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27 July 2000

Our current howler (part III): Ground Chuck

Synopsis: When Russert discussed the Buddhist temple, he mangled what the real gumshoes said.

After 8 Years in Office, Unfamiliar in Michigan
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 7/15/00

Commentary by Tim Russert
Meet the Press, NBC, 7/16/00

Commentary by Charles LaBella, Robert Litt
This Week, ABC, 6/11/00

Commentary by Charles LaBella, Alan Colmes
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 6/27/00

At least when Seelye ran Sheila Redman's question, she came up with a reason. At a Gore town hall meeting, a local doyenne had asked an embarrassing question:

SEELYE (paragraph 1): Sheila Redman, director of the Saginaw Art Museum, put it best. "I feel kind of bad in asking this," she said to the Vice President of the United States. "But where have you been for the past eight years?"

Phew! It's the kind of thing once expects to see at the top of a Seelye report. And the very next day, on Meet the Press, Tim Russert played tape of the Redman query (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/26/00). As we mentioned yesterday, Russert seemed to have no real point to make, although the played the tape at the start of his program. But Seelye did have an angle:

SEELYE (2): This is a solidly Democratic, heavily unionized area, the buckle of Michigan's industrial belt. But as in the rest of the state, and much of the industrial Midwest, voters here are skeptical about Al Gore's presidential candidacy.

Seelye went on to give the numbers—in a recent poll, Gore is behind by twelve points in the state. Seelye treated Redman's embarrassing question as a proxy for Michigan's outlook.

There was no such rationale on Meet the Press—and it's part of what gave Tim Russert's approach to Gore a certain flavor. Margaret Carlson told Don Imus, approvingly, that Russert had acted "like a prosecutor" on the show, and it isn't all that hard to see why she stated that view. We make no assertions of any kind about Russert's motives on this day. But where did Carlson get her image? Maybe from moments like this:

RUSSERT: And we're back. Mr. Vice President, when we talk to voters all across the country, they say they are looking for trustworthiness and a strong leader. A lot of comments made about your role in 1996 fund-raising. And I'll give you a chance to talk about them. April 29th, 1996, fund-raiser at the temple, Hsi Lai...The essence of the debate or discussion seems to be that director of the FBI Louis Freeh and three other ranking Justice Department officials believe there should be an independent counsel, special counsel, to look into this matter, because they think you may have broken the law or lied under oath. And they point specifically to your denial that you knew that event was a fund-raiser.

This was the start of the show's final segment, in which Russert revisited fund-raising issues from the 1996 campaign. But is it true, what Russert said? Do Freeh and three other ranking Justice officials favor a probe "because they think [Gore] may have broken the law or lied under oath?" It makes for an exciting story, but it isn't what the officials have recently said. One of the officials to whom Russert referred was Robert Litt, former Justice honcho. Litt appeared on the June 11 This Week. He said this about his recommendation that Janet Reno seek an independent counsel:

LITT: This was an extremely close issue. You have to remember that this is not a question really of whether the vice president committed a crime or whether he ought to be prosecuted. As the memo you put up on the screen a moment ago said, nobody really thought that was the case. As Chuck said, this was a process issue. Did it meet the technical legal threshold of the independent counsel statute?

"Chuck," of course, was Charles LaBella. He was on the program too, and he had already said what Litt now stated. Cokie Roberts had read LaBella a memo, from an unnamed Justice lawyer. The memo said that the probe of Gore should continue, but it also said this: "At the end of the day, there is a sense we all share that the facts involving the vice president's calls and statements would not warrant prosecution." "So what was the big deal?" Roberts asked. "What was it all about?"

LABELLA: I think it was about process. I think many of us, as I've said before, most experienced prosecutors had the belief that many of the violations were very technical violations even if they were committed, were not the types of violations that would result in a prosecution. They just weren't. Experienced prosecutors came to that conclusion. The fact is, it was the process that was short-circuited in the bargain.

And LaBella has said such things, many times, even if that fact was not reflected in Russert's constructions with Gore. On June 27, for example, LaBella appeared on Hannity & Colmes. Early on in his segment, he said this:

LABELLA (6/27): You know I have never said anything other than I thought an investigation was warranted. I've also said that I thought at the end of the day the investigation would wash out the allegations because these are not the types of allegations that ultimately warrant prosecution or criminal sanctions.

