Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

If you've been following Talking Points' coverage of the Condit-Levy story you don't need me to tell you that I haven't been particularly sympathetic to Condit's handlers' allegations that he's been getting a bum rap from the press. But could this be an instance where he has?

As I noted in this earlier post, today's Washington Post reported that DC police had asked for a re-interview with Condit a full ten days ago. This wasn't from an anonymous source, but an on-the-record quote from DC Commander Jack Barrett, head detective on the case. That left the pretty obvious impression that Condit had been dodging a re-interview with the cops.

However, in later editions of the paper, and in the current one online, that quote from Commander Barrett about ten days is gone.

That left the obvious question of whether the line was just cut in a subsequent edition of the paper for editorial or space reasons, or whether it had in fact not been true.

I spoke late this afternoon with Petula Dvorak, the co-author of the Post piece, and she assured me that the line in question was merely "trimmed for space." As far as they're concerned the quote stands.

The new CBS-New York Times poll described in this article contains a lot of pretty bleak news for President Bush. His approval rating of 53% actually masks a series of more ominous 'internals' contained in the poll.

For all the good the 'energy crisis' was supposed to do for the administration, only a pitiful 33% of the public approves his handling of energy policy. Almost two-thirds of the public believes Bush and Cheney "are too beholden to oil companies, and that they are more likely to formulate policies that favor the industry." In fact there doesn't really seem to be any domestic policy issue on which the administration's positions don't run against the majority viewpoint (and in case you're wondering, that's not good.)

There is something else striking in these numbers -- something which has become increasingly apparent in the last month or so. President Bush really is the anti-Clinton, only not quite in the way his supporters and flacks probably intended. And not in a way likely to do him much good.

Bill Clinton was notoriously weak in how the American people judged him as a person -- at least in the narrow way pollsters ascertain such information. But a broad majority of Americans consistently and persistently believed he cared about, understood, and was working on issues and problems which were important in their daily lives. I've called this the politics of empathy -- an idea which figures prominently in a book I'm working on -- and it was something that Clinton mastered and in some respects invented.

What the Times poll shows is that President Bush is almost the mirror opposite. Despite some falling numbers on the personal approval level, most voters think the President is a decent enough fellow. But substantial majorities of them don't think he cares about the issues which matter to them, or doesn't understand them. As the Times piece notes, this is ominously similar to the problems Bush's dad faced in office. And it points to a basic structural problem in the sort of politics Bush is trying to pursue.

Today's Washington Post runs an article which raises a whole series of new questions about the Chandra Levy case.

Let's note two.

The first is that Congressman Gary Condit seems to have been a little less cooperative with the police investigation than he and the police themselves have let on. News reports yesterday said that the DC police had decided to reinterview Condit on Wednesday evening. Yet the Post story says the police first requested that second interview about ten days ago. Is there something more important going on for Condit that kept him from scheduling a time to sit down with the cops? Late word is that there's yet another delay -- and apparently the interview will again have to be rescheduled.

The other point touches on the competence, or perhaps the aggressiveness, of the police investigation. It appears that it was the Levys themselves who found the conspicuous pattern of Chandra's calls to Condit in her cell phone records -- not the police. The Post article also reports that DC Commander Jack Barrett, head detective on the case, told the paper that they hadn't known Condit's wife was making a relatively rare visit to DC during the crucial week of April 28th to May 3rd until Condit's press secretary and lawyer said so publicly last week.

How can that be? Wouldn't the initial interview have covered such obvious ground? If it did, did Condit withhold that information? Obviously, these are purely speculative questions. But since Condit's wife was in town for an official function (a meeting of the Congressional Wives Club hosted by Laura Bush), the fact that the police didn't find out she was in town can't help but call into question the thoroughness of their investigation. And their apparent (and I stress apparent) failure to come up with the cell phone information points in the same direction.

The New York Times has, for better or worse, been almost entirely silent on the Chandra Levy - Gary Condit matter. But this column by Maureen Dowd -- not one of my favorites normally -- gives a decent run down of the facts and an apt characterization of the dark, tragic nature of the story.

