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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

As you've no doubt heard by now former Presidential Aide Sid Blumenthal yesterday agreed to drop his libel suit against Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report and also agreed to pay $2500 to one of Drudge's lawyers, Manny Klausner, to reimburse him for travel expenses. The travel expenses were to attend a deposition conducted by Blumenthal's lawyers -- a deposition in which the person to be deposed ended up not showing up.

Now, as you probably already know, I am anything but a neutral observer of this whole case. And I don't pretend to be unbiased.

Having said all that, however, I couldn't help but respond to what Andrew Sullivan said about the denouement of this case on his site today, basically arguing that Blumenthal was wrong to ever file his suit in the first place.

As as journalist - especially as one that runs a vaguely-Drudge-like website - I'm not a fan of libel suits. Journalists are supposed to be against them as a rule. I always felt a bit conflicted even about this one. I shudder to think, for instance, of getting sued for millions of dollars because someone gives me a bad tip and I print it. Then again I don't think I would post something so damaging with no evidence.

(Only my utter lack of any assets to lose gives me some small solace.)

But I have to say that I think Blumenthal really had no choice but to file this suit.

When someone says person X is guilty of beating his wife, do you believe them? Obviously, it depends on who's being charged and who's making the charge. But even if you figure it's not true I think the undeniable reality is that after such a charge is made most of us figure, well ... I maybe 5% believe it. Probably no, but who knows? Where there's smoke, there's fire. And so forth.

Isn't this true?

Even after Drudge took back the allegation and apologized, I think that still applies. Because you figure, well ... maybe there was something to it, but he got sued and he didn't have hard evidence to prove it, so he folded his cards.

I don't know that there was any way for Blumenthal truly to clear his name beyond doggedly pursuing this case -- a process which would of course allow Drudge's attorneys to conduct extensive depositions and discovery, and find any evidence of abuse, if there was any to be found.

So that's point number one.

There's also a tendency I think to downplay, or forget, or make light of just how scurrilous and damaging a charge this was. As a liberal political journalist, and then as an appointee to the president who signed the Violence Against Women Act it's just not too much to say that this charge would have destroyed Blumenthal, and made him a political untouchable. No question.

Obviously too, the charge itself must have caused intense anguish, and mortification, and embarrassment to Blumenthal, his wife, and the rest of his family -- notwithstanding the fact that the charge wasn't true. Imagine the awkward conversations with colleagues. Friends who might actually wonder if it's true.

Yuck. It's a mess.

Would it really have been so hard for Drudge to apologize for this? Yes, I know he took at it all back when it first happened. But what about a formal apology to settle the case and just make clear once and for all that there was nothing to it?

(Special Alert: TPM Exclusive Coming)

Actually, in early April the two parties were apparently negotiating just such a conclusion to the case -- something which I don't believe has yet been reported. Blumenthal's lawyers proposed Drudge issue such an apology and make a small contribution to an organization dedicated to the issue of violence against women. The two sides negotiated with the judge and the judge drew up a letter for Drudge to sign.

Let me quote from the letter (a copy of which I have in my possession) dated April 12, 2001, written by the judge, John M. Facciola. In this section Facciola writes out a suggested letter of apology by Drudge to Blumenthal:

On August 12, 1997, I published in the Drudge Report a story which stated that Sidney Blumenthal had a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up. The Report quoted an influential, anonymous Republican who stated that there were court records of Blumenthal's violence against his wife.

I now appreciate that the sources who provided me with this information were advancing a political agenda and that there is no information whatsoever to support their accusations. I am not aware of any information whatsoever that Mr. Blumenthal has ever struck his wife, and I was not aware of any such information before I published the statement on the Drudge Report, other than the assertions made by my sources. I acknowledge that no information has emerged since I published the story to substantiate what the sources told me.

I appreciate how the story could have caused Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal anguish and distress. I sincerely regret it did so.

Drudge apparently tentatively agreed to such a settlement; Blumenthal's side agreed. But then Drudge changed his mind and refused to sign.

And after all this, Drudge basically repeated the libel by implying on his website that Blumenthal had settled the suit because Drudge was about to depose some secret, damning witness.

Really, really low.

So, yeah, libel suits are dangerous things. And pretty scary things for the editors of Talking Points. But let's see this whole thing in perspective.

P.S. Next up TPM gets back his sense of humor and gets back to the normal fare.

In one of his recent college classes, Al Gore apparently told his students that he had never spoken to Bob Woodward about a particular meeting between Bill Clinton and himself which appeared in Woodward's book The Choice. Gore told the students that it was his understanding that Clinton hadn't spoken to Woodward either.

