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MR. CORNYN COMES TO WASHINGTON! The last time Cornyn made national news, your “press corps” knew just how to play it:


JOHN CORNYN: AN INSTRUCTIVE PAST EPISODE: Last night, at 11 PM Eastern, John Cornyn big-footed his way onto network TV, making sure that eastern viewers got a look at his wavy white hair. (Molly Ivins: “John Cornyn looks like a senator. I mean, he is the most senator-lookin’ sumbitch I have ever seen.”) The networks hadn’t called the race, and Ron Kirk hadn’t conceded. But Cornyn took a pass on old etiquette, which said that Kirk should be allowed to speak first. Weird, isn’t it? We wonder what it could be about Kirk that led Cornyn to behave in this manner.

As we mentioned yesterday, Cornyn played a minor role in Campaign 2000. But for anyone who wants to understand the deep dysfunction of their press corps, that episode was profoundly instructive. It’s well worth reviewing today.

In June 2000, Candidate Bush got what should have been a tough break. The execution of Texas inmate Gary Graham came due, presenting what should have been an awkward situation for Bush as governor of Texas.

Graham was scheduled to die on June 22 for the 1981 murder of Bobby Lambert, a 53-year-old man who was gunned down in a robbery attempt outside a Houston supermarket. Graham was seventeen years old when the shooting occurred, and, in the days after Lambert was killed, he engaged in a brutal criminal rampage, committing a rape and a string of armed robberies, to all of which he confessed. But regarding the murder of Lambert, the evidence against Graham was remarkably weak. No physical evidence linked Graham to the crime. There had been three eyewitnesses at the scene; two of them said that he wasn’t the killer. Indeed, it was on the testimony of a single eyewitness—who saw the killer for a fleeting moment across a dimly lit parking lot—that Graham was sitting on Texas’ death row, insisting that he was innocent. There was no other evidence. Though Graham would be the 135th inmate put to death while George W. Bush was governor of Texas, this flimsy evidence turned the case into an international event. “If [Graham] is executed…he will be the case that will be the most frail, the weakest evidence to justify any execution in the past 27 years,” said Lawrence Marshall, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

The evidence was remarkably weak, but something else made the case a matter of interest—the hapless defense which Graham had received. Texas had long been famous for the feckless way it conducted its capital cases, and Graham’s case was one of many in which an indigent defendant received an inept defense from a poorly qualified, court-appointed attorney. How had Graham been defended? At trial, Graham’s lawyer, Ronald Mock, failed to present the two eyewitnesses who said that he wasn’t the killer. He failed to present the ballistics evidence, which showed that Graham’s gun wasn’t the murder weapon. In an interview with the New York Times in June 2000, Mock, “acknowledged that he did almost no investigation of the case.” (For example, he never interviewed the two eyewitnesses, whose names appeared on the police report.) But this seemed to be the norm for Mock, who had been reprimanded several times for professional misconduct in death penalty cases. You couldn’t dream up a career like Mock’s. At one point, for example, Mock had been actually jailed during one murder case for misconduct he had committed in another. He was one of a string of sleeping, drunk and inept lawyers whom Texas routinely used in such trials.

For Graham, Mock was only part of the story; he had also been stymied in his appeals. Graham finally gained diligent counsel in the early 1990s; his new lawyers attempted to present the testimony of the two eyewitnesses whom Mock had sleepily ignored. No dice. By the spring of 2000, several jurors who convicted Graham said that they would have favored acquittal if they had heard this evidence at trial. But because of procedural roadblocks in the Texas system, those witnesses had never been heard in any court. And that is when the genius Cornyn blundered out onto the scene.

Two witnesses said Graham wasn’t the killer; they had never been heard in any court. But as the day of execution drew near, Cornyn appeared on major TV shows, stating precisely the opposite. Incredibly, Cornyn asserted on Nightline that Texas judges had ruled, “in open court,” that the two eyewitnesses “had no credibility whatsoever.” On Nightline and again on Hardball, Cornyn persisted in his bogus statements even after being contradicted by parties who actually knew the facts. After several days of howling errors, Cornyn’s office was forced to acknowledge and withdraw his misstatements, making him the latest incompetent Texas official to leave his mark on the Graham case. And, adding to the air of total absurdity, it was Cornyn who, as attorney general, was advising Bush on the facts of the case! This Cornyn is the same brilliant fellow whom Texans have now sent to the Senate.

