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25 February 2002

Our current howler (part IV): Lay, Kenneth, lay

Synopsis: The Lay-in-the-Lincoln-Bedroom lie helps instruct us in where spin comes from.

Matt Drudge, The Drudge Report, 1/11/02

Enron "Players" Worked D.C. Ties
Stephen Hedges, The Chicago Tribune, 1/13/02

Commentary by Brit Hume, Fred Barnes
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 1/14/02

Enron: The Press Has The Smoke, But It Can’t Find The Fire
Bill Sammon, The White House Weekly, 1/15/02

Heavy Hitters Are Light On Bush’s Overnight List
Dan Balz and Charles Babcock, The Washington Post, 2/27/97

Meredith Fisher, The Washington Post, 8/16/93

Where does spin come from? Starting with a January 13 piece in the Chicago Tribune, a potent new spin-point began making its way through your hapless press corps. Was the Enron mess a Republican scandal? Utter nonsense, this new spin-point said. But here, we’ll let Fred Barnes recite it. He spoke on Special Report:

BRIT HUME (1/14/02): Question: Is the Enron collapse, financial collapse, a fading scandal or a blooming scandal? Let me start with you, Fred.

BARNES: Oh, it’s obviously fading, for a number of reasons…After all, it was— while Bush got a lot of campaign contributions, we know the favors that have been dealt out to Enron, were dealt out by the Clinton White House.

And Ken Lay not only played golf with Clinton, he spent a night in the Lincoln Bedroom…

The Tribune had run this same claim one day earlier. "Lay was no stranger to the Clinton White House," Stephen Hedges wrote, "playing golf with the president and staying overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom." This claim was, of course, Spin Magic. It tied an emerging GOP bogey-man, Lay, to an iconic Clinton "scandal," the Lincoln Bedroom. In the weeks that followed, the claim that Clinton hosted Lay in the Lincoln Bedroom was reported in an array of newspapers, and on a string of TV shows. It was being used as the perfect squelch to Democratic charges about Enron and Bush.

As you probably know, this charge was simply false. Ken Lay did not spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton years. Gene Lyons first noted this fact in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on February 13, and the Spinsanity gang furthered the reporting last Thursday in Salon. But where do potent spin-points like this come from? Spinsanity’s Brendan Nyhan missed one clue when he tracked the GOP’s new prize tale.

When the Tribune reported the Lincoln Bedroom canard, it cited no source for its claim. But two days later, the Washington Times’ Bill Sammon wrote this in the White House Weekly:

SAMMON (1/15/02): As cyberjournalist Matt Drudge recently pointed out, McLarty was later hired by Enron. Lay slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, played golf with Clinton and became an energy adviser to the Democratic administration, which helped Enron get a gas pipeline contract in Mozambique.

Uh-oh! Sammon seemed to trace the LB claim back to Drudge. And sure enough! On January 11, Drudge had put the bogus claim into play:

DRUDGE (1/11/02): McLarty was later hired by Enron. Lay also played golf with President Bill Clinton and slept in the Clinton White House. A master of political manipulation of both parties, Lay served as an adviser to the Clinton White House on energy issues.

Drudge didn’t say "Lincoln Bedroom," but soon the potent spin-point was being widely bruited all the same. Let’s review the initial chronology:

January 11: Matt Drudge
January 13: Stephen Hedges, Chicago Tribune
January 14: Judy Keen, USA Today; Fred Barnes, Special Report
January 15: Bill Sammon, White House Weekly

The potent new spin-point was on the march. According to a LEXIS search, no one had voiced the claim before Drudge. For the record, Drudge’s claim that Enron hired McLarty was also false. No matter—major papers printed that canard too, and have recently begun posting corrections. One final point: as Lyons made clear in his recent piece, it was perfectly easy to find out that Drudge’s claim was utterly false. Journalists who repeated his claim either didn’t try to do a simple check—or were deliberately lying.

So where does spin come from? Let’s spell it out nice and plain. Dissemblers in the Bush White House (or at the RNC) decided they wanted to deceive you. So they handed a piece of disinformation to Drudge, and he compliantly typed ’er on up. Mysteriously, the very same falsehood turned up two days later in a news report in the Chicago Tribune. Fred Barnes recited the claim the next day; dittoes for Judy Keen, in USA Today. ("Lay played golf with Clinton, was an overnight guest at Clinton’s White House and advised the Clinton administration on energy issues.") Soon we were off the races. Once again, your dysfunctional press corps assured the nation of something that was simply false.