The implication being of course that Woodward had reconstructed the conversation rather than basing it upon one of the participants' first person accounts. According to one of students present, Gore "found it of concern that a prominent journalist would reconstruct a meal and a conversation."

As the Times recounts the story, Woodward responded thus ...

Mr. Woodward, however, said last week: "It is not fictional. He talked."

Twice, the journalist said, he met with Mr. Gore for interviews in April 1996. Of Mr. Gore's remarks to the class, Mr. Woodward said: "It is very sad. But it teaches you to never put away your Al Gore file."

In other words, based on the accounts of Gore's remarks as related by students present, Woodward said that Gore had talked to him, and Gore was lying.

Let's assume that Gore did talk to him. Was Woodward within his rights to respond in this way? Wouldn't it have been more appropriate for him to say that he stood by his account and that he was relying on a first person recollection -- thus leaving the identity of that person unspoken, and preserving his confidence? This would cover his journalistic integrity and his responsibility to his sources.

Of course, this entirely leaves aside the possibility (which I'm more inclined to believe) that Gore is telling the truth. And that Woodward is tossing aside the rule book to cover his own ass.

Here's a thought: After the last election many Democrats were, shall we say, rather unhappy with the electoral college. Of course, the college would be exceedingly difficult to abolish since it's a boon to small states (whose votes get weighted more highly because of it) and you'd only need thirteen of those states to oppose it to block a constitutional amendment abolishing the college.

So, it's not going to happen.

But the constitution doesn't specify how the states allocate their electoral votes, just how many they have. The fact that all but two states hand out their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis is purely a matter of convention. Two states -- Nebraska and Maine -- already hand out their votes by congressional district. So, for instance, if you win the popular vote in Maine you get the two electors who are proxies for the state's two Senators. But you'd have to win both of the state's congressional districts to get the other two electors who are proxies for the state's House members.

Got it?

Anyway, after November, some opponents of the electoral college thought this might be a way to sort of half-abolish the electoral college. To press the college, as it were, a little further down toward the popular vote. A Democrat might get completely blown out of the water in Texas, say. But he or she'd probably grab a few votes in areas where Dems were strong. And vice-versa for Republicans in New York or Pennsylvania.

There are all sorts of practical problems with getting all the states to go along. But it seemed like a good idea.

Anyway, it turns out it's a lousy idea.

Here's why.

A few weeks back I was interviewing conservative activist Grover Norquist for an article about conservative efforts to combat voter fraud. Like many conservatives, Norquist believes that inner-cities, particularly minority and immigrant neighborhoods, are hotbeds of voter fraud. I think this is an entirely fallacious argument, with little to no factual support. But let's leave that aside for a moment.

Norquist has an ingenious idea: while most conservative anti-voter fraud activists want to do things like require picture IDs, abolish Motor Voter, crackdown on alleged voting by non-citizens, Norquist has a more elegant, root-and-branch approach.

He proposes changing electoral votes in precisely the way I described above. Oddly enough, he opts for what we might call a demand-side approach to the problem (this is humor for really advanced TPM readers.)

In Norquist's view, this removes all the incentives to rack up huge majorities in the central cities with fraudulent votes since it doesn't really matter if you win Michigan's 14th district (Detroit) with a big turnout or a small turnout, with a big margin or a small one. You still just get the same one electoral vote.

As Norquist described it to me, this reform would end the incentive for vote fraud and "cauterize" these hotbeds of corruption and prevent the evil from spreading out into other untouched areas.

Now, let's step back for a minute and look at what this means.

First of all this would be an unmitigated disaster for Democrats. Here's why: Democrats routinely win states by losing many of the congressional districts by close margins and racking up huge margins in the big cities. That's basically what happened this year in Pennsylvania where massive voter mobilizations among African-Americans and organized labor pulled the state out for Gore in Philadelphia. If you make the Norquist reform you not only change the winner, you also short-circuit the impetus for Democratic core voters to get to the polls.

The reason Dems pull elections out in the big cities isn't, as Norquist and other right-wingers, would have it, that they practice massive vote fraud. It's because their voters are heavily concentrated in the cities. Make the reform Norquist proposes and you instantly short-circuit all the gains Dems have made of late in get-out-the-vote efforts. And you also massively diminish the electoral strength of African-Americans and other minorities.

In other words, substitute the words 'high minority voter turnout' for 'voter fraud' and you get a pretty idea what the Norquist reform would accomplish.

Like I said, a real lousy idea.

Here's a very interesting George Will column on the apparent craze to name everything under the sun after Ronald Reagan.

