WaPo Hails Henry Waxman But Panned GOP Predecessor Burton

Thursday’s Washington Post front page featured a laudatory profile of hard-charging partisan House Government Reform Committee chairman Henry Waxman. Reporter Jonathan Weisman hailed the liberal veteran from Beverly Hills as a “tireless” bright spot for House Democrats. The only Republican quotes used by Weisman underlined how impressive Waxman was. Ten years ago, when conservative Dan Burton rose to the Government Reform committee chairmanship, a front-page profile was exactly the opposite. Burton was portrayed by fellow Republicans as “this kind of crazy life insurance salesman.”

Weisman’s Waxman profile has a “God, I admire you” tone throughout:

Waxman has become the Bush administration's worst nightmare: a Democrat in the majority with subpoena power and the inclination to overturn rocks. But in Waxman the White House also faces an indefatigable capital veteran -- with a staff renowned for its depth and experience -- who has been waiting for this for 14 years.

These days, the 16-term congressman is always ready with a hearing, a fresh crop of internal administration e-mails or a new explosive report. And he has more than two dozen investigations underway, on such issues as the politicization of the entire federal government...”

The sentence goes on, but it emphasizes what Weisman omits: that Waxman might be one who’s guilty of politicizing the entire federal government. Weisman never scorns the idea of Waxman’s partisanship, even in a good-government, pox-on-both-houses way. When Waxman embarrasses, foils and defeats Republicans, Weisman sounds pleased in recounting it. There is one paragraph that allows the GOP staff (without actual quotation) to land their complaints:

"We have to let people know they have someone watching them after six years with no oversight at all," said Waxman, 68. "And we've got a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick."

Republicans have their share of complaints. They say that Waxman's staff cuts corners, plays "gotcha" with witnesses and committee Republicans, bypasses GOP staff members by interviewing witnesses rather than depositioning them, and would rather investigate than legislate. But even some of them speak with grudging admiration.

"For the administration, and for a lot of others, people need to be careful now," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the ranking Republican on the committee. "Someone is looking over their shoulder."

That’s fascinating. It makes Tom Davis look like he’s saying “yes, Henry is now doing oversight, which I never did when I was chairman.” But Weisman wasn’t finished in extolling the excellence of the Democrats of Waxman and Company:

Republicans and Democrats say that Waxman has marshaled three ingredients from his staff -- tenacity, experience and loyalty -- to make it one of the brightest spots on the new Congress's otherwise mixed record.

...The committee's style can be brash. To depose witnesses, Democratic staff members must notify Republicans, explain exhaustive legal rights and release transcripts only by committee agreement, said David Marin, the Republican staff director. So Schiliro and company favor less formal interviews, knowing that the penalty for perjury can be just as stiff. Word is out among government contractors to demand depositions whenever possible when the oversight panel comes to call.

Committee rules also require the majority staff to send a memo to the minority three days in advance, detailing the subject of an upcoming hearing and the issues that will be raised. Marin said advance memos tend to be milquetoast previews. Supplemental memos, which may reach Republicans just hours before the curtain rises, deliver the goods on just what Waxman is about to spring. With no time to formulate a rebuttal, Republicans can only watch the show.

But what a show it has been, including former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's debut before the cameras to former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's return to the spotlight to answer what he knew about the "friendly fire" death of National Football League safety-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman.

“But what a show it has been.” Is Weisman a reporter, or a drama critic? Is Weisman an objective journalist, or a thinly disguised partisan cheerleader? Weisman repeats for the reader that “Waxman has shown himself to be tireless.” The Republicans are presented repeatedly to underscore the Post’s adulation:

Marin said Waxman has been dealt a very strong hand: an unpopular administration, an unpopular war and carte blanche from his leadership to go wherever he wants. Waxman's staff has a knack for atmospherics, holding information in its back pocket until news events pique interest.

"They understand there's nothing more exciting than seeing an e-mail or a secret document that you weren't ever supposed to see," Marin said.

The story concluded:

All of those threads work to the Democrats' advantage in multiple ways, hitting the Bush administration, keeping the war front and center, and bolstering Democratic efforts to steal the issues of waste, fraud and abuse from the GOP.

"We want to be the party that is ferreting out waste and fraud," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), "and Henry's committee is the point of the spear for us."

All of page A4 in Thursday's Post is taken up by Weisman's story, and at the top of the page, a huge calendar of Henry's greatest hits of 2007. The headline borrowed from the Tom Davis quote: 'Looking Over Their Shoulder.’ Weisman explained his big chart:

Since the Democrats took control of Congress, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has been involved in virtually every major issue, from the war in Iraq to global warming, from rising prescription drug prices to allegations of White House abuse of power.

There are 23 highlighted days, often augmented with Waxman’s most notable quotes. It’s the political equivalent of a stack of baseball cards for fans of partisan hardball.

Now go back to the front-page story Rep. Dan Burton received on March 23, 1997 from Washington Post reporter Edward Walsh. It began:

To his friends, Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican now running the House probe of political fund-raising, is an extraordinarily tenacious man. But even they say that the same relentless approach that has helped him triumph over many personal obstacles also has led him down some unusual paths.

Burton was so convinced that Vincent Foster was murdered that he launched a private investigation and reenacted the shooting of the White House aide....

All this may be prologue for the challenge now facing the affable former insurance salesman with a self-described "pit bull" approach to politics. For years an obscure backbencher, Burton, 58, now finds himself for the first time in the public eye as the leader of a highly publicized congressional investigation....

Burton is aware that sometimes, in the words of former Lugar aide Mark Helmke, he comes across as "this kind of crazy life insurance salesman."

"People have always thought I was very aggressive and they worry about that in a judicial position," Burton said. But he argued that the responsibility of his new position has transformed him.

"As chairman, I want my role to be more a judicial role, more of a referee," he said. "When we go public [in hearings], I think I have to be as measured as I can be and I will be."

Measured is not a word often associated with Burton's House career. First elected in 1982, he was an early acolyte of a future speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Burton was one of the conservative firebrands who spent hours haranguing an empty House chamber to the entertainment of the C-SPAN audience.

He waged a one-man crusade against what he deemed "pork," repeatedly challenging provisions of appropriations bills to the deep annoyance of senior members of both parties. Even Socks, the first cat, came under his scrutiny. Burton once publicly questioned the use of White House personnel to answer letters addressed to the Clinton family pet. He now laughs this off as a "mistake" dreamed up by a staff aide.

In 1994, Burton engaged in what many consider his most outrageous crusade. In lengthy speeches on the House floor, he challenged the official finding that the death of deputy White House counsel Foster was a suicide. There were dark if unspoken suggestions in Burton's insistence that Foster's body had been moved and that he did not die in Virginia's Fort Marcy Park, where the body was found.

At one point during his personal investigation, Burton fired a gun at a "head-like thing" (which he still won't identify) in his back yard to prove, he says, that the sound of a gunshot in the park would have been heard by security guards at the nearby residence of the Saudi Arabian ambassador.

"I do not recant on any of it," Burton said. "I still believe that his body was moved but I'm not going to beat on that."

For the young or forgetful, here's what Brent Bozell wrote about the media's pro-Clinton attack line back then.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis