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The daily view from the oasis

October 10, 2003 PERMALINK
Notes on the Debate
(posted Oct. 10 2:15 AM ET)
(edited Oct. 10 11:15 AM ET)

Yesterday, the Dem candidates gathered in Arizona for a CNN debate (full transcript here).

Some observations and score-settling:

1. What About The Leak?

In the Clinton-Gore days, when the GOP caught a whiff of Dem scandal, no matter how thin the evidence was, they drilled it relentlessly.

It‚s always worth remembering such ferocity can be taken too far (namely, impeachment, a political disaster for the GOP).

But if you want to make something stick, you can‚t stand back and assume the media is going to do the job. You gotta push and push and push.

Today, you have Bush in the most politically precarious position in his entire presidency.

Approval rating hovering around 50% (49% in one poll). Iraq WMD hunt a complete embarrassment.

And a burgeoning scandal involving a „criminalš act (to quote Dubya) jeopardizing national security.

What better time than a nationally televised debate to pile on and jack up the political pressure?

Yet, almost no candidate even mentioned The Leak.

Only John Kerry did, and it was barely more than a joke line:

They used to think their strong suit was national security.

They can't find Osama bin Laden. They can't find Saddam Hussein. They can't even find the leaker in the White House.

This scandal has the potential to transform people perceptions of what this entire White House is all about.

But it won‚t, unless Dem candidates pound away and constantly turn up the heat.

2. Dean, Lieberman & Kerry vs. Clark on Iraq

Much of the media focused on newbie Wesley Clark getting his fair share of fire.

In particular, Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman and Kerry criticized him for inconsistency on Iraq.

Dean (in the first attack of the night) tried to question the sincerity of Clark‚s opposition to the war:

General Clark, a year ago today, advised [NH congressional candidate] Katrina Swett to support the resolution.

Later, Lieberman joined in:

Howard Dean is right. Last fall, a few days before the voting in Congress, he said he would have recommended it and would have supported the resolution.

After the war, he wrote a piece in the Times of London praising President Bush and Tony Blair for their resolve.

But Clark conceded nothing, without exactly addressing the charges directly:

I would have voted for a resolution that took the problem to the United Nations.

I would not have voted for a resolution that would have taken us to war.

It's that simple.

But it's not that simple.

Clark has essentially the Kerry position, a nuanced view that strongly preferred patient, multilateral action against Iraq (more legit) yet supported the war resolution at the time as a way to get UN backing (less legit).

The 10/02 AP story that reported his backing of Swett, before the resolution was finalized and passed, said:

He said if she were in Congress this week, he would advise her to vote for the resolution, but only after vigorous debate∑

The general said he had no doubt Iraq posed a threat, but questioned whether it was immediate and said the debate about a response has been conducted backward.

"Normally in a debate, you start with a problem and consider possible solutions. Instead, the president has presented us with a solution before the problem has been fully articulated," he said.

"As far as the information we have now shows, there are no nuclear warheads on missiles pointed to America," he said. "You can‚t wait 10 years to act, but there is time on our side."

On the Times of London piece that Lieberman mentioned, it‚s important to note it was written the day after the Saddam statue was toppled.

Clark was writing in the spirit of the moment -- that this was, from his objective perch as a military analyst, a victory of sorts.

His complements towards Bush and Blair for the „resolveš can easily be interpreted as gracious congratulations from one who didn‚t fully share their stance.

Yet the piece also raised cautionary flags:

As for the diplomacy, the best that can be said is that strong convictions often carry a high price∑Now the bills must be paid, amid the hostile image created in many areas by the allied action.

And he also wasn‚t convinced that the occupation would go well:

∑the occupation effort∑could emerge as a lasting humiliation of Iraq or a bridge of understanding between Islam and the West.

Basically, both sides are oversimplifying Clark‚s view, in part because his view, like Kerry‚s, is impossible to fully explain.

