The ombudsman makes a case for truthiness

Deborah Powell says she was wrong about Jack Abramoff, but her defiant new column tells only half the truth.

Published January 23, 2006 4:56PM (EST)

Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell admitted Sunday that she was wrong when she said, in a previous column, that Jack Abramoff "made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties."

"He didn't," Howell says now.

She could have gone on to lay out the truth.

She didn't.

Saying that Abramoff "didn't" make "substantial campaign contributions to both major parties" doesn't quite capture the exclusivity of Abramoff's devotion to the GOP -- or the enormity of the error that Howell made the first time around. It's not just that Abramoff didn't make "substantial campaign contributions to both parties." It's that, as Bloomberg News reported the other day, Abramoff gave more than $127,000 to Republican candidates and committees between 2001 and 2004 and exactly no dollars to Democrats during that same period of time.

Howell doesn't get into any of that in her column. She never says that Abramoff gave absolutely nothing to Democrats himself. Instead, Howell defends the essential truthiness of her original charge by saying that Abramoff "directed his client Indian tribes to make campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties." Now, people can argue about whether money that Abramoff "directed" is as tainted as money Abramoff gave out of his own pocket. The Bush-Cheney campaign doesn't seem to think so: It's giving up $6,000 in campaign contributions that came from Abramoff, his wife and an Indian tribe, but not an additional $100,000 that Abramoff raised for the president's reelection effort.

But even if you assume, as Howell seems to, that the money is all equally dirty, there's a question of magnitude here that Howell doesn't address. Abramoff's Indian clients were only slightly less one-sided than Abramoff himself when it came time to dole out political cash. Bloomberg analyzed campaign contribution reports and came to the conclusion that between 2001 and 2004, Abramoff's Indian clients were the only ones among the top 10 tribal donors who gave more to Republicans than to Democrats. So yes, Abramoff may have been "directing" his tribal clients to give money to Democrats, but isn't it funny how they still gave most of their money to Republicans rather than to Democrats when other Indian tribes were making the opposite choice?

To be fair to Howell, she does acknowledge now that the Abramoff case isn't a "bipartisan scandal." "It's a Republican scandal," she says, "and that's why the Republicans are scurrying around trying to enact lobbying reforms."

But to be fair to Howell's critics, that isn't anything like the way she characterized the Abramoff case in her first column -- the one in which she invoked memories of Monica Lewinsky, said that Abramoff had "made" major contributions to both parties, said that Democrats Harry Reid and Byron Dorgan had "gotten Abramoff money," and said that while the Post's reporting hasn't put Democrats "in the first tier" of people under investigation "so far," readers hoping to see Democrats implicated in the scandal should "stay tuned" because the "story is nowhere near over."

Howell portrays herself as mystified by the virulent reaction that column drew, and she says that her plan going forward is to "watch every word." Before she does that, she might take one more look back and -- in a third try at setting the record straight -- explain in full the real facts that the words and the tone of her first column obscured.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

War Room Washington Post