But our principal interest lies in the way the press corps covered this remarkable case. What kind of “press corps” now stewards our discourse? Read on and you may get a glimmer.

HOW HAD THE GOVERNOR DECIDED? To state the obvious, Bush didn’t invent the gonzo system which sleep-walked its way through the Graham case. And it wasn’t Bush’s fault that Cornyn was either too lazy, uncaring, irresponsible or inept to execute his grave responsibilities. But Bush had persistently voiced his faith in the judgments reached by the Texas system. “I analyze each case when it comes across my desk,” he said as Graham’s execution neared. “And as far as I’m concerned, there has not been one innocent person executed since I’ve been the governor.” On June 22, the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons turned down Graham’s final appeal on a 12-5 vote—and Bush expressed his faith in their judgment. He decided not to issue a stay. “Mr. Graham has had full and fair access to state and federal courts,” he said in a public statement that day, hours before the execution. “After considering all the facts, I’m confident justice is being done.” The statement raised an obvious question. Given the fact that no physical evidence linked Graham to the crime; and given the fact that two eyewitnesses said that he wasn’t the killer; how could Governor Bush feel so sure that Graham had been rightly convicted?

Incredibly, this obvious question was never asked. Bush took no questions from the press as he spoke on the day of Graham’s execution. The next day, however, he met with reporters on his campaign plane, taking questions on a variety of subjects, including the Graham case. But, despite the high profile of the Graham execution, there is no sign that any reporter ever asked Bush to explain his judgment on the facts of the case. How did Bush know that Graham was guilty? Your “reporters” knew enough not to ask. Alexandra Pelosi was probably clowning around, helping the public get a better idea of what a great guy the ex-governor is.

Meanwhile, pundits offered startling assessments of Bush’s performance in the Graham matter. The most remarkable came from Mark Shields on the June 23 NewsHour. How had Bush handled this difficult case? It’s hard to find words to describe Shields’ remarks. Here’s what the pundit actually said. And no, we’re not making this up:

SHIELDS (6/23/00): I thought, as somebody who has mentioned on this broadcast that George W. Bush—the doubts voters have about him is that he fills the chair, whether he’s big enough, whether he really has the heft to be president—I thought this was probably the finest moment of his campaign as he explained his position. He did it as, outside of a press conference, in a suit and tie, with appropriately serious words and manner. And I thought ironically that it worked for him politically without being overly analytical.
Incredibly, Shields praised Bush for wearing a suit and tie as he made his public statement. It was “the finest moment of his campaign,” Shields said. Shields praised Bush for not taking questions; he didn’t seem to notice that Bush hadn’t “explained” the facts of the case. Meanwhile, Paul Gigot was impressed with Bush too. No, we haven’t done any editing:
JIM LEHRER (continuing directly): Paul?

GIGOT: As long as he had a sober demeanor, as long as he made sure the procedures were properly followed, as long as he could tell everybody that “I’m making sure that all of the legal loops are followed,” the bigger risk was not doing it—because then it would have looked as if he were backing down under a campaign of pressure. And there was an awful lot of media attention on this. But by basically saying—it sounded like Mark said, like a grown-up. Following through, he looks more like a leader.

