Turning Up the Heat on Kathie Lee Again

Kathie Lee Gifford is sweating again. Three years ago, when the National Labor Committee revealed that her Wal-Mart clothing line was being manufactured under sweatshop conditions, we were deeply touched by her promise not to let it happen anymore. We were warmed by the sight of hubby Frank visiting one of these hellholes in New York City to distribute bundles of cash to abused laborers.

But we are sorry to report that Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the worker advocacy group, says Regis Philbin's co-host is still at it. "I have a signed agreement from Kathie Lee, stating that she would never again tolerate sweatshop conditions and that she would open them up for inspection by local religious and human rights leaders," Kernaghan told us yesterday. "None of those promises have been kept."

Along with another group, United Students Against Sweatshops, Kernaghan's outfit plans back-to-back news conferences at the House and Senate today, featuring two workers from so-called Kathie Lee sweatshops in El Salvador, Lorena del Carmen Hernandez and Blanca Ruth Palacios, who'll describe an environment in which young women toil for 11 hours a day for 60 cents an hour, are fired if they complain and receive death threats if they try to form a union.

As for Kathie Lee, she isn't just upset about all this unpleasantness. She is "beyond upset," Bob Adler, head of licensing for her clothing line, told us. "She's very, very emotionally taxed by this. It is just horrible that Mr. Kernaghan's using her as a scapegoat in this, when she's really been the Joan of Arc of anti-sweatshops." What strange and terrible voices she must be hearing.

John McCain's Boxing Lesson

* When all is said and done in the presidential bout, Arizona Sen. John McCain doesn't want to be musing that he coulda been a contender. "The moral of the story is never take a victory for granted. Never assume a verdict until the results are in," the Republican presidential candidate said yesterday, waxing metaphoric after we asked him to describe his experiences at Saturday's Oscar De La Hoya vs. Felix Trinidad welterweight championship in Las Vegas. "This is only the second round of the 12-round fight," he added--referring to his Trinidad-like hope to come from behind and beat George W. Bush, maybe the presidential matchup's De La Hoya.

Phoning in from Overland Park, Kan., where he continued his book tour-campaign swing for "Faith of My Fathers," McCain told us he's a longtime fight fan and former combatant. "I was a mediocre high school and college boxer. The 128-pound class. I'm heavier now." McCain, who attended the fight with wife Cindy, said Trinidad's victory by decision, after De La Hoya dominated the first eight rounds, "was a fair call. De La Hoya tried to fight a very clever tactical fight, hoping he could rest on his lead. But he never should have run in the last two rounds. Champions don't run."

THIS JUST IN . . .

* Grumpy old man Andy Rooney phoned us at dawn (actually, he phoned three times to leave irked messages) to object to yesterday's item about his syndicated newspaper column in which he seemed to suggest that a woman fitting the description of Diane Sawyer--"the most beautiful woman in television news"--had cosmetic surgery and looks the worse for it. But what got Andy really steamed was our assertion that he wouldn't return our call. "That was a dumb thing to say," he scolded, pointedly not denying that Diane was his subject. Under questioning, he refused to clear up the mystery. "That would be dumb of me."

* "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss--she of the celebrity-filled "black book"--was released from jail in California yesterday, Reuters reports. She served more than two years of a 37-month sentence for conspiracy, tax evasion and money laundering.

* Kmart's "Kids Race Against Drugs" gets under way on the Mall this morning with members of Congress, Mary Lou Retton, Isiah Thomas and Vendela expected to compete in miniature race cars on a specially designed track.

* Tibetan-independence advocate Richard Gere, who turned 50 on Aug. 31, was attending a human rights conference at American University last weekend when Chinese activist Harry Wu and Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights founder Kerry Kennedy Cuomo surprised him with a cake and a rendition of "Happy Birthday."