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28 June 2000

Our current howler (part II): Total ignorance

Synopsis: Anywhere else, it’s a firing offence. What makes it OK in the press corps?

Commentary by Mara Liasson, Fred Barnes
Special Report, FNC, 6/23/00

Testimony of David Strauss
Hearings Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, 9/5/97

Testimony of Richard Sullivan
Hearings Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, 7/9/97

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Last Friday night, Morton Kondracke and Tony Snow were flummoxed by what Gore had said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/00). Gore had said the Hsi Lai luncheon wasn't an actual "fund-raiser," it was a "finance-related event." But what in the world could that possibly mean? The scribes seemed to lack the first clue. Luckily, one "Fox all-star" knew what Gore meant. After Mort and Tony fumbled around, an apologetic Mara Liasson told them:

LIASSON: What Gore said—now this might not pass the laugh test—but what he says in this voluminous document, a record of his interview [with Robert Conrad], is that no checks passed hands, that often you go to meet people to kind of warm them up, later on you're going to make the pitch, and that was the way he described this, that he didn't think this luncheon in and of itself was a fund-raiser.

FRED BARNES: That's arguable, but it's—just barely.

Accurately reporting the interview which Kondracke had also read, Liasson explained Gore's point. No one was charged a ticket price to attend the luncheon. And there were no solicitations at the event. Liasson's explanation was sketchy and fleeting. But, to all appearances, no other "all-star" had even a clue that this was what Gore had meant.

And that was a remarkable state of affairs; in truth, the panel's total, screaming ignorance was an indictment of Fox News and the press corps. The distinction Gore drew had been explained in detail; the scribes should have known all about it. In 1997, the Thompson Committee conducted extensive hearings into the background of the Hsi Lai event. In detailed, sworn testimony—widely reported and publicized—two major officials had explained the distinction which left the Fox all-stars perplexed.

Start, for example, with David Strauss; he was Gore's Deputy Chief of Staff at the time of the Hsi Lai event. Strauss appeared before the Thompson Committee on September 5, 1997. Questioning by minority counsel Alan Baron established a basic distinction:

BARON: Am I correct that when the DNC sponsored events, they fell into generally two categories, that is to say, fund-raisers, true fund-raisers, and what are sometimes called donor maintenance events?

STRAUSS: That is correct...A donor maintenance event would be an event that would be designed to reward donors or to motivate new donors. A fund-raising event would be either a ticketed event or an event where there was an express solicitation.

Baron took Strauss through the vice president's briefing book for April 29, 1996. On that day, Gore attended the Hsi Lai luncheon and a dinner in San Jose. Strauss read from the briefing book: "This event is raising $250,000 for the DNC," the briefing book said, of the dinner. But no such designation appeared in the briefing for the Hsi Lai luncheon, Strauss noted, because no ticket price was being charged. It had not been set up as a fund-raiser. Next, Baron asked Strauss about the speech Gore gave at the Hsi Lai luncheon:

BARON: Did it include any request for money or any thank you for people having contributed?

STRAUSS: It did not.

Strauss stressed that it would be very strange not to thank donors at an actual fund-raiser. He also noted that there had been no ticket table "for people to pay by ticket." The following exchange concluded Baron's line of questioning:

BARON: Based on your experience and all the years that you have been doing this sort of thing and attending hundreds of fund-raisers, did this appear to you to have the indicia of a fund-raiser, this event?

STRAUSS: I believe that I know what a fund-raiser is, and this was not a fund-raiser.

According to Strauss, no ticket price was charged and no money was solicited at the Hsi Lai luncheon. The reason for that had already been explained by Richard Sullivan, DNC Finance Director. Sullivan testified under oath on July 8, 1997. He spoke with Senator Richard Durbin:

DURBIN: Now, could you tell me, in terms of this [Hsi Lai] community center, did you discuss this schedule with John Huang that the event would take place at this center?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I did...The event was originally supposed to be at a home or a restaurant in another location. That didn't work out for scheduling reasons. John then came to me and said we'd like to hold this event at the Temple community center, and I said, well, John, you know, you can't hold a formal fundraiser at a religious—anything of a religious institution. And he said, I agree, it's—he said something along the lines of I concur with that and we will no longer have a formal fundraiser.

In other words, when the site of the luncheon was switched to the temple, plans for a formal fundraiser were shelved. Sullivan did explain, in substantial detail, the DNC's hope that the luncheon might lead to solicitation of funds from guests in the future (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/21/00). But Sullivan and Strauss, in lengthy, sworn testimony, explained the parameters of the event rather clearly. According to both officials, no one was supposed to be charged to attend the luncheon once the location was switched to the temple.

