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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Well, I hate to say I told you so. But, my God, I told you so. The real debate today seems to be (and bear with me, because this is technical insider political talk) over whether the magnitude of Condit's public relations catastrophe is more appropriately compared to the 12.5 kiloton blast that leveled Hiroshima in 1945 or the 15 megaton hydrogen bomb which gouged a mile wide whole in Bikini Atoll in 1954.

I was gonna call Condit spokeswoman Marina Ein to get comment on whether they're officially in the Hiroshima or Bikini Atoll camp. But as far as I know, she's no longer returning my calls.

For those who've followed the Condit case closely this is likely the most revealing passage from the congressman's letter to his constituents.

Some suggest that not talking with the media could mean I had something to do with Chandra's disappearance. I did not. I pray that she has not met the same fate as the other young women who have disappeared from the same neighborhood.

-- Gary Condit
Aug. 22nd
Letter to Constituents

This sounds a bit like he's looking for the real killers. Perhaps it's just because I live in the aforementioned neighborhood and thus feel oddly defensive about this. But it's important to keep in mind that there is not the slightest bit of evidence that Levy's disappearance is connected to the disappearances of two other young women in the DuPont Circle neighborhood during the late nineties. In fact there is plenty of evidence pointing to their not being related.

This is just a canard, pure and simple.

P.S. By the way, if you can't wait to read the People Magazine article, here it is.

Many people are raising an obvious and regrettable point about the current brouhaha over the shrinking budget surplus. Democrats can pin the blame on President Bush for causing this problem with his extravagant and improvident tax cut. But at the end of the day they still find themselves in precisely the position Republicans wanted to put them in: either take the politically dicey tack of scaling back the tax cut, push for spending which puts the budget further into deficit, or live within the fiscal straightjacket Bush created -- precisely what the Bushies had in mind from the start.

The answer I think is that the Democrats will not, indeed cannot, win this debate as a matter of fiscal policy -- at least not at first. But that's not really so problematic as it may seem. Why this issue is potentially devastating for Republicans and the Bush White House is that this is at heart an issue of values and responsibility.

Democrats shouldn't look at this as a fall-back from a more promising debate over fiscal policy number-crunching. This is actually just the sort of debate they should want to be having. The values and responsibility front is the Republicans' strong suit and a point of vulnerability for Democrats -- as the last election demonstrated. This renders vulnerable one of the Republicans' strongest selling points to voters. That's what makes this so potentially devastating for the GOP -- if it's handled correctly.

Okay, let me say that I'm a bit conflicted. I'd rather leave the post below as the headline post for Thursday morning, seeing as it explains a case of the Bush White House really getting caught with its metaphorical hand in the cookie jar. Especially since the press has thus far shown distressingly little interest in the story.

Having said that, though, look: I don't think I can resist the temptation of another Condit post. So here goes.

Yesterday I said that logic and experience told me that Condit was going to, if not blow this interview, at least put in a very weak performance. It's just his MO. I'm not going to prattle on about how this provides some insight into his character or that it shows that he thinks the rules don't apply to him or anything like that. But what it does show is this: Condit and his advisors seem to lack a sense for what looks good for him to do and what looks imbecilic and offensive for him to do. And tonight's news reports seem to confirm it. According to those reports, Condit will not even admit to having an affair with Levy -- which tends pretty strongly to confirm the pattern.

There's no reason in the world that Condit needs to go on TV and spill his guts about any affair he had, at least as far as I'm concerned. But if he is planning to go on the air and deny even what amounts to the innocent explanation of his recent behavior then obviously he could scarcely be a bigger moron.

Pundits continue to assume he's holed up somewhere with a clutch of media wizards who are spinning him into prime form. The truth is that he has no wizards. And I don't think he's even taking the advice of the wanna-be wizards who've flocked to him since this mystery began.

You'll remember that on the 19th I noted Mike Isikoff's Newsweek article on the Bill Clinton-Ehud Barak phone conversation transcripts. And I made the point that the real story was just how Dan Burton's committee managed to get hold of confidential transcripts of phone conversations between the President of the United States and the then-Prime Minister of Israel only months after the conversations occurred.

To put it mildly, the executive branch doesn't turn over this sort of information to congressional committees easily. It's classic executive privilege territory. And for good reason: How easy would it be in the future for the president to have frank discussions with foreign heads of state if the foreign heads of state knew that Dan Burton would be releasing transcripts of their conversations only a few months later?

You think the White House will be releasing transcripts of Bush's conversations with Ariel Sharon? Jiang Zemin? Tony Blair? As Phil Schiliro, chief of staff to Burton's Democratic counterpart Henry Waxman, told me today, "Given the secrecy of the Bush-Cheney administration, it's inconceivable that they would turn over this sort of information if it affected President Bush."

In any case, the transcripts in question are currently in the custody of the National Archives, where they were deposited after Bill Clinton left office. However, it's still up to the current occupants of the Executive Branch to decide what gets released and what doesn't.

