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21 March 2000

Our current howler (part IV): What happened?

Synopsis: Under oath, Richard Sullivan explained the Hsi Lai event. His testimony was quickly forgotten.

Investigation of illegal or improper activities in connection with 1996 federal election campaigns
Final Report of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, 3/10/98

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Testimony of Richard Sullivan
Hearings Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, 7/9/97

The Heart Wants
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 3/19/00

Surprise! We think what happened at the Hsi Lai temple is fairly clear, although some scribes prefer a good mystery. We think the Thompson Committee's final report—published on 3/10/98—presents enough information for us to draw some conclusions about what actually seems to have happened:

  1. Without question, the DNC had long planned to hold a pair of vice presidential fund-raisers in California on April 29, 1996. One would be held in San Jose; one would be in Los Angeles. Documents make clear that this general plan was in progress as early as January 1996—long before there was any discussion of using the Hsi Lai temple as a site.
  2. On March 15, 1996, Maria Hsia arranged for Hsing Yun, Venerable Master of the Hsi Lai temple, to meet with Gore at the White House. Gore had met Hsing Yun once before, during a 1989 trip to Taiwan.
  3. On March 22, Hsia wrote a Gore assistant, suggesting that Gore visit the temple during his planned California trip. The next day, she also wrote Gore, suggesting that she and John Huang be permitted to stage "a fund-raising lunch event, with your anticipated presence, on behalf of the local Chinese community." It does seem that, at this time, the luncheon was supposed to be held away from the temple. "After the lunch," Hsiah wrote Gore, "we will attend a rally at the Hsi Lai temple where you will have the opportunity to meet representatives from the Asian-American community." For the record, Republicans have presented evidence casting doubt on the claim that there was ever a real plan to hold two separate events.
  4. At any rate, by early April documents establish that plans called for a single event, to be held at the temple. (John Huang testified in Hsia's recent trial that scheduling problems forced this decision.) This turned out to be the April 29 luncheon which has been the subject of so much dispute.

Does that mean that, as of mid-April, the DNC was planning a Gore fund-raiser at the temple? That is not necessarily the case. It seems fairly clear that, once the temple became the location for the event, some changes were made in the original plan; clearly, the Hsi Lai luncheon was not a standard "fund-raiser." As has been widely noted, Gore did not make the kind of speech normally made at fund-raising events—the kind of speech he made that night at the San Jose fund-raising dinner, for example. There were other departures from normal procedures. Here is Bill Turque's account, in his new bio of Gore:

TURQUE (page 319): Some details of the visit support Gore's contention that he believed he was attending a goodwill event rather than a fund-raiser. After lunch, with Hsia translating into Chinese, he delivered what staff called his "e pluribus unum" talk, a standard stump speech praising racial and ethnic diversity. There were none of the usual thank-yous he offered to groups of contributors for their financial support. The comments were also in marked contrast to the more typically partisan rhetoric he used at the San Jose fund-raising reception that evening. Other trappings of a fund-raiser were missing as well, like a front registration table and donor cards.

Whatever was going on this day, this was not a standard fund-raiser. There was not a formal ticket price for the luncheon; most people who attended did not pay the kind of hefty fee that was required at the San Jose dinner. Was the Hsi Lai luncheon a "fund-raiser?" Certainly not of the standard kind. It does seem that, when the temple ended up being the site of this event, the DNC and the Gore office adjusted its plans to hold a standard "fund-raiser."

In fact, the DNC's adjustments to its original plans are described in the proceedings of the Thompson Senate committee, in the testimony of DNC Finance Director Richard Sullivan. Sullivan was the lead-off witness in the Senate probe; his testimony was reported in detail and was widely televised. At one point in the first day on his testimony, questioned by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Sullivan explained what happened to the original plan for an L.A. fund-raiser:

DURBIN: Now, could you tell me, in terms of this [Hsi Lai] community center, did you discuss this schedule with John Huang that the event would take place at this center?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I did...The event was originally supposed to be at a home or a restaurant in another location. That didn't work out for scheduling reasons. John then came to me and said we'd like to hold this event at the Temple community center, and I said, well, John, you know, you can't hold a formal fundraiser at a religious—anything of a religious institution. And he said, I agree, it's—he said something along the lines of I concur with that and we will no longer have a formal fundraiser.

According to Sullivan, Huang (correctly) pointed out that a number of major political figures had held community events at the Hsi Lai site in the past. Durbin clarified the new arrangements which Sullivan said he worked out with Huang:

DURBIN: [Y]ou went into this with the understanding that no money was to be raised at the event.

SULLIVAN: No money. People were not to be asked to give money to come to the event. That is correct.

Durbin asked why Sullivan, the Finance Director, would stay involved in such an event. His questioning led to the following exchange

DURBIN: It was your decision that there would not a formal fundraiser at that point.

SULLIVAN: Correct.

DURBIN: And was this more in the nature of cultivation or outreach at this point?

