Advantage Kerry?

By Howard Kurtz

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, August 16, 2004; 8:33 AM

I can pretty much argue the presidential election either way at this point.

To wit:

If George W. Bush hasn't been knocked out by now, he may never be. He's endured a fiasco in postwar Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the lingering effects of recession and is still running even with his challenger. Many voters still don't seem to have warmed up to Kerry. With the GOP convention a couple of weeks away and the economy sure to improve (or so says Alan Greenspan, despite the latest weak jobs report), the president has probably bottomed out and will benefit from public reluctance to switch commanders in the midst of a war on terror.

Or:

John Kerry can start drafting his inaugural speech. He's taken an $85-million pounding in Bush negative ads and is still in the strongest position in a long time for a challenger taking on an incumbent. His convention speech was well received, his Vietnam experience (despite the Swift boat carping) inoculates him on the national security front and the undecideds will likely break his way, especially if Iraq continues to be a mess and economic anxiety doesn't let up.

But people who make their living as political prognosticators seem to be buying Kerry futures. This could prove to be a fleeting August rally, of course, but since it is the dog days of summer, let's look at whether their exuberance is irrational.

Roger Simon frames the question concisely:

"Have we reached a turning point in the presidential election? Or have we just reached a turning point in how the press views the presidential election?

"Or is that the same thing?

"Last week Charlie Cook, a highly-respected non-partisan political analyst, wrote in his column for the National Journal that things are looking bad for President Bush.

"Cook's chief point is that while Kerry holds just a slim lead in some polls, there are very few undecided voters out there and that Bush realistically can expect to get no more than 25 percent of them.

"Which would mean a Kerry victory in November. Cook is not foolish enough to predict this and, of course, he includes the usual language about how things can change. But here are his concluding thoughts:

" ' . . . President Bush must have a change in the dynamics and the fundamentals of this race if he is to win a second term. The sluggishly recovering economy and renewed violence in Iraq don't seem likely to positively affect this race, but something needs to happen. It is extremely unlikely that President Bush will get much more than one-fourth of the undecided vote, and if that is the case, he will need to be walking into Election Day with a clear lead of perhaps three percentage points.' "

The Note declared the outlines of a trend last week:

"The reality is -- as amazing as this seems -- this is now John Kerry's contest to lose.

"Forget the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs (and Team Bush's inability -- so far -- to enunciate a second-term jobs/growth agenda or find a compelling Rubinesque spokesperson on the economy).

"Forget the fact that that we still can't find a single American who voted for Al Gore in 2000 who is planning to vote for George Bush in 2004. . . .

"Forget the fact that California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey (sorry, Matthew) aren't in play and never were. Forget the latest polling out of Ohio (and perhaps Florida . . .).

"Forget the extraordinary anti-Bush energy that exists on the left and the 'how-do-we-whip-our-folks-up?' dilemma that exists on the right.

"Forget the various signs that the Democratic challenger is playing in battleground areas for the middle and the president seems geographically and issues-wise to be still shoring up the base. . . .

"Forget the current ad spending advantage the DNC/anti-Bush 527s have over BC04RNC -- while John Kerry pinches pennies.

"But remember the poisonous job approval, re-elect, and wrong track numbers that hang around the president's neck to this day. . . .

"There is also the now daily using of Drudge (and Fox and the New York Post ) to try to juice the news cycle with various blasts-from-the-past-into-the-present about John and Teresa Heinz Kerry that we find so transparently desperate."

David Broder, citing the problems caused by tax cuts and Iraq, is also in the Bush-in-a-hole camp:

"If Bush can win reelection despite the failure of his two most consequential -- and truly radical -- decisions, he will truly be a political miracle man. But as his own nominating convention approaches, the odds are against him."

There may be some unscripted moments at the GOP convention, says the Los Angeles Times:

"President Bush and his political lieutenants want the Republican National Convention in New York this month to exude the same sense of unity that characterized the Democratic love fest in Boston. But away from the spotlight, infighting appears about to break out over the GOP platform's stance on gay rights.