The Post reports this morning that Levy's parents have hired DC attorney Billy Martin to represent them. Martin, you may remember, also represented Monica Lewinsky's mother -- and emerged after a time as the de facto chief legal advisor to Monica too.

This brings almost full circle the bizarre Lewinsky-Levy parallelism. But reading Dowd's column makes it bitterly clear that this time DC has managed to stand Marx's famous dictum on its head: if this is history repeating itself, the first time was farce, the second tragedy -- not the other way around.

With all those years of carping about the horribly politicized Clinton IRS, you'd sorta think the Bush Treasury Department would keep its own nose clean for more than a few months.

Apparently Not.

The New York Times reported today that the IRS will soon begin sending letters out to scores of millions of Americans. The letters are essentially a political advertisement for President Bush in the guise of a tax announcement.

"We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed — and President George W. Bush signed into law — the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes ... The new tax law provides immediate tax relief in 2001 and long-term tax relief for the years to come ... [it is] just the first installment of the long-term tax relief provided by the new law."
A career employee at the IRS apparently leaked the letter to congressional Democrats. The article includes some quotes from government watchdogs rightly skewering this as a transparent effort to use the IRS to fund a massive 'thank you President Bush' ad campaign, as well as quotes from Frank Keith, a flack at the IRS, saying this was just a public service with information "the taxpayer needs."

A few points about this blinding display of Bush team hubris seem to have escaped mention, however.

The goodie the letter is taking credit for (an immediate tax rebate to a fairly wide cross section of taxpayers) is the one aspect of the tax bill which President Bush didn't want, and Democrats had to force on him.

Also, the contention that this is just an informational letter is rather belied by the fact that the text is cribbed directly from talking points generated by the White House political operation.

As attentive Talking Points reader will remember, the Bush White House long sold the tax plan on its universality -- a tax cut for all Americans. That is, until critics began pointing out that income taxes are only one kind of taxes Americans pay. Most Americans pay more payroll taxes than income taxes. And Americans who only pay payroll taxes don't get jack from the Bush plan.

The administration cavilled over this detail for a bit, but finally conceded the point and this Spring added a short blurb to end of the standard Bush boiler plate -- making 'tax relief for all Americans' into 'tax relief for all Americans who pay incomes taxes.'

And surprise, surprise, that very line is now part of the IRS letter. How'd that happen?

The IRS spokesman told the Times that the letter was "a collaborative effort between the agency and its parent, the Treasury Department." That's actually not to surprising, since Paul O'Neill -- once praised as refreshing moderate on the Bush team -- has of late emerged as a strikingly political and ideological Treasury chief. Of which we'll be saying more soon.

This article in the Times raises what is perhaps the one bright spot for the Bush White House in the loss of the Senate: the opportunity to blame the Democrats for the flaws and dishonesty of the Bush budget itself.

As many argued at the time, the Bush budget was premised on extremely low (unrealistically low) rates of increase in various domestic programs. It also didn't budget for things that Bush himself is already proposing: the education bill, missile defense, etc.

That's letting alone additional or expanded programs that Democrats might want.

By the end of the year, as the budget was actually getting cobbled together under Republican control, it would have become clear that the budget numbers put forth by the White House were simply a sham -- low-balled in order to ram through the tax cut.

Now, though, the White House will have an excuse, an argument. Blame it on profligate Democrats in the Senate who can't keep their spending in line. Even though the Republicans would have been equally unwilling to starve popular programs of funds.

For a variety of reasons I don't think this will actually work. But it looks likely to be the White House's strategy for the rest of the year -- especially when appropriations bills start getting voted on, and argued over between the House and the Senate, and sent on to the president's desk.

Okay, look, I tried! I did my best! I tried to think about the Patients' Bill of Rights. But the flesh is weak. So we're back to Gary Condit.

A few points. Mickey Kaus speculated a couple days ago that Condit's obtuse denials of an affair might both be logical and the best evidence of his innocence of any involvement in Levy's disappearance. I gave this theory a lot of thought. And he may be right. But one of the things that weighs against it is what I'll call 'story creep.'

