Asking the Wrong Questions About Abramoff

Why doesn't the press seem very interested in looking into Jack Abramoff's contacts with the White House?

In his New York Times column today (for Times Select subscribers only), Paul Krugman ends with an admonition to his fellow scribes.

First, he describes how most coverage of the Jack Abramoff affair has missed an important point by focusing mostly on campaign contributions and not enough on how the party machinery bought the loyalty of congressmen with free meals, golf trips and cushy jobs for friends and relatives arranged by Abramoff. Next, he asks why the White House’s concerted silence on the scandal has not provoked more scrutiny. (Scott McClellan has said he won’t provide any specific information about contacts between Abramoff and White House staffers.) “Why,” asks Krugman, “isn’t the decision by the White House to stonewall on the largest corruption scandal since Warren Harding considered major news?”

What Krugman is referring to is the administration’s admission on Tuesday that Abramoff had attended a “few staff-level meetings,” and two Hanukkah receptions. When asked about the meetings, McClellan lapsed into his Sphinx imitation: “We don’t get into discussing staff-level meetings.”

Asked again at the next day’s briefing, McClellan insisted, “We’re not going to engage in a fishing expedition. I know there’s some that want to do that, but I don’t see any reason to do so,” he added. “Well,” he finished up, “I think that some people (are) insinuating things based on no evidence whatsoever.”

No one bothered to tell Scotty that there might not be any insinuations if the administration was a little more transparent about its connections to Abramoff. It’s not hard to believe that, given his role as the nexus of much K Street maneuvering, Abramoff was doing a little more than just lighting the menorah and playing dreidel on those White House visits.

Yet the press has been largely silent about all this.

The only stories we could find from this week were one Knight-Ridder article, a USA Today piece, and something in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. With the exception of USA Today. none of the national papers picked up the scent.

And it’s hard to read these scattered few articles without concluding that this stonewalling points to some kind of secret. For one thing, Abramoff and Karl Rove are old friends from their days heading the College Republicans. Then there’s this buried bit in the Knight Ridder piece: According to the AP, “Abramoff and his associates had nearly 200 contacts with the White House during Bush’s first 10 months in office.” (Emphasis added.) That’s a lot of contacts, and the number alone suggests that something more was discussed than just keeping that menorah polished for Hanukkah.

Democratic congressional leaders stated in a letter this week to President Bush that the disgraced lobbyist “may have had undue and improper influence within your administration.” And a more non-partisan source, Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for nonprofit research group the Center for Responsive Politics, speaking to the White House through Knight Ridder, suggested this novel approach: “Answer the question and put the questions to rest.”

The fact that Ritsch even needed to weigh in speaks as much to the press’s silence on this matter as it does to the administration’s silence. Before the White House can be embarrassed enough to answer the question, someone has to first ask it.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.