Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How much do you really know about Obama and Biden? -- Aug. 29, 2012 column

The Democratic National Convention opens Tuesday in Charlotte for three days of celebrating -- and selling -- President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for a second term.

Even though the Democratic Duo is always in the news, how much do you really know about the men asking for four more years? Test your political trivia savvy with our bio quiz on Obama and Biden.

Ten questions and answers are below. You know the rules: No peeking, no Googling and no consulting your favorite Super PAC.

If you missed last week’s quiz on Team Double-R -- Romney and Ryan – take it here.

Here we go.

1. What did Barry Obama, as he was known then, NOT do during his two years at Occidental College in California?

A. Wear stupid hats

B. Captain the cheerleading squad

C. Impersonate Mick Jagger

D. Listen to Billie Holiday

2. Who or what are Beau and Bo?

A. Nicknames Barack Obama uses when signing notes to Michelle

B. Logins Obama has used

C. Middle names of Malia and Sasha Obama, respectively

D. Biden’s oldest son and the Obama dog, respectively

3. A plaque now marks the ice cream shop where Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama first kissed in 1989. How did they meet?

A. Barack bumped into Michelle’s car accidentally on purpose in a parking lot.

B. Michelle spilled champagne on Barack at a wedding.

C. Young attorney Michelle was assigned to mentor Barack at her Chicago law firm.

D. A blind date after Michelle answered a personals ad in the local alternative weekly paper.

4. In third grade, Obama wrote a paper saying he wanted to become … what?

A. Astronaut

B. President

C. Veterinarian

D. Basketball star

5. True or false: Jill Biden, wife of Joe, wrote the book, “Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops.”

6. What does Barack Obama have in common with Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush?

A. Skydiving

B. Degrees from Harvard or Yale

C. Left handed

D. Foes of broccoli

7. More voters say Obama is a Muslim and fewer that he’s a Christian now than before his election. What percentage believes Obama is a Muslim?

A. 30 percent

B. 17 percent

C. 10 percent

D. 5 percent

8. Obama played his 100th round of golf as president in June. Has he played more golf than any other president?

A. You betcha.

B. Not by a long shot.

9. Winning the presidency was his second-toughest election, Obama says. What was his toughest win?

A. Harvard Law Review presidency

B. Grammy

C. Michelle’s “vote” as her husband

D. Academy Award

10. Who described then-Senator Obama in 2007 as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” adding, “That’s storybook, man.”

A. George W. Bush

B. Bill Clinton

C. Hillary Clinton

D. Joe Biden

BONUS QUESTION: In how many languages besides English has Obama’s “Dreams from My Father” been published?

A. 10

B. 18

C. 26

D. Who can count that high?


1. B. Hats, Jagger, Holiday – yes, yes, yes. Cheerleader? Nope.

2. D. Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III is attorney general of Delaware. Bo is the Obamas’ Portuguese water dog.

3. C. Harvard law grad Michelle, 25, had completed her first year at the firm when she was assigned to mentor Barack, 27, a Harvard law student hired for the summer. “So we had lunch…and I thought, ‘Oh here you go. Here’s this good-looking, smooth-talking guy. I’ve been down this road before,’” she told author David Mendell.

4. B. Young Barry wrote that his mom was his idol and he hoped to be president someday.

5. True. The children’s book tells the story of a family’s experience with military deployment through the eyes of the Bidens’ granddaughter during the year her dad was deployed to Iraq.

6. C. Lefties are only 10 percent of the population, but eight of our 44 presidents have been left handed.

7. B. In October 2008, just 12 percent of voters thought Obama was a Muslim, the Pew Research Center reported last month. About half those surveyed now say he’s a Christian, down from 55 percent in 2008.

8. B. While he has played far more golf than George W. Bush’s 24 games, Obama isn’t close to Woodrow Wilson’s reported record of 1,200 or Dwight Eisenhower’s 800 presidential golf games.

9. A. In 1990, when Obama became the first black student elected president of the Harvard Law Review, the Review's 80 editors deliberated 17 hours.

10. D. Gaffe-prone Biden issued a statement, saying, "I deeply regret any offense my remark…might have caused anyone. That was not my intent.”

BONUS: C. You can read “Dreams” in Arabic to Vietnamese, including Marathi, Tamil and Urdu.

