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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Is it too early to raise this rather elementary question? Was Phil Gramm's retirement from the Senate in early September tied to the Enron debacle?

Consider the timing.

True. There had been talk of a possible Gramm retirement, but as late as August 16th, in a discussion of possible Republican retirements, the Washington Post wrote ...

Another Republican incumbent who has left his party guessing is Sen. Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, who has indicated he will decide by late fall, say GOP sources. Like Helms, Thompson has raised little money but would probably have little trouble catching up. Thompson is favored to win if he runs, but Democrats believe the race could be close if the field is open. The only Senate incumbent who has said he will retire next year is 98-year-old Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Democrats, who so far have avoided retirements in their ranks, nurse hopes that GOP Sens. Phil Gramm (Tex.) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) might retire, but Republicans say they're pipe-dreaming.
Consider what else was happening right about that time.

Two days before the Post story, on August 14th, Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling quit after only six months on the job for what he called "purely personal" reasons. According to CNN, stock analysts were "stunned."

Knowing what stock analysts couldn't have known then, it now seems pretty clear that Skilling quit because of the first rumblings of the earthquake that would leave the company bankrupt in less than six months. Around the middle of August, it seems fair to say, he knew things were very, very bad.

Gramm's wife, Wendy Gramm was on Enron's Board and -- even more important -- on the board's audit committee. If things were going very wrong, and if the problems centered on the company's books being cooked, she'd likely be one of the first to know. And she would probably learn about it soon after Skilling. That is to say, sometime in late August.

Senator Gramm announced his retirement on September 4th.

Is all this speculation? Certainly. But the timing is hard to overlook. And besides, he's not the only high-profile Texan in Congress to make a surprise retirement announcement last Fall.

Remember that much-ballyhooed speech Tom Daschle gave last week ripping into President Bush's tax-cutting fiscal policy? Remember the oh-so-thin pancake the President made out of Daschle over the next few days when he dared Democrats to raise taxes "over my dead body."

Before this goes any further, let's confess that Hill Democrats are suffering from a crying deficiency of good strategy. It's not that Daschle's argument was bad on the merits. What it lacked was coherence. And in political battles coherence is king.

Daschle says the tax cut was bad. But he doesn't want to raise taxes. But that means we may have dip into Social Security revenues, or maybe raise taxes, or go into deficit spending. And all of those are bad. And so on and so forth.

Bush doesn't want to raise taxes, period.

Is this just the power of the presidency? The difficulty of running the opposition from the Senate?

I don't think so.

The key here is that Democrats are letting themselves get baited into the trap of solving the problems created by Republican policies, which is a category strategic error.

The president and his party promised X would happen and Y happened. They said that deficits wouldn't return and they did return. They had the power and authority to do it their way and now they have to take responsibility for what's happened.

It's not for the Democrats to figure out how to clean up Bush's mess or solve his problem for him. This is about taking responsibility. Something the Republicans seem quite unwilling to do. They blame the return of structural deficits on the war on terrorism and the downturn in the economy, each of which play a smaller role than the results of their own policy.

(Eventually, Americans will weary of such cynical use of the 9/11 attacks.)

Even with nominal control of the Senate, Republicans still basically run the show in Washington. So it's for Republicans to answer how they'll get the country out of the fiscal ditch they created.

This whole debate is about responsibility and values. Doing what you said you would do and cleaning up the mess you created.

Here are just a couple examples of why the quickly unfolding Enron investigation may lead in unpredictable and uncontrollable directions.

It turns out that Enron execs weren't the only ones who called Treasury Under Secretary for Domestic Finance Peter Fisher on the company's behalf as the energy trading collosus swirled into oblivion. Former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin did too.

(As a side note, it seems worth noting that the administration was quite eager to get out news of Rubin's call. But their eagerness doesn't make it less true.)

Meanwhile, SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt is in a bind because he once represented Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm which at the very least woefully botched Enron's books, and now appears to have destroyed many crucial documents.

The revelation about Pitt makes this earlier post seem not so sarcastic.