"The issue is important to the White House because the appearance of intolerance could sway critical swing voters. Log Cabin Republicans, a group of 12,000 gay conservatives, is teaming up with Republicans who support abortion rights to challenge the expected GOP platform on family issues. The GOP's platform from 2000 is expected to be the framework for this year's effort. It declares that marriage is the 'legal union of one man and one woman,' and that 'the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.' "

But more liberal Republicans aren't the only dissenters, says Newsweek:

"Among the 250,000 expected to head to New York City to demonstrate at the Republican National Convention, a small army of about 200 people plans to march alongside them -- but on the other side of political spectrum. Calling themselves Protest Warriors, they are an ardently conservative group made up of recent college graduates, high-school students and right-wing ideologues who hope to 'counterprogram' the message of the largely left-wing crowd.

"According to its Web site, the organization's goal is to 'help arm the liberty-loving Silent Majority with ammo -- ammo that strikes at the intellectual solar plexus of the Left.' The protests scheduled for the weekend before the RNC begins on Aug. 30 provides one opportunity -- a 'mission' the group is calling Operation Liberty Rising."

Words like ammo make me nervous.

Not that the government is just standing by: "The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning political demonstrators across the country, and in rare cases even subpoenaing them, in an aggressive effort to forestall what officials say could be violent and disruptive protests at the Republican National Convention in New York," says the New York Times.

Jim McGreevey's ex-boyfriend (who now insists he's straight) is speaking out, as the New York Post reports:

"In his first interview since the gay-sex scandal broke, the Israeli poet at the center of the storm told the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot that McGreevey's predator-like come-ons eventually got so bad, 'I got to a point where I was afraid to stay with him alone. He hit on me over and over,' Golan Cipel said.

"Cipel claimed he didn't report the harassment because he was intimidated by the New Jersey governor's political clout. 'Think about how scary it is when we are talking about a powerful man like the governor of the state of New Jersey,' he said."

The NYT also has a great tick-tock on how McGreevey's governorship unraveled in 20 days.

E.J. Graff, writing in the New Republic, casts McGreevey as the scandal descendant of Bill Clinton, Bob Packwood and Gary Hart:

"The punditocracy is going to get it wrong, casting McGreevey's resignation not in this lineage of male sexual hypocrisy, but as part of the new debate over lesbian and gay rights. McGreevey was hoping for exactly that when he announced, 'My truth is that I am a gay American.' The Human Rights Campaign quickly echoed that line, when its spokesperson Steven Fisher said, 'Coming out is a deeply personal journey, and Gov. McGreevey today showed enormous courage.' Oh, please. Do we really have to line up behind this guy?

"If the gay and lesbian scuttlebutt is to be believed, McGreevey had a boyfriend even before he married his second and current wife, which means that for years, he's tried to have it both ways -- the political mask of a wife and child, and the private comfort of secret paramours. How is this different from, say, Bob Barr, Newt Gingrich, or a gang of Kennedys?

"Gays and lesbians should leave this guy dangling on his self-constructed gallows. We've worked hard over the past thirty years to make it possible -- to make it legal -- to live an out, honorable life. Backing McGreevey only gives ammunition to the religious right, which will spin his resignation like this: 'See, gays really are breaking up the American family. Gay sex equals adultery, literally. . . . ' No, let McGreevey clean up his own scandal, whether he's fleeing a lawsuit or blackmail or some other ugly consequence of sexual double-dealing."

And now it's time for Monday's print column:

Should Matt Cooper go to jail?

No one who knows the amiable Time correspondent, who doubles as an amateur stand-up comedian, would think so. Yet he faces imprisonment -- not for lying, cheating or committing journalistic fraud, but for refusing to testify about confidential sources.

Cooper didn't "out" Valerie Plame as a CIA operative -- that was columnist Robert Novak, who refuses to say whether he has been subpoenaed by a special prosecutor investigating which senior Bush administration officials leaked the information. Cooper wrote a follow-up piece questioning whether the administration had "declared war" on Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson. But a federal judge has held Cooper in contempt of court, and he faces an unspecified period behind bars if Time's appeal fails.

Federal cases rarely reach this point because prosecutors try to avoid jailing journalists. For one thing, it usually produces bad press and outraged editorials. The underlying question is this: Do journalists deserve blanket immunity when accepting information that is illegal to leak, as in the Plame case?

"I admire Matthew Cooper for his willingness to go to jail," says Geneva Overholser, a former Des Moines Register editor and now a professor in the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington program. But, she says, reporters have been asking for trouble with their growing willingness to quote unnamed officials supplying derogatory information.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that protect journalists from having to reveal confidential sources (though the rules don't apply in federal cases). But those laws are premised on the notion that the sources are helping to uncover waste or corruption, not breaking the law themselves.

