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27 March 2000

Our current howler (part IV): ’Cause it’s a thriller

Synopsis: Sullivan and Strauss explained the Hsi Lai event in detail. Some scribes preferred mystery thrillers.

New questions of Gore's account of '96 event
Chris Mondics, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/4/00

Al Gore's Clinton Moment
Jefrey Birnbaum, Fortune, 2/7/00

It probably shouldn't be surprising that Michael Kelly had his uncontroverted facts wrong (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/24/00). Writing eighteen days earlier in the Philly Inquirer, Chris Mondics seemed to have them wrong too. When had the Hsi Lai folks laundered that $55,000? In his March 22 column, Kelly said it happened while Gore was right there at the temple. Mondics, writing on March 4, seemed to say the same thing:

MONDICS: Temple monks and officials have told federal prosecutors they funneled thousands of dollars into Democratic Party coffers at the fund-raiser and that they were reimbursed out of temple accounts the same day, a scheme investigators said Hsia concocted. In all, federal prosecutors charged, more than $100,000 of the temple's money was laundered into Democratic party accounts.

A reader would think, from what Mondics wrote, that this happened on the day of the luncheon (April 29). In fact, the $55,000 to which Kelly referred was rounded up the next day, April 30.

Yep—it makes the story a little bit better to picture Gore right there while the money changes hands. Indeed, making stories a little bit better is what much of modern journalism is about. So it should hardly be surprising to find exaggeration right at the heart of the Mondics piece. But there it is, as Mondics opens with talk of exciting "new records:"

MONDICS (paragraph 1): For several years, Vice President Gore has maintained he know little about the real purpose of a 1996 luncheon in his honor at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in a suburb [of Los Angeles].

(2) But a growing body of documents, including new records obtained by The Inquirer, shows that Gore would have had reason to believe that luncheonwas for raising political money.

Mondics makes it sound like there's a bunch of new records, but we can only find reference to one in his piece. That one "new record" is described early on, and has been frequently cited in recent weeks:

MONDICS (4): Even [Gore's] security staff understood the event to be a money-raising luncheon, according to one memo. A copy of a previously unreleased Secret Service electronic memo, obtained from congressional sources, says that Gore was flying to Los Angeles for the luncheon, and describes it as a political fund-raiser. The entry about the luncheon was made on April 29, according to the document.

If this is accurate—we haven't seen the text of the memo—then the Secret Service, on April 29, believed the luncheon would be a fund-raiser.

Scribes have passed this fact along since "congressional sources" began handing it out. Sam Donaldson cited it on March 6, for example (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/00); Perkins mentioned it in his March 13 column. But is it all that shocking if the Secret Service believed the luncheon event was a fund-raiser? The original plan had called for a pair of fund-raisers on April 29, and a formal fund-raiser was still being held in San Jose that evening. According to John Farrell of the Boston Globe, Gore press secretary Peggy Wilhide referred to the events as a pair of "fund-raisers" that day on the plane. But Richard Sullivan, DNC finance chief, testified that was no longer true—he said plans had changed three weeks before, when the temple site was selected for the luncheon. And it is clear that the event was not a "formal" fund-raiser; there was no ticket price, there were no registration stables, there was a non-political speech, no one was thanked for contributions. According to Sullivan, some non-finance people didn't know that the plans had changed. It would hardly be shocking if the Secret Service didn't know every detail of the event.

In fact, Sullivan's claims about the event are spelled out rather clearly in his Senate testimony (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/21/00). When the temple was chosen for the site of the luncheon, Huang was told that it could not be a "formal fund-raiser" Sullivan said; but the DNC still hoped to generate indirect income from this event. In his testimony, Sullivan said there was nothing unusual or wrong about that; he said it was routine to stage "non-fund-raiser" events of this kind. Was the re-configured luncheon that Sullivan described an appropriate event for the DNC to stage? Alas, we've seen little discussion of that question. And why have we seen so little debate? Because journalists have essentially buried Sullivan's detailed testimony. Instead of reporting what Sullivan actually said, they have substituted various edited accounts of the history of the Hsi Lai event.

In doing so, some scribes have produced exciting mystery thrillers, rather than accurate reports. Take, for example, Jeffrey Birnbaum's Fortune piece, which we considered earlier (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/20/00). Birnbaum, you'll remember, built his piece around those "electoral mash notes" Gore sent to Maria Hsiah. To Birnbaum, the fact that Gore had sent thank-you notes to Hsiah through the years somehow meant he knew this event was a fund-raiser.

