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20 March 2000

Our current howler (part III): Extraordinary

Synopsis: Jeff Birnbaum reviewed Gore’s correspondence with Hsia. The conclusions he drew were "extraordinary."

Al Gore's Clinton Moment
Jeffrey Birnbaum, Fortune, 2/7/00

Bush Rebuffs Bid To Embrace Views Pushed By McCain
Richard Berke and Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 3/16/00

Did Gore know the Buddhist temple event was a fund-raiser? At the start of a recent Fortune piece, Jeff Birnbaum took us through a standard recitation of what Gore and his aides said when:

BIRNBAUM (paragraph 1): Vice President Al Gore's visit to a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles in 1996 is the very symbol of campaign-finance chicanery, particularly illegal contributions from Asia. Gore tried to distance himself from the event by claiming at first that it was "community outreach." Eventually he conceded that it was "finance related," but he's always said he didn't know it was a fundraiser.

Birnbaum at least didn't make us read that a Gore aide once used the term "donor maintenance." But it is somewhat surprising to see Birnbaum call the temple event the "very symbol" of "illegal contributions from Asia." Without doubt, money was illegally contributed through straw donors in the aftermath of this event. But it isn't clear that any of the money involved in these transactions came "from Asia." The money came from the general coffers of the Hsi Lai temple, an American institution. Some money originally donated to that fund may have come from non-U.S. citizens, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs noted in its report on the affair. (The point was made in a footnote.)

But then, there's always a tendency to make these stories more exciting, and something clearly affected Birnbaum's judgment in the general thrust of this influential Fortune piece (we saw it referred to several times in the weeks after it was published). Birnbaum concludes that, despite his denials, Gore almost surely knew that the Hsi Lai event was, in fact, a fund-raiser. But the evidence Birnbaum cites is simply laughable—and makes this article the very symbol of some scribes' desire to "prove" pleasing stories they like.

Did Gore know the temple event was a fund-raiser? Birnbaum's nugget assertion directly follows the passage we have cited above:

BIRNBAUM (continuing directly): [Gore has] always said he didn't know it was a fundraiser. Could that be true? It stretches credulity. Over the years, Gore, who rarely signed his own thank-you notes, maintained an extraordinary correspondence with Maria Hsia, a fundraiser who was one of the event's main organizers. "I cannot thank you enough," Gore wrote to Hsia and Howard Hom, then her partner, in 1990. "You two are great friends. See you soon." Six years later, Hsia stood with the yellow-robed Master Hsing Yun when Gore arrived at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif. [End of paragraph 1]

That's right, folks. On the basis of those thank-you notes, Birnbaum concludes that Gore must have known! In paragraph two, Birnbaum says it directly:

BIRNBAUM (paragraph 2, continuing directly): A little-noticed set of documents collected by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee leaves scant doubt that the event at the Buddhist temple was a Democratic Party fundraiser—and that Gore knew it. These electoral mash notes between Gore and Hsia make clear that Gore saw green whenever he saw Hsia. The deception is so obvious to Republicans that they plan to use the incident to accuse Gore of something worse than campaign-finance finagling. They will call him Clintonesque with the truth.

Birnbaum proceeds to describe the history of Gore's relationship with Hsia (she became a Gore donor in 1989). And incredibly, the fact that Gore sent Hsia thank-you notes is presented as proof of later guilty knowledge. And just how meaningless was the "extraordinary correspondence" between Gore and Hsia? Here's an example of the "electoral mash notes" with which Birnbaum would seal the veep's fate:

BIRNBAUM (5): Hsia also collected donations for Gore in California, helped organize Asian-American giving in Tennessee, and directed other contributions to his campaign through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In appreciation, Gore wrote to Hsia in January 1989: "You are a wonderful friend."

Imagine! Almost anyone could see the sinister import of such an "extraordinary" communication. But as Birnbaum continues to pore through the documents, the evidence only gets stronger:

BIRNBAUM (continuing directly): In December the next year, he wrote "Thanks!" over his signature on a letter to Hsia that said, "You helped make this campaign season an overwhelming success."

Can you see how the evidence is piling up? After signing a staff-prepared form letter to Hsia, Gore added the word "Thanks!"—and he'd done it on his own! Did Gore really believe that this wouldn't come out? But hold on there, readers! There's more:

BIRNBAUM (continuing directly): In a more personal note that same month, he wrote, "Your friendship and your personal commitment to my political endeavors mean a great deal to me."

As a crowning touch, Birnbaum's editors include a reproduction of the 1990 Gore letter to Hsia and Hom (see above). Sure enough, after signing a three-paragraph, boilerplate, typewritten thank-you letter, Gore went ahead and added the postscript which Birnbaum cited: "P.S. I cannot thank you enough. You two are great friends. See you soon." He scrawled the thirteen-word mash note in his own hand. It's right there for the world to see.

Common sense plainly instructs us: Birnbaum couldn't possibly want to draw significant conclusions from these meaningless thank-you notes. But then, a rational observer couldn't possibly have thought that there was something "extraordinary" in this correspondence to begin with. But "extraordinary" is the word Birnbaum uses right in paragraph one of this article. In paragraph two, these "electoral mash notes" clearly comprise the "little-noticed set of documents" which "leaves scant doubt" that Gore knew that the temple event was a fund-raiser.

Late in his piece, Birnbaum briefly cites other bits of evidence which, he says, gave Gore "reasons to believe the Buddhist temple lunch was a fundraiser." That evidence was explored in more detail in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer piece; we'll look at that article tomorrow. But why were Gore's "mash notes" so "little-noticed?" Because they are so totally without any meaning or import. Birnbaum built his article around those notes, and other journalists cited Birnbaum's work. It's another example of our strange press culture—and of some scribes' willingness to use any evidence, no matter how silly, to lead on to the judgment they like.


Tomorrow: To us, what happened at Hsi Lai seems fairly clear. Up in Philly, Chris Mondics wanted more.

Sticking to the script: The silly flap about Bush-on-McCain continued over the weekend. To their credit, several scribes criticized last Thursday's New York Times piece. On CNN's Reliable Sources, Jodie Allen said, "I think to some extent, I think that the Times is not doing such a good job of reporting its own story...I was sort of surprised at the way they played it." On ABC's This Week, George Stephanopoulos pointed out how conciliatory Bush's comments had actually been.

But what caught our eye was the number of scribes who simply repeated the New York Times paraphrase—who recited the Times' tendentious account of what Bush had said about McCain. In paragraph two of the Times story, Richard Berke and Frank Bruni gave this account of what Bush had said:

BERKE AND BRUNI: Mr. Bush passed up several opportunities to embrace Mr. McCain's remedy for overhauling the campaign finance system, the Senator's signature issue. Mr. Bush said he had learned nothing new about reform from Mr. McCain, although he conceded that his challenger had forced him to be a more spirited challenger.

Last Friday, we pointed out that Bush had never said that he had "learned nothing new" from McCain. These are the actual exchanges which Berke and Bruni seem to be paraphrasing:

QUESTION: Has John McCain elevated your consciousness about reform? Has he changed your views?

BUSH: No, he didn't change my views. He made me a better candidate

QUESTION: Is there anything McCain brought to light or changed your opinion on in any way?

BUSH: No, not really. We agreed more than we disagreed

Bush was never asked if he had "learned anything new" from McCain; in each case, he was asked if McCain had changed Bush's opinion on campaign finance. In each case, Bush said that he had not changed his mind on the issue, then immediately offered a conciliatory second statement. By the way—the fact that Bush hasn't changed his mind on McCain-Feingold is hardly a startling or newsworthy proposition. Al Gore hasn't changed his mind on Bradley's health plan, and that completely lacks news value, too.

So the Timesmen slightly improved Bush's language, reporting that Bush said he "learned nothing knew." And over the weekend, a number of scribes were repeating Berke and Bruni's formulation. Scribe after scribe sat on TV and repeated the script the Times Twosome had penned. The power to paraphrase is the power to spin—especially when the rest of the tribe will repeat the paraphrase, not the original statement.

Jim Lehrer, on the NewsHour:

LEHRER: Speaking of George W. Bush, Paul, what do you think—Bush said in this interview with the New York Times this week that he really didn't learn anything from John McCain and he wasn't going to adopt any of his issues, and he got hammered for that by some. What do you think? Does he deserve to be hammered?

We think he deserves to be quoted, or paraphrased carefully. On Inside Politics, Jay Carney used the paraphrase too:

CARNEY: Well, I'm afraid with the interview the damage is largely done, because the person that interview affected most was John McCain. And even though he's in Bora Bora as we speak, he's very aware of the interview and the tone of what George W. Bush said about not learning a thing from John McCain and not being particularly impressed by the turnout that McCain inspired.

Al Hunt, on Capital Gang, was also disturbed by The Dub's conduct:

HUNT: After a protracted struggle like this, and you say you basically learned nothing from your opponent, it says you're either incredibly incurious, you're arrogant or most likely you're insecure.

Or it says you're being spun. On Late Edition, host Wolf Blitzer popped the question to Tucker Carlson:

BLITZER: Tucker, the Republican candidate George W. Bush gave an interview to the New York Times this week in which he seemed to give the back of his hand to John McCain, saying he's learned nothing from John McCain's campaign.

In his answer, Carlson spun the soundbite up one more notch:

CARLSON: This was a failure of diplomacy on Bush's part. I mean, I think Bush—he was asked repeatedly in this interview, you know, what have you learned, what about John McCain. And he finally said something along the lines of, gee whiz, I won.

What Bush actually said, quite immediately, was that McCain had made him a better candidate, and that he and McCain agree on most things. Bush was never asked Carlson's question, let alone asked it "repeatedly." Is this really the best CNN can do? If so, they should take their band of over-paid pundits and just go off the air.

There was no news value—none at all—in Bush's continued opposition to McCain's campaign-finance plan. Holding an interview that wasn't worth warm spit, the Timesmen made Bush's remarks a little better. And all over the networks, what happened this weekend? Scripted pundits quoted Bruni and Berke, while saying they were quoting George Bush.