If there were some plan or play book to Condit's response to all this you'd think he'd have ... well, you'd think he'd have a play book. One story that he'd stick with. But each passing day brings some fresh hemorrhage or drift in Condit's spin or storyline.

First they were just buds; then she was infatuated with him; then ... well, maybe there was something going on but hell that don't have a damn thing to do with it!

And all the while this downhill slide is accompanied by a daily barrage of information from some bizarro world where DC's Du Pont Circle neighborhood is a hotbed of abductions -- where you're about as likely to get kidnapped as you would be if you were an eco-tourist in the jungles of the Philippines. And there's a lot of other whacky ideas emanating from those 'close' to the Condit camp, as they say.

For better or worse, Condit doesn't seem like a man with a plan. He seems like a real-life version of that pitiful goof William H. Macy played in Fargo, a hapless rube who finds himself in a terrible situation, and whose desparate efforts to break free just drag him further out onto a slip-n-slide of ridiculousness and tragedy.

A while back Tim Noah tried to push a new phrase from The Sopranos: 'Disrepecting the Bing.' Disrespecting the Bing basically meant copping to an insignificant offense in order to avoid taking responsibility for, or admitting to, a far graver one.

The on-going Condit melodrama puts me in the mind of another apt phrase: looking for the 'real killers.' A la OJ, to look for the 'real killers' means to toss up cockamamie and transparently moronic diversions in a hopeless effort to draw attention away from your own misdeeds. Robert Blake was 'looking for the real killers' before the Chandra-Condit case knocked him out of the headlines.

Probably all Gary Condit is guilty of is an ill-considered affair with an intern, and some very bad luck. But, metaphorically at least, he's definitely looking for the 'real killers'.

The latest news is that Condit called Levy's parents over the weekend only to have them refuse to take his call, referring him instead to their newly-hired lawyer. As Condit's press secretary told ABCNews.com, after seeing the Levy's broadcast interview, Condit "called to take them up on their request that he talk to them ... Condit saw Susan Levy on television and he decided to call her on Saturday morning because he sensed she wanted to reach out to him." Reach out to him? Please!

Unless I missed something they never asked him to talk to them. They asked him to come clean, address publicly what he knew. The call seems pretty obviously like a stunt (presumably cooked up by Condit's advisors) to either make the Levy's look bad by refusing to talk with him or allowing him to sidle up to them in the public mind by having a heart to heart with the family.

P.S. Next up, the Patients' Bill of Rights. I promise! Really!

Why exactly is a Russian cargo plane, an Antonov 124, being used to ferry home the disassembled American spy plane which has been sitting on the runway at Lingshui Air Base in China for the last two months? The Chinese apparently refused to allow an American military aircraft to land at Lingshui to retreive it. And the Russian AN-124 is apparently the biggest production cargo plane made. So Lockheed put the job out to bid and contracted with the Russian firm Polyot Air Cargo Ltd. to crate the thing back to the US in several pieces.

('Polyot' is the Russian word for 'flight' and thus it's a little difficult to pick apart all the various companies with similar names. But based on a few quick Nexis searches, Polyot Air Cargo appears to be a subsidiary of the Polyot aerospace concern which has ties to the Russian military and is currently working on plans to launch satellites from Antonov 124s. Polyot planes were also used in March 1999 in a suspected effort to ship MIGs to Yugoslavia or North Korea.)

Frankly I'm not sure there's anything so bad about this. I assume they've taken precautions to make sure there are no Russian military personnel on board the cargo plane who can crack the boxes open while they're in flight.

But wouldn't folks on the right be going nuts if this happened on Bill Clinton's watch? And for those on the right who are already bent out of shape about American 'kow-towing' to China, isn't this just a further loss of face or dignity? Any thoughts, Marshall?

For those who haven't noticed, Evan Bayh announced officially last week that he won't be running for president in 2004. Despite what some say, that really should not come as a surprise for several reasons. First, he is up for reelection in 2004, which makes a presidential run difficult. More important though is that he was just too far off the reservation on the Bush tax cut -- and that's a proxy for much else.

