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7 March 2001

Our current howler (part III): Unprepared

Synopsis: Who gets what from Bush’s plan? Russert asked—but he seemed unprepared.

Commentary by James Carville, Tim Russert, Sec. Paul O'Neill
Meet the Press, NBC, 3/4/01

The program began with thirty more minutes about why Clinton gave out those pardons (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/6/01). We saw the naughty things Henry Waxman had said about Clinton. We saw the negative things Bob Herbert had said. And we heard Russert explain—for the third straight week!—that Cardinal Mahoney has changed his mind about supporting the Vignali commutation. For those who are keeping score on the matter, here's how the mandatory exchange went this week:

CARVILLE: Let me go through this, Tim. I don't know all the facts, but I do know the cardinal of Los Angeles supported [the commutation of Vignali]. I do know the sheriff of Los Angeles County, I'm told, supported this—I read that in the paper. That the Speaker of the House in California did. And I think the U.S. Attorney out there. So I don't know all the facts, but it wasn't just like this thing went "poof" and appeared on his desk. So I don't—but—

RUSSERT: But for the record, the cardinal and the U.S. attorney both have withdrawn their support.

CARVILLE: Well, how did the president know that when he signed it?

The answer, of course, is: He didn't. But it doesn't matter how many times someone explains this—Russert always has time to explain that the cardinal has now switched his stand. By the way, just for the record, here's how Clinton was supposed to have known that the cardinal would change his mind later on:

RUSSERT: But for the record, the cardinal and the U.S. attorney both have withdrawn their support.

CARVILLE: Well, how did the president know that when he signed it?

RUSSERT: Well, because the U.S. attorney—the prosecutor in Minneapolis—the judge in Minneapolis—


RUSSERT: and the Justice Department of the United States of America—


RUSSERT: all recommended against this pardon. Let me ask a simple question.

Russert moved on to a different point. So how was Clinton supposed to know that the cardinal would change his mind later on? Because others opposed the request! Russert has now taken time on three straight programs to engage in this silly exchange (see postscript).

Somehow, we have time for this nonsense every week. But readers, it's kind of like the way a big tax cut can crowd out everything else. By the time we got through with this week's "Pardon Talk," there was only sixteen minutes left to discuss the Bush tax plan. And it seemed that the host hadn't really prepared to discuss the important proposal. Here was Russert, asking Paul O'Neill about who gains from the president's proposed cut:

RUSSERT: Let's talk about that tax cut because it's very controversial. You just heard Mr. Carville, who is talking about the Democratic view. I want to put on the chart for you and our viewers what the Democrats are saying about your tax plan, that 43 percent of the Bush tax cut goes to the top 1 percent of American taxpayers. They only pay 21 percent in the federal taxes paid. And they are asking you, Mr. O'Neill, why doesn't the Treasury Department put out distribution tables, which—if you disagree with that number, why don't you put out your numbers?

Finally Russert asked this, his first question about the tax cut, 37 minutes into the program. For the record, the question was somewhat odd. The day before, the Washington Post and the Washington Times had each run stories on the tax cut proposal (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/5/01). In each paper, reporters described new White House numbers; according to each paper, the White House was claiming that the top one percent only got 22 percent of the benefits. (The New York Times was running a version of this claim on Sunday morning, as Russert and O'Neill spoke.) "Why don't you put out your numbers?" Russert asked. According to three of the nation's major papers, the White House already had. But neither Russert nor the ever-bumbling O'Neill seemed to have the first clue about it:

O'NEILL: Well, we are going to put out our numbers. I can't help commenting—I can't imagine anyone would take fiscal advice from James Carville. He's wonderful about other things, but I frankly don't think he's a person I would take economic advice from.

O'Neill never gave the slightest sign that the White House already had put out some "numbers." But after telling us that we can't trust Carville, he gave Russert this completely disingenuous reply:

O'NEILL (continuing directly): I want to talk about those numbers because I've seen them over and over again. The president's proposal, if fully implemented, would cause a redistribution of tax, of burden on the American population toward those with more income and away from those with less income, so that we would take six million people off the federal income tax rolls and we would provide a 50 percent tax cut for a four-person family with $35,000 worth of income and, in fact, those high-income taxpayers that you showed in your table would end up paying a larger fraction of federal income taxes than they do now.

And there again we saw The Switch. Russert asked about the benefits of the entire Bush plan. In his response, O'Neill talked about income taxes—only one part of the plan. (According to today's New York Times, Bush's income tax provisions make up three-fifths of his entire proposal.) But, after pulling a switch on the question Russert asked—and after suggesting that Carville can't be trusted—O'Neill, as usual, rambled on and on, discussing what hadn't been asked:

O'NEILL (continuing directly): Frankly, one of the things that's annoying to me as I come out of the private sector back into the public sector is to see this kind of chart that's kind of a fatal flaw in logic. It's called the undistributed middle. No one can dispute 1 percent or 10 percent or whatever fraction you want to do of the population and then 21 percent of the taxes paid by them. But in logic, then, the question is: after the tax proposal is implemented, what fraction will they pay? And the answer is, more than they do now. But here in Washington, we tend to let muddled ideas get placed on charts that are intended to make an argument that's a specious argument.

"Muddled ideas?" It was hard to make out what O'Neill had said. But he clearly seemed to imply that the top one percent lose ground under Bush's tax plan.

