Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Today's Maureen Dowd column is a good example of the problem mentioned in yesterday's post. Today's column, needless to say, is on the Bill Clinton book deal. And towards the end Dowd reveals a fictitious chapter she was 'leaked' in which the ex-pres dishes about what appears to be a first tryst with Monica Lewinsky.

It's entirely clear from the context and the over-the-top quality of the leaked chapter that Dowd is putting us on. And that's perfectly legit. Talking Points has even been known to do the same some time.

But the alleged exchange between Bill Clinton and Jim Baker in Sunday's column kinda looks like it's just a put-on too. But it's not clear. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Is it a quote or is it made up? I'm not sure. Is anyone sure?

I'm not sure that we're supposed to be sure.

A couple days ago I took a harmless whack at Maureen Dowd for an error she made in her Sunday column on Al Gore. But I was even more interested in this paragraph.

At W.'s inauguration, as Bill Clinton and Al Gore walked down the stairs, Bill stopped at James Baker's row. "You were good in Florida, man, damn good," Elvis told the Velvet Hammer. Gesturing toward Mr. Gore, he went on: "But if this [epithet] would've listened to me and put me out on the trail, you'd of never had the chance to be good."
Where's that quote from? I follow politics pretty closely and I've never heard it before. Not even as scuttlebut. More to the point, the quote sounds a bit like what we sometimes call a story that's too good to check. In other words, it sounds a bit too good.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Clinton didn't say this. He very well may have. He certainly believes in the premise of the quote. But without a clue about the source it's hard to evaluate its credibility.

So where's the sourcing? Where's the quote from? I doubt Hillary or Bill gave it to her. Was it Jim Baker? Al Gore? Who?

There are any number of dishonesties and distortions trucked out to hide the essentially ideological nature of the stakes involved in the Social Security privatization debate. (If you want to see one of the more shambling and pitiful examples read this article.)

But one of the most enduring is the contention that Social Security makes about a 2% annual rate of return and that a privatized version of Social Security would make perhaps three times that rate -- in the neighborhood of 6% or 7% annually.

The idea is that Social Security is so ineptly managed because it's in the hands of the government rather than the market. But this is a classic example of an inherently dishonest analogy. One of the key reasons the "rate of return" for Social Security is low is that much of the money that goes into Social Security goes into payments that aren't strictly for retirement, but rather ones that buffer or spread around the risks inherent in life.

Let me give you an example.

When I was twelve my mother died, rather suddenly. She was thirty-seven.

On my behalf, for the next six years, and on my sister's behalf for the next fourteen years (i.e., until we were eighteen), my father received checks from the Social Security administration to help raise us.

I don't remember precisely but I think these checks were for a few hundred dollars a month for each of us. Maybe two-hundred something; I'm not sure.

At the time she died my mother was thirty-seven, so in theory she had been of working age for fifteen years. But for much of my childhood she either didn't work or worked part-time. So figure, rounding out, that there were perhaps ten years in which she was paying into Social Security, and all of those at relatively low-paying jobs.

I could run the numbers if I had more specific receipts and check-stubs here with me, but the point is pretty clear: Social Security paid out far, far more to my mother's minor children than she ever paid in. So her extremely high "rate of return" - to use what is obviously in this case a fairly misleading phrase - was very high and it pulled everyone else's down a bit.

Let's think for a moment about why this is.

The idea here isn't that her pay-in had accumulated such-and-such rate of return but that this was part of the money she would have put toward raising us had she not died (thus the cut-off at age eighteen). This is an ethical and public policy decision, not a market one. Not only could she not make that money, for obvious reasons. But the money she had paid in wasn't enough to accomplish very much. So what happened was that, under the rules of Social Security, a bit of everyone else's money was diverted toward her children, just as it routinely is for the surviving children of countless others around the country. A part of the financial consequences of her misfortune was spread out among everyone else. Social Security isn't just a big investment pool, it's also a social compact. Or, as public policy types would say, social insurance.

This is a good example of why the issues surrounding Social Security reform aren't really computational as much as they are social and ethical and ideological.

Social Security - as currently structured - represents a sort of nation-wide social compact against the vicissitudes and tragedies of our existence. We know that a certain percentage of us will die early with obligations to our children still outstanding, or we will become disabled and unable to work, and many of those down the income scale won't have made enough yet when they die to have built up funds of cash for their children. That's where Social Security comes in. Social Security isn't just a particularly poorly managed 401(k) plan it's a vast social program in which we share risk, or to put it more immediately, in which we collectively look out for each other.

When privatizers say you could get much better returns in privatized accounts one of the things they're saying is that this part of Social Security would just be dropped. That it's every man and woman for him or herself. That for widows, and the disabled, and orphans or kids whose parents die, that it's just tough *#$&. Or if your private account goes south? Well, that's tough #@$* too. (Not only is privatized Social Security not secure, it's also not social.)

