Monday morning I got a phone call from Henry Howell. Just like that - "This is Henry Howell." His voice being somewhat recognizable, I had no doubts that this was the real article.
It's unusual to get a direct phone call from a candidate for governor. It's one of the apparent laws of politics that the higher the office a candidate is running for, the more complicated it is for a reporter to reach him on the telephone. Someone running in a primary for, say, the House of Delegates, would crawl across a four-lane highway to talk to a reporter, but the higher the stakes, the more press secretaries, campaign managers and so forth there are between the candidate and reporters. To actually have the candidate call you is practically unheard of.
The point of the call was that Henry is mightly exercised about some things we've written lately; "hot under the collar" is one expression that describes his feelings. He thinks we have misunderstood, misquoted and missed the boat as far as he is concerned, and since he feels so strongly about it and is seemingly not going to let the matter drop, we decided to go over it once again.
Specifically, he said a sentence in a story that appeared on Sept. 6 was inaccurate. The story dealt with charges still going back and forth between Howell and his opponent, Republican John N. Dalton. These include the charge Howell unveiled on Aug. 20 at the AFL-CIO convention that "there are those who are saying that he (Dalton) attempted to feather his nest" while he was a legislator. At that time, Howell asked Dalton to produce a statement of his and his family's financial worth by the following Wednesday.
Howell was duly questioned by reporters at an impromptu press conference immediately following his speech. We asked him to substantiate his reasons for saying publicly that there were "rumors" that Dalton has used his office for financial gain, which is a very serious charge to level at anyone. Howell refused to do so. He elaborated on that by saying - as we reported in our story - that he would report on the rumors after Dalton had released his statement and Howell's staff had done some research. After the press conference, I tried again, asking Howell for more details. "That's next week's story," he said.
Thus reporters at the Aug. 20 press conference came away with the impression that Howell would have more to say on Wednesday, Aug. 24.
Howell's complaint is the following sentence in the Sept. 6 story: "Howell promised proof in four days but left on vacation after three days without offering any."
It is this sentence that was largely the subject of Howell's phone call to me and another to my colleague Paul Edwards, who wrote the sentence. And if you're confused so far, just try to figure out the rest of this argument.
Howell says that the offending sentence is not accurate and makes him look like a "hit and run driver," that he never promised only to release the results of his staff's research once they got the financial statement from Dalton.
Nonetheless, when Wednesday arrived, reporters called Howell's press secretary Frank Bolling as well as his campaign manager, Bill Rosendahl, to ask for the expected details. Neither one said, "Hey, we didn't say we'd give you details today, we just said we wanted Dalton to produce his financial statement by today."
Instead, they said that Dalton had not produced a statement, and that they had no further details to back up their boss's charge. Bolling later told Edwards that the transcript of the Roanoke press conference shows that Howell said he'd reveal the details in 30 days, not four.
Despite Howell's statement that substantiation of his charge against Dalton would be "next week's news," other statements made in Roanoke suggested he had no timetable then to prove his allegations. Edwards, in a story appearing yesterday amended his account of the incident to say, "Howell did not make clear when, if ever, he would back up his conflict charge against Dalton. Many reporters inferred that he meant to do so the following Wednesday, but when they besieged the Howell campaign for details on that day they were told that Howell was on vacation in Nags Head, N.C., and could not be reached. Campaign aides said they had no proof of legislative corruption on Dalton's part."
When, in the following week, Howell did reveal his reason for accusing Dalton - a 1972 bill that allowed banks and other lenders to increase the service charge on certain small loans - Dalton countered by saying the bill applied to state and not national banks such as the one in which he and his family own about 4 per cent of the stock.
Howell countered by disputing that interpretation and by attacking the press. The Washington Post in particular. Bank regulators generally agree that the bill could have been applied to national banks, but as a practical matter was not. Howell disagrees with this interpretation and maintains that the bank Dalton has shares of could have profited by the measure.
If Howell believes, as he obviously does, that his statements in Roanoke were misinterpreted, than perhaps he should re-examine his techniques as a communicator, because every reporter there wrote essentially the same story.
Frankly, I'm confused about the whole business. I know that in many parts of Virginia one can harvest political hay by attacking The Washington Post. I know that sometimes we make mistakes and when it is clear that we did we admit it and apologize. I also know that, in some parts of the state, candidates become accustomed to newspapers which do little more than reprint a candidate's own press release; I've been at some press conferences where the candidate seemed insulted that reporters would actually ask him hard questions.
It should also be noted that Howell has been attacked on the Dalton charge in editorials all over the state. Some of the editorials are reasoned and cogent; others, as they occasionally are when talking about Howell, are vicious and hysterical. That may be one reason Howell feels so strongly about this.
But what is one to make of his litany of other complaints? Like the one about a description in this column by Bill McAllister of Howell as a "gap-toothed, glad-handing politician" greeting guests at an inaugural party last January. Howell calls this "bad journalism," as he does other descriptions of him as "silver haired" or "nasal voiced" in different stories (although the way Howell tells it you'd think all these adjectival phrases had appeared in the same story.)
He complains also that we have not staffed every one of his press conferences and appearances. The only thing we can say in response to that is that no malice is intended if we fail to add our presence to every Howell appearance. There are five other candidates who want us, too, and all we can do is sigh and try our best.
Finally, a word of caution to Mr. Howell: Very few people, other than you and the Virginia staff of The Washington Post, are interested in this debate about our coverage. They would far rather hear about taxes, jobs, abortion, inflation, transportation, education. . .