Which made Kerry‚s attack on Clark later on all the more bizarre.

Kerry said, as part of a short list of criticisms:

The fact is that last year General Clark did say he would vote for the resolution that was in the Congress.

Uh, didn‚t you vote for it too?

3. Kerry v. Dean on prescription drugs

In an utterly shameless and unethical move by moderator Judy Woodruff, she took a document fed to her by the Kerry campaign during the debate and used it against Dean.

To allow a campaign to directly dictate a question attacking a rival, without any independent vetting of the charge by the media outlet in control, is a new low in journalism.

(Well, almost new. Let‚s not forget Tim Russert attacking Dean with phony data from the Bush Administration.)

Woodruff said, after Dean answered a question from the audience:

Governor Dean, before you sit down, I've just been handed a document.

I think it came out of the press room that Senator Kerry's staff has been distributing some comments about what was said.

Among other things they are saying that you∑tried to kick Vermont seniors off their prescription drug plan∑do you want to respond to that?

Dean responded in stride:

That's silly, of course. What I did try to do was get a cigarette tax past the Republican House. They wouldn't pass them.

I told them if they didn't pass a cigarette tax to pay for our health care program, then they wouldn't be able to fund seniors' prescriptions.

They passed the cigarette tax, as I knew they would.

Kerry then said:

Well, it's not silly. It's what he did. I mean, it's sad.

But he in fact, in order to balance his budget, terminated -- called for the full termination of what was called the V-Script program, and also turned to seniors and made prescription drugs more expensive for them in order to balance the budget.

Who‚s right?

Kerry‚s right on the technicals, but he leaves out a huge chunk of context.

Dean did propose such a budget. But it was a dare. A scare tactic. Political gamesmanship to get what he wanted.

As the AP reported on 1/26/02:

To balance his budget, the governor is asking thousands of older, disabled and poor Vermonters to pay $12 million more for their prescription drugs∑

And the truly bizarre part is the governor doesn't even support his own proposal.

He says the Republicans are making him do it...

...This year's budget story∑begins a year ago when Dean proposed a 67-cent increase in the cigarette tax that didn't get past the Republicans in the House.

So this year the governor decided he wouldn't even try to propose a cigarette tax increase∑Instead he would submit a spending plan without any tax increases.

"This budget does not include revenue increases - such as the cigarette tax - that the Legislature has previously opposed," Dean said in his budget address.

"Therefore, I regretfully recommend to you that we eliminate the expanded VSCRIPT program in its entirety."∑

("VSCRIPT Expanded pays for prescription drugs for some 3,200 Vermonters who earn, if they are single, between roughly $15,000 and $19,000 annually. The program costs the state $2.4 million," according to the AP)

Dean was knocked by some for playing „chickenš or „Russian Rouletteš with Vermont‚s seniors.

But he got the cig tax passed (75 cent hike over two years), and VSCRIPT Expanded was saved.

However, the deductible and co-payment for the program were raised, as Kerry indicated.

Though Dean and others expressed hope that the budget compromise would also lead to lower drug costs, mitigating the impact. (See „Thousands must pay more for health care,š Burlington Free Press, 6/29/02)

As these disputes continue to show, Dean is a balanced-budget hard-ass.

You can argue that being cheap hurts people. Dean would most likely argue he‚s protecting these programs in the long-run by keeping them solvent.

The overaching lesson here? Governing‚s a bitch.

These are the kind of hard questions that (non-Dubya) executives have to face up to, and their choices show their character and their principles.

It‚s completely fair to question Dean‚s record, which appears to be as imperfect and messy as anyone whose been around long enough.

But Kerry doesn‚t spark healthy discussion that educates voters when he goes for the cheap shot that only tells a slice of the story.

*** Share your thoughts at The LiberalOasis Soapbox ***

October 9, 2003 PERMALINK
Playing Defense
Badly
(posted Oct. 9 12:30 AM ET)

Today it is exactly six months since the statue of Saddam was toppled in Baghdad.

