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20 February 2002

Our current howler (part II): Don’t follow the money!

Synopsis: Richard Berke made the facts fit his tale. And he played a sweet song for the White House.

Enron Pursued Plan To Forge Close Ties To Gore Campaign
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 2/18/02

If you read far enough in Rick Berke’s piece, you finally get where the rubber hits the road:

BERKE (pgh 7): Enron continued to give much more to Governor Bush than to Vice President Gore. In all, it gave Mr. Gore’s campaign $13,750 and Mr. Bush’s $113,800, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

(8) Enron also gave $250,000 to the host committee for the Republican National Convention, and in 1999 and 2000, Kenneth L. Lay, then Enron’s chairman, gave $250,000 in what the documents described as "personal money to the R.N.C.," the Republican National Committee.

Maybe if you’re a normal human, you’ll draw a certain conclusion from that. You’ll notice that Enron and its chairman, Kenneth Lay, vastly favored Bush over Gore. The company gave approximately nine times as much to the Bush campaign, and then lavished twenty times more on top of that to help foot the bill for the GOP convention. Lay then dropped another quarter mill on the RNC.

But Richard Berke ain’t a normal dude when he’s got preferred stories to tell you. In this case, his nugget came in paragraph one. Given what you already know, see if you think this makes sense:

BERKE (1): The Enron Corporation quietly drew up a plan to cultivate close political ties to Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential race and tried to build relationships with his inner circle even though the company was one of the biggest campaign contributors to George W. Bush and the Republicans.

(2) The double-sided strategy was intended to ensure that Enron, the Houston-based energy company that has filed for bankruptcy protection, wielded influence with the next president, whoever he was, according to internal company documents and interviews with officials at Enron and from the Gore campaign.

Man! That sounded pretty good, out there on page one, before we jumped inside to page A12 and got a look at the numbers. Why, just reading page one, you might have thought that Enron chased after Gore just like Bush, pursuing a "double-sided strategy." But do Berke’s characterizations make any sense? According to Berke, the company "drew up a plan to cultivate close ties to Gore" during Election 2000. So how did they try to build those close ties? By giving $614,000 to Bush, and $14,000 to Gore! Of course! If that didn’t bring the VP around, then nothing would ever achieve it!

In short, Richard Berke was up to old tricks, pandering hard to power. The White House wanted someone to write that evil Enron pursued Gore too, and Berke got busy making unlikely facts tell an improbable story. Before he let the rubber hit the road—before he showed you how silly that premise really was—he spread around the gorilla dust and created some big-time confusion.

On what possible basis could Berke make the claims that keynote this page-one article? Surely, his "evidence" calls forth mordant chuckles if you’ve seen Berke’s work before. Remember—Enron and Lay gave 45 times as much to Bush and the RNC as to Gore and the DNC. Let’s see how Berke tried to make it seem they were pursuing a "double-sided strategy," so that they’d "wield influence with the next president, whoever he was."

What does propaganda looks like? Berke’s effort begins early, in paragraph 5, where he introduces an important, key player:

BERKE (5): In the summer of 2000, Enron hired one of Mr. Gore’s old friends and a longtime financial supporter, Charles W. Bone. Mr. Bone, with contacts in Washington and at the Tennessee Valley Authority, helped Enron settle a bitter contractual dispute with the T.V.A. The suit was settled in January 2001 for more than $200 million. The authority, not Enron, disclosed the settlement.

Wow! They even hired Charles W. Bone! If you’re like us, of course, you’ve never heard of Charles W. Bone—and if you’re like us, you don’t trust Rick Berke. And so you may have searched for more info on this "old friend." You got some in paragraph 11:

BERKE (11): Asked why he thought he was hired by Enron, Mr. Bone joked, "It’s because of my brilliant skills and great personality." But he acknowledged that he and Mr. Gore "go way back to his first campaign in ’76." Mr. Bone also said: "You never know a lot of times why people call to ask for your help. But all corporations try to make some effort to know the people on both sides of the aisle. It’s just about relationships."

