Friday, February 20, 2004

Did Drudge smear Wesley Clark, too? When Matt Drudge smeared John Kerry with his non-sex non-story, he also dragged Wesley Clark into it, claiming that Clark, "in an off-the-record conversation with a dozen reporters earlier this week, plainly stated: 'Kerry will implode over an intern issue.'"

In my piece this week on "Sex, Lies, and Republicans," I write that "it appears that the rumor either originated with or was spread by the now-expired Wesley Clark campaign." This has caused some consternation among those who think that Drudge unfairly implicated Clark.

So what do we know?

For my money, the most striking and credible description of Clark's alleged outburst was reported on Sunday by Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. He wrote:

The sin of commission occurred during an astonishing, even for a rookie, judgment lapse with the gaggle of reporters covering his campaign on its final day last week. Bantering with them at length under supposedly off-the-record ground rules, Clark actually said he was still in the race because he thought Kerry's campaign was going to implode over what he inelegantly called an "intern" scandal.

No matter what you think of Oliphant as a columnist, he's a pretty good reporter, and he travels extensively during presidential campaigns. I don't know about you, but I took his description to mean that he, personally, had witnessed Clark when he supposedly went off about Kerry - especially since he added such I-was-there details as "gaggle of reporters" and "[b]antering with them at length." If Oliphant wasn't there, I'd say his description is at least a little bit deceptive.

The New Republic's Ryan Lizza, who definitely was there, writes this:

Just in case anybody was still wondering whether anything in the original Drudge item about John Kerry was accurate, I can confirm that Wesley Clark did not say what Drudge says he said at that off-the-record conversation with reporters in Nashville one week ago.

I was there when Clark spoke, and just to make sure I didn't miss anything, I've also checked with other reporters who were there. Since it was off the record (sort of), I can't get into what Clark actually said (let's just say it was not his finest moment on the campaign trail), but I can report that the quote Drudge attributes to him - "Kerry will implode over an intern issue" - is not accurate. He never said that.

What is Lizza trying to tell us? I don't know. The most likely interpretation is that Lizza heard Clark slime Kerry, but not in precisely the same way that Drudge claimed. Clark may not have even used the word "intern." Beyond that, though, this isn't particularly helpful.

Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly has also denied Drudge's claim about Clark. The Incomparable One recounts this exchange on Fox News Sunday:

JUAN WILLIAMS: Now, let me just say that Democrats, including the man who endorsed [Kerry] this week, General Wesley Clark, was overheard saying, "Oh, you know, Kerry's campaign is going to implode over an intern," that kind of thing. That adds to it. And I think-

CONNOLLY: You know, what, though? That's not accurate. That's not accurate. That's the way that Drudge reported that supposed off-the-record conversation. But I've spoken to reporters who were there, and that's not even what General Clark accused. It was something far more peripheral, and it was pinned to a tabloid.

Getting warmer? Perhaps. But Connolly apparently wasn't there, either, based on her description.

Now, in some tellings of this tale, Drudge has the rumor being spread by one of Clark's top campaign aides, Chris Lehane. Joe Conason offered some insight into that on Salon last week:

The Drudge item blaming Lehane quoted Craig Crawford, a former Democratic operative who now works as a consultant and columnist for MSNBC. Within 10 minutes after Drudge posted the Kerry intern item, Crawford sent a memo to his superiors that said the story was "something Chris Lehane (clark press secy) has shopped around for a long time." According to Crawford, someone at MSNBC promptly leaked his memo to Drudge. But when Lehane called Crawford with a loudly indignant denial, the MSNBC columnist quickly issued a public retraction. He said:

"The comments attributed to me are from a private email to television news associates based on conversations with Democratic campaign operatives. I did not consider any of it confirmed enough to report or publish. I can only verify that Chris Lehane's rivals in other Democratic campaigns made these claims and I have found no independent source to confirm it. Which is why we did not go with the story. But then someone sent my email to others, which is the only reason it got into the public domain." In other words, there is no proof that Lehane circulated the rumor, let alone that the rumor has any basis in reality.

Lehane also denied it directly to Conason. No disrespect to Lehane, but that's not quite dispositive, since clearly someone is lying - either Lehane or his "rivals in other Democratic campaigns."

Still, I'd say that it all comes down to Tom Oliphant. If he says he was there, and that he heard Clark smear Kerry, then that's good enough for me. For that matter, if he was relying on an eyewitness account by one or more of his colleagues, then that works, too.

But short of that, I'd say Clark is off the hook - and Drudge only looks that much worse.

What about it, Tom? Inquiring minds want to know.

On John Edwards's qualifications for office. From today's New York Times:

"I believe he is the one who can beat George Bush," Ms. Wells said. "He's got that Southern thing going for him. He will hand you your guts on a platter, and you will thank him for it before you even feel the knife."

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