A specific example was later spelled out in an exchange with Alan Colmes. Colmes was discussing the Hsi Lai temple luncheon:

COLMES: The fact of the matter, Mr. LaBella, there were two events, they were conflated into one event—

LABELLA: That's correct—

COLMES: Al Gore agreed to go to an event that was not a fund-raiser, the two got a little mixed up thanks to [John Huang]. So that's what happened, and there's no credible evidence Al Gore knew what happened at the Buddhist temple was a fund-raiser. Money was not solicited at the Buddhist temple, there were no signs around there, that's not what happened when he was there during a five-minute speech that he gave, right?

LABELLA: This is a great cross-examination, I gotta tell you, you guys are terrific. The fact is, when I was there, there was no evidence that I was aware of that Vice President Gore was aware of any of the conduit contributions that went on at the temple.

COLMES: Right.

LaBella has made such statements all over the dial. But they're rather difficult to reconcile with Russert's constructions on Meet the Press. To judge by his own words, Charles LaBella did not favor an investigation "because he thinks Gore may have broken the law or lied under oath." And quite plainly, Russert's other statement to Gore is hard to credit; Charles LaBella does not "point specifically to your denial that you knew the event was a fund-raiser." Russert's constructions are, yes, prosecutorial. But they aren't especially faithful to what LaBella has said.

Russert continued with his account of Hsi Lai; Gore finally accused him of presenting "pretty selective facts." In our view, Gore was being polite. Our tribunal continues tomorrow.

Tomorrow: Russert uttered some major groaners, fleshing out Carlson's review.


The Daily update (7/27/00)

Gimme an "n": We don't know what voters think in Ohio. But we're not sure that David Broder does, either, after reading his page-one report. Last Sunday, Border joined with Washington Post colleague Dan Balz to say this in a major report:

BRODER AND BALZ (paragraph 2): On the eve of the Republican and Democratic conventions, interviews with swing voters in the large, battleground states that are likely to determine the outcome of the presidential race in November revealed that Gore receives little, if any, of the credit for the nation's unprecedented prosperity.

It could be true for all we know, but do the DBs really know it? Uh-oh. Here was their statement of method:

BRODER AND BALZ (4): Washington Post reporters spent a week traveling through many of the big industrial states—the swath of geography that includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Missouri—talking to voters, governors, state legislators and political strategists about the presidential campaign.

Say what? "Post reporters" spent a week traveling through these six big states? If those "Post reporters" are Broder and Balz, just how many "voters in Ohio" could they possibly have met?

In fact, those reporters do seem to be Broder and Balz, based on Broder's Sunday column. In that column (on the Post's op-ed page), he further described the page-one project:

BRODER (paragraph 3): The events that will decide this election have not yet occurred. It will not be won because of Gore's stop at the Buddhist temple or Bush's visit to Bob Jones University. Few of the voters whom Dan Balz of The Post and I met in swing precincts in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio think Gore is a liar or a crook, and even fewer believe Bush to be a bigot.

(4) But many of those voters are skeptical about the nominees' readiness to be president. Gore is seen as someone so ambitious he will say or do anything to pick up a vote. "He really hungers to be president," retired accountant Howard McConnell told me as he emerged from the library in Upper Dublin, a Philadelphia suburb. "The way he changes all the time is just unreal."

In this passage, Broder quotes one voter offering a standard portrayal, and he tells us what voters think as a group. But again, how does he know these generalizations are accurate? How does he know he has met with representative voters? The Broder-Balz page-one report doesn't say how many people they interviewed. Neither does the Broder column. Both pieces make sweeping statements about what voters think, and offer quotes to support these assertions. But are the scribes' judgments anything but anecdotal? There is no way a reader can tell.

It's hard to believe the Post offers such work. We'd like to cheerlead for Broder and Balz. But if we did, we'd yell, "Gimme an 'n'."

Gore Fails to Cash In on Prosperity
David Broder and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 7/23/00

Fighting the Ho-Hum Factor
David Broder, The Washington Post, 7/23/00