To us, that sounded a little bit vague. What was the connection in 1976? What connection—if any—exists now? Inexplicably, Berke wrote a lengthy, 25-paragraph piece, and he never got around to explaining this matter! He did, however, waste readers’ time with that gorilla dust he likes to spread. Instead of reporting things about Bone that might even be relevant, he offered this massive misdirection:

BERKE (12): After the election, Mr. Bone said, he also helped arrange a dinner meeting of Richard S. Shapiro, Enron’s top lobbyist, and Linda Breathitt, a Kentucky Democrat who is a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Ms. Breathitt held a crucial swing vote on the commission, and the dinner, last March at Equinox, a restaurant near the White House, came as Enron was trying to exert influence over the appointment of new commissioners. Enron officials were pressing for changes in how the electric utility industry was structured.

(13) Mr. Bone said "the dinner was to introduce some of the Enron people" to Ms. Breathitt and was not unusual. Ms. Breathitt said in an interview that Enron was probably trying to gain influence with the commission. "They were an aggressive company," she said. "But it was appropriate. I did not know Mr. Shapiro, and Mr. Bone asked me if I would meet with Mr. Shapiro to get to know him better and hear his views on a number of energy issues. I paid for my meal. There was nothing to hide."

You’ll note that this story has nothing to do with Gore or with anyone in the campaign. In fact, this passage is pure, long-winded misdirection; it has absolutely nothing to do with what this article purports to discuss. But it does take up a big hunk of space, and, of course, it sounds vaguely unsettling. So Berke just plopped it down mid-piece. And incredibly, he closed his report with more bull about Bone. He closed with more foofaw about that irrelevant deal he first hailed in paragraph 5:

BERKE (24) Meanwhile, Enron hired Mr. Bone, a Nashville lawyer close to Mr. Hayes and Mr. Gore. Mr. Bone said he set up a meeting in the fall of 2000 between Mr. Lay and Craven Crowell, then chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. That led to the settlement of the lawsuit the authority had filed against Enron, asserting that Enron had violated its contract to supply adequate power to the utility in 1998 and 1999.

(25) "They engaged me to see if we could settle the lawsuit that they were in with the T.V.A.," Mr. Bone said. "I think it worked out to everybody’s satisfaction." [END OF ARTICLE]

Happy ending. Unfortunately, these paragraphs also have nothing to do with Gore or anyone in the campaign. Berke scattered six hefty grafs through his piece about a deal which involved no one in the campaign. This comprised one-fourth of his story.

That’s right, kids—Richard Berke was scribbling hard to make you think that he had a real story. Which brings us to the one part of his tale where he actually did describe some contact between the campaign and Enron:

BERKE (3): In May 2000, shortly after Mr. Gore was assured of the Democratic nomination, Enron hired Sally A. Painter, a public relations executive, who drafted a "six-month action plan for Enron" for "Democratic political outreach in the 2000 presidential election," the documents show.

(4) Ms. Painter identified influential advisers at the Gore headquarters in Nashville and in Washington whom she said Enron officials should get to know. Her plan called for writing briefs for Mr. Gore’s staff on issues important to Enron and for Enron to play an "active and visible role" at the Democratic National Convention. She also suggested that Enron "actively participate in campaign activities on the ground in a key swing state." If Mr. Gore was elected, she said, Enron should "participate in senior team for inaugural planning."

Note how that’s a six-month plan for "Democratic outreach," not for outreach to Gore. Indeed, in another part of his piece, Berke notes something which everyone already knew—Enron gave lots of dough to congressional candidates of both parties. But did any part of Painter’s "action plan" result in ties between Enron and Gore? After all, we read in Berke’s very first sentence that Enron "quietly drew up a plan to cultivate close political ties to Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential race." Never mind what Painter allegedly planned. Did Painter produce any contact?

In fact, in Berke’s 1500-word piece, he is able to describe exactly one example of contact between Enron and the Gore campaign (he scatters the tale all through his piece). We’ll give you Berke’s entire account; for the record, the Gore officials described in this passage are "senior strategist" Michael Whouley and "top policy adviser" Jim Kohlenberg:

BERKE (10): In what one Enron official recalled as a desire to "have Enron’s message become part of the energy and telecom policy of the Gore campaign," Enron organized a dinner in the private Nest Lounge of the Willard Hotel, two blocks from the White House, that included top Gore and Enron officials as well as executives in the high-tech industry…

(15) There is no evidence that officials at Enron or in the Gore campaign acted improperly…

(17) Mr. Whouley said he had not thought twice about speaking at the Enron-sponsored dinner at the Willard on June 13, 2000.