And people do get fooled by this conduct. Indeed, as the spin-point made its way through the press, something else began to appear—angry letters from American citizens who had been baldly deceived. In fact, the cattle were soon stampeding hard. On February 2, for example, Charlene Butts of New Caney, Texas sounded off in the Houston Chronicle:

Can’t tarnish president

Trying to tarnish the Bush administration with the Enron mess is a stretch that Democrats and the liberal media are very busy with. I have seen no evidence of George W. Bush doing Ken Lay’s bidding—whatever that might have been.

The media fail to bring up the fact that Bill Clinton’s administration gave all kinds of favors for large donations as well as nights in the Lincoln bedroom. We have a man with integrity in the White House who has an 84 percent approval rating.

Charlene Butts, New Caney

Hmmm. Butts didn’t quite say that Lay got one of those LB stays. But Jack Greene of Portland, Oregon did, in the February 15 Oregonian:

President Bush and Enron—bed partners?

The Democrats and their accomplices, the news media, work overtime to portray a White House quid pro quo in the eyes of those foolish enough to believe that the media’s goal is to report the news fairly.

After all, if Bush and Vice President Cheney can be connected to the Enron mess, what a great payback that would be for Whitewater and impeachment proceedings. For the record, Enron reached its peak during the Clinton administration, amidst golf matches with President Clinton and a $100,000 campaign contribution that got Kenneth Lay a stayover in the Lincoln bedroom—but then, who didn’t pay to stay there?

…There certainly is wrongdoing here, but it doesn’t involve Bush or Cheney—it involves disingenuous Senate Democrats and the liberal media who will use any means available to prevent a second term...

JACK GREENE Northeast Portland

Luckily, Greene was on to the "liberal media," who were trying to prevent Bush’s re-election. But then, many stampeding citizens had noticed the failure of local papers to report the Clinton-Lay Lincoln Bedroom scandal. On January 26, James Enright of Oakville, Missouri let the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have it:

If the only source of information one had on the Enron situation was from the Post-Dispatch, you would believe that only Republicans had anything to do with the disaster and that Enron flowered and fell under George W. Bush’s administration.

Never mentioned is the fact that Kenneth Lay, Enron’s former top officer, often golfed with Bill Clinton. Lay stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom…

James Enright, Oakville

Similar letters appeared in the Portland Oregonian, the Modesto Bee, the Daily Oklahoman, the Augusta Chronicle and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as readers complained about the press corps’ failure to report the Lincoln Bedroom matter. And if you’re a student of the way the press corps fools the public, you will surely chuckle about a letter which appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News:

Didn’t buy Bush

Re Gerald Plessner’s "Money fuels arrogance and scandal" (Viewpoint, Feb. 10): In the middle of his list of supposed Republican connections to Enron, he notes that Ken Lay slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. I’m sure the original sentence made it clear that Ken Lay was a welcome guest in that bedroom during the Clinton administration.

Carlotta Barnes, Newbury Park

Barnes was sure that Plessner was dissembling. Sadly, she was totally wrong. When did Ken actually lay across that big brass bed? In 1997, the Washington Post did a piece about President George H. W. Bush’s overnight guests. Stop us if you’ve heard this one:

BALZ AND BABCOCK: Comedian Bob Hope, tennis player Andre Agassi, singers Lee Greenwood and Crystal Gayle and baseball great Ted Williams spent the night at the White House during President George Bush’s four years in office...

The Bush guest list includes at least seven "friends" who also donated $100,000 or more to the Republican National Committee during the 1988 campaign or during his administration…

Several others gave significant amounts of money to the party but were not in the $100,000 category. They included: Ken Lay of the Enron Corp.; Richard Rainwater, a Fort Worth investor; Perry Bass of Fort Worth; and Donald Hall of Hallmark Cards.

We find the info less than shocking, but Lay accomplished his White House stay during the first Bush admin.