SCORING -- 10 points for each correct answer and five points for bonus.

85 to 100 – Congratulations! You’re so savvy you could be family.

70 to 85 – Political pro. Angling for a job in the second Obama administration?

55 to 70 – Author, author. You could write a book.

40 to 55 – No slacker, your knowledge exceeds that of most bloggers.

25 to 40 – Tweet away. You certainly have 140 characters’ worth of insight.

Below 25 – Too busy leading your own life for politics? You have time to brush up.

--Compiled by Marsha Mercer

SOURCES: ABC News, “Barack Obama: The Making of the Man” by David Maraniss,, CNN,, New York Times, “Obama: From Promise to Power” by David Mendell, Pew Research Center, Washington Post,,

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

How much do you really know about Romney and Ryan? -- Aug. 23, 2012 quiz column

The elephants are coming! The Republican National Convention opens Monday in Tampa with the official job of ratifying the GOP’s choice of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as the 2012 presidential ticket.

The donkeys won’t be far behind. The Democratic National Convention will convene Sept. 3 in Charlotte in hopes of renewing the White House lease for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

They’ve been around seemingly forever, but how much do you really know about the men who want to run the country? Test your political trivia savvy with our presidential bio quizzes.

Today, check yourself on Team Double-R -- Romney and Ryan. Ten questions and answers are below. No peeking, Googling or consulting your favorite Super PAC.

Next week, come back to gauge your knowledge about Democratic Duo Obama and Biden.

Let’s get started.

1: A poll earlier this year found that 2 percent of people thought Mitt Romney’s real first name was Mittens. (Wrong.) What is Romney’s real first name?

A. Mitchell

B. Milton

C. Willard

D. William

2. Mitt Romney may have inherited his love for politics from his dad, George Romney, three-time governor of Michigan and unsuccessful presidential candidate, and his mom. Lenore Romney lost her one bid for public office. What office did she seek?

A. City school board

B. City Council

C. U.S. House of Representatives

D. U.S. Senate

3: What is Mitt Romney’s Chicago connection?

A. His was born in Chicago.

B. His uncle played for the Chicago Bears.

C. He attended the University of Chicago.

D. He lived next door to Barack Obama.

4: What was Mitt Romney’s college major?

A. English

B. Political science

C. French

D. Finance

5: How many sons, daughters and grandchildren in all do Mitt and Ann Romney have?

A. Three sons, two daughters and 25 grandchildren

B. Three sons and 12 grandchildren

C. Five sons and 18 grandchildren

D. Who can count that high?

6: What do Paul Ryan and Romney’s eldest son have in common?

A. They are married to sisters.

B. They are both members of Congress.

C. They are the same age.

D. They co-wrote a sequel to Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

7: Paul Ryan is known to sleep on a cot in his Washington office. What else is true?

A. He’s a fan of P90X workout program.

B. He was a physical trainer after college.

C. He has said he has 6 percent to 8 percent body fat.

D. All of the above.

8. Romney shuns alcohol and caffeine. What did Ryan say was his worst habit?

A. Tosses back a six pack a night

B. Addicted to love

C. Drinks two cups of coffee every morning

D. Smokes cigarettes

9. The political roots of Janna Ryan, wife of Paul, run deep. What are they?

A. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

B. Her grandfather ran for president and her cousin is a U.S. senator.

C. Her grandfather ran for governor, her uncle was governor and a U.S. senator, and her cousin is a U.S. House member.

D. Her grandmother helped form the American Party supporting George Wallace and later ran for governor.

10. A constituent offered Paul Ryan something special if he’d run for president in 2012. Was it:

A. A chain of fitness centers to be named Paul Ryan’s Extreme Experience

B. Free colonoscopies for members of Ryan’s family for life

C. A McDonald’s lifetime coupon good for one free burger, fries and shake every day

D. Unlimited free coffee for a year

BONUS QUESTION: Name the five Romney kids.


1: C. Romney was named after family friend and hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott.

2. D. When Lenore Romney ran for Senate in 1970, women senators were rare and she would have been only the third woman ever elected to serve a full Senate term. “It was disappointing to find so many people closed their minds just because I was a woman,” she said.