Russert at least did seem to know that O'Neill had deep-sixed the estate tax. His next question was much too imprecise for a follow-up, but at least it was on the right track. So what did O'Neill, who hates "specious arguments," do? What else? He pulled The Switcheroo once again:

RUSSERT: But you do not deny that if you look at the full Bush tax cut over 10 years, including the estate tax, that 43 percent of it goes to the top 1 percent?

O'NEILL: The tax reform proposal that the president has recommended would cause higher income taxpayers to pay a bigger fraction of federal income taxes than they do now. And what I'm saying is this data has nothing to do with what's going on out there in the real world. No one yet has asked me, how much money are we going to spend over the next 10 years in redistributed programs. And by that I mean Medicaid, which is only low-income health assistance, housing subsidies, food stamps, income assistance and a wealth of other programs. Over the same 10-year period we're going to spend $3.7 trillion on low-income assistance in our country.

Completely ignoring Russert's question, O'Neill went straight back to income taxes, then began talking about things that were unrelated. (Medicaid has nothing to do with this topic.) Russert—unable or unwilling to make O'Neill answer—moved on to another question.

Was Russert prepared for this interview with O'Neill? He didn't seem to know that the White House had issued some numbers on distribution. (Clearly, O'Neill wasn't going to mention it.) And he didn't seem able (or willing) to identify the bait-and-switch game O'Neill played. As we saw yesterday, when Russert asked about the total cost of this plan, O'Neill dodged the question—and Russert moved on (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/6/01). And here we see the host's losing effort when he tried to ask about who gets how much.

Do Meet the Press viewers deserve to get facts? Judging from last Sunday's show, they'll get endless chatter about those pardons. But when it comes to the president's tax cut proposal, they can pretty much get the facts somewhere else.

Tomorrow: Was Russert well-prepared for this interview? Based on O'Neill's performance before Congress, his host should have known what was coming.


The occasional update (3/6/01)

Save the cardinal: There are two things you can count on when you watch Meet the Press. You'll see endless discussions of the Clinton pardons (more data on that obsession tomorrow). And at some point you'll see the host pardon Mahoney. As everyone knows, Cardinal Mahoney sent a letter to Clinton on behalf of Vignali's pardon application. After all the uproar about Vignali's commutation, the cardinal said he'd made a mistake. We don't mean, in any way, to judge the cardinal's sincerity or motives. But the fact is, when Clinton was considering the Vignali request, he had a letter from Cardinal Mahoney, and from many other L.A. big-wigs beyond that.

But every week, Russert finds time to say that the cardinal has changed his position. It's completely unclear what the relevance is, but Russert makes the point every week. Here for example was the exchange that occurred with John Podesta on February 18. We're using the NBC transcripts:

RUSSERT (2/18): There were so many other pardons that occurred in the last moment. Carlos Vignali, 800 pounds of cocaine. His father gave $160,000 in contributions. He's pardoned despite opposition from prosecutors. Four Hasidic Jews who stole money—

PODESTA: He was—but with support from a broad range of people in Los Angeles, including, at the time, the U.S. attorney—

RUSSERT: But the cardinal of Los Angeles has since retracted his support.

PODESTA: But the cardinal—but we've—you know, the cardinal has retracted it after the LA Times has criticized the pardon.

RUSSERT: All right, let me—

PODESTA: The pardon—what we had in front of us at the time was a letter from the cardinal asking for the pardon. So that's what we considered. Not his retraction after it was criticized.

It's roughly the most obvious point in the world. But here's what happened one week later. Congressman Chaka Fattah was Russert's guest:

RUSSERT (2/25): Now, Mr. Vignali transported 800 pounds of cocaine, which he wanted to cut into crack cocaine and distribute it to the inner cities of America. Congressman Fattah, why did he deserve a pardon?

REP. FATTAH: Well, the president heard from the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. He heard from the sheriff, he heard from the speaker of the California House, he heard from two members, our colleagues in Congress, that somehow there was some injustice and that this gentleman's sentence should be commuted...So I think that it's fair to criticize, but we should do it in context, and I think that this is a case in which you heard from all of these politicians in California, but no one took the time to talk to and hear from the people in Minneapolis who had been involved in this prosecution. But I do think that when you have the speaker of the House, members of Congress, the, Cardinal Mahoney of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles, calling and vouching and writing letters on behalf of this gentleman, it had an impression and it helped secure his release.

RUSSERT: But the cardinal has now said he made a mistake—

REP. FATTAH: Absolutely.

RUSSERT: And the prosecutor in Minneapolis—we just heard from him—the, in Minneapolis, the Justice Department all recommended against this and the only way it changed was when Mr. Vignali seemed to have success in retaining Hugh Rodham, the first lady's brother, to represent him before the president.

There again you see pure propaganda. "The only way" Clinton was influenced was by Rodham. The chance that Clinton could have been influenced by the cardinal doesn't fit the product which Russert is selling. By the way, Vignali's lawyer disputes the "800 pounds" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/01). As was stated repeatedly at the congressional hearings last week, the judge in the case said that Vignali was responsible for 11-33 pounds. No one on the Burton panel contradicted this statement of the facts. Russert keeps saying 800.

As we'll see in more detail tomorrow, Meet the Press has flogged the pardons for weeks on end. Meanwhile, Russert seemed unprepared for O'Neill (more on that tomorrow as well). On Sunday, viewers of Meet the Press were shortchanged—if they want to get clear on the facts of the tax cut. Maybe if Russert would stop his silly shilling for the cardinal, he could make a little more time in his show to clarify this important tax plan.