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Dimly Shone Their Bulbs

Ann Louise Bardach writes for Newsweek International and is a commentator on the Public Radio program "Marketplace." She is the author of "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana."

Once again, it’s that time of year for reflection and awards. Over the last week, we’ve seen the annual recounting of the year’s highlights as newspapers sifted through the year’s events, reminding us of those who excelled in science, the arts, business and philanthropy.

But what about the rest of humanity? Shouldn’t we spare a thought, during this period of reflection, for the vast majority of Americans who fumble and fail? As former U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska said of G. Harold Carswell, Richard Nixon’s failed nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”

Others have named the best and the brightest; here, we honor the rest. It would be nice to bestow a single Moron of the Year award, but the field is simply too crowded with outstanding nominees. So let us honor and applaud the Moron Top 10 of 2003.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

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1 It was strange enough when the guv announced that he was conducting an investigation into his sex life after 16 women alleged he had sexually harassed them and the National Enquirer published a story (denied by Schwarzenegger) that he had fathered a child outside of his marriage. But stranger still was his abrupt cancellation of the investigation just weeks after his election, with the explanation, “It’s time to move on.” That alone would have guaranteed the former bodybuilder a spot on this list. But we also appreciate his eloquence on the thorny issue of gay marriage: “I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman.” Thanks for clearing everything up, governor.

JOHN M. POINDEXTER

2 It may have seemed odd to have Poindexter, a retired admiral convicted during the Iran-Contra scandal of making false statements to Congress (the charges were later overturned on a technicality), heading an office named “Total Information Awareness.” But what truly distinguished Poindexter was his idea of creating a terrorism futures market, testing his theory that the free market could predict the probability of events like terror attacks. The project -- and Poindexter -- were eventually discarded, but not before the admiral had wangled himself a spot on this list.

HOWARD DEAN

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3 Politicians running for the office of president can generally be counted on to say something idiotic over the course of a campaign. Democratic contender Dean, though, outdid himself in a National Public Radio interview last month. Blasting President Bush for “suppressing evidence” that could help the commission investigating Sept. 11, Dean went on to offer tantalizing insights into the president’s behavior: “The most interesting theory that I’ve heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory ... it can’t be proved, is that [Bush] was warned ahead of time by the Saudis.” We love theories that can’t be proved!

RUSH LIMBAUGH

4 For years, liberals have said Rush Limbaugh’s daily radio show sounded like the ravings of a drug addict. In October, they were shocked to learn they were right. It turned out that the talk show king had been vacuuming up some 30 OxyContins a day, a drug known on the street as “hillbilly heroin.” Previously, Limbaugh had condemned drug addicts as “defining deviancy down” and urging that we finally “be rid of them!” Finally, a lucid moment of self-reflection.

BILL THOMAS

5 It’s hard to know what this Republican California congressman who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee was thinking when he summoned the Capitol Police in July to roust Democrats from a meeting room where they were planning their response to his pension legislation. Days later, his eyes welling up with tears, he apologized for being “just plain stupid.” That about sums it up.

WILLIAM J. BENNETT

6 As author of “The Book of Virtues,” which lambasted the permissive culture of America, Bennett made a career of excoriating former President Clinton for his sinfulness. Then it was revealed that the pious Bennett had squandered as much as $8 million in gambling casinos. “There’s a term in the trade for this kind of gambler,” a casino source told the Washington Monthly. “We call them losers.” The former Education secretary denied being a compulsive gambler, explaining , “I don’t play the milk money.” What a relief.

GRAY DAVIS

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7 Some would say Davis has been working to make this list for years, but it was his decision to reverse himself on the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants that finally qualified him. A year before the recall election, the governor explained why he could never support issuing driver’s licenses to people here illegally: “The tragedy of Sept. 11 made it abundantly clear that the driver’s license is more than just a license to drive.... Unfortunately, a driver’s license was in the hands of terrorists who attacked America on that fateful day.” Less than a year later, desperate for Latino votes to keep his office, Davis signed a bill legalizing licenses for undocumented residents. What qualifies him for moron status, though, is that he actually thought signing the bill would help him avoid being recalled -- as if political expediency was not the root of his problems.

THE FOX NETWORK

8 Few corporate decisions in 2003 can match the wisdom of the Fox network decision to sue comedian Al Franken, at the behest of its star pundit, Bill O’Reilly. Claiming proprietary use of the phrase “fair and balanced,” the network demanded that the stand-up comedian change the title of his book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.” After a federal judge ruled that the suit was “wholly without merit” and an attempt “to undermine the 1st Amendment,” Fox dropped its claim, but not before it had catapulted Franken’s book to the top of the bestseller list -- where it has remained ever since.

RONNIE SPECTOR

9 The former Ronettes singer offered a poignant defense of her ex-husband, music producer Phil Spector, accused of murdering actress Lana Clarkson. “I feel awful,” she said. “I don’t think he would do anything like this.” When reminded that she testified in 1998 that Spector had threatened to kill her, she explained, “Not personally -- that was with a hit man.” Of course.

“SENIOR BUSH ADMINISTRATION

OFFICIAL(S)”

10 Whoever outed undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak and other reporters committed flagrant violations of federal law. But what qualifies the leakers for the moronhood is their apparent willingness to risk up to 10 years in prison and $50,000 in fines simply to get revenge against Plame’s husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former Africa expert for the National Security Council who disclosed that he had warned the Bush administration that its claims about Iraq’s alleged acquisition of “yellowcake” uranium from Niger were bogus. Can there be a nobler motive for a moron than revenge?

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