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RUBBING SHOULDERS! Gregory threw a baby shower. But why was Chertoff there? // link // print // previous // next //

THE SECOND TIME AROUND: In this morning’s Post, Howard Kurtz discusses the press corps’ new approach to White House hopeful John McCain. “Is the honeymoon really over?” the headline asks. Early on, Kurtz recalls the shape of McCain’s press coverage during Campaign 2000:
KURTZ (4/26/07): Seven years ago, as reporters rode around this first primary state on McCain's campaign bus, chatting up the candidate for hours on end, a romance was born.

"Journalists go weak in the knees around the guy," wrote Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who admitted joining the swoon. "McCain is easier to get access to than a Hong Kong hooker," a Time cover story announced. Ari Fleischer, the spokesman for candidate George W. Bush, complained that "John McCain is a media darling."
Fair enough. But that barely begins to capture the foolishness—and the groaning lack of professionalism—which characterized the press corps’ swoon that year. And make no mistake—once McCain was eliminated in March 2000, the romance was transferred to the Bush campaign plane, where Bush was soon mounting his “charm offensive.” No, that romance wasn’t as strong as the one which had flourished on McCain’s big white bus. But the contrast with the press corps’ trashing of Gore was plain for all to see.

This morning, we chuckled at one part of Kurtz’s piece. He recorded something McCain said yesterday, up in New Hampshire. He had just taken questions from reporters:
KURTZ (4/26/07): As the lines of inquiry were exhausted, McCain allowed that he is superstitious (he won't pick up pennies if they're tails side up) and traced that to his days as a fighter pilot.
We note again what we’ve noted before—McCain’s ability to mention his Vietnam service in every conceivable circumstance. But Kurtz is right—that romance has cooled. Seven years ago, most reporters (not Kurtz—let’s be fair) would have rendered that passage like this:
REVISED PASSAGE (CAMPAIGN 2000 EDITION): As the lines of inquiry were exhausted, McCain allowed that he is superstitious (he won't pick up pennies if they're tails side up). Although he hates to discuss Vietnam, he reluctantly traced his superstition to his days as a fighter pilot.
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: What was it like for McCain during Campaign 2000? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/00. It’s part 1 of a four-part report.

Special report: Gregory’s world!

PART 3—RUBBING SHOULDERS: No, it isn’t just David Gregory, a better-than-average TV reporter. At the tippity-top of our Washington press corps, many people make huge chunks of money (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/25/07). And yes, this access to massive wealth almost surely has an effect on the way the news gets presented. It’s human nature, after all. People will do a lot of things to haul down massive salaries; they may adopt the outlooks and world-views of their corporate owners and upper-end peers, for example. And the world inevitably starts looking different to many people who haul in big dough. We thought Margaret Carlson captured this problem in her fall 2000 chat with Don Imus. When people earn such massive salaries, politics will sometimes start looking different. When massive wealth provides a firewall against society’s basic problems, your nation’s politics can start to seem like “fun,” “entertainment” and “sport.”

That said, we’d guess that most voters don’t think of such things when they ponder the work of their press corps. After all, how many NBC viewers have any idea of the massive dough being earned by Gregory and his superstar wife, Beth Wilkinson? The press corps rarely discusses the press corps, and they definitely shy from issues of wealth. They tend to get all lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous on us—when it comes to people in other professions. But they also tend to be very quiet—when it comes to the wealth of their own.

When Tim Russert wrote Big Russ, for example, he went on and on about the good judgment he enjoys because of his Buffalo boyhood. But wouldn’t you know it? Pressed for time, he forgot to mention the Nantucket home where he now summers (and possibly autumns). In 2003, he had told the Washingtonian’s Sallie Brady how much he loves the “sprawling gray-shingled house, with rooftop sundeck and cutting garden” to which he repairs on the rose-envined isle. But surprise! He never mentioned this world in his book—a book which would be sold to the masses—and he forgot to mention the fact that his former owner, Jack Welch, was also found there on the island. Indeed, no one promotes its big players’ working-class image in quite the way NBC News does; Russert is always talking up Buffalo, and Brian Williams is ruthlessly programmed to mention his vast love for NASCAR. But the press corps’ wealth is rarely discussed, except in the Washingtonian, a publication for Washington’s swells. Washingtonian readers can handle this stuff. Elsewhere, your press corps’ modesty keeps them from mentioning the wealth—wealth which does affect some of their work.

