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The Forest, the Trees and ACORN

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bertha Lewis, the head of ACORN, is one tough nut.

She came to the National Press Club on Tuesday, ostensibly to report on the community group's "internal probe" into the ACORN workers who were caught on tape advising people posing as a pimp and a prostitute. But Lewis made it clear that, far from apologizing, she was on a "set-the-record-straight tour" -- and a tour de force it was.

The internal review by ACORN's board, disclosed this week by the Louisiana attorney general, that $5 million had been embezzled from the group rather than the $1 million previously alleged? "This is speculation, completely false and not based on any documentation or any audit or anything other than two disgruntled former board members," Lewis reported.

Accusations of voter fraud after ACORN workers filled out voter registrations for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys? "An utter fabrication and a work of fiction that was created by the people who wrote it."

The report by Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee that ACORN created a "shell game that funneled charitable funds to for-profit organizations"? "Another stretch of allegations of how to pound on ACORN. . . . It's just false."

And, of course, the secretly recorded videos of ACORN workers providing help to people claiming they wished to set up an underage-prostitution business? "These highly edited tapes," Lewis said, "don't tell the whole story." ACORN's accusers "have to stoop to break the law in order to create something sensational," she added.

In creativity, the ACORN boss's denials were matched only by her assignments of blame. She blamed her predecessor: "I don't think it's fair to judge me, as I'm cleaning up a previous administration." She blamed the powerful: "We've seen this play before, whether it was the civil rights movement or whatever, when you organize poor people to have real power, what you do is often turned against you." And most of all, she blamed Republicans: "The RNC . . . because we've been inflated as the boogeyman, raises almost $2 million a day, every day, and this form of modern-day ACORN McCarthyism has got to stop."

Assigned only a minor role in this orgy of blame were ACORN and Lewis herself. "My biggest weakness is a certain naivete about folks coming after you," she said in a moment of self-interested introspection. "I guess maybe others might have known and could have set up some other barriers and could've been better with media and PR."

But really, this isn't about PR. Without question, much of the assault on ACORN has been politically motivated, stirred up by conservatives and Republican politicians. Also beyond doubt: That ACORN does some good and important work in poor communities. But Lewis, in playing the victim, is her own worst enemy. Forget the film of the pimp and prostitute: Watching a film of Lewis's performance yesterday would probably be enough to cause lawmakers to cut off ACORN's federal funding.

"I admit I am not a graduate of the Wharton School of Business," she said in a mocking tone as she discussed her qualifications to run the embattled group. Her selling point: "I'm clean and I'm relatively competent."

Lewis, in a glittery red suit, multicolored scarf and dangling orange earrings, initiated the combat with her first words: "Some of you may know me as the biggest threat to democracy in America. And most recently some of you may know me as the head of an international brothel network."

She took the reporters on a tour of her life, back to her work in the theater business before she "fell in love" with community organizing and rose to become ACORN's chief executive in 2008, replacing founder Wade Rathke, whose brother was the one charged with embezzling.

It took half an hour for Lewis to mention the subject that had brought everybody there: the pimp-and-prostitute tapes. "It made my stomach turn over," she said. "Those actions are indefensible." But that was all the contrition Lewis showed. She defended some of the workers she had fired as "mothers and grandmothers who thought that they were doing the right thing." And she spoke of ACORN's lawsuit against the people who set them up. "It is illegal, as Linda Tripp will tell you, to record someone in the state of Maryland without their permission," Lewis said.

The moderator asked whether the misdeeds that were uncovered justified the secret taping. "Nothing trumps breaking the law -- nothing! Nothing!" Lewis responded.

"Amen!" one of her supporters shouted from the audience.

The pair who made the videos, Lewis suggested, were only the latest people to go after ACORN for sinister motives. "Our work, yes, has been primarily in poor areas and yes, mostly minority," she said. She added that Karl Rove, like the pimp-and-prostitute impersonators, targeted ACORN because "we were moving too many minorities to vote."

That may well be true. But none of ACORN's foes could have landed their blows if the group hadn't made itself vulnerable -- a truth Lewis couldn't quite grasp in her hour at the press club. "We believed if you did the right thing you would get credit for the right thing," she said, "but boy, oh, boy, did we learn differently."

The learning, evidently, continues.

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