Bayh is the Chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. One of the highlights of the tax cut debate for Dems was the fact that the pro-business, centrist DLC ended up having pretty much the same position on the tax cut as the left-labor Economic Policy Institute -- i.e., the two wings of the Democratic party. But Bayh wouldn't even get on board with his own organization's position -- a real embarrassment for him and the DLCers.

As regular readers know, these pages are normally taken up with asides about public policy, handicapping of Democratic presidential aspirations, digs at the Bush White House, and miscellaneous other ideas I have about political matters. I've gotten a number of messages recently praising how I've been following the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy matter. But I've also gotten a few, quite thoughtful, emails from readers asking just why I am spending so much time on what they see as essentially a tabloid story.

Frankly, I've wondered myself. So let me see if I can answer the question.

First a mundane reason. As a journalist, when you pull at a dangling thread and see three more threads come free it's hard to resist pulling on those too. To put this more concretely, every question about this case seems to yield more questions or more misleading responses. And purely on an instinctive level that makes it difficult to resist.

That begs the question, though, of why this got me interested in the first place. The answer is that this first caught my eye as a media story, and a rather important one at that. The press corps here in DC goes wild over all sorts of whacky, unsubstantiated, and irrelevant stories. But this seemed like a story that was actually quite serious.

A young woman disappeared under very mysterious circumstances. And there was strong evidence connecting her romantically to a sitting United States congressman. Let's imagine this case were set in Los Angeles. A young woman disappears under very mysterious and very ominous circumstances. Investigators discover that she was carrying on a secret relationship with an older married man. I guarantee you the LAPD would have turned that guy's life upside down. When women disappear, police routinely look first at the men they're linked with romantically -- especially if those links are furtive. That doesn't mean that's right. And it certainly doesn't mean that the men in question are guilty of anything. But that is what happens.

In this case, though, Condit is a congressman and that's changed the calculus.

Something else has happened with the media, though. Frankly, for a mix of personal and political reasons, the pundit gatekeepers in DC think Gary Condit is good people. They've found it inconceivable that any of these suspicions about the case could be true. And for weeks they largely ignored it. Or at least opted to give Condit every benefit of the doubt. (Let's just say that's a quite different attitude than would have been adopted to some other politicians I can think of.) This issue of the subtle and unspoken establishmentarian attitudes which shape coverage of official Washington is a topic of great interest to me -- as readers of various of my articles in other publications will know.

There's another related reason. Reporters cultivate an image of dogged truth-seekers who kick up rocks and report what they find come hell or high water. The truth is a little different. Reporters conceive of stories in conventionalized terms, standard storylines, motifs and so on. Is it a secret affair story? Maybe a corruption story? A campaign finance shenanigans story? An in-trouble back home with the constituents story?

These are some of the routine storylines that people look for. Some stories though don't fall clearly into any of these rubrics. A secret affair story is juicy and it may mean the end of the line for a politician. But it's basically a victimless crime. No one really gets hurt -- in a literal sense. And to journalists at least, basically a cynically fun time is had by all.

That's where this story is different. This story has been a little dicier for reporters to sink their teeth into because frankly you don't know quite what you're getting into. It's unpredictable. You don't know just what you're going to find. To some extent, this is a very valid reason for caution -- since obviously you don't want to be tossing around charges when someone is missing. But it's also led to a suspicious reticence as well.

So, what's attracted me to this story was the perception -- from the outset -- that there was a deep-seated double-standard at work; that establishment types in DC liked Condit and weren't inclined to give him a hard time; that he's a congressman in a city run by Congress and the police seemed to be giving him a wide berth; and that the media's customary aggressiveness seemed conspicuously absent.

Obviously, now most all of this has changed. And to readers who've been critical of my writing on this I can only say that I appreciate and respect your concerns, and, to a great degree, share them. But for the reasons I have set forth above I thought and still think that this was worth looking into.