Paul Ryan accuser won't talk 

Susan Feinberg, an associate professor of management and global business at Rutgers University, caused a stir in the left-wing blogosphere over the weekend with her account of witnessing House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan drinking a glass of $350-a-bottle wine at an upscale restaurant near the Capitol.  (Feinberg, who was at the restaurant, Bistro Bis, with her husband to celebrate her birthday, knew the wine was pricey because she could make out the name on the label and checked it on the wine list.)  Feinberg confronted Ryan, accusing him of hypocrisy for drinking an expensive wine while advocating reduced spending for Medicare and Medicaid.  But she didn't stop there.  Feinberg also suggested Ryan might be guilty of ethics violations, secretly snapped a photo of him and two dinner companions, and then took the "story" to Talking Points Memo, the lefty site which ran a high-profile piece suggesting Ryan might be guilty of some sort of wrongdoing.

Ryan told TPM that his two dinner-mates had ordered the wine, and that he, Ryan, didn't know what it cost and drank only one glass.  Ryan's explanation was supported by TPM's account, presumably based on Feinberg's recollection, which said that when Feinberg confronted Ryan about the cost of his wine, "Ryan said only: 'Is that how much it was?'"

Nevertheless, Feinberg and TPM hinted that Ryan might have violated House ethics rules by accepting an expensive meal from lobbyists.  But it turned out that the two men with whom Ryan was dining were, as he said, economists and not lobbyists.  Feinberg and TPM also suggested that Ryan might have violated House rules against accepting gifts in general.  But it turned out that Ryan had paid for his meal and wine -- Ryan even showed TPM his copy of the receipt, which TPM then posted on the web.

Having failed to catch Ryan in an act of wrongdoing, Feinberg and TPM accused him of hypocrisy. Ryan's dining companions, one of whom was a wealthy hedge-fund manager, ordered two bottles of the $350 wine.  Ryan, by his own account, drank one glass but nevertheless paid for one of the bottles.  But the $700 wine bill outraged Feinberg and her husband, who were at the restaurant to celebrate her birthday.  "We were just stunned," she told TPM. "I was an economist so I started doing the envelope calculations and quickly figured out that those two bottles of wine was more [sic] than two-income working family making minimum wage earned in a week." When she had finished her own meal, Feinberg confronted Ryan and angrily asked him "how he could live with himself" for drinking expensive wine while advocating cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.  Feinberg left the restaurant after management intervened.

In one brief and unpleasant moment, Ryan got a taste of 2012-style political combat in which everyone, everywhere is a potential opposition campaign tracker and there are plenty of press outlets ready to publish a tracker's accusations.

On Saturday, I sent Feinberg an email asking a few questions about the incident and about her unhappiness with Ryan.  First, the photo she snapped of Ryan and two men sitting a few tables away appeared to be taken from her own table, and on that table was a bottle of wine.  (Feinberg told TPM that she and her husband had shared a "bottle of great wine.")  A check of the Bistro Bis wine list -- in much the way that Feinberg did at the restaurant -- shows that the wine was a Thierry et Pascale Matrot 2005 Meursault, which is $80 per bottle at Bistro Bis. Was that, in fact, Feinberg's bottle of wine?

I asked Feinberg, an economist, what price constituted outrageous in her mind.  Would she have been as upset if Ryan's wine were $150 a bottle?  Or $100 a bottle?  Or perhaps $80 a bottle, like her own -- which is, after all, more than a day's labor for a worker making the minimum wage.

If the problem was not just the wine's cost, then what other factors were involved in Feinberg's anger? Was it because she thought Rep. Ryan was a hypocrite for drinking expensive wine while recommending reduced spending on Medicare and Medicaid?  Was it because she believed Rep. Ryan was corrupt for drinking with two men she suspected were lobbyists?  And finally, did Feinberg believe she behaved appropriately in the matter?  Would it be appropriate for a conservative who felt strongly about, say, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, or Rep. Barney Frank, to do something similar to them under similar circumstances?

Feinberg's response was brief: "I'm sorry.  I have no comment on this."

After the TPM story was published, a number of left-leaning websites picked up the tale.  New York magazine wrote that Ryan has "$350, fiscally imprudent, fancypants" taste in wine.  The Atlantic wrote that Ryan "is in the habit of drinking $350-a-bottle wine," although the publication presented no evidence to support that contention. The Atlantic also expressed hope that the wine story would become as much of a political burden on Ryan as the $400 haircut was on former presidential candidate John Edwards.

Ryan himself is downplaying, but not avoiding, the matter.  He answered questions from TPM, producing the receipt, but has said little else.  When asked whether incidents like this might happen again in the future, with Democrats and Republicans engaged in mortal combat over federal spending, a person close to Ryan said only: "I would hope that it was just one woman who had a little too much to drink and had a little too much fire in her belly and just decided to cross a line.  Paul is more than happy to have a debate and understands that people disagree with him, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do that."

About The Author

Byron York


Byron York is the Examiner’s chief political correspondent. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He blogs throughout the week at Beltway Confidential.

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