3. B. Romney’s middle name honors his uncle, Milton “Mitt” Romney, star quarterback for the Bears in the 1920s.

4. A. An English major at Brigham Young University, class of ’71, Romney advises today’s English majors to plan on graduate school. He earned dual degrees from Harvard Law and Harvard Business School.

5. C. If elected, Romney will be the first president since George H.W. Bush to have sons. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have only daughters.

6. C. Ryan and Taggart “Tagg” Romney are both 42. Mitt Romney is 65.

7. D. A fitness buff, Ryan, 6-feet 2 and 163 pounds, leads morning sessions of the P90X muscle-building program on Capitol Hill.

8. C. Ryan admits coffee is his vice. Romney has indulged in coffee ice cream.

9. C. Janna Ryan’s grandfather, Reuel W. Little, helped form the American Party in Oklahoma in the 1960s to support former Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s presidential bid. Little ran for governor on the American Party in 1970. Janna Ryan’s uncle, David Boren, a Democrat, served as senator and governor of Oklahoma. Her cousin is Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla.

10. B. A gastroenterologist in Ryan’s congressional district offered Ryan’s family free colonoscopies for life if Ryan would run for president. “That seals it,” Ryan deadpanned, the National Review Online reported.

BONUS: Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben and Craig. One point for each correct answer.

SCORING: 85 to 100 – Congratulations! You’re so savvy you could be family.

70 to 85 – Political pro. Angling for a job in the Romney White House?

55 to 70 – Author, author. You could write a book.

40 to 55 – No slacker, your knowledge exceeds that of most bloggers.

25 to 40 – Tweet away. You certainly have 140 characters’ worth of insight.

Below 25 – Too busy leading your own life for politics? You have time to brush up.

--Compiled by Marsha Mercer

Sources: Associated Press, ABC News,, Boston Herald, CBS News, CNN, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,, NBC News, National Review Online, New York Times,, Politico, The Atlantic Wire, The Oklahoman, Tulsa World.

© Marsha Mercer 2012. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Waiting for 'stop-the-presses' moment in voter ID saga -- Aug. 16, 2012 column


As Republican state legislators around the country pressed for strict voter ID laws, insisting they’re needed to combat widespread voter fraud, I wished for a “stop-the-presses” moment.

You know, the scene in old movies when a courageous soul breaks with his pals, comes clean and speaks the truth. In this case, the protagonist would shock fellow Republicans by saying, voter ID laws won’t stop fraud and besides there’s not much of it anyway.

That almost happened in a state court in Pennsylvania this week. Almost.

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, said after a six-day trial with two dozen witnesses and 50 exhibits challenging the state’s new photo ID law that the parties to the lawsuit were unaware of any incidents of fraud perpetrated by people who impersonate voters in Pennsylvania or anywhere else.

The state offered no evidence of such fraud, Simpson said. Nor did the state argue that fraud was likely to occur in the November elections without the new law that requires voters to show a government-picture ID.

And then Simpson upheld the law anyway. What?

He refused to grant a preliminary injunction to block the law, known as Act 18, as requested by several civil rights groups. He said the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and other groups had failed to establish that disenfranchisement was “immediate or inevitable.”

Simpson focused on a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a nearly identical voter ID law in Indiana, even though there was no evidence of voter impersonation fraud.

He was not convinced that hundreds of thousands of qualified Pennsylvania voters could be disenfranchised, as challengers claimed, he said. Rather, he thought not one qualified voter would be turned away. That’s because state agencies have the time and the procedures to fully educate every voter in Pennsylvania about the requirement and to supply the IDs needed before Election Day.

The infirm and elderly can vote absentee, and those who do show up at the polls without the proper ID can cast provisional ballots and prove their eligibility within six days so that their votes are counted, he wrote in a 70-page opinion.

The ACLU other groups will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, but legal analysts say the law likely will be on the books in November.

The six-member state Supreme Court is currently divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans. The state justices are unlikely to break along party lines, Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, wrote on the Election Law Blog, but a tie will leave the lower court opinion in place. He expects either that there won’t be another ruling on the merits before November or that the result will be unchanged.

And so the outcome of a crucial presidential battleground hinges on whether a judge’s trust in state bureaucrats is well-founded. This is ironic because Republicans have fueled distrust in the electoral process and government in general by insisting that only photo IDs will make elections fair and honest.