Whether we should have the current kind of Social Security or the privatized version is a debate well worth having. But the privatizers are deeply committed to having the debate on dishonest terms.

Which makes sense, since it's probably the only way they can win.

Among Dems today, you've got plenty of Clinton loyalists and plenty of Gore loyalists. But not too many Clinton-Gore loyalists. In fact, hardly any. This is not just because they're so different personally. It's also because they now both carry a whole theory of Democratic politics trailing behind them like a string of tin cans trailing behind a newlyweds' car.

To Clintonites, of course, Clinton provided Gore with might may have been the most well executed assist in political history: a roaring economy, a troubled opposition party, every negative social indicator down, every positive one up, etc. etc. etc.

To the Gore folks, Gore never really had a chance, given the bad feelings over impeachment. Clinton, through his own reckless indulgence and irresponsibility, screwed things up for all Democrats in 2000 and particularly for Al Gore. Even the party's problems over social and cultural issues in the heartland -- that's really just about Clinton getting it on with Monica.

My problem is that I am a Clinton-Gore loyalist. I really, really like both these guys. Why that is I'm not completely certain, since they're so very different, and in some sense liking the one should make liking the other an impossibility.

Perhaps Clinton appeals to my inner Clinton (protean, reckless, ingenious, indomitable, always waiting till the last minute) and Gore appeals to my inner Gore (clunky rectitude, loyal, genuine, self-mocking, ardent, serious, earnest, shy). Okay, let's stop there. This is getting a bit too personal and more than a little embarrassing.

Back to the topic at hand.

Like so many long-standing differences of interpretation, the truth is that both of these theories of what happened in 2000 are true. Or at least both are true in parts. It's a bad sign that more in the party don't recognize this. And it's something that needs to get worked out if Dems are going to be able to think clearly about 2004.

We'll be saying much, much more about this.

This article in today's Post by Susan Schmidt and Bill Miller says the US Attorney's office is considering ramping up the obstruction investigation against Gary Condit and his top aides. The article doesn't quite say so but there's a pretty obvious implication to this: that the Feds do think Condit may be involved, since why else would pursuing the obstruction case help kick-start the Levy investigation.

On the other hand, now that Susan Schmidt's heading up the case for the Post you've got to figure that the odds of Condit's being completely innocent have just risen dramatically.

I've always marveled at those not-infrequent Maureen Dowd columns that have a gazillion adjectives, three dozen clever phrases or riffs, and no discernible narrative structure or point whatsoever. But this example from this morning's paper particularly caught my eye.

Does Mr. Gore really think that all the Ken dolls — John Edwards, Evan Bayh, John Kerry — much less his eager ex-protégé, Joe Lieberman, will simply step aside and say, "Oh, O.K., Al, you go again"?

Maureen Dowd
August 5th, 2001
New York Times

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a charismatic midwestern moderate regularly mentioned as a leading prospect for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, took himself out of the running last week, saying he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his twin 5-year-old sons.

Ben White
June 17th 2001
Washington Post

Even frothy columns need fact-checking, right?

Hey, what's the deal with that beard!?!? Is that Al Gore? I mean, look, I've gotta admit, I think it looks pretty good.

Anyway, on more substantive matters, Gore does seem to be making his first tentative steps out of his wisely self-imposed post-election exile. He's apparently going to start out by campaigning for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey this Fall.

I was talking to a New Dem friend of mine a few days ago who wonders whether Gore will "torment" Democrats with another run at the White House in 2004. He's certainly not the only one who feels that way. But I'll be honest, I've still got a very soft spot in my heart for the guy. And it ain't just because of the beard!

We'll be saying more about this.

As I explained last night a number of readers have written in questioning what I earlier said about Lisa DePaulo, the author of the buzzful article on Chandra Levy and Gary Condit in the new issue of Talk magazine. They had read a post on Bob Somerby's Daily Howler site and wondered whether I hadn't gotten it wrong. To recap: I said she was wonderful and very knowledgeable about the whole Chandra-Condit story; Somerby thinks she's neither.

Many of the things Somerby says are simply ad-hominem remarks. So in those cases there's nothing for me to say but that I disagree with him. Let me also say that I really don't like knocking Somerby because his column was so good last year during the presidential campaign, knocking down countless half-truths and untruths about Al Gore. Having said that, though, let me just give one example of how a little knowledge and lots of attitude has allowed Somerby to say some unkind and untrue things about DePaulo.

In the post in question Somerby lays out the following facts. In a Larry King interview a few nights ago Chandra Levy's uncle said they first told the police about Chandra's affair with Condit on May 15th. Yet a short time later on the same broadcast DePaulo repeated her claim that Levy's aunt and uncle had told the cops about the affair from "day one."

Here's what Somerby said about the apparent contradiction:

But, if Katz is to be believed, "Aunt Linda" did not come forward on "Day One," and neither, it would seem, did the Levys. DePaulo has repeatedly claimed on King’s program that the police knew about the affair "from Day One." Last night, she continued to make the melodramatic claim even after Katz seemed to say it wasn’t true.

