Josh Marshall

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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 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.

The second half of the last decade was unquestionably the heyday of gizmocracy -- rule by gizmocrats. Not technocrats, mind you. But gizmo-crats. Technocrats are the Robert McNamaras, the IBM white shirt and black tie types, the big urban planners. Gizmocrats are another breed entirely, like Marc Andreessen, the dudes who invented the Palm Pilot, and those over-educated, furry-chinned web designers who create all the bells and whistles on web sites (Talking Points actually spent a couple years in grad school as one of those). In other words, a new ruling class of people who create things we really don't need but are just a whole lot of fun to have.

In any case, following up on the last post, the consensus seems to be that the two things which might be helpful to have on TPM are a search function and a printer-friendly version (I'm glad this was the consensus because all the other ideas seemed lame to me). And now that the economy has gone bust, I'm thinking I can get my own gizmocrat at bargain-basement prices or perhaps for nothing at all through some TPM internship scam.

I've been gratified of late to have received any number of requests for the addition of various and sundry online gizmos to improve what I guess we might call, with a large dollop of grandiosity, the Talking Points experience.

In no particular order, these include:

A special Talking Points search function, preferably, I am told, searchable by post and not just by week.

A button for a "printer-friendly" version of TPM.

A button for an "email to a friend" function.

A mailing list to receive Talking Points by email.

A way to support TPM without using the honor system payment mechanism.

Talking Points weekly chats (I kid you not!).

Special gold-leafed bound editions of Talking Points (okay, I am kidding about that one).

Needless to say the weekly chats are just so so so never going to happen. And for quite different reasons neither will Talking Points be delivered by email. But I'd be interested to hear from regular readers what if any of these other features sound helpful. I've generally tried to avoid doing anything with the site any more complicated than it currently is since the entirety of Talking Points -- graphics, design, coding, haggling with the bonehead tech support people -- is done by TPM's one person staff. And I like to keep the staff from getting overtaxed and expenses from getting too high.

But if some of these features sound like good ideas I will hunt around for some teenage or twenty-something gizmocrat to work on it.

In case you missed it, the word out today is that John DiIulio, Bush's faith-based services czar, is resigning his post. Frankly, this was inevitable, as we noted in these very pages back in March. In fact, let's reprint what we said back on March 22nd about the impossibility of DiIulio's position in the Bush White House.

Here's the key issue with DiIulio, however. There's something deeper at work here than just a disagreement over how faith-based services should function, even deeper than the obvious fissures over racial politics.

The whole debate over social services, poverty, welfare and so forth moves on two separate axes. One is the right vs. left axis that we're all familiar with. But this is often the less interesting of the two.

There's also the 'give a #$%&' vs. the 'don't give a @#&$' axis.

I disagree with DiIulio on all sorts of points. But anyone who's familiar with DiIulio's career knows that he's definitely in the 'give a $%&#' (GAF) category. I would say that someone like James Q. Wilson is also in the GAF category even though I disagree with him on many points.

And that's the problem. What the Bush folks should have realized is that if you're in the DGAF category (which the Bushies indubitably are on urban poverty and social disenfranchisement issues) the last thing you want to do is to hire a GAF to run your shop.

Bad, bad, bad decision. And now they're going to pay the price for that mistake with really embarrassing stories which will almost certainly lead to DiIlulio's eventually getting canned.

Some of the actual details of how it all shook out are in Dana Milbank's afternoon piece in the Post. But this was in the cards from day one.

It turns out that knocking Walter Isaacson isn't only the right thing to do it also generates a hell of a lot of traffic. Thursday was the most trafficked day in Talking Points Memo's history. Having said that, allow me a brief follow-up.

In the Isaacson post I referred to the network's 'Tailwind' report as an earlier debacle. This of course was CNN's special report alleging that American soldiers in Vietnam had used nerve gas on at least one occasion in I believe 1970 or 1971. After heavy criticism and a wave of denials from the Pentagon, CNN disavowed the story, apologized, and canned the producers.

In referring to this as a debacle I left the impression that the story was wrong and should never have been run. What I meant was a little different. Either the story was wrong and should never have been run or it was a good story and CNN bailed out when the going got rough. Either way it was a debacle for the network.

I'm agnostic about the underlying facts -- whether nerve gas was used, etc -- because I am simply not familiar enough with the details of the case. But it is only fair to point out that the two producers canned by CNN for their involvement with the report sued CNN and CNN has now settled with both of them -- apparently after they unearthed information supporting their claims.

And one other point. Isaacson's response to the criticism of his currying favor with conservatives is that it's all been taken out of context. He plans to curry favor with everybody. He's apparently said he's also talking with Jim Carville and Phil Donohue about maybe doing shows.

I'm very skeptical about whether this is true. But even if it is, I think it still confirms rather than contradicts my point. Why has it been taken out of context? Because every time Isaacson goes and fawningly chats up some 'winger in the hopes of currying favor they apparently go right to the press, spill the beans, portray the whole episode as an admission of CNN's left-wing bias, and generally play Isaacson for a fool.

Indulge me in a hypothetical, will you?