Requiring voters to produce a certain kind of picture ID will crack down on the armies of Fidos, Fluffys, non-citizens and the dead who cast ballots. Except that they don’t.

You are more likely to get hit by lightning than to encounter someone impersonating a voter, the Brennan Center, a progressive think tank, has observed.

Critics contend that voter ID laws are a deliberate way to deter and even block eligible voters who tend to vote Democratic -- seniors, the poor and the homeless who may not have the necessary paperwork to obtain IDs.

State Rep. Mike Turzai, Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania legislature, bragged to a Republican group in June, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania -- done.”

Turzai’s comment was disturbing and tendentious, Judge Simpson said, but there was no evidence that other state legislators shared Turzai’s partisan goal. Even so, the judge said, that would not “invalidate the interests” of the law.

Oh, really? I don’t hear anybody yelling, “Stop the presses!”

Let’s hope the judge is correct that all voters can get the ID cards they need. If qualified voters give up or are turned away, a law passed to solve a non-existent problem will create a real one.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Still learning from Julia Child on her 100th -- Aug. 9, 2012 column


I remember my first Julia Child meal the way some people remember their first kiss -- in vivid, cringing detail.

In the early 1970s, I was a grad student in English at the University of Virginia. A young, almost-handsome professor more interested in reading Yeats than in marching on Washington invited me to coffee, lunch and then dinner at his place.

There would be no pot of spaghetti steaming up the windows. No strands flung against the kitchen wall. No cheap red. No Rolling Stones on the turntable.

The prof had a favorite recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child. I suppose I knew about her and her popular TV cooking show, but he was a devotee.

Julia, he said, as if she were a personal friend, was changing the way Americans cook and think about food.

On his kitchen counter were fine beef filet from the fancy butcher shop, whipping cream, real butter, fresh mushrooms. Mushrooms didn’t have to come from a can. On the stereo: Wagnerian opera.

He whipped up his culinary specialty, Sauté de Boeuf `a la Parisienne, the French version of beef Stroganoff with fresh instead of sour cream. It’s “good to know about,” Julia says, “if you have to entertain important guests in a hurry.” He poured a good red Bordeaux, just as Julia advises. Dining, even at home, should be a pleasure and an event, he said.

I felt pampered, mature, and elegant in the candlelight. Until I got the hiccups. These were not dainty, hide-behind-the-napkin hiccups. These were raucous, shoot-me-now hiccups. I fled the table and his apartment, red-faced.

But I got my own copy of “Mastering” and made the beef sauté. It was surprisingly easy but so rich. I took up running and put Julia on the shelf, favoring cookbooks that promised low-fat recipes fast. Food was for fuel, not for pleasure.

I became a reporter in Richmond, Va. Julia Child came to town to demonstrate cooking at a department store, but the editor gave someone more experienced the plum assignment. I was crushed. The reporter met Julia and her husband Paul in their hotel suite, and Julia, ever the ebullient hostess, poured cocktails. At the time, this was the height of sophistication.

Learning that the reporter had missed lunch, Julia produced a ham she’d received as a gift at her last stop and crackers and turned the interview into a party.

Julia mastered not only the art of French cooking but also of living.

And that’s why 100 years after her birth and eight years after her death, she’s still is teaching us about the pleasures of food.

In honor of her centennial this week – she was born Aug. 15, 1912 -- chefs around the country will host Julia-inspired meals. On Wednesday the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History plans an all-day Julia Child festival. There will be book-signings, showings of “The French Chef” TV show, and the reopening of Julia’s reconstructed kitchen from her Cambridge, Mass., home. The kitchen has been closed while the museum prepares an exhibition on American food and wine.

“Julie and Julia,” the movie written by the late Nora Ephron and starring Meryl Streep as Julia, inspired a new generation. “Mastering” shot to the top of The New York Times how-to bestseller list for the first time in 2009, nearly 50 years after it was first published. Julia’s Facebook page has more than 62,000 “likes.” And, of course, there’s an app for “Mastering.”

I rediscovered Julia this summer. At the library, I came across her autobiography, “My Life in France,” which she started writing with her Alex Prud’homme, her late husband’s grand-nephew. He finished the book after her death – two days before her 92nd birthday -- in 2004.

