House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) yesterday apologized to three Capitol Hill correspondents and a congressional scholar for harsh letters written by a member of his staff to several news organizations complaining about their coverage of the speaker.
Wright, at a luncheon with the individuals in the Capitol, said that his recently hired chief press officer, George Mair, had misinterpreted his mandate to help correct what the speaker said were "factual errors" in some news accounts of his dealings with federal regulators on behalf of some troubled Texas savings and loans.
"The whole idea was to correct factual inaccuracies," Wright said. "I didn't have enough time to instruct George what I wanted done."
Mair's letters to several publications -- including The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the Knight-Ridder chain -- sparked a minor furor because of their tone and, in some cases, false accusations.
In his letter to the Los Angeles Times, for example, Mair charged that the paper's two congressional correspondents had written an end-of-year assessment of the speaker's first year in office without interviewing Wright. In addition, Mair said the writers had "possibly" plagiarized some material.
Wright yesterday apologized to the Times writers, Sara Fritz and Karen Tumulty, who had interviewed Wright, and called the plagiarism charge "ridiculous."
Wright also apologized at the lunch to Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who was quoted in the Los Angeles Times story. Mair had asserted inaccurately that Wright had never met or talked to Ornstein, whom he described as a "right-wing quote machine."
The speaker said that Mair would continue on his staff under a six-month contract, and would be responsible primarily for arranging meetings with newspaper editorial boards. Mair's status would be reviewed at the end of the six-month period, Wright said.
Though Wright said he had not seen the letters before they were mailed, he took responsibility for Mair's actions.
"I'm not known for making little mistakes," said Wright as he offered his apologies. And later, when he was being served his lunch, he asked the waitress, "Is this crow? I'll ask for a generous serving."