Let's imagine Bill Clinton was trying to scrunch together the nation's budget numbers while avoiding dipping into the Social Security surplus -- that is to say, without busting open the hallowed 'lock-box'. He realizes he has to dip into the Social Security funds. But instead of coming clean and admitting what he's doing he comes up with a new way to calculate the numbers which -- surprise, surprise! -- resolves the problem for him.

How do you think the press would report that story? (Okay, yes, David Maraniss would probably bang out a quick new book on the tie-in because personal morality and fiscal morality. But I mean, beside him. How would everyone else play it?)

And how will they report it now that that's exactly what George W. Bush is doing?

Ask not for whom the box locks, George. It locks for thee!

Two quick notes on the ensuing battle over fiscal policy (taxing and spending) which will likely consume political debate this Fall.

From the moment Jim Jeffords ditched the Republicans and handed Senate control to Tom Daschle, the more perspicacious strategists in both parties realized that the switch had at least one silver lining for Republicans.

No, it wasn't the endless pundit-consensus blather about Democrats needing to 'get something done.' It was rather different.

When Fall rolled around and it became clear that the Bush tax cut had lurched the budget back into deficits (or at least back into dipping into the Social Security and Medicare surpluses), who would take the blame? So long as the Republicans controlled the White House and Capitol Hill the administration could not escape taking the hit for the inevitable fiscal breakdown. On the other hand, if the Democrats controlled one chamber -- the Senate -- then the White House could say the problem was that Democrats were spending too much.

This may strike you as a flawed argument. But often in politics it's not a matter of having a persuasive response to an allegation or even a plausible one. It's just about having something to say. The Democratic takeover of the Senate advanced the White House's argument from ridiculousness to mere disingenuousness -- and in Bush terms that's no mean feat. President Bush trotted the argument out yesterday and you'll be hearing it a lot more.

The other part of the story is the White House's move to reconfigure the way that the Social Security revenue numbers are calculated in order to free up another $4 billion or so more. The implication of this move is clear: the new surplus numbers (already delayed for political reasons by the CBO) are either going to dip into the Social Security trust fund or come perilously close to doing so. Rather than take the heat for this, they're changing the way the numbers are calculated. They're cooking the books, etc.

As is always done in these cases the argument will be that this is actually a more accurate way of scoring the numbers (just one that hadn't occurred to anyone else for the last sixty-five years.) But those of us who aren't as dumb as doorknobs will realize that this is not only probably false but, more importantly, irrelevant since this is really just an example of, to quote Ted Olson, "changing the rules in the middle of the game." And if you'll think back to last year's recount, that's something Republicans really aren't supposed to like.

Is it too early to start calling for Walter Isaacson to resign as head of CNN? Or should we wait until next week when he'll probably head up to the Hill for another round of bitch slapping at the hands of Tom DeLay? Isaacson has managed to lose more credibility for CNN since the beginning of August than the previous management of the network was able to pull off in twenty years.

(And I'm including in the tally the Operation Tailwind debacle and the six-month run of Spin Room!)

Let's review. On August 2nd, as one of his first acts as head of CNN, Isaacson went to the Hill to meet with House Republican leaders to find out how the network could be seen more favorably by conservatives. "I was trying to reach out to a lot of Republicans who feel that CNN has not been as open covering Republicans, and I wanted to hear their concerns," Isaacson told Roll Call a few days later. That was the line; but the reality wasn't hard to decipher.

Now we have reports that Isaacson's CNN is trying to woo Rush Limbaugh into the CNN fold either by rebroadcasting his show, a la Don Imus on MSNBC, or by creating a new show specially for the network. (This would presumably be to balance the pervasive left-wing bias of Larry King Live.)

For years conservatives have been knocking CNN for liberal bias. Roger Ailes -- one-time Republican media impresario and currently head of FOX News -- took to dubbing CNN the 'Clinton News Network.' In other words, conservatives have been mau-mauing CNN because it doesn't have an editorial line closer to that of the transparently conservative FOX News. And now that CNN is losing a ratings war with FOX, Isaacson has decided to play ball and curry favor with prominent conservatives to solve the problem.

Even if you think CNN really is biased toward the left, Isaacson's antics still don't pass muster. If he really thought CNN tilted too much to the left the answer would be elementary -- shift the editorial line further to the center. Isaacson's a smart guy; he doesn't need outside advice from Trent Lott on how to do this. On the other hand, if he wanted to curry favor with right-wing pols to blunt their criticism, pander to conservative viewers, and compete more effectively with FOX then you'd expect him to be doing pretty much what he's doing right now.

Worse than practicing bad journalism, Isaacson seems intent on achieving what can only be called a tour de force of pitifulness. Nominally, Ailes and company are praising Isaacson's efforts, but they make little attempt to conceal that they really think he's pathetic, a chump, someone who's easy to roll. They're patting him on the back just like the wise-ass high schooler pats a push-over teacher on the back after he's cowed him by mouthing off a few times in class.

It's sad to see Isaacson pull CNN (which could have been the BBC of the 21st century) down this dignity-scrapping path. FOX has nothing to be ashamed of; they're conservative. They are what they are. CNN just looks desperate and pitiful.