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Pundits keep spinning Clark phone call

By Bryan Keefer
September 25, 2003

Despite new information, a number of conservative pundits continue to spin the widely-debunked story of a phone call Democratic presidential hopeful General Wesley Clark says he received shortly after Sept. 11.

The source of the controversy is an appearance Clark made in June on NBC's "Meet the Press." Clark told host Tim Russert that "there was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001 starting immediately after 9/11 to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein." When Russert asked "By who? Who did that?" Clark stated that:

Well, it came from the White House, it came from people around the White House. It came from all over. I got a call on 9/11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, "You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein." I said, "But--I'm willing to say it but what's your evidence?" And I never got any evidence. And these were people who had--Middle East think tanks and people like this and it was a lot of pressure to connect this and there were a lot of assumptions made. But I never personally saw the evidence and didn't talk to anybody who had the evidence to make that connection.

As we demonstrated earlier this month, a careful reading shows that Clark never claimed the phone call in question came from the White House, and he has been consistent in his position, telling Sean Hannity on July 1 that the call came from "a fellow in Canada who is part of a Middle Eastern think tank".

A September 18 article in the Toronto Star lends support to part of Clark's claim. According to the Star, the call was placed by Thomas Hecht, founder of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, which is based in Israel but has an office in Montreal. Hecht told the Star that he did not pressure Clark, though he did give Clark information he had obtained from Israel connecting Saddam to the attacks. Hecht also claims he made the call on September 12 or 13, not September 11. Though the character of the call remains disputed, the Star report verifies key details from Clark's version of events.

Yet the original story - that Clark claimed the call came from the White House, and then dissembled about it - has proven to be too good not to repeat. On September 18 (the same day as the Toronto Star story), the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial [subscription required] claiming that "As a formal candidate, General Clark will also no longer be able to get away with such evasions as his declaration earlier this year that he was pressured by the Bush Administration to link the 9/11 attack to Iraq. He got a call, he implied initially, 'from people around the White House.'" The Journal continues, "Later he changed that to someone from a Canadian think tank. Then: 'No one from the White House asked me to link Saddam Hussein to September 11.' Then it was the Canadian think tank again." The Journal implies that Clark has changed his story repeatedly, when in fact exactly the opposite is true.

Even after the publication of the Star story, prominent commentators have continued to suggest that Clark is lying about the call, distorting or omitting the relevant evidence. Robert Novak wrote in a syndicated column first published on September 21 that "Clark attributed one comment to a Middle East 'think tank' in Canada, although there appears to be no such organization." And, as Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler has pointed out, New York Times columnist William Safire made a similar attack on Monday, calling Clark a "boot-in-mouth politician" and writing that he "began by claiming to have been pressured to stop his defeatist wartime CNN commentary by someone 'around the White House'; challenged, he morphed that source into a Canadian Middle East think tank, equally fuzzy."

Rush Limbaugh extended the spin on Monday, claiming that "Clark said on Meet the Press that he got a call from the White House asking him to link Iraq to 9/11 ... It turns out he got a call from somebody up in Canada, some think tank, but never got a call from the White House. He lied about that, made it up." Limbaugh references an article by Michael Continetti on the Weekly Standard's website. Continetti claimed that "Last June, the latest Democratic candidate for president implied that he 'got a call' on 9/11 from 'people around the White House' asking the general to publicly link Saddam Hussein to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon." After that misleading characterization of Clark's comments, he goes on to twist the information from the Toronto Star report to paint Clark as a liar:

While it turns out Clark did receive a call "on either Sept. 12 or Sept. 13," the call wasn't from the White House. It was from Israeli-Canadian Middle East expert Thomas Hecht, who told the Toronto Star that he called to invite Clark to give a speech in Canada.

As the statements of Limbaugh and Continetti demonstrate, the confusion over the call Clark received has now become a media myth with a life of its own.

Meanwhile, controversy surrounds another phone call Clark may or may not have made. According to a Newsweek article by Howard Fineman, Clark told Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Denver University President Marc Holtzman last January that "I would have been a Republican if [White House political advisor] Karl Rove had returned my phone calls." Though Clark told Fineman he meant the comment as a "humorous tweak," Holtzman claims that "He went into detail about his grievances," and that "Clark wasn't joking. We were really shocked." (Holtzman expanded on his comments in a recent column by Mike Littwin of the Rocky Mountain News).

Continetti reports that "White House staffers went through the logs to check whether Clark had ever called White House political adviser Karl Rove. The general hadn't. What's more, Rove says he doesn't remember ever talking to Clark, either." Though at this point the dispute amounts to a he-said, she-said situation, and Clark himself has not confirmed that he tried to call Rove, accusations that Clark lied are already flying. Rich Galen wrote in his influential e-newsletter "Mullings" that "Clark made up the whole phone call!", and Newsmax.com reported the story under the headline "GOP Wannabe Clark Caught in Lie."

At least one pundit has already misstated the facts about this phone call. Jonah Goldberg got the date of Clark's comments wrong in a syndicated column, writing that "just this week [Clark] exclaimed that he'd be a Republican if only Karl Rove had returned his phone calls".

Though Clark's candidacy is in its infancy, the continued mischaracterization of the call he received after September 11 in such prominent outlets, combined with the questionable treatment of his comments about calling Rove, indicate that, like so many other politicians, he has become the target of a media spin campaign that refuses to die.

Update 9/25/03: As the American Prospect's weblog Tapped and others have pointed out, Fineman's Newsweek article notes that Clark's friends made inquiries on his behalf:

After Al Qaeda attacked America, retired Gen. Wes Clark thought the Bush administration would invite him to join its team. After all, he'd been NATO commander, he knew how to build military coalitions and the investment firm he now worked for had strong Bush ties. But when GOP friends inquired, they were told: forget it.

If these were the only calls made, it would explain why Rove says he never talked to Clark, and why White House phone logs show no record of a call between them. This evidence makes claims that Clark is lying about such phone calls appear even more suspect.

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Related links:
-Pundits won't stop spinning Clark's phone call (Ben Fritz, 9/3/03)

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