More on the Arab American Institute Conference

I have already written about the outstanding panel featuring John Zogby, Peter Fenn, and Ed Rollins, as well as my encounter with Ron Paul. Now let me give my rundown of the rest of the Arab American Institute's National Leadership Conference.

I will start with the panel in which I participated, on the subject of political blogging. Alongside me were Steve Clemons (The Washington Note), Spencer Ackerman (Talking Points Memo), and Reihan Salam (The American Scene). While the others talked about national and international foci - especially Clemons, whose blog got right into the intra-family feud between the Saudi royals - I centered my own remarks on the way in which blogging can have an impact on local politics.

Presidential candidates

We also heard from 3 of them live, in addition to Ron Paul:

First was Mike Gravel. I really can't say much about his talk, since the jetlag had set in and I fell asleep toward the end.

Then we heard from Dennis Kucinich. The crowd loved him, as he told a very heartfelt story about his trip to South Lebanon and his visit to a child's grave with his wife (he must be a newlywed - he walked to the podium hand in hand with her and mentioned her repeatedly during his speech. The emotional appeal of his talk was noteworthy, but I tend to view someone so enthralled with suspicion. I really don't have much respect for Dennis Kucinich, and I think he takes his critique of US policies in a self-hating direction - quite the opposite of Ron Paul.

For example, take his interview in Syrian state-run TV, in which he refers to Syrian President Bashar Assad as "His Excellency". Give me a break, Kucinich. I don't even refer to my own president in such a way, and I'm certainly not going to do so for a foreign head of state - and as readers of my blog know, no one is a bigger proponent of diplomatic engagement with Syria than I. But having such a view does not entail tossing aside your dignity as a citizen or representative of the United States.

Finally, Bill Richardson took the stage. He was introduced very nicely by Norman Assad, a transportation commissioner in New Mexico, the state in which Richardson serves as Governor. He played up his diplomatic credentials nicely. After his speech, there was a small reception where people could individually greet him. I went in close to the end and told him that the way he was treated in the Univision debate was a disgrace, and I basically reiterated the points that I had written about the debate previously. He told me that I sounded like a pretty independent guy who should be a Democrat. Yeah right.

Now, as has been well publicized and mocked, none of the Republicans showed up other than Ron Paul. What if the others end up winning the GOP nomination, will they end the blackout? Mitt Romney will come groveling to us later on. McCain has always been polite to the community according to the AAI higher-ups. Rudy, whatever. Thompson, who knows - hiring Liz Cheney was not a great indicator. Huckabee will be polite.

There were also video presentations. Hillary Clinton's was followed up by her national campaign co-Chairman Bill Shaheen, an Arab-American whose wife Jeanne was the former Governor and who will be challenging John Sununu next year for his US Senate seat. Shaheen took heat for Hillary's position on Palestinian rights, and closed by saying that he just saw it in her eyes, in her soul, that she wanted to make peace in the Middle East. The person next to me turned and said, "Didn't Bush say that about Putin?"

Anyway, her video speech was atrocious and ridiculously disingenuous: "Whether or not the United States makes progress in helping to broker a final agreement," (that sounds like a pre-emptive write-off to me), "Israel and the Palestinians" (did she mean "Israel and Palestine" or "the Israelis and the Palestinians"), etc.

Then there was Barack Obama. His video was hardly better and hardly more sincere, and - from the grumbling I heard amongst his supporters at the conference - the source of some embarrassment. It amazes me that a man running for President still talks about "when I was a State Senator". He's way out of his league.

Obama dispatched longtime foreign policy hand Anthony Lake to speak on his behalf. Lake closed with Obama's line from the 2004 Democrat National Convention:
"If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties."
To those in our community willing to fall for that trick that I say, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Don't we remember Bush's promises during the 2000 campaign?

Finally, we had John Edwards. His video was far more natural, more personal, more genuine - and it was longer and more detailed. I must admit I was impressed by the style of the presentation. Edwards sent former Congressman David Bonior, his national campaign manager, who represented many Arab-Americans in Congress and is well-liked by the community.

Other candidates

I also had the chance to connect with many old friends from around the country that I have had the pleasure of knowing through such events, such as Samiah Bahhur, George Gorayeb, Bill Hamzy, etc. But there were some outstanding new friends and especially candidates. I want to call out Sam Rasoul, who is running as a Democrat in a conservative area of western Virginia - his party has not fielded a candidate in his district in at least the past 5 cycles, so he is hungrily going to task and has raised over $60,000 already. Though he is not from my party, I find his dedication and organization impressive.

Up in New Hampshire, the Arab-American community has a future gem in the person of John Stephen. John is a solid conservative and a parishioner at Our Lady of the Cedars Melkite Catholic Church in Manchester, New Hampshire. He ran unsuccessfully in the 2006 primary against the incumbent, Jed Bradley, who then lost the seat in the general election.

Now Stephen and Bradley have a rematch, and Stephen, who earned rave reviews from fiscal conservatives for his lean and mean style as Commissioner of Health and Human Services, is rocking, rolling, and raising eyebrows in GOP circles nationally because he has already raised well over six figures and Jeb Bradley is starting to sweat. To his further advantage is the fact that Stephen is the lone conservative in the race this go-round, as opposed to 2006 when the conservative vote was split between Stephen and another challenger. It's a conservative district and in fact the one held by John E. Sununu before he became a US Senator. So keep your eye on this race! And lend your support to John Stephen!

Don't forget Connecticut State Senator David Cappiello, whose mom is from the Safi family - he is running to take back the House seat lost by Nancy Johnson last year. Cappiello is super-approachable and has a great sense of humor. I look forward to watching his race.

In the category of "former candidates that I wish would just go away", we also were enlightened with the vitriol of Howard Dean, the 2004 Democrat presidential contender who is now head of the DNC. His ugly speech mentioned:
"Before anybody says one word, look at our candidates when they get up on the stage. They look like the rest of America...Their candidates look like America did in the 1950s and when they open their mouths they sound like they're from the 1850s!"
That's right, divide and conquer. As for the 1850s, wasn't the Republican Party founded in the mid-19th century to end slavery, which existed at that time? Dean? Anyone?

Star of the Show

Congressman Charles Boustany from Louisiana shocked everyone. He was the greatest hit of the conference.

I recall meeting Congressman Boustany, a former cardiac surgeon, back in 2004 when we both attended the NRCC's "candidate school" together. When I saw his last name, which means "gardener" in Arabic, I of course made a bee-line for him and discovered that his grandparents had emigrated to Southern Louisiana from Lebanon, so his profile was similar to that of my parents - proud of his heritage but detached from the Middle East. He didn't seem to have visited the region at all or kept up with its politics.

But now that he has learned the ropes on Capitol Hill, Boustany has done a 180. He spent the whole weekend with the group and told us how he considers it a responsibility to represent the Arab-American constituency nationally, and how he had an open mind to learning more and more about the Middle East. He said that over the past few years, he has been studying the region and our policies therein "much harder than I ever studied in medical school" and that he wasn't afraid to challenge conventional wisdom - "I'm from the Boustany wing of the Republican Party, and I mean that".

There was a great buzz about Boustany among all the conference participants - it's always heartwarming to see people embrace their roots and carry their heritage with them, in true paleoconservative fashion.

All in all, an enjoyable and uplifting event.