It's still possible that this is just a cataclysmic bankruptcy for which a few malfeasant executives will pay a stiff price. Or more likely it will turn out to be a conventional political scandal, in which a handful of politicians are dragged down in the whirlpool of Enron's collapse.

But those pooh-poohing the notion that this could be a major scandal of any sort overlook the less than likely, but yet real, possibility that this could develop into a meta-scandal - a cascade of revelations which gain traction not because of specific or discrete criminality but because the sheer magnitude of the event delegitimizes the whole framework of interaction between government and corporations at the highest levels.

Because Enron was part of a peculiar Texan form of wildcatter capitalism, and this Texan administration is closely tied to it, a scandal even of such proportions could still cut in a decidedly partisan direction. It's no accident, for instance, that Harvey Pitt finds himself in this situation, as opposed to ... say, former SEC head Arthur Levitt. So probably it just hits the GOP.

But who knows?

One of the more interesting things about Enron political donation pattern is not just its partisan tilt, but the way it became more partisan - ie, more Republican - over time. This chart from the Center for Responsive Politics website shows that back in the early 1990s Enron giving was more GOP than Dem, but only by a 60-40 margin.

After the 1994 cycle, the Republican percentage of the take rocketed to more than 80%, reflecting not only the GOP takeover of the House and Senate, but the fact that two Texans - Dick Armey and Tom DeLay - had become the number two and number three in the House leadership.

In the Senate, the leadership team of Trent Lott and Don Nickles contained no Texans. But both came from energy producing states.

The margin for Democrats bounced back a bit in the '98 and '00 cycles, but not by much. And in the 2002 cycle we're currently in, Republicans were pulling in only slightly less than 90% of the take.

The Republican line is that the public aversion to deficit spending is ... well, just so 20th century!

No one will care anymore. Especially after 9/11. I guess that's why the White House waits till late in the afternoon on a Friday have the reptilian Mitch Daniels tell the Associated Press that the President will propose a federal deficit for next year's budget.

What a coincidence.

There's no shortage of committees on the Hill lining up to investigate Enron. And one of the key points of investigation is Enron's multifarious lobbying of the federal government.

But aren't we missing a rather obvious difficulty?

How many of the Senators and Congresspersons on these committees received campaign contributions from Enron? And do they have to recuse themselves?

And will anyone be left to run the committees?

A year ago Dick Armey's longtime political advisor Pat Shortridge was heading up the Majority Leader's Fund, Congressman Armey's leadership PAC. Last Spring Shortridge left the MLF to become one of two senior directors of federal government affairs at Enron. That is to say, one of two people charged with lobbying the federal government on Enron's behalf.

In early December, according to the Majority Leader's spokesperson, Shortridge took a new job in Congressman Armey's leadership office after Enron closed its DC lobbying operation. His title is now "Director of Coalitions."

Also in early December (the Houston Chronicle reported it on December 4th) Congressman Armey told reporters "I think the Enron circumstances are very difficult. My impression is that Enron's business right now is Enron's business."

I'm not sure any other writers are going to be able to get a big article out of unearthing purloined passages in Stephen Ambrose books. But this may be the exception. According to Nick Confessore's article from early last Fall, Stephen Ambrose has routinely plagiarized the work of ... Stephen Ambrose!

Of course, recycling your own material is one of the perks of being a writer. But as Nick describes what he found you quickly get the feeling that this modus operandi could spill over into recycling other people's prose.

