Monday, October 18, 2010

Joe Miller's Jests

A lady being asked how she liked a Gentleman’s Singing, who had a very stinking Breath, the Words are good, said she, but the Air is intolerable.

This wheezer is from Joe Miller's Jests; or, the Wit's Vade-Mecum. Published in 1739, it is among the very first anthologies of one-liners in the English language. Although it remains an excellent source of ammunition if one wants to insult Colley Cibber, most of the jokes -- or perhaps we mean "jokes" -- were bad when first written and have aged poorly. And yet such was the little book's popularity that it went through many subsequent editions and and amplifications, and in time a "Joe Miller" became a a slang term for any tired old joke.

Which brings us to the senatorial elections in Alaska.

One of the surprises of the season was the defeat, in the Republican primary, of incumbent Barbara Murkowski by a candidate associated with the Tea Party movement and named, ahem, Joe Miller. Because Murkowski will now run as in independent, it is now a tight 3-way race, which will probably be won with as little as 35% of the votes cast. (And please, no jokes about tight 3-ways. This is a family blog).

This Miller fellow seems like a feasible candidate: raised in Kansas, educated at West Point and Yale Law. Although he lost his only prior bid for elective office, he has done a variety of jobs at different levels of government. Sounds good, right?

So why has he recently announced that he will no longer answer questions from the press -- at least when those questions concern his "background"? For that matter, why have his security guards starting shoving matches with local reporters who try to ask questions about this "background"?

Well, aside from Yale, what is Joe Miller's background? Consider those government jobs we mentioned. They include his work as part-time attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. (In Alaska, as in New York City, "boroughs" are essentially counties.) This job doesn't appear on his campaign bio, and for good reason: according to his ex-boss, he was forced to quit because of an insubordination incident. This incident followed the discovery that he had been, unethically, using the borough's computers (and paid time) to manage his failed House campaign.

Bad enough, but possibly not the worst. Miller is running as a typical small-government candidate, eager to balance the budget and opposed to health care reform and most other social programs designed to assist poor people. Fair enough, we suppose. Except for two problems.

First, there is the revelation that Miller and his wife have received a variety of public benefits, ranging from low-income fishing licenses to unemployment insurance to federal farming subsidies. Murkowski accuses him of hypocrisy; Miller responds that he "wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth." This makes no sense at all, of course. Oughtn't he have rejected on principle the silver spoon offered him by a Constitutionally dubious government program? But far be it from the Egg to condemn Miller, or any other Ivy League lawyers who are living easy on the public dole.

Second, and to our mind far more damning, is the fact that Miller was six months late in filing his financial disclosure forms as required by law, and may now be liable for a fine of as much as $50,000. Shouldn't a lawyer be eager to comply with the law? And more to the point, shouldn't a debtor be eager to avoid paying out extra money?

And Miller is in deep debt. First off, he earned about $94,000 in 2009. That's a fine income, and one we'd be thrilled to report, and we're sure it is adequate to pay his mortgage on some undeveloped farmland. But we're not sure it was wise financial management for him to loan his campaign nearly $104,000 -- more than a year's salary (unless one gets elected to the Senate, and earns a good bit more). We're concerned that he is still paying off student loans of $15-50,000, although those at least carry a modest interest rate. We are much more worried by his credit card debt, which is somewhere between $35-80,000 on three cards. Doesn't this guy watch Suzie Orman?

We find it very difficult to take seriously the fiscal-conservative credentials of a candidate who is this deeply in debt. Physician, heal thyself and so forth.

All told, this Joe Miller seems like one more joke played on America by those latter-day Merry pranksters, the Tea Party people. He is man of no evident distinction, running for an important national office. He opposes programs from which he has benefited, and which offer daily benefit to people in much greater need. He has a history of ethical rule-breaking, which has already cost him a job and may now cost him substantial penalties. And worst of all, he wants to manage the finances of an enormous government, when he is himself sunk in debt.

On the whole, we have to go with the lady in the one-liner: even if you think the words are good, the air is clearly bad.

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