Readers, let’s summarize. Ken Lay snoozed in the White House under Bush. He did not stay in the White House under Clinton. But spinners got busy deceiving the public, and soon the cattle were running hard. We could always ask what our nation has done to deserve a press which takes "info" from Drudge. But that is the press corps we currently have. Our question for Barnes and all the rest: Why in the world does that happen?

Note: On Saturday morning, we asked the Tribune’s Hedges, plus co-authors Jeff Zeleny and Frank James, where they got the Lincoln Bedroom story. Could it be true—does the Tribune use information from Drudge? So far, no reply to our incomparable e-mails.

Teeing off with the enemy: What about Bill and Ken on the links? By all accounts, there was one such event, in August 1993. And yes, it sounds pretty sleazy. As usual, Bill was consorting with some real gangster types. Here’s the way the event was limned by the Washington Post’s NAMES & FACES:

Presidents Duel With Clubs!

President Clinton may have just squeaked his budget through Congress, but he has already returned to playing ball with the enemy.

Clinton began his vacation with a bipartisan golf match Saturday at the Country Club of the Rockies in Vail, Colo., teaming up with fellow Democrat (and golf pro) Jack Nicklaus to take on the Republican duo of former president Gerald Ford and Houston businessman Ken Lay.

During a photo op on the greens, Clinton was asked about the significance of a Democrat playing with a Republican. The eager putter responded: "It’s the way I’m going to try to run the rest of my administration. I don’t ever want the kind of polarization we had the last six months."

This is the only Clinton-Lay golf game found on LEXIS. The information is easy to find; due to the manifest dangers of playing golf with Ford, Clinton’s daring attempt at outreach was widely reported. (What was the Secret Service thinking?) But a number of scribes got clever this month, making Bill and Ken’s round of golf plural. So it goes when your Washington "press corps" tries to tell you the stories it likes.

The Daily update (2/25/02)

Tail-gunner Andrew: Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan continues along as an upscale Drudge—or as a low-grade Joe McCarthy. Indeed, we’ve now reached the point where he quotes anonymous, hapless "economists" about how worthless poor Paul Krugman is. "Most days, I get an email from an economist, urging me to keep the heat on the shrill screeds of Paul ‘Enron’ Krugman," Sullivan wrote last Friday. He offered "a typical one" of these e-mails, which we quote in full:

SULLIVAN’S ANONYMOUS "ECONOMIST:" It might be worth pointing to today’s Krugman column as an example of how intellectually slack this once able economist has become. He completely mischaracterizes "line 47" (the rate reduction credit on the 2001 Form 1040) as some sort of snatching away of the $300/$600 tax credit we all received last fall. In fact, it is an opportunity for those who did not receive a check they should have received to claim the credit. And the $300 was not, in any case, an "advance on future tax cuts", it was the immediate implementation of the 2001 tax cut retroactive to the beginning of 2001. Doesn’t this guy check his facts anymore? I met Krugman once circa 1994 when he was still a working economist. At that time, most economists thought of him as a highly skilled trade theorist whose work had been mischaracterized by those more intellectually sloppy than him (he had written some papers showing how free trade was not desirable in some limited circumstances, and the anti-trade lobby had used it as ammunition against free trade generally). Economics is a profession where rigor is usually prized above ‘money calls’ (not that good economists don’t get money calls too sometimes), and Krugman was on everybody’s short list of future Nobel Laureates. It’s rather sad to see him trading on a stale reputation.

Shall we start with the obvious? If Sullivan gets daily e-mails from these worried economists, couldn’t he offer a signed critique? All over America, people offer signed critiques of each other’s work every day. They appear as letters to the editor and as op-ed columns. They even appear as self-run web sites. No one is afraid to sign his name except, of course, for these trembling "economists." Maybe Sullivan’s "economists" are the same timid souls who won’t acknowledge their meetings with Cheney. (Trust us—they may well be the very same people.)

But then, it’s hardly surprising that Sullivan’s "economist" doesn’t want his or her name to be known. His or her complaints are simply bizarre. Here’s what Krugman said in the part of his column which the "economist" simply ground into dust:

KRUGMAN: Finally, there’s line 47. You haven’t heard about that, but you will.

