This whole Tom DeLay mess appears to have put members of the Beltway MSM in a bit of a Texas-sized pickle. If it’s been going on for so long and we all knew these indictments were coming, why, only now, are the media beginning to pay careful attention?
Back in November, fearing that DeLay would likely be indicted by a grand jury as part of an ongoing investigation by Travis County, Texas District Attorney Ronnie Earle, much of the news media appeared to fall into lockstep with the Republicans, charging that DeLay was the victim of a politically inspired witch hunt. Their method of attack then was as it is now, to charge Earle – without the benefit of any evidence of wrongdoing on his part – with the crime of being a Democrat. FOX News naturally marched in lockstep with DeLay’s efforts to smear Earle, with correspondent Brian Wilson calling Earle an "intensely partisan Democratic district attorney." In addition, the US News and World Report’s right-wing pundit, Michael Barone, appeared on the network to insist that Earle was a "partisan Democrat who has done some really rotten, political prosecuting." Of course, almost all of Earle’s detractors carefully ignored the inconvenient fact that fully 12 of the 15 politicians Earle has prosecuted over the years had been Democrats.
Today, following a series of extremely serious indictments against DeLay, one is surprised, initially, by how little appears to have changed, and the fault can hardly be laid exclusively at the door of the not-so-fair-and-balanced Fox Newsies. Take, for example, the October 2 broadcast of the allegedly liberal CBS’s Face the Nation, where host Bob Schieffer put together a panel of three Republican congressmen to discuss "all of these problems that have suddenly beset the Republican Party." Representative John B. Shadegg of Arizona took the opportunity to charge that Earle is little more than a partisan Democrat who has "used his powers and his office for political purposes in the past." In the same vein, over at Tim Russert’s Meet the Press that same morning, New York Republican congressman Tom Reynolds claimed, without any evidence to back him up, that "it’s one of the most political indictments I’ve seen in 30 years of politics." And guess how the new conservative-friendly NPR announced the news of the first DeLay indictment? Not with a straight, “Yesterday, a Texas grand jury indicted House Majority Leader Thomas P. DeLay." (No, that would have been The Daily Show.) Instead we got, "House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the man often described as the most effective member of Congress, has been knocked out of his position in the Republican leadership." Well, at least Ken Tomlinson will be able to sleep at night.
But lost in all this bickering and baseless accusations were the results of DeLay’s (potentially permanent) fall from grace. Many news outlets originally reported that Congressman David Dreier of California was going to be tapped to take over (temporarily, they said) for DeLay, but we soon found out this was not to be. In the end, it turned out that Majority Whip Roy Blunt was to get the gig. Oddly, however, shortly after the announcement made it official, much of the media appeared to lose interest. (The administration’s announcement of President Bush’s personal lawyer for the Supreme Court was nothing if not an effective means of dominating the news cycle.)
It’s too bad, because if any of the bigfeet circling round the story for a day or so had taken the time to look into some of the coverage in less exalted corners of the MSM, they might have discovered some items on Blunt’s resume that might bear further scrutiny. For instance, Blunt has been implicated in several scandals involving members of his family, and as David Goldstein and Matt Stearns reported in late September, "Blunt was criticized in 2003 for slipping into Homeland Security legislation a provision that would have cracked down on illegal and Internet-based cigarette sales," which "would have been a huge boon to Altria, parent of cigarette maker Philip Morris." At the time, Blunt’s soon-to-be wife and one of his sons were lobbyists for Altria, while "various Blunt campaign committees had received about $150,000 from Philip Morris and affiliated companies in the two years preceding the legislation."
What’s more, in echoes of the DeLay fundraising scandal, the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader ran a piece back in August of 2003 that implicates Blunt’s other son, Matt – who is currently the governor of Missouri – in some rather dubious dealings. The News-Leader reported on a "series of transactions in which a campaign committee controlled by [Blunt] had contributed $50,000 to a state 7th District Congressional Republican Committee, which then gave $40,000 to Matt Blunt’s campaign eight days later." In another ethically suspect fundraising scheme, the paper also reported that yet another committee controlled by the congressman gave money to a local congressional Republican committee, and was "eventually fined $3,000 for improperly giving money to state candidates."
The AP is reporting that “Tom DeLay deliberately raised more money than he needed to throw parties at the 2000 presidential convention, then diverted some of the excess to longtime ally Roy Blunt through a series of donations that benefited both men’s causes. When the financial carousel stopped, DeLay’s private charity, the consulting firm that employed DeLay’s wife and the Missouri campaign of Blunt’s son all ended up with money.” What’s more, another AP piece of September 28—which doesn’t appear to have been widely picked up—informs us that Blunt’s political committee has shelled out about $88,000 in fees since 2003 to a consultant currently under indictment in Texas along with DeLay. Together these two stories offer a conveniently holistic view of the scandal in which the entire Republican leadership, including Blunt, have their hands in the till.
In other words, everything’s bigger in Texas, including the scandals. Why, therefore, are the media being so shy about drilling what will surely be a gusher-sized fount of corruption once the right wells are tapped?
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.