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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

The Tom Edsall article in today's Washington Post contains all you need to know about the state of play of the Ted Olson question -- especially Orrin Hatch's statement, relayed through a senior aide, that "It comes down to what the definition of the Arkansas Project is."

We could spend a few moments mocking this "depends what the definition of is is" sort of line. But let's keep our eye on the ball.

Olson and his defenders, it seems, don't really deny much of anything that has been alleged. They're just playing on a very restrictive definition of the 'Arkansas Project' and the word 'involvement.' To most observers, the 'Arkansas Project' was the American Spectator's organized effort, funded by moneys from the Scaife foundations, to dig up dirt and possible scandals on Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Now we're told, however, that the term 'Arkansas Project' only applied to one portion of the American Spectator's organized effort, funded by moneys from the Scaife foundations, to dig up dirt and possible scandals on Bill and Hillary Clinton. The 'Arkansas Project' was only a very tightly delineated enterprise which didn't involve most of the people involved in what we all thought was Arkansas Project activity.

Still with me?

So when Olson himself was hired by the magazine in 1994 "specifically to determine the potential criminal exposure of the Clintons in light of the magazine's reporting" this didn't mean he was involved in the Arkansas Project. This was just "legal research" in Olson's words, "not for the purpose of conducting or assisting in the conduct of investigations of the Clintons." And by no means part of the 'Arkansas Project.'

The Olsonites are telling us that their man is not lying because the question wasn't posed precisely enough. Pat Leahy should have asked: "Were you involved in, or aware of, the Arkansas Project, or any similar activities conducted by the American Spectator magazine which might seem to us rubes on the outside to be part of the Arkansas Project, but which you and the employees of the Spectator know not to have been part of the 'Arkansas Project' because the term 'Arkansas Project' only applied to one portion of the magazine's effort to dig up scandals on the former president?"

Or to put the point more baldly, Olson's off the hook not because he knew little or nothing about the Arkansas Project, but because he knew quite a lot.

Do we really have to put up with this crap? It's up to Pat Leahy.

I've always been proud -- perhaps overly so -- that I was one of the first political journalists to openly question whether there was anything to all those stories about White House vandalism in the final days of the Clinton era -- first here and there on TPM and then later in Slate.

But the genre of uncritical and fatuous 'report the Bush spin as delivered' coverage lives on.

Here's just the latest example written by, of all people, Thomas DeFrank, the Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Daily News.

DeFrank's piece follows the standard plot points of the sop-to-Bush genre, contrasting the Bush style (obliging, middle American with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) with the Clinton style (grasping, domineering with phallic Christmas tree ornaments).

You apparently can't walk around the White House these days without being importuned by some member of the permanent staff who says things like: "The Bushes' humble, conservative style really resonates with my middle class values. A lot more than those Clintons, whose limousine liberalism nominally catered to working families like my own, while subtly mocking my work ethic and efforts to succeed by my own efforts! And did I mention not being able to invest a small portion of my Social Security funds in the stock market?"

And every DC reporter seems to have an obliging friend on the new White House staff who is always trying to tell the help not to bother with some particularly demeaning chore, only to be told, "No, no, no. It is okay. Really. Please! I did that for Mr. Clinton's sleazy Asian cronies many, many times!"

Where do I sign up to get Karl Rove's assistants to write my copy for me too?

Hmmmmmm.

Now back to working on the much-awaited Talking Points redesign and, before that, the even-more -awaited TPM line on John Edwards.

Yesterday afternoon I pointed out that, in his letter to Tim Noah, Wlady Pleszczynski never actually denied that Ted Olson had been involved in the Arkansas Project.

He denied this, that, and the other. But not the actual point at issue.

Well, now Pleszczynski has written to Talking Points to do just that. But these sorts of brouhahas inevitably descend to parsing. So, instead of characterizing it, let me just show you exactly what he said and you can draw your own conclusions:

Josh: So when did you stop beating your wife/ significant other /or whatever? That's the category your complaint falls under. But if it makes your evening, let me categorically say that Ted Olson was not a part of the Arkansas Project. Every word of Olson's statements regarding the project has been more than truthful.