The televised testimony of Sullivan and Strauss has been on the public record for almost three years. But last Friday night, a raft of pundits displayed total ignorance of this matter; they were utterly puzzled by Gore's statement that the luncheon had not been a fund-raiser. The ignorance was striking, because Sullivan and Strauss' testimony was widely reported at the time it occurred. Furthermore, the basic information we have just reviewed is available in other well-known sources. Here, for example, is a passage from Bill Turque's recent biography of Gore:

TURQUE (page 319): Some details of the visit support Gore's contention that he believed he was attending a goodwill event rather than a fund-raiser. After lunch, with [Maria] Hsia translating into Chinese, he delivered what staff called his "e pluribus unum" talk, a standard stump speech praising racial and ethnic diversity. There were none of the usual thank-yous he offered to groups of contributors for their financial support. The comments were also in marked contrast to the more typically partisan rhetoric he used at the San Jose fund-raising reception that evening. Other trappings of a fund-raiser were missing as well, like a front registration table and donor cards.

For the record, one of Turque's sources was the Boston Globe's John Farrell, the only journalist present at the temple luncheon. Farrell wrote an article in the Globe on September 4, 1997, describing the lack of fund-raising at the Hsi Lai event, and describing the speeches Gore gave at the day's two events. "Gore made no explicit pitch for contributions," Farrell said, writing about the temple luncheon. "Gore's remarks were non-partisan and restrained, markedly different form the biting one-liners he offered" at the (fund-raising) dinner that evening.

So why had Gore said that the luncheon wasn't a "fund-raiser?" Anyone who had done the slightest bit of homework would have understood Gore's remark. The Hsi Lai luncheon wasn't a fund-raiser because no one was charged a fee to get in. (Indeed, Gore remarked in his interview with Conrad that a Republican official had been in attendance.) All the same, the event was "finance-related;" the DNC hoped to build goodwill in the community, and approach attendees for contributions at a later date. In his interview with Conrad, Gore said such events go on "all the time." Sullivan and Strauss had also said this, in their testimony years before.

Is there something wrong with staging such an event? Was there something wrong with the DNC's plan? Pundits are free to state their view—once they've reported a few basic facts. And yet, last Friday night, something different occurred—we saw major pundits, all over the dial, who lacked even basic information about the Hsi Lai event. William Schneider didn't know what Gore could have meant. King and Woodward were baffled too. And the entire Fox panel, except for Liasson, seemed flummoxed by Gore's puzzling comments. Total, screaming, howling ignorance is now the reliable norm in the press corps. Anywhere else, it's a firing offence. What makes it OK in the press corps?

Tomorrow: Charles LaBella did the Sunday shows. And he didn't have a clue either.


The Daily update (6/28/00)

Don't apologize: Marjorie Williams was right to complain about Frank Bruni's report in the New York Times last Wednesday. Bruni was discussing the impending execution of Gary Graham; but, as Williams noted, his piece didn't discuss "the challenge of deciding whether or not to kill a possibly innocent man." Bruni was covering "the far more cynical question of how Bush should frame whatever action he took." Williams was right to be concerned with what she read:

WILLIAMS: Bush, wrote Times correspondent Frank Bruni, now "faces a second, amplified challenge." (Beyond the challenge of deciding whether to kill a possibly innocent man.) "It is to demonstrate, through the tone of his voice and the set of his jaw, that he feels the full weight of his responsibility. And it is to show, through his bearing and his choice of words, that he comes by his steadfast position in support of the death penalty after extensive soul-searching and careful thought."

We were also struck by Bruni's piece at the time we read it. Williams explained why it grabbed her:

WILLIAMS: Note that this is not an examination of whether Bush does feel the weight of his responsibility, or whether he has searched his soul; it is a piece about whether Bush can so position himself as to be seen to have felt and searched. [Williams' emphasis]

We think that Williams' aim was true; Bruni's piece foreshadowed his failure to examine Bush's assessment of the facts of this case (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/00). It also foreshadowed the repulsive commentaries we saw on TV this past Friday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/00). We're only sorry that Williams seemed to feel that she had to cut Bruni some slack:

WILLIAMS: It may be unfair to pick on Bruni's piece, which because of the grim subject matter is only a particularly stark example of a kind of journalism that almost all major media are practicing. It's the coverage of political character as theater, a malign bastard sired by the horse-race school of political reporting from the legitimate form of journalism that examines character itself.

Williams didn't need to apologize for singling out Bruni's piece. It did display, in an especially grim way, the sickness at the heart of the corps—the corps' refusal to relinquish its love of appearances, even where life and death are involved.

That very same night, on Special Report, Mara Liasson seemed to offer a halting apology for knowing a few basic facts about the Gore Hsi Lai matter (see above). It's too bad that, in today's press culture, pundits who are sensitive to values and factually prepared feel they have to defer to their lessers.

Theater of Character
Marjorie Williams, The Washington Post, 6/23/00