So here's how it went down, according to my sources. Staffers from Burton's committee, the House Government Reform Committee, didn't receive copies of the transcripts. They were given access to them at the National Archives. They were allowed to take notes, but not get actual copies.

So I called the Bush National Security Council press office. They told me to speak with Bill Leary in their FOIA office. I called his number and got another man in the office who said Leary wasn't available. He told me that "the request for information went to the National Archives [and that] the National Archives had made all arrangements" for making the documents available, and that I should call the National Archives. The White House had no role, he said, except for "classification." (As I'll discuss in a later post, this reference to "classification" was a technically true statement which essentially admitted in one word, what he had denied with many a few moments before, i.e., that they had everything to do with the release of the documents. But more on that later.)

When I asked for his name, he hung up on me.

I then called back and in slightly more colorful language asked him why he had hung up on me and whether he would identify himself. He told me that he and his office "don't respond to press inquiries."

This may all seem rather technical. So let's review what this all means. These transcripts are the sort of documents that the executive branch is usually extremely resistant to handing over, and seldom ever does. Especially not so soon after the events occurred. In this case, it seems the Bush NSC changed the rules because the folks there thought they could embarrass the previous administration. In so doing, they also potentially created a terrible precedent for the ability of this and future administrations to conduct foreign policy, by breaching the confidentiality of the president's conversations with foreign heads of state.

The unnamed NSC staffer I spoke to denied that they had been involved in this. But, as a matter of fact, the Bush NSC was intimately involved in the decision to make these confidential transcripts available to the Burton Committee staffers. Do I know this? Yes, I know.

If it was a reasonable decision to make on the merits, why hide behind such juvenile tactics? And since this is an actual abuse of the powers of the executive to further a narrow partisan objective, why no more scrutiny to this aspect of the story by the press?

One of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's standard ploys is to whip out a few historical allusions, a few policy wonk names from the thirties or forties, to wow reporters and other listeners into thinking he's the master of some esoteric knowledge and not just another pol, and perhaps a pretty craven one at that.

Here's an article with some good examples of this tendency, and here's another.

Just now I was watching Moynihan and Bush Social Security Commission co-chairman Richard Parsons giving a little brief talk about their closed-door meeting today. In the course of that Parsons argued that the size of the non-Social Security surplus is really irrelevant to the reform effort since general revenue funds should not and will not be used for Social Security.

Then Moynihan chimed in with some hokum about some public policy worthies from the early days of Social Security, and Frances Perkins (FDR's Labor Secretary), and how they'd done a good job and now it was time to continue their work by reforming Social Security, yada, yada, yada. The implication seemed to be that these worthies would agree with what Parsons had just said. In fact, at earlier points Moynihan has said precisely that, that Perkins et.al, the founders of Social Security, would find using non-payroll tax money (i.e., general revenue funds) for Social Security a terrible thing, anathema, and so on.

The only problem is that this is completely false. Perkins herself believed that general revenue funds would likely eventually be needed to supplement payroll tax dollars. And if my memory serves she believed that point would come late in the last century.

In itself this a relatively minor and fairly technical point, I grant you. But there's an important lesson to glean from it: Moynihan's professor shtick is pretty much all shtick and no substance. He makes it up as he goes along.

Craven dishonesty, surprisingly enough, can actually be a good thing. No, not as personal practice, mind you. More as a tool of symptomatology. When you're taking aim at your political opponents and they start to lie wildly it's a good sign that you've really got them on the run.

Which brings us to George W. Bush and Mitch Daniels.

Let's be clear on what's in the works in this fast-approaching battle over the budget: The question is whether the Bush White House will be able to use the inherently pliable and slippery modalities of rhetoric to overcome the rather more fixed terms of mathematics.

Can they pull it off?

Let's look at one example (of which there will surely be many more to come) from Bush's speech yesterday at Harry S. Truman High School in Independence, Missouri:

Seven out of the last eight budgets submitted by the executive and passed by the Congress have raided the Social Security or used part of the Social Security to fund the budgets. One of the temptations is to use Social Security money for something other than Social Security.

Now the good news is -- is that both political parties and both bodies of Congress have declared that we're not going to do that. But I'm going to watch carefully, to make sure that the old temptations of the past don't come back to haunt us when it comes to budgeting your money in the year 2001.

How many distortions are wrapped together into these four sentences?

Oh,when will the buck stop?!?!?!?!?!

Joe Conason is the only columnist I've seen so far to pick up on the real issue with those leaked Clinton-Barak phone transcripts: that the Bush White House has apparently set a terribly irresponsible national security precedent in order to score a cheap political hit for Dan Burton. Of course, Talking Points got on this a few days ago. But we're always a trend-setter. And Conason gives a much fuller take on the story.

Anyway, there's still more here. And we'll be reporting on that soon.