It’s a wonderful story of Julia’s long and happy marriage, her experiences at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, her life’s work creating the two volumes of “Mastering” and several other cookbooks, and her boundless enthusiasm for entertaining. Testing and retesting, she showered friends and family with variations of each recipe as she sought perfection.

I took down my old copy of “Mastering,” a slip of paper still marking the beef sauté. I’ll make the recipe this week to celebrate Julia and the art of living.

As Julia liked to say, Bon Appetit!

Hiccups and all.

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Obama's Clinton gamble -- Aug. 2, 2012 column


As his adoring fans cheer, the country’s most beloved Democrat strides onstage at the Democratic National Convention and delivers a prime-time speech that makes all the difference come Election Day.

Nah, I’m not imagining Barack Obama’s big night in Charlotte.

It’s Bill Clinton I see. Clinton is more popular and potentially more powerful in motivating Democrats this fall, something Obama conceded when he tapped Clinton for the high-profile role of formally nominating Obama for a second term.

Two in three Americans now have a favorable opinion of Bill Clinton, about the same as at his first presidential inauguration in 1993. Even the haters have mellowed. Only 28 percent of people have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton, an all-time low.

Obama, who desperately needs goodwill, had a respectable 54 percent favorable rating in the same Gallup poll, released July 30.

Bill Clinton has triumphed. A dozen years after Al Gore treated him like a bad smell throughout the 2000 campaign, Clinton is the go-to guy for Obama. The Clintons must love that. Hillary Clinton – whose favorable rating is the same 66 percent as her husband’s – will be a no-show at the Democratic convention. As secretary of state, she is not in campaign mode. Not this year.

If anyone can breathe life into flagging Democrats, Bill Clinton can. And yet, his words can and will be held against Obama. Four years ago Clinton compared voting for Obama to a roll of the dice, and he recently said Romney had a “sterling” business career and was qualified to be president.

Even if Clinton curbs his independent streak and speaks persuasively for Obama, his presence inevitably invites comparisons. Newt Gingrich, hardly an impartial judge, predicted Clinton’s convention speech would “shrink” Obama.

Putting Clinton front and center reminds voters that he worked successfully with a Republican Congress. The rejoinder of course is that Clinton did not have a Senate majority leader who said from Day One that holding the president to one term was his top priority. Would Clinton have found a way to work around that obstacle? No one knows.

A few weeks before Clinton was nominated for a second presidential term. he signed into law bipartisan welfare reform, a minimum wage increase and health insurance portability. Clinton didn’t get everything he wanted, but he was a pragmatist. He infuriated liberals, but at the convention and into the fall he could point to fresh accomplishments on behalf of the middle class.

At the August 1996 signing ceremony for the welfare reform law, Clinton said welfare would no longer be a political issue and politicians would not be able to attack each other or the poor. At the time, many thought that wishful thinking. But he was right.

Welfare stayed largely off the table for many years. A disturbing report by the General Accountability Office in 2005 riled Democrats and Republicans with its finding that some states were counting toward the work requirements such activities as getting a massage and writing in a journal.

Overall, welfare rolls declined, though, until the recession hit and the ranks of children living in poverty started to rise. And then last month the Obama administration sparked a Republican rebellion by announcing more flexibility for states in how they run their welfare programs. The administration said it would grant waivers to allow states to experiment with their welfare-to-work programs without filing paperwork.

Even though more than two dozen Republican governors had signed a letter asking for more flexibility, Republican leaders reacted angrily. They accused Obama of gutting the law’s work requirements and, in effect, killing welfare reform. House Speaker John Boehner called the change a “partisan disgrace.” Romney said it was “completely misdirected.”

Yes, these same Republicans usually want states to have more power to create programs that meet their residents’ needs – not less. And no state has to apply for a waiver. It’s voluntary.

An official in the federal agency that administers welfare said, “Many states report that their caseworkers are spending more time complying with federal documentation requirements that helping parents find jobs.” The White House press secretary called the complaints “hypocritical.”

Ah, but it’s campaign season. Politics overrides everything.

By putting Clinton onstage, Obama can remind voters that a Democratic president once got things done and gamble that they will think he can do the same. That’s Obama’s big gamble.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.