But late in his article, Birnbaum moved past the notes and considered the relevant documents. Here is his account of why Gore likely knew that the Hsi Lai event was a fund-raiser:

BIRNBAUM: Gore had many reasons to believe the Buddhist temple lunch was a fundraiser. He was attending fundraisers often back then. White House memos, including one to him, referred to fundraising goals from the Los Angeles event. The lunch was attended by the Democratic Party's chairman and two of the party's senior fundraising officials, including John Huang. Two people who were there recall explicit references to money raising from the podium. But the giveaway to Gore had to be the sight of Hsiah. There she was again, greeting him with the yellow-robed Master. Could campaign cash have been far behind? The Senate committee report says it was "improbable" that he didn't know.

Birnbaum cited one bit of evidence we have not yet discussed; the claim that two luncheon guests "recall explicit references to fund-raising from the podium." The documentation of these claims is rather slight in the Senate committee's report, and John Farrell of the Boston Globe—who attended and later reported on the luncheon—did not describe any such remarks (see postscript).

But note the rest of Birnbaum's reasoning. What were Gore's "many reasons" to believe the event was a fund-raiser? First, says Birnbaum, Gore "was attending fund-raisers often back then!" Because he had been to other fund-raisers, then this must be a fund-raiser too! We assume the absurdity of this reasoning doesn't require any further comment. But note what Birnbaum doesn't mention. First, he doesn't mention David Strauss' sworn testimony; according to Strauss, Gore had been explicitly told that this wasn't a fund-raiser (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/00). And he doesn't mention something else that Gore was apparently told—that the DNC hoped this event would lead to future donations in the community. Birnbaum treats Hsiah and Huang's presence as a mystery which Gore could surely have figured out. In fact, according to the sworn testimony which Birnbaum never mentions, Gore would have known perfectly well why the two were there. They were there because one of the stated goals of this luncheon was "to inspire political and fund-raising efforts among the Asian Pacific American community." The statement was right in Gore's briefing book, and Farrell quotes it in his 1997 Globe piece. There was no mystery about the presence of DNC finance officials. The question is a different one: Was it appropriate to plan an event of the type Sullivan described—an event which would not be "a formal fund-raiser," but which might lead to future donations?

According to the DNC, the temple event had the following chronology:

  1. Starting early in January, the DNC made plans to schedule two fund-raising events in California on April 29.
  2. As of March 15, when Gore sent his now-famous e-mail, the sites for the events had not been selected.
  3. When the temple site was selected three weeks later, the DNC dropped its plan for a "formal fund-raiser."
  4. The DNC hoped that the temple event at the temple would lead to ancillary donations from the community.

Birnbaum, Mondics, and many others have dropped item #3 from their accounts of this event. In so doing, they have made the tale into a mystery thriller, and have made the story a bit more intriguing—and they have failed to convey or consider basic facts about the Hsi Lai event.


Postscript: John Farrell's 9/4/97 Boston Globe story is a basic resource for readers who want to evaluate the Hsi Lai event. Farrell had originally been allowed to attend the April 29 events on an off-the-record basis. He was later allowed to report on the temple luncheon and the San Jose dinner.

In his article, Farrell noted that "Gore's remarks [at the temple luncheon] were non-partisan and restrained, markedly different from the biting one-liners he offered" in San Jose that evening. "Gore's own words and actions at the Buddhist temple," Farrell wrote, "give credence to the vice president's assertion that while he knew there was a fund-raising component to the event, he viewed it more as a good-will visit with Asian-American leaders." But Farrell also reported that "press secretary Peggy Wilhide and other members of Gore's staff and security detail openly described the events on the day's schedule as 'fund-raisers' closed to the press." This has generally been treated as incriminating information; on the other hand, it seems unlikely that the campaign would have taken Farrell along to observe an event it believed was improper. Farrell described Rep. Robert Matsui "thanking the audience for supporting the administration," but reported no remarks about financial contributions. One attendee said she had heard "a man with a Japanese last name" (believed to be Matsui) say that "it is O.K. to give contributions at the Hsi Lai temple," though she wasn't sure "whether he was using the microphone or not." That is the more exacting of the two accounts of remarks about financial contributions.

Did Sullivan describe the DNC's planning and intentions accurately? Would the event have been appropriate as planned? A formal report from Harold Ickes on April 25 suggested that the DNC still had an expectation of raising $325,000 from the event (but the detailed overview document listed every fund-raising event for the month of April). Journalists who want to evaluate this event have to examine evidence like this. But they cannot simply send Sullivan's testimony down the memory hole, and pretend that some deep mystery surrounds the DNC's planning. Mondics' article does not mention Strauss and Sullivan's detailed testimony; does not mention the nature of Gore's remarks; and does not mention the fact that there was no ticket price for attending the luncheon. Readers can't hope to judge this event if they are handed such patchwork reporting.