(By the way, readers: John Edwards paid too much for his house! Do you see how easy life can be for D.C. pundits when they stifle talk of their own wealth?)

But there’s something else that rarely gets mentioned in mass publications—the press corps’ insider connections. Indeed, when such connections get mentioned at all, such discussions can be rather guarded. Example: This passage by Howard Kurtz in last year’s profile of Gregory:
KURTZ (3/14/06): In his personal life, Gregory also rubs shoulders with newsmakers. At a baby shower for his wife before their son Max, now 3, was born, Michael Chertoff, then an assistant attorney general, disappeared into another room with a Justice Department colleague while Gregory tried to figure out what was going on. It turned out they were finalizing a plea agreement with John Walker Lindh, the American captured while fighting for the Taliban. Wilkinson last month became general counsel of Fannie Mae, and the couple now have 8-month-old twins as well.
Say what? What in the world was Michael Chertoff doing at Wilkinson’s baby shower? Chertoff, of course, has played many roles in Republican politics over the past fifteen years. Today, he’s head of Homeland Security. But back in the 1990s, he was special counsel for the D’Amato Senate committee which investigated—or pretended to investigate—a wide range of allegations concerning Bill Clinton and everyone else he’d ever known. Chertoff may be the world’s nicest guy—we don’t know. But in those days, he played it tough; when he was nominated for a judgeship in 2003, Hillary Clinton was the sole dissenting vote in the Senate, saying that junior White House staffers had been “very badly treated” during the Chertoff probes. (In 2001, Clinton was also the lone dissenter when the Senate confirmed Chertoff to head the Justice Department’s criminal division.) Chertoff had been a rough partisan player. Now, he was “rubbing shoulders” with Gregory—at his wife’s baby shower! But why in the world was he doing that? Kurtz, like the Sphinx, didn’t tell.

In fact, it seems that Chertoff may have played a key role in Wilkinson’s career—although, as in the case of those Nantucket shacks, you’re only going to hear such things in the Washingtonian. In April 2005, Kim Eisler described “shouts of joy at the 180-lawyer Washington office of Latham & Watkins” when Bush named Chertoff to head Homeland Security. Latham, of course, was Wilkinson’s firm—but Chertoff had been a partner there too. According to Eisler, Wilkinson stood to gain from her colleague’s nomination:
EISLER (4/05): Latham made a serious commitment to identifying itself with terrorism issues when it hired Justice Department prosecutor Beth Wilkinson in 1998 to join a stable of attorneys best known in Washington for the environmental practice of former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Wilkinson had earned her antiterrorism stripes as a key member of the prosecution team that won a conviction of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. She is married to NBC White House correspondent David Gregory.

Now, even though Chertoff will be legally restrained from favoring his former firm, Wilkinson stands ready to benefit by her past associations with Chertoff.
Eisler didn’t explain how Wilkinson stood to benefit from this connection. But one year later, he returned to the question in a piece for his magazine’s “POWER PLAYERS” section. According to Eisler, influence over Bush Admin legal appointments was now being wielded by Chertoff and Latham. Let’s leave out the mumbo-jumbo and take you straight to the chase:
EISLER (4/06): After the debacle of naming Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, it was Chertoff who persuaded Bush to settle on Samuel Alito. Chertoff and Alito are good friends who served together both in the New Jersey US Attorney's Office and on the same federal circuit court.