The Plame case "turns whistle-blowing on its head," says Overholser, a former Washington Post ombudsman. "Novak seems to have enabled somebody to commit wrongdoing. We should not let anonymous sources attack. It's ethically unsound."

Novak said on CNN last year that the CIA "asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else." His column criticized Wilson, who had challenged the administration's evidence that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium.

Cooper took the opposite tack, quoting Wilson as accusing the administration of a "smear job."

Floyd Abrams, the veteran First Amendment lawyer representing Time, sees far-reaching consequences if his side loses. Other journalists -- including Judith Miller of the New York Times (also represented by Abrams) and The Washington Post's Walter Pincus -- have been subpoenaed by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

"Journalists will live under a new regime in which they'll either have to cut back very substantially on the use of anonymous sources -- even in situations that the fiercest journalistic critics think are appropriate -- or accept a much higher level of punishment on a much more frequent basis than journalists are used to in this country," Abrams says.

Former U.S. attorney Joe diGenova says he declined to subpoena reporters for Newsweek and The Post when he was an independent counsel investigating who leaked information from Bill Clinton's passport file during the first Bush administration. "I deemed the crime, if it had been committed, insufficiently grave to warrant such an egregious intrusion into the First Amendment confidential source area," he says. "This is a very dangerous area for prosecutors."

Law enforcement officials routinely "leak information to the press," says diGenova, and "expect reporters are going to keep their confidence no matter what. And if that means going to jail, I think sources expect that."

Some legal experts say Time's chances on appeal are bleak under a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in 1972 that requires journalists to cooperate if prosecutors demonstrate a legitimate need for the information.

The Time piece co-authored by Cooper quoted Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff. With Libby's approval, NBC's Tim Russert and The Post's Glenn Kessler recently testified about conversations with him, saying no confidential sources were involved.

Abrams argues that "journalists who report about newsworthy events -- particularly about the functioning of government itself -- often need to provide confidentiality to be assured of receiving information."

So: Should Cooper go to jail? It's hard to see what purpose would be served by imprisoning a reporter who is determined not to betray his pledge of confidentiality. The real targets, after all, are the government officials who may have illegally blown Plame's cover. But it is Cooper who may get the first glimpse of a new, more chilling legal terrain for journalists.

Curtain Call?

When an ailing Jack Anderson announced his retirement last month, that seemed to mark the end of his syndicated Washington Merry-Go-Round column. But his partner Douglas Cohn later announced that he would continue it with his co-author, Newsweek's Eleanor Clift.

Now, for the first time, the 81-year-old journalist, disabled by Parkinson's disease, has broken his silence. In a frail voice, Anderson, who is confined to a wheelchair, said from his Bethesda home that he does not want Cohn to continue the column because "he has proven to be untrustworthy, I regret to say." The column should survive only "if my heirs feel they can continue in some way."

Cohn has been battling with Kevin Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize winner's son and attorney, who says he is fighting to protect "Dad's legacy." Although he has no "personal vendetta against Doug," Kevin Anderson says, "Washington Merry-Go-Round was never a political commentarythink piece. It was a hard-news, investigative reporting column." He acknowledged, however, that his father had virtually no involvement in the column for the past three years as Cohn published it under a joint byline.

"It had always been the intent that I would continue the column when he retired," says Cohn, Anderson's partner since 1999, who says he has received only two cancellations from the approximately 100 newspapers still carrying the once-ubiquitous column. He is marketing it after longtime distributor United Feature Syndicate announced the column's demise. Cohn likens his situation to Anderson's fight to keep the column after the death of its founder, Drew Pearson.

The McLean businessman, who is president of a software company, obtained the elder Anderson's signature on a document that he contends signed over the column to him. Kevin Anderson says the signature was "coerced" and provided a document showing he has power of attorney for his father.

Cohn blames the dispute in part on "political differences" between himself and Anderson's more conservative family. But Kevin Anderson says he and his eight siblings have a broad range of views. Clift says she has been the column's "ghostwriter" and would like to continue its "proud tradition" if the battle can be resolved.

Asked if it was hard to abandon the column, Anderson says: "Of course. It's been my life."