But the White House isn‚t exactly taking a victory lap today.

Instead, it‚s Day 2 of what‚s becoming the annual „Sell The Warš PR campaign.

Last year, you may recall, Chief of Staff Andy Card kicked off the first PR campaign with his famous quote: „From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.š

This year, they‚re at it again. From the W. Post:

...White House officials said yesterday that they plan a public relations offensive to convince voters that the United States is succeeding in Iraq despite the casualties and setbacks.

Of course, last year they were perceived as more credible, coming off an apparently successful Afghan war.

This year, as soldiers continue to be killed, after going six months without finding WMD, and after Bush already lied about finding WMD --

To be tagged as engaging in mere „PRš (hell, to tag yourself!) will only worsen their declining credibility.

Day 1 of „Sell The War∑Again!š was yesterday, as Condi Rice gave a speech where she argued „Iraq never disarmedš despite increasing evidence to the contrary.

Day 2, today is to be a Bush speech. Day 3, Cheney.

That‚s some serious firepower to use on an issue that Karl Rove surely thought would have been put to bed by now.

Most likely, Rove wants Bush to be talking up domestic issues as we head into campaign season.

As their mantra is „Don‚t Repeat Daddy‚s Mistakes,š they don‚t want to be seen as preoccupied with foreign policy while voters struggle in this limp economy.

After talking down the economy coming into office, they want to talk it up as much as possible now, crossing their fingers that cheerleading can help, or least, make them „look busyš.

But the Bushies don‚t control the media Ų and in turn, their message Ų the way they used to.

Take this Tuesday. Dubya had a post-Cabinet meeting photo-op clearly meant to stress the economy.

He talked about the „good progress on the economy,š how „we‚re an optimistic Administration,š and that „I'm optimistic because things are improving. But there's a lot more to do.š

But what was the news that came out of that appearance?

Bush‚s whiplash comments about The Leak: „We'll find out the truthš followed by „I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official.š

Bush simply isn‚t dictating his own story.

He's playing major defense, and not all that well.

*** Share your thoughts at The LiberalOasis Soapbox ***

October 8, 2003 PERMALINK
Four Lessons From The Recall
(posted Oct. 8 1 AM ET)

1. Bad economies kill incumbents

LiberalOasis said back in August:

∑odds are Gov. Gray Davis will go down in the recall for one paramount reason: the California economy blows.

But that it should be no solace to those in White House:

When the economy is bad, people naturally sense governmental mismanagement.

And a skyrocketing budget deficit is evidence of mismanagement∑

∑And if it works in California on Gray Davis, as is probable, watch out Dubya.

2. You can‚t win without strong, consistent party backing

Despite Davis‚ weak position, the political dynamic on the second question was tailor-made for Dems: one major Dem versus two major GOPers.

Why didn‚t it work?

Most pundits will surely blame Cruz Bustamante as a weak candidate.

But his public persona is no less charismatic than Davis, not to mention the previous GOP Gov. Pete Wilson.

Granted, there is poll evidence to back up the notion of Cruz as lackluster.

Polls indicated that Cruz went down and Arnold went up after the heavily-watched „Super Bowlš debate, even though Cruz committed no major flubs.

But in LO‚s view, the big mistake was how the state Dem party handled the post-debate phase.

They didn‚t spin hard for Cruz. They gave up on him, sensing that they had a better chance stopping the recall.

And so, after first buying Davis‚ argument that they needed to only stand with him, then jumping on the Cruz bandwagon, they again reversed course and put their chips on Gray.

Ideally, the Gray and Cruz people wouldn‚t have sniped at each other, and the Dems as a whole could have worked together and pooled their resources towards a No Recall, Yes Cruz strategy.

But there was never any such coordination.

The campaign abruptly went into its waning days as Gray vs. Arnold.

Cruz became an afterthought.

And Arnold‚s non-partisan campaign message gave Dems a place to go.