SULLIVAN: That's correct, Senator, let me explain. There were numerous occasions in the course of my political experience and in the campaign when leaders from our Jewish community or labor leaders were to request one of the principals or a Senator or one of the chairs, primarily the principals, to speak to their convention or their leadership meeting, and we would do so...[T]hey would often express their support, the fact that they were honoring them to speak at their convention, and would send in—the leadership of the group would send in contributions because they were so honored that a leader would come and speak to their group.

There was certainly going to be some—John explained it as some leaders in the Asian community in Los Angeles who would be very honored if the Vice President spoke at the community center, Temple-affiliated location, and it certainly was going to help—it certainly was going to be helpful to us, but it was not a formal fundraiser.

DURBIN: ...Your idea then was that they would be thankful or grateful for the invitation and to meet the Vice President and that Mr. Huang or someone from the DNC Finance Committee might then follow up with them later on and see if they would be interested in either contributing or holding a fundraiser or generating some support for the campaign?

SULLIVAN: That's correct.

Sullivan testified that he did not know that money had been raised at the event until the story appeared in the newspapers, six months after the luncheon.

Was Sullivan's sworn testimony accurate? At THE DAILY HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But he did describe, in rather clear terms, the planning behind the Hsi Lai luncheon. There was to be no admission charge to attend the event, but the event would produce ancillary fund-raising benefits. Nothing about this is complex or confusing. Whatever one thinks of the DNC plan, it is fairly easy to describe the theory which Sullivan described to the committee.

Gore's chief of staff, David Strauss, also testified; he told the committee that Gore understood the event as Sullivan had described it (he alone had briefed Gore on the event, Strauss testified). But Sullivan's testimony is almost never mentioned in current narrations of the Hsi Lai event. Would the Sullivan plan have been appropriate, had it been carried out by Huang and Hsiah as described? It would be easy enough for scribes to say so, when they discuss this event. But Sullivan's testimony has disappeared down the memory hole as excited scribes tell a better story, one full of mystery, confusion and intrigue. Remember what we've so frequently found—the press corps tells you the stories it likes. And as we'll see in the next few days, the story of this Hsi Lai event works much better without Sullivan's explanations.


Tomorrow: An exciting report in the Philly Inquirer told us a story scribes like.

Last day on this topic, we promise: We know you think we're overdoing it, with the story of how Bush allegedly dissed Saint McCain. But we think the story is the perfect illustration of the incompetence and arrogance of the press corps. The notion that Bush is supposed to adopt McCain's views is so silly a school child would laugh it out the door, but that was clearly the basic premise of Berke and Bruni's page-one article. (That's the incompetence factor.) For arrogance, look at the article's headline: "Bush rebuffs bid to embrace views pushed by McCain." Had McCain made some sort of "bid" to Bush? No—McCain was off in Bora Bora. So who exactly had made this "bid?" That's simple—Berke and Bruni had made it! That's right—the scribes had somehow thought it their job to try to get Bush to agree to McCain's plan. When Bush "rebuffed" their repeated "bid," they paid him back with inaccurate paraphrase.

On Sunday, the nonsense hit its predictable peak—Maureen Dowd got involved in the hoohah. She called Bush's interview "startling" and "disturbing," and offered this comic summation:

DOWD: It would have been so easy, and savvy, for W. to waft an olive branch John McCain's way. But he preferred to vouchsafe the American public another glimpse of his innermost self.

"Despite the bruising, bitter and sometimes humbling nature of his primary campaign against Mr. McCain," the reporters wrote, "the governor emerged without any regrets about his campaign's conduct, any second thoughts about his strategy or any new resolve for the way he positions himself for the general election."

Dowd doesn't bother to quote Bush himself—she merely repeats what the Times scribes said. And here is Dowd's complete response to Bush's complaints about being misrepresented:

DOWD: Afterward, W. lamely tried to say he was taken out of context, but the text belied it.

Oh. Dowd, not bothering to specify Bush's complaint, goes on to tell us what he "clearly" thinks and feels about McCain.

Later in her piece, Dowd said this:

DOWD: By contrast, in an equally disturbing Times interview last week, Al Gore revealed that he has no feelings. He tried to wrap himself not only in the aura of John McCain, but also Jesse Ventura.

Can you believe that highlighted sentence? It would be interesting to know just how it was that Gore revealed that "he has no feelings." But Dowd didn't bother explaining. She name-called her way through her closing paragraphs, saying Gore is "a little terrifying," "brazen" and "chilling," and doesn't have any "trace of shame." What Gore had done that was so shameful to begin with? Dowd never really explains.

Explanation: the pundits don't like Bush or Gore. They are annoyed that the voters ignored their advice once again! As a tabloid talker said on Hardball last night:

MATTHEWS: Here we are, Bush and Gore, we're stuck with them, they're the two candidates, they're probably going to be comprise the two options for president this November—may have a third option in Pat Buchanan, these look like the front-runners now.

And how did we get "stuck" with Bush and Gore, by the way? By vast margins, voters preferred them to McCain and to Bradley!

Foot-stamping pundits will let you know how stupid and "disturbing" the two hopefuls are. We hate to keep being so negative, folks; but they'll often do so in work so insulting and lazy that school kids wouldn't dare pass it in. Question: Why do we tolerate work like this at the top of our national discourse?