Chertoff's influence hardly stops there. Alice Fisher, the chief of Justice's criminal division, once worked for Chertoff. So did Noel Hillman, recently appointed to the federal bench. So did Julie Myers, the new head of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs office.

Another former Latham lawyer is Chris Cox, the new chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Legal Times found 11 former Chertoff associates in key administration posts. A connection to the Latham firm, Chertoff, or both is about the best thing a government-job seeker can have on a résumé.

Top lawyer and former Latham partner Beth Wilkinson, who knows Chertoff from both the firm and the Justice Department, was named general counsel of struggling home-mortgage giant Fannie Mae. Wilkinson's strengths include her Latham connections and her professional friendship with Chertoff. At the Justice Department, she was also an expert in terrorism.

Wilkinson is more than occupied with her new job and raising a set of young twins with husband David Gregory, NBC's prickly White House correspondent. Otherwise, insiders say, Chertoff's successor at Homeland Security might have well made it two in a row for Latham.
Yikes! Unnamed “insiders” had even told Eisler that Wilkinson might have been a contender for Homeland Security chief! We find that rather hard to believe, given her husband’s “prickly” ways. But Eisler provided some background to the shoulder-rubbing which Kurtz had already described.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it! But big Washington journos live in a world of wealth and insider connection—a world that seldom gets discussed in the press corps. Your press corps knows to play by the rules! It rarely discusses those Nantucket swells—or the shoulder-rubbing that may transpire among its biggest players. They cluck about this—in other professions. They clam when it comes to their own.

The press corps rarely discussed the press corps. You have to hunt to find the tales of Gwen Ifill providing home cooking for Condi (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/03). Of Ted Koppel driving over to let Colin Powell check out his fast new cars (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/19/04). Sometimes, of course, they can’t help themselves, as when Russert boasted, on Meet the Press, about the clairvoyance he had displayed at Don Rumsfeld’s Christmas party (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/16/03). But usually you have to turn to the Washingtonian—for example, to learn the way major journos form religious ties with the Big Major Pols they’re supposed to be covering. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/11/05. Scroll down to the long Matuswo excerpt from the June 03 Washingtonian.

Are you troubled at all by such press-pol connections? The public doesn’t have to worry! Unless they read the Washingtonian, they won’t read inside dope of that kind.

Gregory’s work has been better—in some ways, much better—than that of some of his NBC colleagues. But at the upper end of your Washington press corps, big players are swimming in wealth and connection. And yes, this sometimes affects their judgment—and, in the process, it may change your lives! Tomorrow, a new piece of Howler history! Omigod! How very strange! The pundit gang at MSNBC flipped at a critical juncture!

THEN, THERE’S THIS STUFF TOO: Then, you get to this stuff too. Wilkinson may have presented a very good case. But we felt we had to tattle:
EISLER (12/04): At the Justice Department a decade ago, Wilkinson gained experience in trial work and expertise in terrorism through her work on the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Both skills are now valuable in her private practice. Her trial skills place her in the top tier of the nation's litigators, the lawyers who actually go into court and fight the battles. When Philip Morris needed to get a $28-billion judgment in favor of a smoker reversed, it skipped over many older male attorneys and hired Wilkinson. In the second trial, the tobacco giant was cleared of negligence. Wilkinson has advised Ford Motor on its tire problems and was attorney for the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee after allegations that bribery played a role in bringing the Olympics to Utah. In her early forties, Wilkinson is married to NBC White House correspondent David Gregory.
Eisler may have slightly misdescribed Wilkinson’s work for Philip Morris (we’re not entirely certain). But she did win several big cases for the company (click here, keep reading), and her approach to these cases has been applauded in industry journals. Again, she may have had the better case; a lot of tobacco suits are fairly shaky. But at the top of the national press corps, a lot of shoulders are being rubbed. Due to the modesty of the press corps, news consumers have little real clue about the sweep of these connections.

TOMORROW—PART 4: Even we had to ask ourselves: Did Jack make a call?