Salvation Through Quotation

Politics and policy.
Jan. 23 1998 3:30 AM

Salvation Through Quotation

Disgraced pols never die. In Washington, they don't even fade away.

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Dan Rostenkowski has been making public appearances in Chicago, dining at his old haunts with politicians like Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator, and meeting with potential clients of his "consulting" business. Though he has yet to visit Washington since his release from prison, he aspires to return to respectability in the city's eyes. The strongest sign that he will accomplish this task was buried on Page A12 of Monday's New York Times. In a story about who deserves credit for balancing the budget, Rostenkowski was quoted as saying, "George Bush had as much to do with reaching out to balance the budget as anybody I know. He finally recognized that there would have to be revenue increases."

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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The significance lies not in the substance of this quote but in the fact of it. For Rostenkowski, who is referred to only as "the Illinois Democrat who headed the Ways and Means Committee in 1990," being treated by the Times as an authority on politics, rather than as a news story himself, marks a giant step. Obligingly, the author of the article, Robert Pear, did not find it necessary to remind readers that the former chairman is on parole after a stretch in prison. Nor did he dwell on the irony that Rosty did his own modest part to unbalance the budget by stealing $600,000 from the government, a crime for which he has yet to voice any apology or regret. The Times simply treated him as a thoughtful elder statesman.

Well-versed in the ways of Washington, Rostenkowski knows that for someone in his position, quotation is more important than contrition. It is a lesson he might have learned from Michael Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, Tony Coelho, Elliott Abrams, or Bob Packwood. All these figures, brought down in political scandals, have nonetheless managed to re-establish themselves as players in Washington. The drill is fairly simple. First you resign, get thrown out of office, and go to jail, community service, detox, or whatever. Then you visit Quote Rehab, and come out as a Beltway citizen in good standing.

The fallen politician and the reporter are engaged in a reciprocal stroke. For the politician, being quoted means respect and acceptance. What ties you to the Washington community--inside knowledge, social connections, the common enterprise of governing--turns out to be stronger than what drove you away from it--getting caught with your fingers in the till, committing perjury, or what have you. For the reporter, a humbled politician is always great copy. Someone who has been brought low by scandal will tend to be more daring in his utterances, because he is trying to recover status rather than preserve it. He has nowhere to go but up. The reporter is happy to help elevate him in exchange for a good quip or even a few bland words.

The Betty Ford of Quote Rehab is Dick Morris. In record time, Morris managed to change the story from what he did--whispering secrets to a prostitute, etc., during the1996 campaign--to what he knows and what he thinks. He has thrown himself at the feet of reporters as promiscuously as he once threw himself at the feet of ... well, never mind. Morris has been quite open about what he is trying to do. In September, he told Roll Call: "I guess a lot of it is that I want people to see that I don't have horns--even if I was horny." He has been remarkably successful. In most of the stories that quote him as an expert, he is referred to simply as a former Clinton adviser or a political consultant (with no mention of the fact that his only known client is in Honduras). In a Times story about New York City politics, Morris is described only as "the former White House political consultant who has worked regularly over the last 25 years in New York politics." In a Washington Post story about Madeleine Albright's good relations with both parties, he is called "Dick Morris, a political consultant to both Democrats and Republicans."

In these stories, as in countless others, Morris serves reporters by playing what they call a "trained seal"--a glib source who can be counted on to deliver an apposite quote to substantiate the thesis of any story. In a Washington Post story about how John Hilley, an administration official, was crucial to the budget deal, Morris offers: "Without him, there never would have been a budget deal. Literally." In an AP story about Al Gore's weaknesses as a successor to Bill Clinton: "He does the steps, but he doesn't hear the music." Part of Morris' appeal for journalists is that he is willing to teach it round or teach it flat to suit the needs of their stories. He will defend Clinton as a political genius and a man of integrity. But if the reporter wants him to say that Clinton signaled Janet Reno not to appoint an independent counsel, as the editors of National Review clearly did last April, he's happy to oblige. "Definitely, I think that happened," he told them. In a New York Times story about Clinton's disloyalty to subordinates, Morris offers: "There is a certain empirical truth to what [James] McDougal is saying. Just look at the carcasses." Never mind that Clinton was unaccountably loyal to Morris himself after his self-induced downfall.

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T he point is not that disgraced politicians must be treated as unquotable pariahs forever. But they should be used sparingly, and much more skeptically, as a last recourse rather than a first. Rostenkowski is a proven thief and liar. Morris' views are almost always totally worthless, because he obviously will say anything, to anybody. Though he used to pride himself on never being quoted in the press, he now scurries to return calls from the St. Louis Post Dispatch and Investor's Business Daily. Morris gets much more out of the transaction, in terms of selling copies of his book and putting ignominy behind him, than the readers of the papers that quote him do. I called him to ask about the phenomenon, but for once he didn't want to play. It violated his policy, he said, of "not talking about the scandal or its effects." He would be happy, however, to discuss politics or policy.

At the very least, a decent interval and a reminder of what these folks did wrong would be appropriate. But reporters might ask whether they need to quote them at all. One of the irksome conventions of American journalism is the pretense of superneutrality: A knowledgeable and reliable reporter is not allowed to make even obvious or uncontroversial points directly. If you're going to say the sky is blue, you'd better find a meteorologist to say it for you. Most of the time, this is merely inefficient, a waste of time and newsprint. In the case of Quote Rehab, however, the trustworthy reporter puts his own observations in the mouth of someone far less credible. Dan Rostenkowski and Dick Morris end up speaking for the New York Times.