Ballot Box

Pot and Kettle Department

The great campaign mystery of the moment is who sent the Bush debate preparation tape to Al Gore’s friend Tom Downey. Since Downey turned the purloined video over to the FBI two weeks ago, both campaigns have been trying to suggest that the other is to blame. The Bush folks say there must be a Gore mole among them. The Gore side is dropping hints that the anonymous package was a honey trap. Over the last few days, there have been various leaks about the FBI’s investigation into the matter.

There has also been a bit of hypocrisy. On Tuesday, Bush’s communications director Karen Hughes complained that FBI Director Louis Freeh had not returned a phone call from Bush’s campaign manager Joe Allbaugh requesting information about the investigation. According to the Washington Post, Hughes said that a Freeh subordinate returned the campaign’s call. “Our campaign manager conveyed to him that he did not feel that was satisfactory and that he would like to talk to the director,” Hughes said. Freeh, who was busy Tuesday testifying on Capitol Hill about the Wen Ho Lee case, returned Allbaugh’s call after he got back to the office, assuring him that the matter was receiving his personal attention.

My friend Michael Waldman, author of the excellent new book POTUS Speaks (which you can buy by clicking here), proposes a thought-experiment. Suppose it came to light that Gore’s campaign manager William Daley had called Freeh to chat about the tape investigation. The Bush campaign would immediately cry foul, connecting such an act to a long litany of supposed attempts by the Clinton administration, and by Gore in particular, to influence impartial law enforcement decisions. As Michael Kinsley points out, Republicans now make this charge against the administration ritually, complaining for instance that Attorney General Janet Reno was responsible first for impeding the Wen Ho Lee investigation, then for railroading Lee, both for political reasons. Karen Hughes provided another example of this reflex at work when she subsequently suggested that the FBI might be focusing its investigation on the Bush campaign rather than on the Gore campaign because of pressure from inside the administration.

In fact, the Bush campaign’s calls to Freeh aren’t especially troubling. What’s troubling is the double standard.