The governor had “sounded like a grown-up!” But how had the governor viewed the facts of the case? Lehrer didn’t bother to ask, and neither Shields nor Gigot seemed to care. The next night, Shields—acting as host on Capital Gang—was still gushing about how grown-up Bush seemed. No, we’re not making this up:
SHIELDS: Just a personal note: I am opposed to the death penalty. But I have to say that when George W. Bush, the doubts that are expressed about him, whether he is presidential enough, heavy enough, big enough for the job, I thought in his handling of this, he showed more presidential leadership or sort of a sense of self than he has in any other instance.
Again, no one asked how Bush had decided the case. But Kate O’Beirne—misstating the facts—seemed to have found a whole new way to make these important decisions:
O’BEIRNE: There’s a campaign by Gore’s allies, although Gore’s afraid to lead it, to portray George Bush as bloodthirsty and Texas as barbaric. But you don’t have to be a supporter of the death penalty to recognize that Gary Graham is not a very sympathetic character. He is a vicious predator. He had 19 years of appeals, 33 judges have heard all of his claims. And I think what this is showing—and I think George Bush will be given some credit for it—he’s an executive who’s got to make these tough decisions. He has to make these tough decisions…He’s making some really tough calls.
Graham wasn’t “a very sympathetic character,” O’Beirne said, explaining why he’d been executed. And like Cornyn, O’Beirne simply misstated the facts when she said that Graham’s claims had been heard. But O’Beirne was clearly right on one point. Bush did “get credit” for his “tough decision.” He got credit from Shields for wearing a suit. Gigot gave him chits for looking “sober.”

This is precisely the way your press corps was acting as Election 2000 moved on toward its end. Let’s review: No one ever asked Governor Bush how he decided the facts of this case. And pundits like Shields went on TV and praised him for wearing a suit. Some of you tell us we’re over the top in our occasional remarks on the press corps. But let’s say it again—Shields’ behavior this week defied description. And yes: This is the way your press corps punished Gore for Clinton’s very naughty behavior. And sorry, kids, but this is the way your millionaire press corps brought tax cuts and private accounts into power.

If you think we sometimes go over the top, read back through those comments by Shields (and read the other press comments below). Remind yourself that your celebrity “press corps” really does behave in this manner. But be careful: The power of denial will tell your soul not to believe what this episode shows. Voices are going to shout in your head, insisting that this is all some mistake. But our public discourse is now in the hands of a deeply dysfunctional insider press corps—and, though voices are going to say it ain’t so, our public discourse is now in the hands of a gang that is deeply immoral.

YOU’LL NEVER FAWN ALONE: Shields and Gigot were hardly alone in their bizarre approach to Bush’s decision. On the June 23 Washington Week, Richard Berke of the New York Times gave voice to the same sorts of judgment. (Remember: Your pundits are happiest when They All Say The Same Thing.) “I was really struck watching Bush on TV yesterday when he talked about this at a press conference,” Berke said. “He was very sober about talking about this case, and it was quite a contrast to his past comments about death penalty cases where he was accused of being rather cavalier about the death penalty.” Predictably, this general approach to Bush’s performance had surfaced first in Frank Bruni’s writing. On June 21, the Timesman began to script his colleagues. According to Bruni, Bush’s “challenge” in dealing with the Graham case would be “to demonstrate, through the tone of his voice and the set of his jaw, that he feels the full weight of his responsibility. And it is to show, through his bearing and his choice of words, that he comes by his steadfast position in support of the death penalty after extensive soul-searching and careful thought.” Bruni took the same approach on Friday morning, June 23. “When the moment of Mr. Graham’s execution finally arrived, Mr. Bush did not merely issue a written statement but spoke to a crowd of reporters in a solemn voice that contradicted his often light-hearted nature,” he wrote. “His facial expression and his words matched his tone.” But was it true? Had Bush “come by his decisions after extensive soul-searching?” Bruni forgot to ask the hopeful how he had judged the case’s lean facts. For years, lawyers had slept in Texas courtrooms. Reporters now slept on Bush’s plane. And pundits dreamed embarrassing dreams on our big TV “news” programs.

Guess what? According to Nexis, no pundit ever mentioned the fact that Cornyn bungled the facts of this case. The same brilliant man is now coming to Washington—where he can expect the same tough treatment from that gang whom we still call a “press corps.”

A NOTE ON CHRONOLOGY: This episode came after the press corps had a cow pretending that Gore had played Willie Horton. It came a few months before the corps had a cow about that troubling school desk down in Florida.