DeLay Stonewalls on His Elián Error!

It is often said that reporters are too preoccupied with playing “gotcha”–that is, trying to catch important people in some sort of petty lie or inconsistency. Chatterbox agrees that reporters spend too much time playing “gotcha.” But is that really reporters’ fault? We wouldn’t have to play “gotcha” nearly so often if big shots had an easier time admitting when they were flat wrong. In an earlier item, Chatterbox took Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe to task for his unwillingness to admit that his April 25 New York Times Op-Ed piece about the Elián raid contained a fairly significant error about the nature of the warrant used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (“Taken out of context,” Tribe wrote in Slate’s “The Fray,” “my sentence to the contrary was obviously mistaken.”) But Tribe is downright magnanimous compared to Rep. Tom DeLay, who still refuses to admit he was wrong when he said, on the April 23 broadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press, that the INS had no search warrant at all for the Elián raid! Here’s what he said (click here for the transcript):

DeLay:There was no court order. There was no court order that gave them permission to raid a private home of American citizens.

Tim Russert: No search warrant?

DeLay: No search warrant,nothing. In fact, they claim that they didn’t need one.

(Note: If you missed the three earlier opportunities in this item to view that warrant–or if you just want to see it one more time–click here.)

Here is what DeLay said one week later, on the April 30 broadcast of CNN’s Late Edition (click here for the transcript):

Wolf Blitzer:And let’s get right to what [White House press spokesman] Joe Lockhart says, he says you were simply wrong when you argued that there was no legal basis for this raid to go forward. That there was, he says, a search warrant that justified it.

DeLay:Well, Wolf, if you watch that program, Meet the Press, I was talking about a court order. Janet Reno went to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for a court order to take Elián out of the home of the Gonzálezes, the court denied them that court order and that’s what I was talking about.

Close readers will note that DeLay isn’t precisely lying. He doesn’t say, “I never said there was ‘no search warrant.’ ” He merely asserts that he was “talking about a court order.” In fact, DeLay was talking about the absence of a court order when Russert asked himwhether there was a search warrant. What DeLay doesn’t say is that in response to Russert’s question, DeLay asserted there was “no search warrant.” (Here’s your last chance to eyeball that search warrant.)

But if DeLay isn’t precisely lying, he isn’t precisely telling the truth, either. Why not? DeLay’s argument–that a warrant was insufficient–is unaffected by whether the warrant existed or didn’t exist. Surely his political career wouldn’t have ended had he told Blitzer, “Er, yes, I was under the impression there was no warrant. But I didn’t believe then, and don’t believe now, that a warrant would have been sufficient. The warrant is irrelevant.” Chatterbox, who doesn’t believe the warrant is irrelevant, would nonetheless have refrained from writing this “gotcha” item had DeLay told the truth. (Indeed, Chatterbox guesses that David Stokes, the Slate reader who forwarded the two transcript snippets to this column, wouldn’t have bothered to send them in had DeLay’s arguments been merely wrong, as opposed to dishonest.) One great hope of the Internet age is that, with “gotcha” now so preposterously easy to play–reporters can even link to the damning evidence!--our nation’s leaders will stop wasting everybody’s time by insisting that black is white, or up is down. So far, though, the universal human urge to pull a fast one seems to be winning out over technology’s enhanced ability to expose fast ones.