The Justice Department vs. Joe Conason

How Mark McKinnon helped the White House fight the Salon columnist's charges against Alberto Gonzales.

Published May 22, 2007 3:16PM (EDT)

Some of the Justice Department documents dumped last night depict frantic efforts by administration underlings to wildly spin the firing of eight U.S. attorneys after aggressive reporters began poking holes in the explanation that they were let go for "performance" reasons. I particularly enjoyed a sequence in which the infamous Bush strategist Mark McKinnon asks for help combating Joe Conason's Feb. 9 Salon column about the attorney purge, "Alberto Gonzales' Coup d'état."

When the ultimate Bush history is written, McKinnon himself will be an interesting footnote. A political strategist for Texas Gov. Ann Richards before he hooked up with Bush, McKinnon was crucial to the myth-making that Bush was a different kind of Republican, congenial to Democrats like McKinnon, determined to fight for the poor and minorities -- a compassionate conservative. McKinnon now runs his own consulting business, Public Strategies, but in the e-mail dump last night, he's found writing to Pete Wehner in the Office of Strategic Initiatives -- yes, a White House think tank created by Karl Rove -- about the Conason column. "Pete, I don't think Conason is generally worth responding to, but do we have something off the shelf on this? Thanks, mck." Wehner scrambles, asking Chris Oprison in the White House counsel's office whether someone there would be able to send him "a response to the charges by Joe Conason, which I could pass along to Mark McKinnon?" The ever-obliging Monica Goodling comes up with a 13-page document, complete with "Fact Sheets," "Talking Points" and "Examples of Difficult Transitions." She assures Obrison he can share the document with McKinnon, because "it is all information we have given to friendlies on the Hill." Goodling, remember, categorizes people as "loyal Bushies" and now "friendlies," a sophisticated taxonomy that's no doubt just another benefit of her rigorous education at Regent University.

I asked Conason what he thought about the spin job, and he shared with me an e-mail exchange he had with McKinnon. Once upon a time, back in 1999, McKinnon spun Conason on the wisdom and mercy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and Conason elaborated on that memory in his e-mail to McKinnon.

Dear Mark,

I see in the latest DOJ document dump that you asked the White House for a response to my column of last February 9. Believe me when I say how flattered I feel, even though you think I'm not "generally worth responding to." I guess we'll find out more when Monica testifies, eh? Your Monica, I mean.

I haven't thought about you for a while. But seeing that little memo brought back fond memories of our breakfast in Austin back in 1999 with Stu Stevens, eating those tasty tortillas and listening to you wax on about all the great things Dubya was going to do for the poor folks, and how that made you well up a bit.

I sure hope he's lived up to your expectations. The rest of us are somewhat disappointed. Very best regards,


Within an hour, McKinnon replied:

Touche Joe.

Maybe someday in the future, we can break tortillas in New York City somewhere and reflect about all this.


By Joan Walsh

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Joe Conason