In Strip Flap Steele Has No Clothes: Margaret Carlson

Bondage clubs, chartered jets, a lavish office re-do, winter meetings in warm places -- such is life at the Republican National Committee since Michael Steele took over as chairman in 2009. In the world of fundraising scandals, this one makes former Vice President Al Gore’s visit to a Buddhist temple look as quaint as tea at Buckingham Palace.

The RNC moved quickly to quash the latest flap exposed March 29 in the Daily Caller, the Web site run by conservative Tucker Carlson. Steele wasn’t at the West Hollywood club, though his committee paid the $2,000 tab at the Voyeur, a pricey non- family values night spot featuring simulated sex acts. An RNC aide was immediately fired.

What a spectacular meltdown for a once-rising star. All Steele had to do to succeed was raise money and hone a message for a couple of years. He did neither. It’s hard to see how he keeps his current job (though he may be too big to fire) much less ever get one of the better ones he was destined for.

When Steele started, the party that prides itself on fiscal responsibility had $22 million in cash on hand. It now has $9.4 million.

Every time you looked, Steele, 51, was making headlines for what he said, did, or didn’t do. As if Architectural Digest was going to come calling, Steele spent $18,500 jazzing up his office.

Hawaiian Shirt

He criticized President Barack Obama’s spending in a time of recession and then flew the party off to Hawaii for its annual meeting. While much of the rest of the country was freezing, press coverage of the event often featured a sparkling ocean, a sunny sky and drinks with umbrellas in the background with Steele in a Hawaiian shirt.

According to expenditure statements obtained by the Daily Caller, a February RNC trip to California included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel and $6,596 spent at the Four Seasons. Steele raised the prospect of buying a private plane.

The man who coined “Drill Baby Drill” (which Sarah Palin took up) couldn’t get his foot out of his mouth. He’s pro-life but called abortion a “personal choice.” He voiced doubts the Republicans could win back control of Congress this year. He called Rush Limbaugh “ugly” and “incendiary,” setting off a betting game in the blogosphere on how long it would be before he apologized (two days).

A more successful chairman would have followed the advice given tennis star Billie Jean King by Bobby Riggs in their famous doubles match: stand in the alley and don’t hit anything that doesn’t hit you first. Don’t make news, don’t overshadow candidates, don’t spend money except to raise it. Candidates are the sizzle, the chairman is the steak. Quick: who is chairman of the Democratic National Committee? Hint: He was governor of Virginia. Still stumped? It’s Tim Kaine.

Losing It All

It’s an enduring mystery how politicians who appear to have so much put it all on the line for so little, from Senators David Vitter and John Ensign to Representatives Eric Massa, Charles Rangel and William Jefferson.

At the Radio TV Correspondent’s Dinner in Washington last week -- before the S&M club disclosures but after many other blunders -- reporters still flocked to the impressively tall, naturally warm, charismatic Steele. He might not have gone all the way but could have been a contender.

Struggle to the Top

He’s got a good back story. Adopted as an infant, his mother was a laundress, his stepfather a truck driver. He did well at a Catholic high school, becoming president of the student body, in a struggling neighborhood in Washington and went to law school at night. He worked his way up in the Maryland Republican Party, becoming its first black chairman and its Republican Man of the Year. His sister, who married boxer Mike Tyson in 1997, cooperated in his meteoric rise.

In 2004, Steele delivered the Republican response to Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention to almost equal acclaim.

Steele was the first black politician to win statewide office in Maryland, serving as lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2007. Although he lost a run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, statewide or national office loomed in his future. Life is long, memories short in the United States of Amnesia but Steele’s political future no longer looks so bright.

To an unseemly extent, Steele was playing for himself. Rather than travel hither and yon to rally Republicans, he was out giving speeches for hire, pocketing tens of thousands of dollars.

Promotional Tour

Party officials were shocked when Steele embarked on a promotional tour for “Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda” early this year. They didn’t know he had written the book on party time, nor did they know he was keeping the royalties.

Steele’s tenure is enough to make Republicans long for the days of Clayton Yeutter, Rich Bond, Jim Nicholson, and Steele’s immediate, dull-as-dishwater predecessor, Mike Duncan.

Had they made a different choice, they might be feasting on the spending in Obama’s health-care bill right now, not defending a runaway spender who has given deeper meaning to Grand Old Party.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Click on “Send Comment” in the sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.