On Wednesday night, a Rutgers professor, Susan Feinberg, and her husband had dinner at a restaurant. At a nearby table sat Representative Paul Ryan and two companions. The Ryan table ordered wine. Feinberg consulted the restaurant’s wine list and found that the wine for the Ryan table cost $350 per bottle. Feinberg then took some pictures of the Ryan table. A second bottle of the same wine was delivered to the Ryan table later.
After Feinberg and her husband finished their meal and paid their check, Feinberg walked to Ryan’s table and asked him "how he could live with himself". Ryan’s two companions exchanged words with Feinberg. One of Ryan’s companions explained that “he had ordered the wine, was drinking it and paying for it”. Ryan’s only statement during this incident was, “Is that how much it was?" when someone mentioned the price of the wine.
Feinberg then asked Ryan’s companions whether they were lobbyists. One of them said, “F**k you.” Feinberg’s husband appears (this is unclear) to have come to her defense in some way, the waiter and the manager came to the table, and Feinberg left. She went home and emailed Talking Points Memo about what she had seen, heard, and done in the restaurant.
You can read the various interpretations of this exchange - I provide some links and commentary below. Those on the Left think this does or should totally discredit Ryan. Those on the Right think this is much ado about nothing. What appalls me is the sheer rudeness of Feinberg.* She snapped photos of a table of strangers and posted them on the Internet. She approached a total stranger who was having a private meal and conversation in order to berate him. She then proceeded to ask two other total strangers what they did for a living. And she eavesdropped - or at least claims to have done so - on their conversation and then gossiped about it. In what universe is this behavior even marginally socially acceptable, much less something to applaud?
* Yes, the man who said, “F**k you” to Feinberg was rude also. However, his rudeness arose from temper; it is normal rudeness, to which we all occasionally succumb and for which apologies were created. Feinberg’s rudeness was calculated rudeness, a deliberate decision to act in an unmannerly and inconsiderate way.
Paul Ryan’s $350 Bottle of Wine - Joshua Green at The Atlantic. This is where I first read this story. This is quite simply one of the sleaziest posts I’ve read in a very long time. First, Green deserves the Sullivan/Rubin Award for, shall we say, selective quoting from the Talking Points Memo story. He also deserves a Missing The Blindingly Obvious award for characterizing the restaurant in question as “the swanky Capitol Hill restaurant favored by lobbyists and other expense-account barons” but exhibiting no curiosity about what Feinberg was doing eating there when New Jersey taxpayers are staggering under the tax burden necessary to pay her salary. Nor did he wonder how much her meal or wine cost and who was paying for what she consumed.
He reports that Ryan “is in the habit of drinking $350-a-bottle wine” but provides no evidence that this is a habit; in fact, the stuff Green didn’t quote from TPM contradicts Green’s statement. He further characterizes Ryan’s attitude toward the results of implementing his financial plan as “nonchalance”, a claim for which there is no evidence I know of.
Green wraps his sleaze in an invocation of John Edwards’ $400 haircut, concluding that Ryan should get at least as much grief for the wine as Edwards got for the haircut. Cue the entry of:
Paul Ryan’s $350 Wine v. John Edwards’ $400 Haircut - James Joyner at Outside The Beltway. This post gives three reasons why the incidents are different. First, Ryan paid for the wine from his own pocket; Edwards paid for his haircut using campaign funds. Second, the haircut reinforced an existing image of Edwards as vain; the author sees no parallel image being reinforced here. Third, the haircut undercut Edwards’ everyman image; the wine gives rise to “that’s easy for you to say” but isn’t hypocritical unless the taxpayers are buying the wine.
In the third reason, Joyner comes closest to what I think is the primary difference but doesn’t quite get it. Edwards was running for President. That is, he was asking us to elect him to an office where he would use his judgment to make decisions that affect all of us. His words said that he was “one of us” and would make decisions accordingly; his haircut said otherwise.
Ryan, on the other hand, has proposed an idea, a plan, an approach. He is not asking us to trust his future judgments; he is asking us to approve of something he has already done. There is a huge difference.
This goes back to what I’ve written about before: ideas are not responsible for the people who hold them. If Ryan’s idea is good, then it’s good even if he is slugging down a three thousand dollar bottle of wine every night while chortling about throwing widows and orphans into the snow. If Ryan’s idea is bad, it is bad even if Ryan himself is more praiseworthy than Mother Teresa. If Feinberg and TPM and Green object to Ryan’s ideas, they are free to say so. One hopes they would also explain why and offer alternate suggestions. Feinberg, for example, is a business professor and “an economist by training”. Surely both TPM and The Atlantic would give as much house room to her professional analysis of Ryan’s proposals as they have to her attempts at character assassination.
The next time you find yourself wondering what on earth has happened to political discourse in this country, think about this incident. Once we substitute tabloid-style gossip for intelligent discussions of economics and policy, we’re sunk. No, the Left isn’t the only side that engages in this. But they have sunk to a new low.