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9 March 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: Russert fails to press

Synopsis: Tim Russert failed to ask Lindsey Graham about those trips to the Ford Building “sex vault.”

Commentary by Tim Russert, Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL)
Russert, CNBC, 3/6/99

Alarms bells sounded here at DAILY HOWLER World Quarters, just as soon as the topic arose; the analysts rushed to the viewing chambers to see if key queries would be asked. Tim Russert was chatting with Reps. Graham and Wexler for the entirety of his hour-long program; and halfway through, the conversation turned to a topic which we have explored.

Our question: Why didn’t the House managers (or Ken Starr) base an impeachment count on Juanita Broaddrick’s allegations? Why did Starr use the term “inconclusive” in describing Mrs. Broaddrick’s charges? And going beyond that, a related question: why did House Republicans go to the Ford Building “sex vault” to see FBI reports of what Broaddrick had said? Why had impeachment votes been decided on that basis, if the Broaddrick charge had not been cited in the specific counts on which members were voting?

We’ve asked about the “sex vault” matter since the week of the impeachment vote, when the press corps--shamefully--failed to report this startling assault on due process (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/98). And we said last week that the corps should report why Starr used the term “inconclusive.” It’s an obvious question, one which would occur to any press corps worth its salt. Needless to say, we haven’t seen our timorous, front-running press corps say “Boo” about these unanswered questions. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/1/99, for our original request for a fuller discussion.)

But Saturday, the topic arose on Russert, and the analysts scrambled to watch. Graham said that victims of assault should (ideally) come forward and present their charges to the police. To his credit, Russert then asked one of the questions on which the corps should be reporting:

RUSSERT: It was 21 years ago. The statute of limitations in Arkansas is six. So she’s lost that venue. And if this was so serious, why didn’t the Judiciary Committee, why didn’t Ken Starr, try to develop this and present it to the committee?

Good question. And it turned out that Graham had the start of a perfectly adequate answer:

GRAHAM: When she was interviewed by the FBI, she broke down and stopped the interview and said, “I don’t want to live this again.” She never gave a sworn statement. NBC was the first organization to get her to come publicly and say, “I was the victim of an assault.”

So at least we had the start of an answer. No one based an impeachment count on the alleged assault because Mrs. Broaddrick wasn’t willing to speak. In reply, Wexler pointed out that Starr pursued others who hadn’t wanted to come forward with charges. Russert did not ask Graham why no one made a stronger effort to persuade Mrs. Broaddrick to speak.

But there was one other painfully obvious question that Russert flat-out failed to ask. If Mrs. Broaddrick had never gone on the record; if her charges weren’t part of the counts of impeachment; then why in the world were GOP members paraded off to the Ford Building “sex vault?” Here is Graham, clearly saying that Broaddrick was irrelevant to the impeachment:

GRAHAM: The Judiciary Committee had evidence of the corroborating witnesses, that she told people, but she herself never gave a sworn statement until NBC came along...There was no legitimate way to get her before the Senate, there was no legitimate way to make her relevant to the articles of impeachment, and I was the guy looking at that. I can tell you I did not feel comfortable interjecting her into the trial, given the level of testimony, that she never made a sworn statement.

Which was the obvious place for Russert to ask a question. Why were House member taken to the “sex vault” to see the statements of the “corroborating witnesses?” If there was no legitimate way to bring Broaddrick into the trial, why had her case helped to drive the impeachment? Russert never asked.

And it’s not as if Russert was unaware of the facts. Oddly, he interjected the question at a later point, when Rep. Wexler was speaking:

WEXLER: What I find most troubling about the case against the president was, I believe it was capsulated in a way by Mr. Schippers, the counsel for the Republicans, when he in essence started one of his presentations by saying, “There are horrible things about this president, horrible things, but we’re just not going to bring them to you.” Well, that’s just not the way it works in America. If you have a charge against somebody, you bring it, you prove it, and you deal with it.

Strangely, Russert said this:

RUSSERT: But 40 Congressmen were briefed on the Juanita Broaddrick situation.

And that’s the point he should have brought to Rep. Graham. If Mrs. Broaddrick had never given direct evidence; if Graham felt she couldn’t be part of the trial; then why had forty members of Congress been encouraged to vote impeachment on this basis? It’s an obvious question, one the press corps is failing to ask. Russert, in an obvious setting, simply didn’t bring the point up.

As we stated in our March 1 report, several questions remain unanswered, even now, about the Broaddrick allegations. Why didn’t her allegations form the basis of a specific impeachment count? Why didn’t Starr require her to speak? And still completely unexplored: why were members urged to vote for impeachment on this basis, if her situation didn’t produce formal charges? The press corps has an obligation to ask. Russert failed on his program this weekend.

Inquiring minds don’t want to know: No one likes probing Mrs. Broaddrick’s allegations, but a press corps is obliged to do so. It is not the job of the political press to lead cheers for the people they like. When individuals make serious criminal charges, those serious charges must be examined. No one is forced to be a journalist. If pundits don’t want to be actual journalists, then by all means they’re free just to quit.

Mrs. Broaddrick’s failure to speak to the FBI raises a point we have mentioned before. One can’t help noting: Mrs. Broaddrick refused to make her allegation in any forum where she could be cross-examined. This does not mean that her story is false; again, we take it as obvious that it may well be true. But as we have said before: we shouldn’t create a press culture in which complainants feel free to take criminal charges to Lisa Myers. As part of their ongoing discussion, journalists should identify the obvious problem with Mrs. Broaddrick’s choice of forum. Good luck with this front-running bunch.