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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Desperate House Dems

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; 9:10 AM

I just slapped my forehead and realized why the Democrats need Howard Dean.

Forget the debate over whether whether his image is too liberal, whether he's anathema in the red states, whether he'll have trouble replacing his hothead '04 persona with his moderate-Vermonter sensibility.

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The Doctor will provide what the party badly needs: Some attention! When it comes to working the media, he'll make house calls.

Remember, this is a party that's in charge of nothing. It has no Mr. Chairmen, no subpoena power, and its only reliable weapon is a Senate talkathon. My colleague Dana Milbank provided us with the tale of Democrats happy to get C-SPAN coverage by staging a faux hearing with Byron Dorgan--but even then, only one other senator could be bothered to show up.

So along comes Dean, who pulls off this remarkable upset against a party hierarchy that didn't want him. And while he's promised not to make policy for the party, even his detractors would acknowedge he's a fighter. In less than a week on the job, he's picked his first fight, slapping around the GOP chairman in New York. Check out this AP account:

"Howard Dean, just four days into his job as Democratic National chairman, called Wednesday for New York's state Republican chairman to apologize or resign over remarks linking Democrats to a civil rights lawyer convicted of aiding terrorists.

"Calling Stephen Minarik's comments 'offensive,' the former Vermont governor said, 'The American people deserve better than this type of political character assassination.'

"Far from apologizing, Minarik issued a statement deriding the national chairman's comments as 'the latest 'Dean Scream.' 'We are confident Howard Dean will continue Terry McAuliffe's rich tradition of raising money, losing races, and staying out of touch with mainstream Americans,' Minarik said. 'It is not the Republican Party's problem that these far-left activists have made their home in the Democratic party.'"

So what was the offending language? "Minarik touched off a firestorm on Monday by saying that in electing Dean as national party chairman on Saturday 'the Democrats simply have refused to learn the lessons of the past two election cycles, and now they can be accurately called the party of Barbara Boxer, Lynne Stewart and Howard Dean.' Stewart is a New York City lawyer convicted last week of helping terrorists by smuggling messages from one of her imprisoned clients, a radical Egyptian sheik, to his terrorist disciples on the outside."

Sounds like Newt, back in the day, saying people should vote Republican to avoid such problems as Susan Smith, the woman who drowned her children. Even George Pataki wasn't defending his chairman's comments.

Dean will undoubtedly go too far on occasions, but he's not an ultracautious Beltway type. And I'm not the only one who's noticed. National Review's Eric Pfeiffer makes this observation:

"Conservatives should not underestimate Howard Dean.

"Howard Dean's ascension to head of the Democratic National Committee has been surrounded by much talk and a little celebration. For many conservatives, Dean's political resurrection is viewed as the gift that keeps on giving. . . . Still, he is more interesting than his Democratic counterparts. With no Democrats heading a branch of government, Dean is likely to be the first choice when the media comes calling for an interview.

"Until his Iowa caucus meltdown, Dean had a decade of electoral victories. He was reelected governor a number of times, though with declining returns. As previously noted, he had some general level of success during his tenure. To be successful as DNC Chair, Dean will have to resonate with the liberal base while maintaining the large donor apparatus Terry McAuliffe made his calling card. Most importantly, Democrats will have to win elections.

"To his credit, Dean seems to understand how the Republican party has been successful in its voter outreach efforts. . . .

"Howard Dean is intelligent enough to have learned from the many blunders of his presidential campaign's demise. No longer in the heated moment of a passionate campaign, he is far less likely to suffer an emotional outburst. Because of his experiences with the press, Dean may even be savvy enough to view the mainstream media with caution. For the next several months, Dean will be the beneficiary of low expectations. He is taking over a party that has lost three consecutive elections. Many are watching to see when and if Dean has his next meltdown. By simply maintaining a degree of balanced temperament, the press is likely to build his reputation back up."

Washington Monthly's Amy Sullivan wonders about the pseudo-hearing reported by Milbank:

"Lord Almighty, Democrats, this is shameful. Particularly because what I heard before the hearing took place was that the leadership put out the call to all Senate Dems to avoid scheduling anything else the same time so that the hearing would command full attention. Apparently, nearly every Democratic senator interpreted this as a sign that they should extend their weekend an extra day and hang out in the state. Milbank is absolutely right--no one is ever going to take Democrats seriously if they don't do so themselves."

