MUCH TIME MAY PASS before we fully understand the political ramifications of the Terri Schiavo case. For now, though, it seems that Republicans are taking a fearful beating. Opinion polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans disapproved of the effort--bipartisan, to be sure, but led by Republicans--to keep Mrs. Schiavo alive. To add insult to injury, most poll respondents hold the seemingly-inconsistent belief that the Republicans are not sincere, but are trying to capitalize on the Schiavo tragedy for political advantage.
One reason for this perception may be the "GOP talking points memo" that was distributed on March 17, when the Senate took up the bill that conferred federal jurisdiction over a last effort to save Mrs. Schiavo. The memo was first reported by ABC's Linda Douglass on Friday, March 18. The next day, on ABC's Good Morning America, Kate Snow confronted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay with "some talking points that Senate Republicans were circulating"; DeLay denied any knowledge of the memo.
On March 20, the Washington Post joined in, reporting:
An unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators, said the debate over Schiavo would appeal to the party's base, or core, supporters. The memo singled out Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.
"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," said the memo, which was reported by ABC News and later given to The Washington Post. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."
The full text of the memo was finally reported on March 21, when ABC News posted online "an exact, full copy of the document." ABC headlined the story, "GOP Talking Points on Terri Schiavo." As quoted by ABC, the memo was odd, to say the least. The Senate bill was identified, incorrectly, as "S. 529." (The bill was S. 539.) The memo also included five typographical errors, including misspelling Terri Schiavo's first name as "Teri." ABC obligingly identified four of these errors with a "sic." The memo, as quoted by ABC, contained no hint as to who authored it. Its content, however, immediately raised questions.
MOST OF THE DOCUMENT, in particular paragraphs five through eight, does indeed consist of talking points. These paragraphs are arguments in favor of the Senate bill which would have been appropriate for use on the Senate floor or when talking to reporters. But these were not, of course, the paragraphs the news media were interested in. On top of these actual talking points were grafted the paragraphs that said "the pro-life base will be excited," "This is a great political issue," etc.
But, as was quickly pointed out by bloggers, these political observations are not "talking points" at all. These are comments on political strategy which would be out of place in argument on the Senate floor, or in a media interview. The plot grew thicker when it was pointed out that the bulk of the memo--paragraphs five through eight--was lifted word-for-word from the website of the Traditional Values Coalition. So it is evident that whoever wrote the memo spent no time formulating arguments in favor of the Republican leadership's position; the memo's legitimate talking points were merely cut and pasted off the internet. The anonymous author's contribution was simply to add the explosive (and, in context, inappropriate) political observations.
Questions about the genuineness of the memo intensified when, later the same day, the far-left website Raw Story published, for the first time, a JPEG version of the scanned memo, which it said "[a] source on Capitol Hill has leaked." The print version of the memo, as posted on Raw Story, was identical to ABC's "exact, full copy of the document," except that the four typos that ABC had identified with a "sic" were all corrected. Interestingly, however, the fifth typo--"applicably" instead of "applicable" in the sixth paragraph--which ABC did not so identify, was not corrected in Raw Story's "leaked" version of the document.
THESE MYSTERIOUS CORRECTIONS raised obvious questions. Who created the second, corrected version of the memo? Why would they have taken a Republican-created memo and re-typed it, eliminating typographical errors, before "leaking" it?
More basic features of the memo also raised questions. There is nothing on the face of the memo to indicate who authored it. Contrary to normal congressional practice, not only is it anonymous, but it is on plain white paper, not the letterhead of any congressional or Senatorial office. It could, literally, have been created by anyone.
What, then, was the evidence for the claim that it was created and distributed by Republicans? As far as the public record shows: There is none. On the contrary, the only published report identifying the purveyors of the memo on March 17 states that they were Democrats. The New York Times reported on March 22:
As tensions festered among Republicans, Democratic aides passed out an unsigned one-page memorandum that they said had been distributed to Senate Republicans. [emphasis added]
Faced with growing questions about its story on the memo, ABC News backed off. An ABC spokesman told blogger Josh Claybourn that ABC never intended to suggest that Republicans created or distributed the disputed memo, but only that some Republicans received it on March 17. In Claybourn's words: "ABC tells me they never meant to imply Republicans created the memo." ABC's revised position is, of course, ridiculous. They described the memo as "GOP Talking Points on Terri Schiavo." But the fact that ABC has backed off its original report indicates that they have no idea who created the suspicious memo.
The other reporters involved in the story have gone to ground. Mike Allen of the Washington Post says he has information on the memo's provenance, but he can't reveal it. But his stated reason for believing the memo is not a hoax--"senators had it on the floor"--is laughable. Josh Claybourn reports that the Times reporter who described Democratic aides passing out the memo has declined to identify them.
To sum up, then: (1) The memo itself conveys no information about its source. (2) It is very poorly done, containing a number of typographical errors, failing to get the number of the Senate bill correct, and using points cribbed word-for-word from an advocacy group's website. (3) The politically controversial statements are out of place in a talking points memo, and seem, on the contrary, ideally framed to create talking points for the Democrats. (4) Somewhat bizarrely, after the contents of the memo had been reported, someone corrected those typographical errors--but only those errors that had been pointed out by ABC. (5) No one has reported seeing any Republican distributing the suspect memo; the only people confirmed to have passed out the memo were Democratic staffers.
A REASONABLE CONCLUSION would be that the "talking points memo" might be a fake, created by Democrats to cast aspersions on the motives of the Republican leadership. Every Republican who has been asked about the memo has denied knowing anything about it. Unless someone talks--at a minimum, identifying the Democratic aides who distributed the memo on March 17--we likely will never know who, exactly, created it.
But the fact that the memo is suspect (at best) has not prevented Democrats in the media from relying on it to attack congressional Republicans. For example, conventional-wisdom weather vanes such as Eleanor Clift and Ellen Goodman have seized on the memo to berate Republicans and the "religious right." Clift leads her column in the current Newsweek:
The Republicans might want to rethink that memo of talking points they circulated last weekend about how intervening in the Terri Schiavo case is a "great political issue."
Goodman, who writes for the Washington Post, the paper which won't tell us what evidence it has for the memo's authenticity, says:
And don't forget the infamous "talking points memo" ABC News found, reminding Republican senators that "the pro-life base will be excited" and it's a "great political issue."
There is little danger that anyone will forget the "infamous" memo any time soon; the mainstream media will make sure of that. So far, mainstream news sources have not even acknowledged that the source of the memo is in doubt, let alone set forth the compelling arguments suggesting that, in fact, it might be a political dirty trick. This is a case where the truth, as the old saying goes, is still lacing up its shoes.
John Hinderaker is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.