locales.

Actually, his most dangerous anti-Las Vegas comment said nothing about Las Vegas. In his inaugural address, Obama said, “What is now required of us is a new era of responsibility.” If anything is bad for Las Vegas’ economy—or in short supply in state and local leaders—it’s responsibility.

• Politically, Obama was stupid. By saying something the unthinking would claim to be anti-Las Vegas, he could have damaged perhaps his closest and best congressional ally, Sen. Reid. It doesn’t help Reid—or Dina Titus, also up for reelection; Shelley Berkley occupies a safe seat—for Obama to make that kind of comment.

In the end, Reid and Titus probably won’t suffer. Democrats won’t vote against them over the comment, and it won’t affect those who opposed them anyway. Reid’s critics will continue to hate him without being able to say why, and Titus bashers lacking a legitimate ideological complaint will cite her Southern accent or some similarly inane reason.

• Obama’s comments weren’t so silly as the overreaction of Nevadans. Goodman ranted and raved. That’s usually his job: Las Vegas’ mayor should defend Las Vegas—except when it needs no defending, and when the defense calls more attention to the city’s faults than to its benefits.

More to the point, they could learn from someone some of them knew—Bob Brown, who published The Valley Times, the long-defunct newspaper where I once toiled. A quarter of a century ago, during economic tough times that couldn’t have had anything to do with Ronald Reagan because he was perfect (some GOP talking points never change), Chief Justice Warren Burger announced his refusal to attend the American Bar Association convention in Las Vegas because it was “an unsavory and unsuitable place for me to speak.”

With the arrogance of youth, I drafted an editorial flaying Burger. Brown revised it to thank and praise him for declaring Las Vegas sinful and demonstrating the effectiveness of its advertising.

So, Las Vegas advertises itself as the place people go to do dubious things, and then gets angry when the president suggests Las Vegas is where people go to do dubious things. The advertising geniuses at R&R should congratulate themselves on a job well done. And when Obama visits, he should bet $100 on red 23 and lose, because we need the money, and otherwise remain silent. After all, if he doesn’t speak, Democrats can’t overreact to what he doesn’t say, and Republicans can’t lie about it.

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