By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006
Robert Luskin, Karl Rove's lawyer, says he spent most of the day on May 12 taking his cat to the veterinarian and having a technician fix his computer at home.
He was stunned, therefore, when journalists started calling to ask about an online report that he had spent half the day at his law office, negotiating with Patrick Fitzgerald -- and that the special prosecutor had secretly obtained an indictment of Rove.
The cat's medical tests, Luskin says, found that "the stools were free of harmful parasites, which is more than I can say for this case."
The claim that President Bush's top political strategist had been indicted in the CIA leak investigation was written by a journalist who has battled drug addiction and mental illness and been convicted of grand larceny. That didn't stop more than 35 reporters -- from all the major newspapers, networks and newsmagazines -- from calling Luskin or Rove's spokesman, Mark Corallo, to check it out.
The reports appeared on the liberal Web site Truthout.org, run by Marc Ash, a former advertising man and fashion photographer in California. Jason Leopold, the author of the stories, directed inquiries to Ash, who says that "we stand by the story. We have multiple points of independent confirmation of what we originally reported. Our problem is, the prosecutor's office is under no obligation to go public."
Leopold acknowledges in a new book, "News Junkie," that he is a past liar, convicted felon and former alcoholic and cocaine addict. An earlier version of the book was canceled by publisher Rowman & Littlefield last year.
Salon retracted a 2002 piece by Leopold involving Thomas White, then secretary of the Army. The online magazine apologized, saying it had been unable to confirm the authenticity of an e-mail that Leopold attributed to White. Leopold, a onetime reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Dow Jones, accused the online magazine of being "wimpy" and caving to pressure.
"Jason is a character, but he's been straight with me and I've checked him out very carefully," Ash says.
In an interview with liberal radio host Ed Schultz, Leopold said his sources had given him "detailed information" about the alleged marathon meeting at Luskin's law office that he said was attended by Rove and a Secret Service detail. Leopold said that while "I totally look like I'm wrong," he still believes the indictment story is true.
Rove has testified five times in Fitzgerald's investigation of White House officials' leaking to the press that Valerie Plame, the wife of an administration critic, was a covert CIA operative. Fitzgerald is examining whether Rove misled investigators by initially failing to recall that he had discussed Plame with Time reporter Matthew Cooper.
Leopold's May 12 report said Rove had told the president and top administration officials that he would be indicted and planned to resign. The next day, a Saturday, Leopold reported that Fitzgerald had handed Rove's attorneys an indictment of their client on charges of perjury and lying to investigators, and that an announcement was expected the next week.
Luskin calls the reports "absolutely bizarre. I'm waiting for him to tell me whether Fitzgerald had the chicken or the pasta. . . . There was no meeting, no communication with Fitzgerald's team of any kind."
As the phone inquiries continued through that Saturday night, Luskin says, "some of the reporters felt somewhat demeaned by having to call. It's the editors saying to them, 'I don't care what you think; call up and get some kind of response.' . . . The cumulative weight of all this malicious speculation is really disruptive."
While no other news organization touched the report, word spread through blogs and Internet sites. According to the Detroit Free Press, the keynote speaker at a banquet of Michigan trial lawyers announced the indictment, bringing the heavily Democratic audience to its feet.
Was a bit of impersonation involved as well? Corallo says a man identifying himself as London Sunday Times contributor Joe Lauria called about the story, which Corallo told him "borders on defamation." The man left what turned out to be a wrong number. After Leopold told a liberal blogger that Corallo had told him that the story bordered on defamation, Corallo reached Lauria, who acknowledged that he had dinner with Leopold days before the call.Pulling the Strings
Joe Klein says some of his best friends have ruined politics.
They are the consultants, the behind-the-scenes geniuses (when they win) and idiots (when they lose) who, in many media accounts, are pulling their clients' strings like puppet masters.
But if the likes of Robert Shrum, Karl Rove, James Carville, Joe Trippi, Chris Lehane, Mark McKinnon, Tad Devine and the rest have sucked every last speck of candor and spontaneity out of the process, as the Time columnist contends, aren't journalists partly to blame for treating them as demigods?
"The reason is, they're so damn colorful," says Klein, who chastises the gunslingers-for-hire in his new book, "Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid." "They're a lot of fun. That's why you find them clogging up the airwaves as well."
But it's more than that. The strategists, who are masters of spin, provide reporters with behind-the-scenes narratives about the inevitable campaign infighting. For Klein to poke his finger in the eye of those who have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with him and countless other journalists is entirely in character. This is, after all, the guy who confounded his colleagues by writing the novel "Primary Colors" as "Anonymous" and not owning up to his authorship for several months.
Reporters and consultants make natural allies because they speak the same language. For journalists uncomfortable with making judgments about character, Klein says in an interview, "money raised, endorsements gotten and poll numbers are the be-all and end-all in politics."
Not that Klein is immune to consultant fever. In May 2002, as candidates were competing for Shrum's services, Klein wrote in Slate that "the first contest of 2004 will be the Shrum primary" -- and now admits that the prospect of Shrum signing on with John Kerry sparked his hope for "a fresh source of campaign information." (Once Shrum joined the Kerry camp, says Klein, he turned out to be a "lousy source.")
Klein credits the consultants with being savvy operatives but blames the presidential candidates for allowing these advisers to drain them of interesting thoughts. Kerry, he writes, ran "one of the most conventional, consultant-driven, market-tested campaigns imaginable." As for the president, "it's absolutely true of Bush as well, but they keep the secrets better," he says.
The columnist found himself on the defensive last month after suggesting on ABC's "This Week" that a nuclear option against Iran should remain "on the table."
Klein later wrote that he'd made a mistake and was forced to admit it by "all the left-wing screeching" from "frothing bloggers." While bloggers can be "a valuable corrective," he wrote, at other times "your vitriol just seems uninformed, malicious and disproportionate."
He had already drawn the ire of the liberal blogosphere by writing that former House speaker Newt Gingrich has plenty of great ideas. A one-time liberal who concedes in his book that he once might have been "in the tank" for Bill Clinton, Klein says he is now a moderate -- but not, he insisted in the interview, "some sort of creepy, covert conservative."Reporter's Money Trail
USA Today is standing by its report that BellSouth and Verizon were among the telecommunications giants cooperating with the Bush administration's tracking of millions of phone calls, despite denials from the companies. Now the reporter who broke the story, Leslie Cauley, has come under criticism from conservative activists who accuse her of political bias. They point to records showing that in 2003 Cauley gave the maximum $2,000 contribution to Dick Gephardt's Democratic presidential campaign.
USA Today policy says that staffers "should not openly support political campaigns." But at the time, spokesman Steve Anderson says, Cauley "was between jobs and was writing a book."