3. This is a rejection of Davis, not a ideological rejection of Dems

For one thing, Davis governed as a centrist, and Arnold campaigned as a centrist. No mandate for an ideological shift.

For another, note that the right-wing Prop 54, which would have prevented the state from collecting racial data and making it impossible to assess racial discrimination, apparently is going down in defeat.

That also shows that California is not lurching rightward.

The reality is that Davis never had solid personal backing, even from Dems.

He always won with a combo of prodigious fundraising and making the other guy look worse.

That‚s no solace to Californians, who now face life under a governor who eagerly nuzzles up to corporate special interests, and has no plan to fix the state‚s budget mess.

But it should make Beltway GOPers pause. If they think that CA has all of sudden become Bush Country, they‚re deluded.

4. Character attacks have limited effectiveness when the economy is on the line

Dems clearly didn‚t plant the LA Times stories about Arnold‚s chronic groping and lewd, demeaning behavior towards women.

But they did try to use them and make them the defining issue.

Obviously, there are cynics that believe Davis was behind it, and some will argue that Arnold benefited from a backlash.

But the exit poll shows that Arnold was hurt by the revelations, just not by enough to make a difference.

CNN reported that voters who decided more than week ago went 46% for Arnold.

But for those that decided within the past week (which was only 15% of the voters), Arnold‚s support dropped 8 points, though he was still leading.

(UPDATE 10/8 9 AM ET -- LA Times reports similar but slightly different numbers, via California Insider.)

So it was a dent in his support.

But people generally vote their pocketbook. And if their pocketbook is hurting, they will usually opt for change.

Whatever doubts that were planted about Arnold‚s character, they knew that Davis hadn‚t helped the CA economy.

And that trumps almost everything.

*** Share your thoughts at The LiberalOasis Soapbox ***

October 7, 2003 PERMALINK
More Bureaucracy Please!
(posted Oct. 7 12 AM ET)

As noted here before, the party line from the Bushies and the right-wing pundits has been:

Iraq is going great. The bad-news media bias is distorting the picture. Be patient, you‚ll see.

But actions speak louder than words.

Dubya has now ordered a bureaucratic „shake-upš on running the occupation, and you don‚t shake up things that are on track.

Apparently, Bush doesn‚t have that leak problem fixed either. An "Administration official" told the NY Times of the shake-up:

This is as close as anyone will come to acknowledging that it's not working.

That is way off-message. The party-line still hasn‚t changed. Dubya himself said yesterday:

Listen, we're making good progress in Iraq. Sometimes it's hard to tell it when you listen to the filter.

That kind of removed-from-reality attitude only weakens Administration credibility, particularly with the media, who pay far more attention to „shake-upš stories than typical voters.

Granted, in the big ‚04 picture, it wouldn‚t matter if Bush actually turns things around Iraq. Results are what matter in a „re-electionš situation.

But Bush‚s (first) mistake is he thinks the problem is one of bureaucratic inefficiency, when a dramatic policy shift towards internationalization is needed.

From the NYT:

Mr. Bush, a senior administration official said, made it clear that he wanted "all the powers of the government" turned toward making the reconstruction work in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The president is impatient with bureaucracy," the official said.

So what‚s the Petulant One‚s solution? More bureaucracy, and that‚s the second mistake.

The nut of the shake-up is a new White House organization, the Iraq Stabilization Group (even the name sounds desperate) run by Condi Rice to coordinate reconstruction efforts.

How will that work? CNN reports:

[Viceroy Paul] Bremer will continue to report directly to Secretary [Don] Rumsfeld but both Mr. Bremer and Secretary Rumsfeld will have key deputies now on one of the committees that Condi Rice will have to coordinate the policy here at the White House.

Translation: all they did was add another layer of bureaucracy. And, it seems, confused the chain of command.

This sounds like a classic panic move by the so-called master of delegation: assuming that micromanaging from afar can salvage a fundamentally rotten strategy.