(Why's Talking Points praising George Will? Hold on, hold on.)

The gist of the argument is that there really is no popular groundswell in favor of commemorating our 40th president. It's really just a handful of Washington-based professional Republicans, conservative ideologues and Reagan-worshipers. And in thoroughly non-Reaganite fashion they're using top-down, Washington-based big government to shove this all down everyone's throats.

National Airport here in DC was recently renamed Reagan National Airport. And the latest instance of this hypocrisy is that Bob Barr, whacky right-wing congressman from Georgia, is threatening to withhold federal funds from our subway system, the Metro, unless all the subway signs and maps are reprint and reposted to say Reagan National Airport for the airport stop.

Anyway. A great hypocrisy. And a great point.

What's even more interesting is that Talking Points' one-time quasi- kinda sorta protege Nick Confessore wrote the same article in the New Republic EXACTLY A WEEK BEFORE WILL's COLUMN APPEARED.

Only Nick actually did a lot of reporting -- as opposed to cribbing his column from the work of a promising young opinion journalist.

(Yes, Will's prose is more orotund and the moral is more delicately unfurled. But I say we're really talking about the same basic point, the same basic article. You be the judge though. Here's Nick's piece. Here's George's.)

Now, truth be told, opinion journalists actually love having their material plagiarized by nationally syndicated newspaper columnists. But there's a convention, a way it's done and a way it's not done. At some point in the column you write "as so-and-so recently wrote in such-and-such." Then you're cool. Rehash the whole column if you like. But if you don't say that, well ... that's really not cool.

And Will, it seems, is really not cool.

I mean, George. You can't cut Nick some slack? He's just a sapling, man. Just starting out. You've gotta snag his material and not even throw him a bone? Look at that face! He's just a kid! Look at that face. Look at that punim, as my grandma would say! Just a kid, I tell you. And you with the cushy nationally syndicated column gig can't even give the little guy his props?

Uncool, man. Very uncool.

I mean, come clean George. Give the kid his due. Or, at least, as Tim Noah would say, tell us you "disrespected the bing".

P.S. Let's be clear: I am not accusing Will of word for word plagiarizing. I'm saying that the first article appeared online a week before Will's did in a magazine, The New Republic, which is extremely widely read in DC. And they make a very, very similar argument. And use many of the same examples. It's certainly possible that this is just a coincidence. But I think the burden of proof is very much on Will.

P.P.S. So did Nick put you up to this? Eh ... maybe.

Not everyone is fronting it on their websites, but the big news today is unquestionably the report that the economy grew at a rate of 2% in the first quarter. This means the basic assumptions on which we've been discussing things for the last three months or so were simply wrong.

Conventional wisdom held that the economy was essentially at zero growth. Maybe a few shades below or above, but basically at a standstill. Yet the economy seems to be coming along rather nicely and actually accelerated from the last quarter of 2000.

What's less clear is which party this benefits.

Let me also say a few brief words about the Bob Kerrey story. I should preface what I say by telling you that I don't much like Bob Kerrey for reasons which have nothing to do with this current issue. So I've been reluctant to say anything about it because of my own possible bias.

Having said that, I'm inclined not to believe Kerrey's version of events. This isn't because I think he's a bad guy. Just if you use Ockham's Razor that surmise makes better sense of the evidence than his version of events.

One reason is that Kerrey's version events doesn't seem to merit the level of pain, agony and guilt which he says he feels. Accidentally killing civilians is tragic and horrible but it happens constantly in war. Every bomber pilot undoubtedly killed hundreds or thousands of non-combatants (or at least many more than a dozen or two). What fits better with Kerrey's anguish is a situation in which such a massacre of civilians had a certain rationale in the given situation (the idea is that they feared these civilians would warn Viet Cong in the area and help them ambush Kerrey's troops when they were trying to make their escape) but was nonetheless horrific and wrong.

As the new phrase Tim Noah is peddling would have it, I suspect Kerrey is "disrespecting the bing." And if not he's, again per Noah, "pulling a McCain."

I haven't read all the news accounts in question, though I've seen the adoring press interviews with Kerrey, so I'm not inclined to say more than this. But a number of readers have asked me to comment. So there's my answer.

Frankly, as someone who was petrified in 1990-91 that if the Gulf War dragged on he might get drafted, I'm not inclined to judge Kerrey too harshly on the basis of ambiguous facts from a situation in which I've obviously never found myself. But as to what happened, I suspect there's at least much more to tell than Kerrey is letting on.

I don't know how else to say this. But this apparently-deserved hit piece on Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is really, really funny.