You might have thought the SS debate was just heating up, but The Note, convening numerous members of the Gang of 500, says otherwise:

"Private accounts for Social Security are dead in the water; the only way the President is going to get a win on this issue is if he gets a massive (or gradual) shift in public opinion, or (more likely) if he gets a little bipartisan momentum for something in the Senate that will look nothing like he has proposed and that violates some of his bedrock principles."

I guess that takes care of that.

A Wall Street Journal survey lends some credence to The Note's stance:

"Americans remain wary of President Bush's idea for overhauling Social Security, but show increasing confidence over developments in Iraq, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has found.

"The survey of 1,008 adults, conducted Feb. 10-14, found that 51% Americans consider it "a bad idea" to change Social Security by allowing workers to invest payroll taxes in the stock market, while 40% think it's a 'good idea.' That is essentially unchanged since January. . . .

"In a further sign of trouble for Mr. Bush, 60% of those who consider private Social Security investments a bad idea describe their position as 'completely firm.' By contrast, just 31% of proponents describe themselves that way; 68% say they could yet change their minds."

And what a coincidence--it looks like Bush is already backpedaling:

"In an important shift from his hard-line stance against tax increases, President Bush has said he is open to raising taxes on wealthier Americans to cover the costs of transforming Social Security," says the Los Angeles Times. Here's the switch: "The president, in an interview published Wednesday in several regional newspapers, left the door open to the idea of raising the cap on wages subject to the Social Security tax as a way to help cover the transition costs of private accounts. Earnings above $90,000 are not subject to tax now." Um...isn't that a tax increase for those in the higher brackets? And doesn't Bush say he's against higher taxes?

How's this for setting the record straight? The LAT runs a correction of a correction:

"An article in Saturday's Section A about the resignation of CNN executive Eason Jordan said that in an April 2003 opinion piece in the New York Times, Jordan wrote that he did not allow his network to report all it had learned 'during the intense early days of combat in Iraq, for fear that releasing certain confidential information would put lives in jeopardy.' Jordan's essay was about his network's coverage in the years and months preceding the war. A correction Tuesday erroneously said his essay referred also to his network's coverage during the early days of the war."

Stay tuned for a good kicker, but I want to pause here for my report on journalists facing jail:

Judith Miller has her share of detractors in the news business, but almost everyone who takes notes for a living is rooting for her now.

The New York Times reporter, along with Time magazine's Matt Cooper, is facing a stretch behind bars for refusing to testify about confidential sources -- a prospect that came a step closer Tuesday when a federal appeals court upheld a contempt ruling against them in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.

"It's an amazing twist in her career," said Michael Massing, a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review who has criticized Miller's reporting on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. "At a time when she was being held up to such scrutiny for her writing on Iraq, she now is being cast in the role of journalistic martyr. I think it's horrendous that she could go to jail, regardless of whatever journalistic shortcomings she's been guilty of."

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, agreed. "This has rehabilitated her image a bit," she said. "Even within the ranks of the New York Times, there was an enormous amount of controversy about her. Now this comes along, and almost everyone can agree she doesn't deserve to go to jail over this, even if she's made mistakes in the past and not been skeptical enough in the past. She's doing the right thing in this case."

Miller, 57, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and co-author of a best-selling book on bioterrorism, declined to be interviewed. But she told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday that "one of the Orwellian aspects of this entire affair" is that she never wrote a story about Plame, the CIA operative whose name was leaked by senior administration officials to columnist Robert Novak. A special prosecutor in the case demanded that Miller and Cooper talk about their sources; Novak declined again yesterday to say whether he has been subpoenaed to testify.

"I have to be willing to go to prison," Miller told CNN. "I think the principles at stake in this case are so important to the functioning of a free press and to the confidentiality of sources that I just have to be willing to do that."

Still, anyone who thinks the process is a ticket to fame and fortune need only ask Vanessa Leggett. A Texas freelance writer who refused to turn over tapes of her interviews for a book on a homicide case, Leggett spent more than five months, until January 2002, in a cell the size of a walk-in closet.

"Every time a reporter would interview me in jail and say, 'Isn't this great?,' you'd look at them like they were completely lost," Leggett said. "The worst thing was the loss of privacy. Every move you make is monitored and essentially dictated by the federal government."