It can‚t.

QUICK HIT

Seemingly overlooked in the Iraq-Leak-Recall hubbub is this week‚s US News cover story on Dick Cheney: „The Man Behind the Curtain.š

The piece is chock-full of quotes from GOP insiders disparaging Cheney‚s grip on Dubya and the Administration.

For example:

-- A senior adviser to a former Republican president adds: "Cheney is not always right, but he's always certain. He and his allies thought they were invincible, that this would be the American century, that we could reshape the world any way we wanted to. Welcome to the real world."

-- "I love Dick Cheney as a person, but one of the problems for George W. Bush is that Dick is his vice president," says a former senior official in George H. W. Bush's administration.

"When hard-line advice is filtered through Dick to the president, it always seems to make sense. When he explains it to you, everything seems reasonable and authoritative. But Cheney has an ideological side. Look at his voting record in Congress."

-- "Bush wasn't sure of himself on foreign affairs. Cheney was," says a Bush family insider.

"If Cheney were not vice president, it would've been different. The Iraq war situation would've been handled differently. There was a rush to judgment to go to war, all filtered through Cheney.

"If Cheney had not been there, there may have been a second chance for the weapons inspectors, we would've been slower to move to war, and, maybe, we would have organized a bigger coalition."

Read the whole thing.

*** Share your thoughts at The LiberalOasis Soapbox ***

October 6, 2003 PERMALINK
The Sunday Talkshow Breakdown
A weekly feature of LiberalOasis
(posted Oct. 6 12:30 AM ET)

Kay‚s Mixed Message

Normally, when an official goes on multiple Sunday shows, the idea is to disseminate a consistent message and amplify it.

But David Kay, chief of the WMD hunt, gave out mixed messages yesterday, stressing different points on ABC‚s This Week and Fox News Sunday.

Last Friday, LiberalOasis noted Kay‚s spin on his report was mild, and it didn‚t work with Congress or the media.

Though notably, on Friday Dubya spun it much harder, cherry-picking lines from Kay‚s report to the point of brazen distortion.

It‚s an odd and somewhat dichotomous strategy.

It gives the Right some talking points to latch on to. But it risks overall Administration credibility (what little of it is left).

One might assume that Kay and the White House weren't necessarily coordinating messages.

But Kay alone seemed to employ this two-faced approach on his two main Sunday interviews (He also did CNN‚s Late Edition).

On ABC, he was faced with several video clips of definitive assertions from Bush and forced to comment on thier accuracy.

And while he didn‚t directly embarrass Bush, he wasn't unable to back him up either.

For example, George Stephanopoulos aired a Bush clip from Oct. ‚02:

The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program∑

∑Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

Then this exchange follwed:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Now in that same speech President Bush said it was possible that Iraq could produce that mushroom cloud within a year.

Does your investigation support that conclusion?

KAY: George, we‚re still∑looking at the program.

What we have found is indeed there were indications in 1999 and 2000 of new money flowing into the nuclear program and a very nascent start-up of that program.

We don‚t know yet the full details of it, we‚re continuing to investigate∑

∑If someone had given them the enriched material or the plutonium, I think it would have taken them and year or less to fabricate a weapon from that material.

In nuclear weapons production, the long pole in the tent has always been producing the fissile material∑

STEPHANOPOULOS: But is there any doubt that Iraq had less of an ability to produce that fissile material in 2001 than in say 1991?

KAY: Oh no doubt at all. And that‚s indeed what we report. Doesn‚t mean they had no ability though.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But their program had been degraded from 1991.

KAY: It had been seriously degraded. The activities of the inspectors in the early 90s did a tremendous amount.

All that was similar to Kay‚s tone last week: an attempt to spin, but in the end, a weak defense.

Later, Stephanopoulos aired this Sept. ‚02 clip of Bush:

The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons∑

∑And according to the British government, the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes.