So how has Ambrose managed to sustain this deluge? Partly by hiring a devoted army of research assistants, but mostly by becoming an efficient and unabashed recycler of his own work. Ambrose's chapter in this spring's No End Save Victory collection was, in a previous life, a chapter in Citizen Soldiers--a 1997 book that itself contains bits and pieces from Band of Brothers. The Good Fight, published this May and aimed at the children's market, is essentially a simplified combination of Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers. Though Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals (1999) is partly an account of Ambrose's relationships with his brothers, father, and pals, it consists largely of reworked passages from Band of Brothers and his previous books on Lewis and Clark, Crazy Horse and General Custer, Eisenhower, and Nixon.
and more to the point ...
He not only makes new books from old books; he makes new op-eds from old op-eds. A devoted Ambrose fan will thus read about how the young GIs "wanted to throw baseballs, not grenades, shoot a .22 rifle, not an M-1" first in D-Day, then again in Band of Brothers, and then again in a cluster of World War II-themed newspaper pieces. Likewise, a passage from Citizen Soldiers about how "they went to school on the GI Bill of Rights, and then they started building the interstate highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the modern corporation," and so forth, turns up again in several columns urging the creation of a World War II memorial and in a piece musing about heroism in the age of political correctness.
Check out Nick's article to see the whole story.

Some bits of info are just too choice not to share with you. They say so much about this city.

You may remember that back during the Balkan Wars one of the contested spaces was the part of Croatia called the Krajina. This was essentially an ethnic Serb enclave within the borders of Croatia and as you might imagine this became a volatile crisis point in the fighting between Serbs and Croats. In any case, United Nations peace-keepers were sent into the region in the beginning of 1992 to maintain the peace. And did a reasonably good, though by no means perfect, job at it.

For a while, the matter was thus placed in suspense, until 1995 when then-Croatian President Franjo Tudjman gave the UN Mission an ultimatum to leave. Eventually the Croatians rolled in and retook the region with some quite ugly consequences.

But not, it turns out, without a good media strategy!

In an agreement signed on February 24th, 1993 the Washington foreign lobbying shop of Jefferson Waterman International agreed to help the Croatians deal with whatever bad press might ensue from reasserting their ethnic rights in the region. For instance, according to the proposal JWI submitted to the Croatian government, they advised ...

"Should the time come when it is necessary for Croatia forcefully to assert control over Croatian territory currently hosting a United Nations presence, a wave of criticism must be anticipated and countered. The groundwork to justify such actions should be laid now, not after the fact."
also
"A number of articles and individuals have articulated the viewpoint that both Croatia and Serbia are to blame for the current carnage, and that both are conspiring to carve up Bosnia. This viewpoint must not be allowed to go unchallenged."

Even ethnic cleansing needs a good PR campaign.

So what's the deal with me and Stephen Ambrose?

A number of readers have asked me to explain this earlier remark, which I made in the context of the plagiarism charges against Ambrose ...

Now before proceeding further, it's probably fair to admit that I come to this whole thing already not very friendly to Ambrose - for a number of reasons we can get to later.
Actually, a few readers are pretty damn insistent. One wrote this evening ...
You allude to the fact that you and Steve Ambrose are not on the best of terms but you never spell out why. I am curious to know what may have transpired between you two. Perhaps you are just bitter that he is a nationally respected professor while you are just a career student. The time to come clean about this is now!
Sheesh! That's kind of rough. 'Career student'? Hey, if it were almost ten years since I started a Ph.D. program and I was still only working on the last chapter of the dissertation, then I might be a career student, and maybe pretty hurtin' too. But I've got this whole journalism thing going! So I'm fine with it. And besides I get the parchment in June ... Okay, wait. I gotta center myself ...

Anyway, back to our story. So what's the deal with me and Ambrose? The reader noted above implies there's some sort of competition going on. But how would I compete with Ambrose. Over who's most crotchety? Who's most grizzled? Who's got the gravelliest voice?

Please.

Needless to say, I've never met Stephen Ambrose and have read very little of his academic work.

My beef with Ambrose is that in the recent years in which he has become a household name, he's become a purveyor of a sort of retrograde sentimentalism, the fashionable discontent of the 1990s ... You're never gonna find a generation like the WW II generation and the young'ens these days don't have the fiber! the gumption! to do the work that needs to be done. So I say vote for this feller George W. Bush. etc.

This is no beef with the men who fought and won World War II and liberated the world from fascism in Europe and militarism in East Asia. It's a beef with the cliche I feel Ambrose makes of it. And lessons he draws from it for today.

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