Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

There are countless things that can be said about the tragic suicide of former Enron executive J. Clifford Baxter. The only appropriate and correct expression, of course, is empathy.

In the context of the broader Enron scandal, Baxter's suicide pushes the whole affair onto the terrain of bad fiction and the paint-by-numbers made-for-TV mini-series.

It also follows the recent pattern of events in which every day brings news that is not just more ominous and damning than the day before but much more ominous and damning than the day before. Don't mistake me: I'm not talking about the possible political scandal. I'm talking about the corporate and economic one. And on that count, how can anyone deny that this is now one of the greatest business scandals in American history?

What adds a greater element of mystery to Baxter's death is that, if you were writing this as a script, he isn't exactly the one who you'd tap to take such a rash step. Far from being the guilty party at the center of the mess, he seems quite the opposite. While being a high-level Enron executive, who probably knew all the relevant facts, he was apparently one of the in-house Cassandras who knew the place was a house of cards and started ringing the alarm bell, at least on the inside. This provoked his departure last May.

He was one of the people doing the right thing, not the wrong thing. Or at least less of the wrong thing than the rest of the brass.

Baxter's suicide inevitably fits into this puzzle. But he seems to have taken his life not because he knew more or did more, but - as must have been clear when he left the company last May - because his conscience was more delicate than those of his colleagues.

This is a special Talking Points Memo screw-up alert. I got the call letters wrong in my earlier announcement. So let me try this again.

Ahem ...

Talking Points will be doing special on-air, pre-State of the Union pointillizing on WMAL in Washington, DC. Specifically, the Victoria Jones Show (TPM's favorite radio personality!) next Tuesday night between 7 PM and 8 PM.

Look at the following paragraph from Larry Lindsey's article from last Friday's Washington Post defending the Bush tax cut against possible repeal. The piece has already been rightly criticized for being wilfully disingenuous in using other peoples' quotes in a misleading fashion. But look at this graf. Is this paragraph as intentionally misleading as it appears? And what precisely does it mean? We'll say more on this latter point later.

Very high personal taxes were clearly one factor that helped choke off the expansion. While personal taxes on average took only 12 percent of personal income in 1993, they consumed almost 24 percent of the growth in personal income between 1999 and 2000.
The point isn't simply that it's misleading. The actual economic reality the statistics point to seems simply enough to understand once you look closely at the structure of the sentence. The point is that it looks intentionally misleading. And if that is so, where were the Post editors?

Glenn Reynolds writes a great weblog. But I'm afraid he's got me a bit a wrong in this critique of yesterday's post which began ... "Smoking gun or steaming pile?"

(Yes, I'm hoping this pithy phrase will get picked up widely.)

Glenn took me to mean that "Bush should be judged by his proximity to Ken Lay et al."

That's not what I said. I'm not shoulding here. I'm just telling you how I think this will all develop. And there's a difference.

Also, Glenn points to this post on another site to make the case that ... (drumroll) you guessed it, Clinton is worse.

The post (on another blog) lists Marc Rich, the McDougals, and even people like David Hale, who, if you actually follow these things, you know had little if any actual connection to Clinton -- as opposed to fictive connections manufactured later, etc. etc. etc.

In any case, Bill Clinton had face time with some less than savory people. I'm willing to grant this. And I don't think George W. Bush or any of his cronies are guilty of anything by what amounts to some sort of contagious guiltiness. Ken Lay's a crook. You knew Ken Lay. So you're a bit of a crook. Etc.

That said, you simply cannot say that Ken Lay was some dime-a-dozen campaign contributor who got his picture taken with the president at a reception. Or someone he'd had some dealings with at some point in the past. It just doesn't wash.

Finally, TPM readers in Washington, DC can hear their Talking Points live next Tuesday night before the State of the Union. No, no streaming video or audio on TPM. But I will be doing a little pre-game on WMAL between 7 and 8 PM. I'll update later with details.

If you feel you're in need of reading something truly heartbreaking and bleak, then find out more about these two little guys in the picture opposite. They are Yura and Sergei, two runaways passing their day at a Moscow rail station sniffing glue. To find out more read this article from the English language Moscow Times.

Smoking gun or steaming pile?

Some Democrats seem disappointed that no one has yet found the first. But the Enron scandal and its consequences for the Bush presidency seems much more like the second. Sometimes what makes a scandal truly damaging isn't this or that particular thing you did wrong as being in close proximity to something really nasty and unpleasant. And President Bush and his top brass look like they're closed off in the Oval Office with ... well, something really nasty and unpleasant.

Some Republicans are beginning to realize this.

Give it time. Give it time.

Wow. Great reaction so far to our new feature, Ari Fleischer Ridiculous Misstatement Watch (TM). Thankfully, given the subject matter we're not worried about lacking material for future installments.

