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30 December 1998

Our current howler: Keeping the evidence secret

Synopsis: Tom DeLay’s secret evidence pretty much stayed that way, thanks to a trio of major newspapers.

Secret Evidence
Editorial, The Washington Post, 12/28/98

Clinton Team Counted on Public Opinion To Sway House
Peter Baker, The Washington Post, 12/23/98

How a slim chance became a certainty
Kathy Kiely, USA Today, 12/21/98

How Republican Determination Upset Clinton’s Backing at Polls
John M. Broder and Don Van Natta Jr., The New York Times, 12/21/98

Like a fire truck squealing to the scene of a fire a week and a half after the barn has burned down, the Washington Post was in high dudgeon this Monday about Tom DeLay’s “secret evidence.” DeLay had suggested that senators review the material before deciding how to handle Vile Bill; and the slumbering Post finally spoke to an issue that had surfaced some ten days before:

THE POST: It is off imply--as Mr. DeLay has--that the president should be removed from office based on allegations that do not form the basis of either impeachment article passed by the House. Surely, at this stage, nobody could believe that the House would have ignored this nonpublic material had it been materially relevant...[W]hile fully aware of the material, committee members and staff chose not to use it as the basis for impeachment.

We agree with the Post that the Senate should not vote on the basis of this secret material. But nine days ago, it became clear that House members may have voted for impeachment on this score (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/98). In the current Newsweek (12/28/98), Howard Fineman reports that “at least 40 GOP members...visited a congressional office that has come to be known as the ‘sex vault’ to look at the materials.” On the 12/19 Hardball, nine days before the Post editorial, Tom Squitieri said that a significant numbers of votes had changed due to trips to the secret sex chamber.

There’s really no doubt that House members were taken to look at this secret material--material which formed no part of the actual impeachment charges, and to which the White House had no chance to respond. The visits were an astonishing assault on simple due process, undertaken as GOP leaders were toasting the rule of law. But you’d never know these trips had occurred, to read through the breezy Post ed.

Nor would you know about these visits if you read the Post’s news pages. On December 23--five days after Hardball thoroughly described the secret visits--Peter Baker wrote a lengthy treatment of why House GOP moderates had switched to impeachment (page one). And in a 24-paragraph study that churned various opinions about how the White House had lost the vote, Baker never mentioned the secret visits House members quite clearly had taken.

Baker was not alone. On December 21, Kathy Kiely, in USA Today, examined the reasons for the GOP vote. She didn’t mention the “sex vault” visits that had been described on Hardball three nights before. Neither did the New York Times’ John M. Broder, in a lengthy (page one) treatment of the GOP vote. The Post, the Times, and USA Today all ignored the way the secret evidence may have affected the vote.

Indeed, the three papers presented a happy-talk version of how members had decided to vote. Members dutifully insisted they’d cast their votes on the basis of Vile’s 81 vexing answers; and dutiful journalists typed up the story, reporting the explanation as fact. It is, of course, completely appropriate to quote members explaining the cause of their vote; but listen to Kiely take one member’s story, and report it, in her own voice, as fact:

KIELY [two paragraphs]: On Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, Clinton returned his answers to Hyde’s 81 questions. They were widely criticized for their legalistic tone. And they proved the last straw for many GOP moderates. [Our emphasis]...

“Those 81 answers tend to substantiate it,” said an exasperated Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., the first of what would become a tidal wave of GOP moderates who would defy White House expectations that they would vote against impeachment.

But how does Kiely know that the answers “proved the last straw?” Because Rep. Roukema said so? And how does she know that Roukema was “exasperated” with Vile’s answers? Because she seemed to be? In this passage, Kiely takes a self-serving explanation of the House moderate vote, and repeats it, in her own voice, as fact. And nowhere is there any sign that she asked about the trips to review the “secret evidence.” Did impeachment votes change because of these visits? There’s no sign that Kiely even asked.

House members can vote on any basis they choose, and they’re free to explain it any way that they please. But, if newspapers are going to write lengthy articles explaining the reason why votes were cast, the papers should ask about obvious factors that may have influenced votes. The Post is correct in its editorial: it would be wrong to vote for removal on the basis of the “secret evidence.” But was Clinton impeached on that very same basis? Reporters for these three major papers don’t seem to have bothered to ask.

Talk that’s happier still: It isn’t just the “secret evidence” that was ignored in the three papers’ stories. We’ve mentioned the Human Events campaign to get moderates back in line on impeachment (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/98). The conservative weekly had urged its readers to put pressure on various GOP strays; Human Events then congratulated itself as moderates said they’d vote for impeachment. Did pressure from the conservative base cause GOP moderates to vote for impeachment? You won’t find out from these three scribes; there’s no sign in their articles that they ever inquired about that possibility, either.

How lonely was it? These writers continued CelebCorps’ happy-talk tales about that lonely, anguished GOP vote (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/98). For example, here is a passage from Broder’s article, about one moderate’s angst:

BRODER: Mr. [Frank] Riggs, the California Republican, said he was so torn that he telephoned former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, former Vice President Dan Quayle and the former Senate majority leader Bob Dole. “Their advice was very helpful,” said Mr. Riggs, who would vote for impeachment.

Broder finds time to include this tale, about one moderate’s anguished decision. But was Riggs also swayed by secret evidence? Was he swayed by conservative pressure campaigns? We don’t have any way to guess, because Broder doesn’t bother to ask. Neither factor is ever mentioned in Broder’s lengthy article.