At the Milken Institute Global Conference tonight, a techie friend of mine and I pondered (over cocktails, of course) whether the evening dinner panel would be worth seeing. It wasn't a question of interestingness; the speakers were former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, Congressman Harold Ford, entertainer-commentator Rush Limbaugh, and former RNC chair Ed Gillespie. As I said earlier, Milken has pulled together a great list of people and the event has been executed well. The question was if we'd learn anything from this one or if it would just be a bunch of vapid posturing and performing. But after a martini or two, we decided to go for it.
The panel was moderated by Frank "Dial-O-Meter" Luntz, who somehow manages to convince conference organizers that he will bring objectivity -- or gravity -- to such things while reliably delivering neither. In his trademark (sixth-grade-social-studies-teacher) style, Luntz asked each panelist to grade President Obama's "first 100 days."
Congressman Ford gave the president an "A minus" and said the president had brought a sense to the nation that things were once again moving in the right direction.
Willie Brown gave the President an "A", but -- much to Brown's credit -- he called Luntz out for asking such a simplistic question. One hundred days is "artificial", he said, and we need to think outside the limits of such media-perpetuated silliness. Obama has "aroused an interest" in politics "like never before seen", said Brown, and inspired young people to participate in the "resurrection of America" after the "horror of the last eight years."
Then it was Rush's turn, who had obviously had a difficult time waiting. Limbaugh was animated and clearly knew his audience. "Barely a D," he said -- and launched into an unfocused -- yet grandiose -- tirade; "unlike the rest of these panelists, I am not in electoral politics. I don't pander, I don't lie, and I don't say things I don't believe." Resisting Luntz's attempts to move the panel forward, Limbaugh continued, even leaping to his feet a couple of times. Professing his belief in a free market, he joked that "six months from now, when you buy a car, they'll automatically register you as a Democrat." He called President Obama a "cult-like figure" and, responding to Mayor Brown's characterization of the prior administration and need for resurrection, decried the "last eight years as a disaster is a media myth" and that "if Obama has his way, this country will need a resurrection." He said that Obama's domestic policy could be summed up in one sentence: "Return the nation's wealth to its rightful owners." He closed his initial rant with, "If you want to get even with those who have achieved, this is the administration for you." The group went wild for Limbaugh; he dominated the conversation and also got the strongest (and mostly positive) audience response. (Frank, where's your dial-o-meter when you need it?)
The conversation then moved to Ed Gillespie, who, after plaintively remarking that Rush was a tough act to follow, said there was an "important distinction" between style and substance. He gave the President a "B" on style and a "D" on substance. He said "first term rookie mistakes" were one thing, but that more serious mistakes were on the way. "He's gonna raise taxes on every American," said Gillespie, clearly unaware that only Congress -- not the president -- can raise taxes.
What impressed me most was the relative civility considering the passionate disagreement on the stage. Limbaugh and Willie Brown kept doing a "fist bump" with each other that I really didn't get. I think the message was supposed to be, "We're pals, really."
And that's it, for tonight, from Beverly Hills.