Now, a few quick points. TPM may seem omniscient, I grant you. But he can't be everywhere. He can't watch Fleischer's every move. He needs help.

Now there are a lot of DC journos who read TPM, even a few in the White House press corps.


Now, not every foolish lie can be shoe-horned into a story. But don't let it go to waste. Send it as an anonymous tip to TPM.

More later on what makes a perfect candidate for Ari Fleischer Ridiculous Misstatement Watch (TM).

Two cheers for Tim Noah. And complete agreement regarding celebrity historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

As regular readers know, I'm always trying to put my history doctorate to some use on TPM. (Well, okay, in a few months it'll be a history doctorate. But then historians in the public square seem to play pretty fast and loose these days. So maybe it's okay to just say it's a doctorate?)

Anyway, Doris Kearns Goodwin and plagiarism.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I think mistakes can be made either through innocence or sloppiness or disorganization. I think one can have a sentence or a phrase of someone else's bubble back into one's consciousness a few months later and not remember it's not yours. As I wrote then, I think this should be called misdemeanor plagiarism. Worthy of a good whack on wrist, but not a firing or a career-ending offence.

What drives me &$#%#*$ nuts, though, is when TV historians have the unmitigated gall to say that this is actually okay to do. It's not. No one has ever said that it is okay to do. Not until Steve Ambrose at least.

As Noah points out (as long as we're being fastidious with handing out credit, the Kearns story was broken by Bo Crader in the Weekly Standard), Kearns says that you can lift a few sentences or a whole graf as long as you toss the author a bone in the form of a footnote.

It's not. For better or worse, I was trained as a professional historian. And no one thinks this is true. Footnotes are about ideas and sources, not prose. That's why we have quotes. What people do sometimes wonder about is if you are very heavily reliant on someone else's ideas and merely toss them a footnote. At some point that crosses the line too. Not into plagiarism, but at least into scholarly inappropriateness.

No one thinks a footnote covers stealing prose.

There should be a reckoning for this sort of gall and deception.

Even more clues that Ken Lay was in the running for a variety of cabinet and ambassadorial appointments. (See this earlier post for speculation about why this may matter.) In addition to the possible posts noted on Monday, this article from a year ago in Business Week says Lay was being considered for Treasury.

Wouldn't that have gone well.

I like Don Rumsfeld too, but ... Well, a few folks have fallen for this press release from the Sec Def's office calling out a bunch of big media outlets for getting it wrong about whether or not he owned Enron stock.

He doesn't mention Talking Points (sniffle, sniffle), but the list would have included us too since we reported that Rummy owned a bit of the 'Ron back on January 2nd.

First let's stipulate that whether Rumsfeld owns a few shares of Enron really doesn't matter to this whole scandal. But let's look at the dispute, which doesn't take much more than some elementary logic to unpack and see that Rumsfeld -- or more likely his flack -- is full of it.

Rumsfeld's press release starts off by saying ...

Mr. Rumsfeld does not own any shares in Enron.

Contrary to the Associated Press, Washington Times, USA Today and New York Times stories, to the best of his knowledge he has never owned shares in Enron, and definitely has not since he divested most of his holdings on reentering government in January 2001. Prior to joining the government, Mr. Rumsfeld had funds managed by professional money managers, including index funds, so it is conceivable that one of those funds may have owned shares in Enron, but not to his knowledge. At present, he has a blind trust and is not aware of the investments in the trust.

Wow! Sounds pretty good. Rumsfeld didn't own any Enron stock.

But wait. There's another paragraph.

Mr. Rumsfeld's accountant advises that for a period of time, until immediately after Mr. Rumsfeld was sworn in as Secretary of Defense, Mrs. Rumsfeld had an investment with an organization that designed a fund to replicate the S&P 500 index, and that for a period Enron was a component of that fund, along with several hundred other securities. As an investor in that fund, Mrs. Rumsfeld owned 100 shares of Enron stock before Mr. Rumsfeld came into the government.
Okay, so wait.

Apparently Rummy's accountant chimed in between the writing of the first and second grafs. Disclosure statements sometimes don't make clear (in fact, theirs did not) whether a husband or a wife owns stock. And the general theory underlying the laws assumes, rightly, that it doesn't matter whether it's you or your spouse, etc.

The next paragraph goes on to say that soon after Rummy became Sec Def, he and his wife divested themselves of various holdings including the Enron stock. Then there's this kicker.

The Associated Press, Washington Times and the New York Times stories all cited the Center for Public Integrity as a source. USA Today cited its own research. All were inaccurate. To the best of our knowledge, none of the news organizations contacted Mr. or Mrs. Rumsfeld to determine the accuracy of their stories.
Actually the news outlets were relying on the facts generated by the Center for Public Integrity and they did try to check, but to no avail, as their response to Rumsfeld makes clear.

TPM on Rumsfeld: love the talk, love the camp, hate the crap (and the flack).