Best regards,

Wlady Pleszczynski

More soon.

Just when I think I'm out, they p-u-l-l me back in.

Let's go back to Ted Olson.

Today Tim Noah (aka Chatterbox) runs a letter from Wlady Pleszczynski, of the American Spectator, rebutting Tim's earlier article acusing Ted Olson of lying about his involvement in the Arkansas Project. ("Your Olson item would be McCarthyite nonsense if you knew what you were talking about ...")

But wait! I don't think even Tim mentions, in his follow-on response, the most striking thing about the letter in question. Pleszczynski never says that Olson wasn't involved in the Project. Or in other words, he never even denies Tim's original charge or premise.

Pleszczynski says David Brock wasn't part of the Arkansas Project. He says David's unreliable. He disputes just what the Project was. Where it's monies went.

He disputes everything except the actual point which is in dispute: whether Olson was involved in the Project and whether he lied about.

That's a classic non-denial denial.

I've had a hard time telling if this Robert Blake murder mystery is a real story or just a treatment for the next Elmore Leonard novel. I mean, doesn't it read that way? Barely reformed grifter marries has-been actor. Weird, twisted relationship. She ends up dead. And so on.

Of course, I'd figure we'd have Mickey Rourke as the border-line psycho, sometimes hit-man who Blake hired to do the hit. And I'd cast Steve Buscemi as the night watchman who was behind the restaurant and saw the whole thing go down and is now trying to shake down Blake for the big money. And maybe Blake had just landed a big comeback role, and some big money too, and he figured he couldn't bring her along on his ride back to the top. And that's how the whole caper got started.

Anyway, that's how I'd flesh out the story. But enough flights of fancy. Let's get down to some real news. This story at ABCNews.com leads with a friend of Blake's who says the actor "could not have done it because Blake once turned down a previous offer to have his wife killed."

Yikes!

Not exactly the most convincing defense, is it?

At various points over the last few months I've often mocked our president for his apparent ability and willingness to pitch his tax cut as the solution to almost every conceivable problem the nation faces, or even doesn't face.

Robust Growth? Tax cut. No Growth? Tax cut. Market downturn? Tax cut. Low Productivity? Tax cut. Invasion of Feral Elves? Tax cut.

But the president's actual rhetoric is now outdistancing my mockery. Now he says the tax cut is the best solution to the 'energy crisis.'

That, of course, would be the 'energy crisis' his administration has whipped up to bolster the case for increased oil drilling and weakened environmental protections.

But if you look at these latest, declining public approval numbers from the CNN/USA Today poll you can't help wondering if the president's numerous puffed up 'crises' are coming back to haunt him. (His numbers have fallen nine points since last month to 53%.)

According to the CNN poll, the number of Americans who believe the energy situation is "very serious" has gone from 31% to 58% just since March. And if you look through the rest of the numbers, the president's dipping approval numbers seem tied to growing pessimism on the economy and energy fronts more generally.

Don't get me wrong: Energy prices are high. And the economy is wobbly. But what precisely has changed in the country's energy situation in the last two months which would justify a near-doubling of the number of Americans who think our plight is "very serious?" What beside the dramatic shift in the public debate -- pushed largely by the White House -- toward discussion of an energy crisis?

In it's first three months alarmism has been the defining trait of this administration. And what we're seeing may be some poetic justice. And another example that restoration regimes tend more often to be imprisoned by the mistakes of their predecessors than edified by them.

We'll get back to that latter point soon.

Today the Washington Post's In The Loop column reports that Janet Hale is set to be appointed assistant secretary of health and human services for management and budget.

