Chris Matthews' report that Kathleen Willey was threatened in January 1998 by Cody Shearer, a Washington journalist and investigator with close ties to the Clinton administration, nearly had tragic repercussions here on Sunday night.
After hearing the allegation -- first broadcast May 11 on CNBC's "Hardball" -- presidential candidate Pat Buchanan's older brother Hank, a 61-year-old former accountant with a history of mental illness, drove from his Maryland home to Washington to find Shearer.
And he had a gun.
Apparently, Buchanan easily found Shearer's home in a leafy Washington neighborhood. Shearer, who runs the International Student Symposium on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, a mediation program for overseas students, has long been suspected in conservative circles of being a dirty trickster for the Clinton camp.
Buchanan broke into Shearer's garage and slashed the tires of three cars, one of Shearer's housemates told Salon News. When two of Shearer's students entered the garage, Buchanan allegedly took out a gun and threatened them with it, then threatened a neighbor, who was trying to take out his garbage.
Then, according to Shearer's attorneys, Buchanan "fled to a parked automobile without causing any additional harm."
Shearer -- who is the brother of the former U.S. ambassador to Finland, Derek Shearer, and the twin brother of Brooke Shearer, the director of the White House Fellowship Program (and wife of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott) -- was not home at the time. Wednesday, Brooke Shearer confirmed the account as reported by her brother, though Cody Shearer remained unavailable for comment.
Buchanan left the scene, but not before one of the threatened parties was able to write down his license plate number and call police.
Metropolitan Police Department detectives David Edelstein and Dan Lewis, of the 2nd District, reported to the scene and interviewed witnesses.
The two students who had been threatened by Buchanan were taking exams and unable to come to the phone at press time; a housemate said the pair would not comment until they had retained an attorney. "They're just young kids, and they're trying to get their lives together," he said.
On Wednesday, police traced Buchanan through his license plate, issued a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of assault with a dangerous weapon and arranged for his surrender through another Buchanan brother, attorney Thomas M. Buchanan. As of Thursday morning, however, Hank Buchanan had yet to be processed in the District of Columbia legal system, according to spokesmen with the police and the U.S. Attorney's office. His surrender is expected within a few days.
The series of events began May 11, when Matthews asked Willey about her report that a man had threatened her menacingly on January 8, 1998, alluding to Willey's suspiciously missing cat and her car's tires having been slashed.
Matthews asked Willey if she had positively identified any suspects through photographs.
"Yes," Willey replied.
"So, it's Cody Shearer?" Matthews asked -- because, he explained later, "she had made this identification to me in previous conversations."
"I can't tell you," Willey replied.
The erroneous report, which was subsequently repeated by Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, the New York Post and others, was first debunked by Salon News columnist Joe Conason on Monday.
Six days after the show aired, according to a statement issued by Cody Shearer's attorneys, "Mr. Shearer began receiving death threats from anonymous individuals."
Also six days later, on the evening of May 17, Matthews began his broadcast by reporting that on Saturday, May 15, Shearer had approached Matthews at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, introduced himself and pled his innocence.
"Mr. Shearer told me, in a very impassioned, but what seems to be a very credible way, that he was 3,000 miles away during that alleged pre-dawn meeting, and he can prove it," Matthews started. "Last week I read Mr. Shearer's denial from his attorney on the air. Today Mr. Shearer's attorney sent me a further letter stating that Mr. Shearer had nothing whatever to do with the events described by Ms. Willey. He wrote, and I'm quoting here, 'During the entire period that Ms. Willey identified, including the date on which she was accosted, Mr. Shearer was in California.' He says he was -- he has documentary proof of that, including restaurant, ATM and other travel receipts."
"Well, after my Philadelphia encounter with Mr. Shearer," Matthews concluded, "which I did find credible, I now regret having spoken -- having spoken about him -- not [having] spoken beforehand with him before I mentioned his name on the air. I should have never brought his name up till we had vetted it."
Matthews' retraction and apology came one day after Buchanan broke into Shearer's home, gun in hand. Matthews was unavailable for comment at press time.