(18) "They wanted to get to know people and they wanted an update on the campaign," Mr. Whouley said. "I can’t speculate on what their motives were, except the usual Washington meet-and-greet."

(19) At the dinner, attended by about 20 people, Mr. Whouley and Mr. Kohlenberger were introduced by Mr. Shapiro. They gave presentations about the campaign and took questions.

(20) Enron painstakingly prepared for the dinner. Ms. Painter wrote a document of "potential questions to consider for the dinner discussion" for the Gore officials, including "How can the vice president and the Democratic Party strengthen its business message?" and "What has been your reaction to the vice president’s leadership strategies?" People at the dinner said the discussion roughly followed the questions outlined.

(21) One participant, Robert H. Rosen, chief executive of Healthy Companies International, said he had not expected Enron to put on a dinner for Democrats. "When I first walked in I was surprised and a little confused because I always thought Enron was more of a Republican backed company," he said. He said he expressed his surprise to Mr. Shapiro. "He told me he was a Gore supporter," Mr. Rosen recalled, "but that his boss, Ken Lay, was for Bush."

That last, lengthy anecdote was included to deliver the key message—Enron pursued both Bush and Gore. And Berke tells you that Enron "painstakingly" prepared for the meeting because he wants you to get the idea that they were working very hard chasing Gore.

So what does Berke have as his actual story? Enron gave more than $600,000 to Bush—and $14,000 to Gore. And along the way, it held one event in which it met with two Gore aides. Anyone with an ounce of sense would know what this meant—Enron massively favored Bush, as was, of course, their perfect right (and in no way implies misconduct by Bush). No sensible person would want to call this a "double-sided" approach to the hopefuls.

But the White House wanted a different tale told, and someone decided to tell it. He threw us a Bone to take up some space; he dragged out his tale about that one dinner. But he told a tale the White House would like—Enron chased both Bush and Gore. And he accomplished another important task; typing up his tortured tale, he gave Sean Hannity a silly piece about which he could quickly dissemble.

Next: Hannity knew just what to do when handed Berke’s fatuous "story."

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man: Rick Berke played a song for the White House. He devoted exactly two paragraphs of a 25-paragraph piece to the data which told you the tale (pghs 7 and 8; see above). He spent the other 23 paragraphs pretending that Enron was massively chasing down Gore. Remember the actual data, friends: $614,000 to Bush, a whopping 14 grand to Gore. How did Berke interpret those data? Berke saw a "double-sided strategy!"

That’s right, folks. According to Berke, Enron was trying "to ensure" that it "wielded influence" with Gore. Yikes! If this is the way the giant proceeded, it’s no wonder it’s now on the junk heap.

Visit our incomparable archives: Remember, Berke is a first-class front-runner. He panders to them as are up. In late March of 2000, for example, the press corps was shaking its fists at Bush, who had just dared defeat their white knight, John McCain. So Berke invented a ludicrous story to punish Bush for so acting without press permission. Instantly, the corps began to batter Bush with Berke’s foolish tale. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/00, 3/17/00, 3/20/00, 3/21/00.

By October, the celebrity press corps was chasing down Gore. So Berke penned one of the ugliest articles of the campaign. Why was Gore such a Great Big Liar? Because his elderly mom was a Big Liar too! It’s all true, readers, what you’ve heard—there are people out there who will do and say anything. Richard Berke is the kind of guy who will even slander his targets’ mothers! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/9/00.


The Daily update (2/20/02)

What have they done? As usual, Deborah Orin played the clown in reporting that speech by Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/02). Here was her opening paragraph:

ORIN (pgh 1): Al Gore claimed global warming, just like terrorism, is a threat to world peace last night as he returned to the political fray—and his green roots.

That was a puzzling account of Gore’s speech. But just in case anyone missed her point—Al Gore is an environmental wacko—Orin added this:

ORIN (pgh 3): He said those who ignore Swedish scientists’ warnings about the Arctic ice cap melting in 50 years are as much to blame as those who ignored warnings about Osama bin Laden.

Gore, of course, said no such thing—but Orin tossed her key spin to the herd. Her entire article, by the way, was five paragraphs long. Two paragraphs were devoted to this.

As we noted on Tuesday, there is simply no subject so serious and threatening that the Deborah Orins will stop their clowning. Our question: What on earth have Post readers done that God would afflict them like this?

Deborah Orin, The New York Post, 2/13/02