Janet Hale, associate administrator for finance for the House, and a top aide in the Office of Management and Budget in Bush I, is to be assistant secretary of health and human services for management and budget.
Isn't that bio a tad incomplete? Isn't this the same Janet Hale who was, if not knee-deep, at least ankle-deep in the HUD scandals of the 1980s? The same Janet Hale who called the initial Inspector General's report about the impending HUD scandal "premature, unjustified and unfair" and resisted pressure to tighten controls over HUD programs?

This is the person to manage HHS's finances?

P.S. Special shout-out to Talking Points special correspondent KSB for the heads up.

This column defending Ted Olson in today's Wall Street Journal Editorial Page is people's evidence #1 that Olson really is in a lot of trouble. And it's also a classic example of attempted editorial sleight of hand.

The editorial argues that people who attack the Arkansas Project are really just attacking the First Amendment since there is nothing wrong -- and certainly nothing illegal -- with private parties investigating a president and publishing evidence of his law-breaking or bad acts.

That's certainly true.

Now there's quite another matter of whether this was legal for tax-exempt organizations to be involved in; or whether those involved in the Project may have violated other laws in the process of their work, or whether Ken Starr's Independent Counsel's Office might have been improperly connected with it. But let's set all those matters aside and assume that the Arkansas Project was only what it undeniably was: a vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball in its hardest form.

Look closely at the Journal Editorial: don't they completely avoid and try to confuse the point? The question -- tied to Olson's hubris -- is why he lied about his involvement in the Project. The editorial barely touches on this and simply goes on about how innocuous the Project was. Lying about it is what's got him in trouble. The editorial not only barely tries to defend him on this ground. It actually mounts a transparently contradictory defense. Saying that there wouldn't be anything to lie about in the first place.

(Bartley, Fund, et.al: guys, it's the cover-up that gets you, right? Haven't you guys been telling us that for ages?)

Live by the vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball, die by the vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball.

Next up, why Olson felt he needed to lie about the Arkansas Project; why he might have thought he could get away with it; and when he was accused of lying to Congress before.

Let's delve a little further into this Ted Olson matter and the accusations against him reported in this article in today's Washington Post.

David Brock's word probably isn't enough to sink Olson.

Don't get me wrong: I've got tons of respect for David; and I don't doubt him for a moment. But he's just one person. And he's also very much an interested party in this whole matter of the Spectator and the Arkansas Project and so forth. And he can be portrayed as someone with an ax to grind.

So who else might be able to back up David's version of events?

If I were, say ... a staff investigator for the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee I'd be looking to Ronald Burr, the co-founder and long-time publisher of the American Spectator who was fired over his efforts to do a proper accounting and/or audit of the moneys which the various Scaife foundations were funnelling through the magazine to be used in the Arkansas Project.

Burr was very roughly handled in the whole affair. And he would certainly know plenty about the questions at hand. But to date he's been prevented from speaking on the record about any of this because of a non-disclosure agreement he signed after being fired by the Spectator. (His severance package was a pricey $350,000 -- well, pricey for the magazine world, at least. Trust me.)

I understand that there are a number of people who can contradict Olson's denials of involvement with the Arkansas Project. But, just as he was during the impeachment saga, it's probably only that non-disclosure agreement which is preventing Burr from talking.

Now, I don't know the fine points of the intersection between private contractual agreements and Senate subpoenas (see note here on TPM's aborted legal career). But I have to assume that a private contract is trumped by a congressional investigation, just as a private confidentiality agreement is trumped by a subpoena in a criminal trial.

So why not give Burr a call?

P.S. Any of TPM's readers at the American Spectator want to add their two cents?

When I first started writing Talking Points (six months ago, frighteningly enough) I was pretty free with writing what I was hearing -- largely because only my friends were reading. But now that Talking Points is read by millions of readers across the country every day (well, okay, thousands of readers). So I've got to be a little more careful, a little more responsible.

Anyway, there's a lot buzzing about a story that may be running in the next issue of the Enquirer or Vanity Fair. But, honestly, I don't know if there's anything to it.

Still it's generating lots of buzz. And if you're interested in finding out a bit more, read this opinion column in today's Tallahassee Democrat.

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