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27 June 2000

Our current howler (part I): Lack of distinction

Synopsis: Pundits were flummoxed by Gore’s distinction. It’s been explained again and again.

Justice aide seeks a special counsel in inquiry of Gore
Don Van Natta and David Johnston, The New York Times, 6/23/00

Commentary by Carol Lin, William Schneider
Newsstand, CNN, 6/23/00

Commentary by Morton Kondracke
Special Report, FNC, 6/23/00

Commentary by Robert Woodward
Larry King Live, CNN, 6/23/00

Last Friday morning, in its page-one lead story, the New York Times reported Robert Conrad's recommendation to Janet Reno:

VAN NATTA AND JOHNSTON (paragraph 1): The head of the Justice Department's campaign finance unit has recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special counsel to investigate Vice President Al Gore's political fund-raising activities during the 1996 presidential campaign, government officials said today.

Why had Conrad made the recommendation? According to the Times, "Prosecutors were dissatisfied with Mr. Gore's answers during [an April 18] interview, which was conducted in a more confrontational manner than previous sessions had been." What kinds of topics were troubling Conrad? Van Natta and Johnston suggested that Conrad may have been troubled by Gore's remarks on that Hsi Lai Temple luncheon:

VAN NATTA AND JOHNSTON: It is unclear what Mr. Gore has told investigators about the [Hsi Lai] event that has drawn renewed scrutiny. In public statements, Mr. Gore at first said the event was intended for community outreach, not fund-raising. Later he said it was "finance related."

Reporting in Friday's Washington Post also stressed the Hsi Lai issue.

By Friday night, Gore had released the full transcript of the interview with Conrad. During the session, Conrad's team had challenged Gore's past statements about the Hsi Lai luncheon, including statements Gore made on the Today show in January 1997. On Today, Gore had said, "I knew that it was a political event and I knew that finance people were going to be present." The interviewers seemed concerned by that statement; they complained to Gore that, on the same program, "[Y]ou told Katie Couric that you did not know it was a fund-raiser."

And so, by Friday night, a wide variety of Washington pundits were discussing the point on TV. What had Gore meant when he said he hadn't known that Hsi Lai was a fund-raiser? All over the dial, the pundits were puzzled. On CNN's Newsstand, Carol Lin asked William Schneider the following question:

LIN: Well, you're saying that it was a good move to release these transcripts, but at the same time, Al Gore comes out publicly, and he says this was not a fund-raising event, this is what he called a finance-related event. A bit of parsing of words there?

Schneider was baffled by Gore's distinction:

SCHNEIDER: Well, there's something a little Clintonian in those distinctions...Now we can see the damaging information. It is the answers that he gave when he was interrogated by the task force chief back in April, and said that he knew that event was finance-related, because there were Democratic Party finance officials there, but he didn't know it was a fund-raiser. What's the difference? It's a little unclear. And that's going to be debated.

Schneider didn't know what Gore meant when he said the event was "finance-related" but not "a fund-raiser." And he described that "unclear" distinction as the interview's "damaging information."

Schneider wasn't the only scribe puzzled by Gore's distinction. In fact, Morton Kondracke, on Special Report, was openly dismissive of what Gore had said. Tony Snow asked if Gore's release of the transcript was a good move:

KONDRACKE: It's a move that makes you laugh, actually. Al Gore is a person with a high IQ. He says, The day was crammed, I had to make a speech to 15,000 people. I looked at my briefing-book and noticed that there was a memo prepared by the DNC finance people but I didn't realize that it was a fund-raising event. I thought it was a community outreach event that perhaps was finance-related. I mean, that is Clintonian. Splitting hairs. What is the meaning of "finance-related event" if it's not a fund-raiser?

Tony didn't get it either:

SNOW: So what is a finance-related event?

KONDRACKE: A fund-raiser!

Kondracke and Schneider shared one reaction—each called Gore's distinction "Clintonian." (GroupThink, with its sound-alike soundbites, moves quickly in today's press corps.)

Meanwhile, on Larry King Live, King and Bob Woodward also were flummoxed by Gore's distinction:

WOODWARD: Well, and then he said that he knew that it was a finance-related event, and there's lots of suspicion. I mean, this was the Democratic National Committee that sponsored this event. During this period in 1996, the Democratic National Committee was doing one thing when it sponsored events: they were fund-raisers.

On Hannity & Colmes, predictable buffoonery transpired, with Sean Hannity stressing the utter absurdity of the distinction between a "fund-raiser" and a "finance-related event."

Yep. All over the dial, hard-working pundits were buffaloed by the distinction. A range of commentators threw up their hands at the veep's very-puzzling statement. But in fact, to anyone who has followed this case at all, there is no great mystery about Gore's distinction. Whatever its merits, the distinction between a "finance-related event" and a "fund-raiser" has been explained, again and again, since the Hsi Lai luncheon first attracted attention in early 1997. It was explained under oath, in substantial detail, by David Strauss in 1997; the Gore chief of staff appeared before the Thompson committee, in highly-publicized, well-reported public hearings (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/00). Richard Sullivan, the DNC Director of Finance, also testified on the matter to the Thompson committee (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/21/00). And the distinction was explained again by Gore in his April interview with Conrad. Anyone who read the transcript of Gore's interview with Conrad would know what the VP had meant.

