House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), whose first year in that office was marked by controversies over his personal finances and high-risk leadership style, responded in typical Washington style last month: He hired a new press spokesman.
But in his first few weeks on Wright's staff, chief press officer George Mair may have been more successful in alienating some of the nation's largest news organizations than in burnishing Wright's public image.
Since mid-December, Mair -- who had been editor and publisher of the former Alexandria Gazette -- has fired off strongly worded letters to newspaper and magazine executives complaining in colorful and bitter terms about their reporters' treatment of Wright.
In response to a lengthy assessment of Wright's first year that ran Jan. 4 in the Los Angeles Times, for example, Mair accused two of the newspaper's reporters of writing their article without first interviewing the speaker -- they actually had had a long interview -- and charged that the piece was "badly researched, poorly written and, possibly plagerized."
In his letter to the Times' editor, William F. Thomas, in which "plagiarized" was misspelled throughout, Mair said that the newspaper's piece "was so beneath the standards of the Los Angeles Times that I was forced to double-check the masthead to make sure of what newspaper I was reading. "It is a dreadful cut-and-paste job using worn-out, inaccurate and long-repudiated gossip," continued Mair's letter. "In fact, some of the material sounds so verbatimly familiar that I suspect it has been plagerized."
Although Mair subsequently retracted his accusation that reporters Karen Tumulty and Sarah Fritz had not interviewed Wright for the article, he has yet to document the charge of plagiarism, according to the paper's deputy managing editor, Dennis A. Britton.
"I have been associated with Washington and national news for 20 years and I have never received a letter of this sort before," Britton said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. Britton said he wrote Mair to complain that the charges were "outrageous and simply unacceptable," but has not received a response.
"People in public life have to realize that when they raise a charge as serious as plagiarism, they best have something to back it up," Britton said.
Mair, in a brief telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he and Wright are scheduled to meet with the Times' editorial board today, refused to answer questions unless he was told how The Washington Post obtained copies of the letters. The Post refused.
Wright's chief of staff, Marshall L. Lynam, contacted in Las Vegas, referred all inquiries to Mair. Charmayne Y. Marsh, Wright's press secretary, declined comment. Wilson Morris, Wright's spokesman on some policy issues, was in Central America. Wright was out of town and unavailable for comment, according to Marsh. Mair was an addition to Wright's staff, and did not replace any other staff member.
Also in his letter to the Los Angeles Times, Mair objected to the use of quotes from "political enemies of the speaker without identifying their right-wing coloration." Included in that category by Mair was Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a well-known observer of Congress. Mair said that Ornstein "runs a right-wing quote machine" and is someone Wright has never spoken to or met.
Ornstein guffawed at the characterization of his political orientation, and said the charge that he has never met or spoken to Wright is "false."
Mair sent similar letters to senior editors or executives of at least four other publications -- The Wall Street Journal, Knight-Ridder, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.
Mair criticized The Wall Street Journal's Dec. 4 evaluation of Wright's year as speaker as "sly-wink inneundo" and "irrational writing" with "broad and scrullious allegations."
"I know that you have been suffering budget cuts with bureaus being closed," wrote Mair to Journal editor Robert L. Bartley, "but are things so desperate that the Wall Street Journal cannot do it's own research?" In the Journal letter, he misspelled "innuendo," "scurrilous," and "its."
Al Hunt, the Journal's Washington bureau chief, responded to Mair's letter, and defended the article in a telephone interview as "very fair" and one that "gave Jim Wright some credit."
Mair also objected strongly to a Nov. 30 Newsweek article on Wright that, like many other recent pieces, examined the speaker's legislative stewardship of the House and his financial dealings in Texas. A number of news organizations have run stories in the past year on Wright's activities on behalf of troubled Texas savings and loan associations and his business ties to a Fort Worth developer who had planned to invest in a project for which Wright secured federal funds.
The article described how Wright had rebounded from near-bankruptcy in the 1970s and his desire that his grandchildren not find themselves "in the financial situation I've been in." The article noted that the speaker has tried to encourage his grandchildren to be thrifty by giving them $50 a month as long as they donate some to charity and save some.
Responding to that anecdote and other issues in a 2 1/2-page letter to Newsweek's editor-in-chief, Richard M. Smith, Mair wrote:
"One of the cheapest shots made in the article by your people is to drag Jim Wright's grandchildren in and use them to ridicule him for trying to instill in them a sense of charity and thrift. I know Newsweek is in a circulation and advertising fight for its survival and that you're having to hype your sagging publication with stories on bra museums, angels of death and semi-nude female movie stars. Still, I personally feel you cross the line of taste when you stoop to using children against their parents or grandparents."
Evan Thomas, chief of Newsweek's Washington bureau, said, "We stand by the story. It was entirely accurate."