As nearly as I can figure it, the buzz is that Gary Condit will come off pretty well in his Thursday evening interview. Not because he should or shouldn't necessarily. But because it's a short interview (30 minutes), a ready-made vehicle for contrite pols, and because he'll be endlessly coached by pros who know how this game is played.

My feeling is that this is true (or at least it was). But the more I've thought about it the more I've concluded that it's not true at all, that he'll actually come off pretty badly.

Here's why.

Let's set aside all suspicions or hunches about whether or not Condit did or didn't have anything to do with Levy's disappearance. There have been maybe a dozen moments over the last three months where Condit either had to appear in public, make some comment, or have some representative make a comment on his behalf. As nearly as I can figure, in every single one of these cases, Condit and his reps have either struck exactly the wrong chord (confrontational when conciliatory was the way to go) or said something foolish and damaging.

A few examples?

Shady lie detector test that ended up being a PR fiasco.

Abbe Lowell's botched press conference in which he let himself get baited into offering up his client for a lie detector test.

Lowell's decision to criticize Levys after their Larry King Live interview.

Condit's personal, slashing, angry response to the Modesto and Fresno Bee's editorials calling on him to resign.

Threats to sue various news organizations for stories later admitted to be true.

Endless slew of self-defeating non-denial denials.

Initial gambit: convince the media that Dupont Circle is hotbed of abductions.

Condit flack Marina Ein's decision to call Condit's third interview with police a "home run."

Condit flack Marina Ein's decision to tell Salon.com that Chandra had "a history of one-night stands."

Regrettable watch-box disposal incident.

There are many other examples which cannot be tagged in one line. But the basic point is clear enough: Gary Condit -- who from the start has taken the decisive role in deciding his own PR strategy -- has never had a good feel for the tone to strike in dealing with the public or the press.

That's point one.

Point two is the assumption -- logical and voiced by nearly everyone -- that Condit is being actively and expertly prepped for this interview. I'm honestly not sure that's true. Who is prepping Condit? Who's working for him? Mike Lynch, his chief of staff. Abbe Lowell, his attorney. Marina Ein, his flack. And apparently now Richie Ross, a California political consultant.

These are the same people (with the apparent exception of Ross) who've been advising Condit for several months. And what winners have they come up with so far?

Think about it.

Mike Isikoff has a story in Newsweek this week based on access to transcripts of several conversations Bill Clinton had with Ehud Barak about Marc Rich in the weeks just before Clinton issued the controversial pardon.

The article raises two questions.

First, how were these transcripts obtained? Isikoff writes:

The two leaders had no reason to believe their confidential chat would ever become public. Yet the Clinton-Barak telephone call that evening, like all conversations between U.S. presidents and foreign heads of state, was monitored by a team of note takers sitting at computers in the White House Situation Room. Last week congressional investigators probing the Rich pardon received access to National Security Council-prepared transcripts of three Clinton-Barak conversations that dealt with the Rich pardon. NEWSWEEK also has reviewed the contents of the transcripts ...
This sounds a lot like the current White House has control over the National Security apparatus and turned over these documents, or leaked them to Burton's committee. Needless to say, administrations are far less generous with transcripts of presidents' conversations when it's their own president -- and for good reason. And they're supposed to be equally solicitous of previous presidents, that is to say, of the office of the president. But it seems like here they weren't .

This is speculation, of course. Perhaps the documents are already in the custody of the National Archives or some other record keeping body? I'm not sure. But this is worth looking into.

The second, more important, point is the contents of the transcripts themselves. Isikoff editorializes thus:

The transcripts offer no “smoking gun” showing that the former president was motivated by large donations to his presidential library or by generous campaign contributions. But the conversations do show that, in sharp contrast to the picture painted by some of his former aides, Clinton was keenly aware of details of the Rich case, and appeared determined to grant the highly questionable pardon even though, as he admitted to Barak, there was “almost no precedent in American history.”
No smoking gun? I'll say. The transcripts don't seem to contain anything even touching on this point.

Say whatever you will about the wisdom of the Marc Rich pardon, but the transcripts themselves seem to confirm a key component of Clinton's story -- that Ehud Barak, then Prime Minister of Israel, was lobbying heavily on Rich's behalf because, as he says in the transcripts, the fugitive financier had “[made] a lot of philanthropic contributions to Israeli institutions and activities like education" and because "it could be important (gap) not just financially, but [because] he helped Mossad [the Israeli intelligence agency] on more than one case."

In February Clinton wrote that in deciding to issue Rich's pardon one of his key reasons was that:

Many present and former high-ranking Israeli officials of both major political parties and leaders of Jewish communities in America and Europe urged the pardon of Mr. Rich because of his contributions and services to Israeli charitable causes, to the Mossad's efforts to rescue and evacuate Jews from hostile countries, and to the peace process through sponsorship of education and health programs in Gaza and the West Bank.
The one thing that's clear from these documents -- obtained under whatever means -- is that this assertion was true. Perhaps more true than we knew.

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