Stephanopoulos then asked the obvious, and Kay had nothing:

STEPHANOPOULOS: That was a very specific claim. Have you found any evidence to support that?

KAY: No we haven‚t.

And we‚re continuing to investigate the actual battlefield use and requirements.

And while we have Iraqi generals, actually, telling us about the plans, we have not found specific evidence that would indicate that.

However, over at Fox, Kay had a very different point to make about biological weapons:

KAY: ∑one of the most fascinating stories [is] an Iraqi scientist in 1993 hid in his own refrigerator reference strains for ų active strains∑were still active when we found them ų Botulinum toxin, one of the most toxic elements known.

This, unsurprisingly, is misleading.

Having the strain of bacteria is not having the toxin.

The strain, in and of itself, is harmless.

Turning it into toxin isn‚t, but Kay didn‚t find any toxin. (As is clearer from his actual congressional testimony.)

Kay gave similar optimistic spin throughout the Fox interview, which host Tony Snow actively encouraged and never challenged.

That may have been what Kay counted on.

He appears to have bet he could get the spin in the media bloodstream if it was only given on Fox, where it was less likely to be knocked down.

If he said the same on ABC [and he certainly had the chance to], he might have gotten more pushback, making it less likely for others to treat it as news.

If that was the plan, it worked.

The AP picked up the spin he gave on Fox, while ignoring his comments that undercut Bush on ABC.

Still, the AP did not simply parrot Kay. It continually stressed that he didn‚t actually find any hard evidence of weapons.

All of this shows the weak position Kay, and Bush, are in.

If the wind was at their backs, Kay wouldn‚t have to tailor his message for different shows, risking a muddled message. He would forcefully make his case to all comers.

He didn‚t, because he can‚t.

The Leak Drips

The two highest-rated shows, NBC‚s Meet The Press and CBS‚ Face The Nation, did not feature Kay and WMD, but Amb. Joe Wilson and The Leak.

Not wanting to face uncomfortable questions, no one from the White House came on to defend themselves, and Attorney General John Ashcroft ducked as well.

That essentially left Wilson with the ability to make his case without much rebuttal.

On FTN, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) followed Wilson, but neither took issue with Wilson‚s story.

In fact, Hagel took at shot at his GOP bretheren:

My advice to my Republican colleagues on this and anyone else in my party is: stay out of this. There is a serious national security matter∑

∑I think we complicate it by trying to bring politics into it.

I don't think the Republican National Committee chairman should be talking about it. I don't think any politician should be talking about it.

On MTP, Bob Novak followed Wilson, and continued his attempts to rationalize his actions and carry White House water.

But Novak was followed by W. Post reporter Dana Priest, who completely humiliated him.

Novak gave this convoluted response when trying to argue that we don‚t know if Wilson‚s wife was really covert:

If she is a covert operative and the person who gave me the name knew that -- which I'm not sure. I'm not sure she's a covert operative, Tim.

I have one source at the CIA who says she was not a covert operative. I don't know for a fact.

The official spokesman at the CIA I talked to, most recently this week, said she operated undercover. That is not exactly a covert operative. What kind of cover it is, I don't know.

Whether it was in a fictitious firm or a real firm, a non-official cover, those things have not been disclosed in detail by the CIA.

And I think a lot of the reports in the press are maybe true and they may not be true.

But Priest just flat debunked him:

Playing off of Novak‚s earlier comment that senior Administration officials knew about the status of Wilson‚s wife because they „know everything,š Priest said:

If senior officials, as Mr. Novak suggests, know everything, then they knew that she was covert, which she is, or she was.

And they probably knew the damage that that can create, which is quite significant.

Then, she subtly jabbed Novak for adding to the damage, when he recently exposed the name of Wilson‚s wife‚s front company:

Already this week, we've reported, again through something Mr. Novak reported, that she actually had a front company created for her.

The agency does that if they want to keep somebody's identity particularly hidden.