No doubt much of the intrigue surrounding Shearer comes from the fact that Shearer is something of a mystery man, and has been whispered about by GOP conspiracy theorists for years.
As a journalist, Shearer seemed to target Republicans. In a 1987 speech at the University of Utah, Shearer, then with the News America Syndicate, said that Lt. Col. Oliver North "simply makes up stories. It's a joke." Shearer also worked for CBS's "60 Minutes" on an episode that the news show never broadcast: the story of Brett Kimberlin, a since-discredited convict who claimed to have sold drugs to then-Sen. Dan Quayle. In 1997, in a mini-scandal involving Oklahoma's Cheyenne-Arapaho, Shearer was accused of having advised the tribe that the best way to advance its cause was to dig up dirt on Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., an opponent in a land dispute.
Last summer, Shearer reportedly worked on some freelance diplomacy, negotiating a partition of Bosnia with Bosnian Serb and Muslim leaders until the U.S. Department of State -- or, more precisely, brother-in-law Talbott -- asked him to cease his activities.
Then late last summer, when rumors of a Democratic "scorched earth" policy aimed at outing Republicans who had had sexual affairs circulated within the Beltway, Shearer's name surfaced as one of those supposedly peddling such rumors to the press.
All of which made Shearer a completely credible -- if wrongly accused -- suspect among conservatives who trade in dark rumors about Vince Foster's suicide and the White House's supposed secret police.
That Matthews, an established journalist, didn't call Shearer before lending credence to one of these stories represents a breach of accepted journalistic practice. Shearer's attorneys noted that "as a journalist himself, Mr. Shearer is concerned about the breakdown in journalistic standards that has led to his personal safety being jeopardized." An editor at the San Francisco Examiner -- for which Matthews is Washington bureau chief -- said he was only "vaguely" aware of the Shearer incident, and another editor at the Examiner said she would not comment because the incident had nothing to do with Matthews' work for the Examiner. Examiner executive editor Phil Bronstein was unavailable for comment.
A spokesperson for NBC News president Andrew Lack, who was reportedly upset about Matthews' journalistic indiscretion, referred calls to CNBC in Ft. Lee, N.J., giving out the name of a woman who no longer works for the news outfit and a number that has been disconnected. John Brine, a spokesman for CNBC, laid the blame at the feet of Kathleen Willey, whom he said "asserted to Chris Matthews and his producers in a pre-taped interview that Cody Shearer was the person she identified in a photograph" as having accosted her in January. All Matthews did, Brine said, was "attempt to get this information out" through "aggressively questioning her on the air." Brine said Cody Shearer has declined at least two invitations to address this issue on "Hardball." "To this moment," Brine said, "Kathleen Willey continues to assert Cody Shearer is the person she identified as having tried to intimidate her."
Hank Buchanan, apparently, was all too eager to believe Matthews' report. After Sunday night's incident, Buchanan -- reportedly a manic-depressive -- checked himself into Washington's Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Bay Buchanan, sister to Hank, Pat and Thomas, told the Associated Press that Hank "has had lots of problems." He was raised in a brawling, Irish-Catholic family where Sen. Joe McCarthy and Franco were heroes and fighting was acceptable as long as you won. While he was growing up, his father hung a punching bag in the basement and told his sons to not just "whip your opponent" but to do it "quickly."
Hank's brother Pat was a typical Buchanan boy. Though he would become better known as a pugnacious speechwriter for President Nixon, controversial political commentator and perennial presidential candidate, he first achieved notoriety when, at 20, a brawl left him with a broken hand, an arrest for felony assault and a suspension from Georgetown University.
In a 1991 interview with the Washington Times, Hank Buchanan spoke of his brother's first presidential run in a way that summed up the Buchanan ethos. "It's like being in a ballgame," he said. "Unless you think you're going to win, you might as well go back to the locker room, get dressed and go home."
"This is a terrible setback for Hank and his family," Bay Buchanan told the Associated Press Wednesday. Pat Buchanan spokesman Bob Adams said neither the campaign nor Bay Buchanan would have additional comments.
Thomas Buchanan said he "would prefer not to speak further about the incident."