Here’s the story. The Bush administration didn’t want to give those famous $300 rebate checks; its original plan would have pumped hardly any money into the economy last year. Under prodding from Democrats the plan was changed to incorporate immediate cash outlays. But those outlays were included only grudgingly, and with a catch: they really weren’t rebates. Instead, they were merely advances on future tax cuts.

Sullivan’s "economist" says Krugman’s all wet. "Doesn’t this guy check his facts anymore?" he or she says, more in sorrow than in anger. Paul was very good at one time, he or she wants you to know.

Let’s skip the drill on how those "rebate checks" worked, and cut right to the chase. Krugman’s disputed claim—that the "rebate checks" were really "advances on future tax cuts"—is about as controversial as the claim that the sky is blue and sometimes cloudy. Here, for example, is Evan Snapper (Ernst & Young) in the current Money magazine:

SNAPPER: Early filers have been making mistakes filling in line 47…One thing to be aware of, though, is that if you received a rebate check, it was an advance refund. So if you’re due a refund for 2001, you’ll get $600 or $300 less. If you owe money, you’re going to owe $600 or $300 more. That’s the catch.

Here was Knight-Ridder’s Mark Schwanhausser on 2/19/02:

SCHWANHAUSSER: Let’s start by clearing up one bit of confusion about the "rebate" right away. It wasn’t a rebate. The IRS originally called those 86 million checks an "advance payment" of the savings from the creation of a new 10 percent tax bracket in 2002. But now the IRS has muddied things further by calling it the "rate reduction credit" on your 1040.

Maybe you prefer Ryan Donmoyer, Bloomberg News, 2/14/02:

DONMOYER: The tax checks issued by the government last year were popularly and erroneously called "rebates" by some lawmakers and the media. They actually were an advance payment of a tax credit triggered by the new 10 percent tax rate.

Pamela Yip, Dallas Morning News, 2/4/02:

YIP, DMN, 2/4/02: Even though the government and many people called them rebate checks, they were really advance payments on 2001 earnings. The checks were the governmen’s way of giving taxpayers a 10 percent tax cut that was one of the main benefits of the new tax law passed last June. Instead of having taxpayers wait to get larger refunds after filing their 2001 tax returns, the law provided for the advance payments.

David Hendricks, San Antonio Express-News, 2/16/02:

HENDRICKS: Finally, here’s something else taxpayers should try to understand.

The rebate technically was not a rebate, Oliver said. "It was an advanced payment on a rate-reduction credit," the accountant said. That means Congress and President Bush lowered taxes midyear, made it retroactive to Jan. 1 and advanced everyone the cut…I suspect, though, that few people understood that they were really getting a credit in advance instead of a rebate or refund.

Try Kevin McCormally in this month’s Kiplinger’s:
MCCORMALLY: Remember last year’s tax-rebate bonanza, when $300 and $600 checks rained down on us?…The problem is that the rebate (although based on 2000 returns) was really an advance payment of savings resulting from the creation for 2001 returns of a 10% tax bracket for some of the money that used to be taxed at 15%.

You’re beginning to get the picture. "Few people understood that they were really getting a credit in advance instead of a rebate or refund," Yip said. One of those people was Sullivan’s "economist." Maybe he or she was really Howard Stern, mailing Sully to have some fun. Or maybe it was someone from the RNC, helping Sullivan in his increasingly bizarre propaganda campaign against the hapless Paul Krugman.

Sullivan quoted a second anonymous "economist" last Friday. "Please keep pounding on Krugman," the timorous tattle-tale told the Brave Brit. "I have known Paul for 25 years and once regarded him as one of the better, if not best, international economic theorists in the world. Alas his sojourn into being an op/ed columnist has totally perverted him." The same could be said for Sullivan’s unfolding adventure in rank propaganda. Sullivan has been an attack-dog hack for some time, but the last few months have been truly heinous. Now we’re reduced to anonymous attacks by invented "economists," designed to keep the cattle on the run. Drudge types up the low-brow stuff; Sullivan handles the high-end "economics." But don’t worry—whoever is making up Drudge’s stuff is doing the honors for Sullivan too. Or put it another way—whoever planned Richard Berke’s ludicrous story last week is also running Tail-Gunner Andrew. But so it goes in our phony "press corps," an institution increasingly devoted to transcribing spin for very powerful—and well-disguised—interests.