Whether to testify was "the most difficult and the most simple decision I've ever had to make," Leggett said. "I knew in my heart I really didn't have a choice, but I really didn't want to go to jail." She was freed when the grand jury disbanded.Cooper, 42, said yesterday: "You'd have to be catatonic not to be unsettled by the prospect of a jail sentence. Great career move? I had a pretty good career already.

"I suppose in a society that values celebrity and fame there's a certain notoriety that comes with cases like this. But there are easier ways to get ahead in life. I wouldn't really wish this on anyone."

People following the case say Miller, beginning with a "Today" appearance with Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in October, has been more aggressive than Cooper in seizing the media spotlight. But that also reflects a difference in their institutions. The Times has gone on the offensive against the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and published four editorials on the subject; Time has not mentioned the case in its pages.

Miller was embedded with a U.S. military unit searching for WMDs in Iraq in 2003 and, according to several military officers, acted as a middleman between the unit and Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile who was then close to the Bush administration and claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed illegal weapons. She told a Times colleague in an e-mail that Chalabi had "provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper." Some of Miller's optimistic stories about the WMD search were cited last year in a Times editor's note acknowledging flaws in the paper's coverage, and in a stinging column by ombudsman Daniel Okrent.

At the time, Executive Editor Bill Keller called Miller "a smart, well-sourced, industrious and fearless reporter."

Okrent criticized Miller again this month for her comments on MSNBC's "Hardball," in which she cited unnamed sources as saying the administration has been "reaching out" to Chalabi after a period of estrangement. He wrote that she was "speaking with the authority of the paper," even though she hadn't reported that information in the Times. Okrent said Miller did not respond to his messages and Keller had declined to discuss the subject.

Jack Shafer, Slate's media writer and a frequent Miller critic, said the Okrent column was "very damaging" to her, especially without a response from her or Keller. But Shafer said he did not want to criticize her in the leak investigation because "she's fighting a good fight."

The concept of journalists being jailed for doing their jobs -- which often includes promising sources confidentiality -- strikes a sensitive chord within the Fourth Estate. "The idea that these journalists could go to prison recalls the actions of governments in China, Ethiopia and Cuba," said Massing, author of "Now They Tell Us," a book on the press and Iraq.

Dalglish said there is "incredible public bewilderment" about the case. "People are saying, 'Wait a minute, why are these two going to jail when it was Bob Novak who got the leak? Why don't they just ask Novak?' I hear that six times a day."

Prosecutor Fitzgerald has declined to discuss his tactics in the case.

One complicating factor for Miller and Cooper is that they are not protecting some whistle-blower ripping the lid off government corruption. Critics, including some journalists, say they are protecting administration officials who tried to damage a critic of President Bush, former ambassador Joe Wilson, by revealing his wife's work for the CIA.

"The same law that could force a journalist to betray a confidence about a 'bad' leaker," Cooper said, "could be used to cudgel a reporter into outing a 'good' leaker. Either way, you have to honor your confidences."

Jonah Goldberg, editor at large at National Review, said journalists consider themselves "a priestly class" that doesn't have to play by the rules governing ordinary citizens. "If we're going to have laws against leaking classified information and outing CIA agents, by saying journalists are free to help with that sort of thing basically gives them a license to be accomplices to crimes," he said.

But Goldberg said the case has a silver lining for Miller, who he believes has been unfairly criticized over her Iraq coverage. "This helps burnish her credentials, and deservedly so, as a serious journalist who's sticking up for her principles and what she thinks is right."

And now the kicker. I can't vouch for this--the link has mysteriously vanished--but here's what Wonkette picked up from Craigslist:

"Bitter alleged former mistress of 2004 election campaign director threatens to tell all:

"To make matters worse, he was the campaign director and was a reference on my resume, but now refuses because he said he would be 'uncomfortable' with that. Sure wasn't uncomfortable with it while we were sleeping together. Also said he would help me find a job,.....still unemployed! I have VERY compromising photos and e-mails from him and am SOOO tempted to post on a web-site or send to our campaign alumni site, or e-mail his gf and tell her I was not the first he cheated with, just the first time he got caught."

Politics, apparently, is a dangerous business.


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