Now, I think a lot of people have been exposed, people overseas who might have met innocently with her for lunch, gone to tennis, gone shopping.

If they're involved, if they're connected to a foreign government, now their government is going to be suspicious of that person for meeting with her.

So I think the damage is being understated here.

All Novak could do was glare across the desk.

A Little Elaboration Please

On This Week, Kay offered one reason why the UN shouldn‚t be in charge of the weapons hunt:

We also engage in interrogations that are quite unlike the interviews that Hans Blix was willing to carry out.

Charming.

*** Share your thoughts at The LiberalOasis Soapbox ***

The Sandbox
Guest Humor Column by Mark Spittle

Novak Takes a Leak

Much has been discussed in recent days regarding the White House‚s alleged leak to conservative columnist Robert Novak regarding the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent.

While much has been discussed about the White House giving a leak, little has been said about Robert Novak taking a leak.

I asked Robert Novak this recently, when I ran into him in a men‚s room at Clyde‚s of Georgetown, an upscale restaurant we both frequent.

„Bob,š I said as I stood beside him, our positions before the porcelain similar, except that I stood a bit further back than he. „I wanted to ask you about the leak you took.š

„Yeah?š he responded, his words a bit slurred after a few rounds of Guinness and Goldschlager, his favorite combination. „What is it, Mark?š

I raised my voice a bit, to compensate for the gentle ringing sound that filled the room.

„Well, it‚s all over the news, now. Everyone knows you took a leak. I mean, you‚re a pretty respectable journalist. How could you do that?š

„Do what?š Novak asked, apparently paying only half attention.

„Take a leak like that?š I repeated.

„Listen, Mark,š he said, his voice gruff. „Sometimes in this business you have to go with your gut. Everything in my gut said to take that leak. I listen to my gut.š

I wasn‚t convinced Novak was giving me the full story. I decided to appeal to his machismo. „Bob, I know you‚ve got balls. That was a ballsy thing to do, taking that leak.š

„Having balls and taking leaks go hand in hand, Mark,š he said, his gaze still fixed downward.

„Whoa,š I said, changing my tone a bit. „I‚m sorry, I didn‚t mean to piss you off.š

„I‚m not pissed,š Novak said. Alas, he was pissed.

„Well, I didn‚t mean it to sound as hard as it did. I think you‚re a real pro, Bob, and you know I don‚t dick around with my friends.š

Bob relaxed a bit, and zipped up. „Yeah, I know, Mark.š

„But, you gotta admit, Bob,š I continued, determined to get to the bottom of this. „If every reporter in this town took a leak like that, DC would be flooded with problems. We‚d be wading in it, Bob. And that would really stink.š

„Make your point, Mark,š Novak said, washing his hands beneath the ornate, brass faucet. He was growing frustrated with me. „You‚re starting to become a drain.š

„Bob, flushing away our friendship is the last thing I want to do. I‚d be a real shit if I did that.š

„You sure would, Mark,š Bob said.

„There‚s just a lot of people in this town who think taking a leak is... well, yellow journalism. I just don‚t want to see your golden years go down in a shower of controversy.š

Bob looked me in the eye, the first time since I confronted him.

„Mark, I appreciate your candor, I really do. But frankly, I think this town is a sewer, and if the shit hits the fan over me taking a leak, ... well, I don‚t give a squat.š

One thing you have to say about Robert Novak: he‚s got stones. I had to give up.

„Alright, Bob, I‚ll let it go. But promise me one thing. The next time these trickle-down guys in the administration want to piss on some poor Ambassador, don‚t let yourself be used as the peon. Let them get their own hands dirty.š

As Bob and I walked out, I saw a pensive look cross his face. He hesitated, and then turned back to the men‚s room. As he walked away, I heard him mumble, „Christ, I just went, and now I have to go again.š

Mark Spittle is one half of the political satire duo Spittle & Ink. He is a former Washington lobbyist and congressional assistant.

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