Apparently Hutchison is, as they say, not an easy boss. And much of the piece is the standard order 'Senator makes staff pick up spouse's dry-cleaning' sort of stuff.

But some of it goes beyond even that normal sort of small-time abuse of official privileges.

Like this choice snippet ...

Hutchison requires a staffer to show up at her doorstep each morning with bagels and coffee and wait without knocking until the door is opened. The senator usually is driven the two blocks to her congressional office when she emerges.
I mean, what is this? Ritual humiliation? Does she make them call her Mistress Kay?

I'm happy to report that TPM is about to be written up in a number of magazine articles that will be appearing in the next month or so. But man -- or at least this man -- does not live by buzz alone. So here's my brief take on the politics of Bush's environmental policy in today's New York Post.

Yesterday I was pedaling away on a stationary bike at my gym watching C-SPAN (yes, watching C-SPAN while working out ... GET OVER IT!) when I saw Tom Daschle telling a gaggle of reporters that Bob Torricelli had denied or disavowed (maybe recanted?) a press report that he would vote for a $1.4 trillion tax cut compromise.

I didn't know quite what to make of that until I read the Washington Post this morning.

As regular readers will remember, a while back Talking Points speculated over why Torricelli was bucking his caucus on the tax front when he had legal troubles that would make you think he needed all the friends he could get.

Well, maybe Bob's been reading Talking Points. Or maybe his legal troubles have just gotten a whole hell of a lot worse. Because according to the Post, Torch got up yesterday in the Senate Democratic caucus meeting, protested his innocence and basically begged his colleagues to stick by him.

Ouch!

What a fun moment that must have been.

Torricelli has never been very popular with his colleagues. He's bucked the caucus on various fronts (though he did real good for them raising money last election cycle). Having to get down on his knees and beg like that must have been rough. (The Times, for what it's worth, has Torch sounding more combative and less pitiful.)

Which brings us back to Torricelli's suddenly seeming to find religion on the tax issue.

Hmmm.

I can just imagine the private meeting between Torch and Tom Daschle before the Caucus met, with the one-time maverick and high-flyer in need of help from the big man. Maybe it went down like in the opening scene from one of my favorite movies, with Daschle telling Torch ...

We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you came to me for counsel, for help. I can't remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child. But let's be frank here: you never wanted my friendship. And uh, you were afraid to be in my debt.
Or maybe not.

Anyway, you get the idea.

I think the Dems have another vote locked up on the tax debate.

You should take it as a given that Talking Points is involved in more or less constant communication and negotiations with wags and wonks from across the political spectrum searching for ways to stick it to the folks currently running the show at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And along those lines, here's a thought.

It sounds like there's ample ground for a possible meeting of the minds between certain Dems (Dems, of the TPM variety at least) and the National Greatness Conservative / Reform / McCainite wing of the GOP on the tax cut front. Here's the idea.

Many of these NGCs aren't too crazy about the Bush tax cut. They're not up in arms about it exactly. But they think it's too regressive, that it should put more emphasis on middle income families.

How about a tax cut with a substantial payroll tax rebate plus a dramatically increased and refundable child tax credit? There's very little in that which a progressive could disagree with -- at least certain progressives. It's also across the board -- every gets the payroll tax rebate and everyone with kids gets the tax credit. And for the NGCs, well, they can just see the child tax credit as a school voucher. The thought has occurred to at least one of them.

Such a package would address much of what both groups say they believe in.

Now one problem is size. How big would it be? For my part I wouldn't have a lot of trouble with the price tag being pretty high -- say in the trillion dollar range, or perhaps even a touch higher? (Don't quote me on that -- I'm still thinking it over.) But the fiscal discipline issue is a very important one for the Democrats today. Not just for substantive reasons and for its political potency but also for the way it knits together different factions within the party, the way it allows them to have something to agree on to mask over other differences.

So that's one problem.

Another problem is that Dems may fear that if they legitimized the idea of a tax cut on that scale they'd lose one of their major arguments against the Bush plan. And they might be right.

There's also a problem on the NGC side of the equation.

The NGCs are very much like Scoop Jackson Democrats from the 1970s -- a handful of brainy thinkers, an equal number of pithy writers, and exactly one elected politician. And even that one with a questionable future.

(In fact the NGCs aren't just like Scoop Jackson Democrats. A few who are old enough actually were Scoop Jackson Democrats. But that's another story.)

The relevant point is that it's not really clear what troops they can put on the field -- and so far even McCain has been a no-show in the tax debate.

Still, it's an interesting possibility.

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