Does any of this matter? It only matters if you’re trying to determine what has actually gone on in this case. But it matters in a different way too; it makes a difference in the hagiography which pseudo-journalists like DePaulo have been peddling. In truth, DePaulo has been functioning like a novelist; she wants to tell a morality tale, and she wants it to work Just One Way. She wants the Levys to be Totally Righteous, and she wants Condit to be a mustachio-twirling villain. Therefore, she doesn’t want you to think that the Levys, like Condit, may have initially withheld what they knew of the sexual affair. When Katz suggests that the Levys did not tell police about the affair, she rushes to clean up the story.

In other words, Somerby says that DePaulo is either ignorant of the facts of the case or indifferent to them.

Let me explain Somerby's mistake.

There are two issues here. One is whether the Levys suspected the affair with Condit from the first or only made these charges much later. I know the former is true because they told numerous people so at the very outset of the case.

In his post Somerby says the Levys first called police on May 5th (ten days before the uncle says the matter of the affair was broached.) That's true. But Somerby seems only to know the date with little of the context.

On May 5th, the Levys first called police but were basically blown off. Again the following day they called, this time more intently and begged police to visit Chandra's apartment. They did so, but conducted no search. Then several more days went by until police warmed to the idea that something was seriously wrong and conducted a full forensic search of Levy's apartment. I don't have the precise dates in front of me. But the point is that by the time the police were taking the case seriously -- doing searches, conducting interviews with Chandra's aunt and uncle, and so forth -- it was a good week later. In other words, pretty close to May 15th.

Somerby's idea seems to be that the first frantic phone call Levy's father made to the police on May 5th should have gone something like this:

Officer, we're terribly worried about our daughter. She hasn't responded to our calls in days. We're very worried. It's not like her. Can you please send someone to her apartment? And ... oh yeah, officer, by the way, she's been doing the wild-thing with our Congressman Gary Condit.
Somehow I don't think this is what Lisa meant. By "day one" I think she meant that from their first conversations with the police the Levys told them that they suspected Chandra had been having an affair with Condit. Not only do I believe this is true; but the timeline DePaulo mentioned makes perfect sense if you have more than a passing understanding of the details of the case.

I've gotten several emails this evening from readers pointing me toward the July 31st Daily Howler by Bob Somerby as evidence that I'm wrong in my estimation of Lisa DePaulo, whom I called "wonderful" and one of the most knowledgeable folks about the Chandra case in this afternoon's post.

I went and read Somerby's criticism in which he calls Lisa, among other things, a "pseudo- journalist." It pains me to say this, because I usually really like Somerby's column, but in this case he's simply wrong. About the person (DePaulo) and about the facts he supposedly calls her out on.

Unfortunately, I'm writing on deadline tonight and don't have time to go into all the particulars. But I'll be jumping into the fray either later this evening or tomorrow to set the record straight and defend Lisa (not that she needs defending, but you know what I mean) from these churlish and unfounded attacks.

Yes, Talking Points is just that chivalrous!

On Star Trek they call it 'synaptic breakdown,' the fatal, final, flickering of neural firing that marks the collapse of coherent brain wave activity and the onset of death. Media marathons often end in a similar manner. And the long-running Gary Condit-Chandra Levy saga has apparently arrived at just that point.

Need some examples? Well, how about Greta Van Susteren's show tonight about how the foreign media is reporting and interpreting the Chandra story ... (Hmmmmmm. What do the Sri Lankans make of all this. The Nepalese?) Or the running stories across all the cable nets today about parents getting leery about sending their fetching daughters off to be interns in Washington (Hint: don't do the fifty-something pol, and you'll be just fine).

Yesterday's apparently-now -discredited report of Levy's body being buried down on a military base near Richmond, Virginia seems less like the much-awaited third act and much more like one of those cliched scenes from a mid-century Hollywood melodrama where the on-the- edge-of-death hospital patient rouses him or herself for one final revealing utterance before finally giving up the ghost entirely.

There are a few good things out there worth watching still. Larry King has the wonderful Lisa DePaulo on tonight. Her much awaited Talk magazine article will be out next week (you'll definitely hear some new and revealing info from her tonight). For at least part of the show Lisa will have to share the stage with the motley crew of Garegos, Olson, Epstein, et.al., who have little if any idea of any of the facts of the case. But Lisa is one of the few folks in this whole media circus who is chock full of info and has a pretty clear understanding of everything that is knowable about the case.

There's certainly more facts to discover about this whole ugly, sorrowful story. And no end of leads worth following up. But the prospect of ever truly knowing what happened to Chandra Levy is beginning to look distant indeed. And the chances of justice for whomever did her harm look bleaker still. We may never know with absolute certainty whether Chandra Levy is alive or dead. The fate of this story, though, looks much more clear.