The distinction had been explained, again and again. The point being made was simple and obvious. But major pundits couldn't seem to explain it. Again we must ask you: Why is that?

Tomorrow: The point had been made again and again. So why don't our big pundits know it?


The Daily update (6/27/00)

In a word, repulsive: You can stop wondering if the press corps will ask Governor Bush to explain his view of the Gary Graham case (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/00). When Bush spoke last Thursday evening, before the execution, he said, "I support the [parole] board's decision [to proceed with the execution]. Mr. Graham has had full and fair access to the state and federal courts." Bush has previously stated that he is confident that no innocent person has ever been executed in Texas.

The Graham case drew special attention because of the troubling pattern of evidence in the case. How had Bush come to regard the serious questions that had been raised about that evidence? It would be especially interesting to know because, as we will see, many pundits praised Governor Bush for his handling of the execution.

But, over the weekend, pundits showed almost no interest in the specific facts that brought special attention to the case. Here, for example, was Mark Shields, in a remarkable statement on Friday's NewsHour:

SHIELDS: 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.

Bush hadn't discussed the disputed facts of the case, but Shields never brought them up either. Paul Gigot had a similar approach:

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.

Neither Shields nor Gigot—nor moderator Jim Lehrer—ever mentioned the patterns of evidence that had been widely questioned. In a follow-up question, Gigot betrayed no understanding of why the Graham case had even received special coverage:

LEHRER: There are several other cases, there are several other defendants on Death Row who are set to be executed between now and the election. Is each one of those cases in Texas going to bring the same kind of attention?

GIGOT: Well, I think we're probably in the stage of the campaign where other things—Mark said, this is the summer doldrums, but other things will be on the mind of voters. I don't think the—the first one is always going to get more attention. Certainly he is not going to break his campaign to go back to Texas and do this every time because he can't afford to do that.

"The first one?" There have been numerous executions in Texas since Governor Bush began campaigning. This execution received a lot of attention because of the special facts, not because it was "the first one."

Sadly, Shields and Gigot were not alone in their utter lack of interest in the facts of this case. On Meet the Press, for example, four pundits took turns discussing the execution, and no one mentioned or evaluated the facts which had been in such dispute. Here for example was the opening exchange, between Tim Russert and Clarence Page:

RUSSERT: The death penalty: Clarence Page, another execution in Texas. Let me show you what George W. Bush said on this program when I asked him about the application of the death penalty in Texas. Tape of Governor Bush, February 13: "I'm confident that every person that has been put to death in Texas under my watch has been guilty of the crime charged." Absolutely determined that he has done the right thing in each of those cases.

PAGE: Notice how the debate on the death penalty has shifted in recent months, Tim. It's gone from the morality of the death penalty to, Is there a possibility that innocent people have been or will be executed? This has surprisingly put George W. Bush on the defensive on this issue because Texas leads the nation in death penalties. And Bush himself now has no choice but to say, "Oh, yes, we've been absolutely perfect." Polls are already showing that most people don't believe anybody is perfect, including Texas. Will Al Gore make an issue out of it, though? He, too, is pro-death penalty. So what he's got to do is point the finger and say that George Bush has not really been a compassionate conservative.

Like the bulk of mainstream pundits this weekend, Page chose to note Gore's reaction to Bush's decision. He didn't express a view of his own.

It was almost impossible to find a pundit this weekend mentioning the facts that made the Graham case special. (Steve Roberts was a welcome exception.) Many pundits, like Gigot, seemed to affirmatively suggest that nothing had made the Graham case stand out. But we must tell you: We thought the performance of Shields on the NewsHour was, in a word, repulsive. Incredibly, Shields described Bush's statement on Thursday as "the finest moment of his campaign" because he appeared in a suit and tie, and because he displayed a "serious manner" (no joking this time). Has anyone ever so completely dumbed down the requirement for an American president? Shields discussed the way Bush dressed and spoke, but didn't address the factual issues involved. For instance, the Texas attorney general made baldly inaccurate statements last week about basic, fundamental facts of this case (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/00). Has this informed Bush's understanding of the facts? Shields doesn't know, and quite plainly doesn't care.

We note: It may well be that Bush has a serious view of the facts of the case to go along with his suit and tie and his "manner." (We don't criticize pols for the way they are covered.) But it's become quite clear that no one in the press corps has any intention of finding out.

We'll say it again—Shields' presentation on the NewsHour was astonishing and simply repulsive. (Gigot didn't do much better.) Bush appeared in a suit and tie! Imagine! We thought that we'd already glimpsed the press corps' capacity for trivializing our public discourse. Shields' statement, however, achieved a new low. Is there anything that will make this crowd show some gravitas?

Commentary by Mark Shields, Paul Gigot
The NewsHour, PBS, 6/23/00

Commentary by Tim Russert, Clarence Page
Meet the Press, NBC, 6/25/00