Fred Thompson’s Lobbying and Credibility, Redux
Several commenters and other bloggers have taken issue with my characterization of Fred Thompson’s denials of lobbying for a pro-abortion as “lying.” They think it’s a little harsh given the state of the facts and that I don’t know Thompson’s state of mind.
The crux of the problem, for me, is this passage in Michael Finnegan’s LAT piece which broke the story:
Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo adamantly denied that Thompson worked for the family planning group. “Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period,” he said in an e-mail.
In a telephone interview, he added: “There’s no documents to prove it, there’s no billing records, and Thompson says he has no recollection of it, says it didn’t happen.”
At least three of those four assertions, we now know, were untrue:
- Thompson did in fact work for the group and billed nearly 20 hours, 3.3 of which for “lobbying”
- There are documents that prove it
- There are billing records
The fourth assertion, “Thompson says he has no recollection of it,” is a bit more difficult to parse. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of “it” is. If “it” means working for Judith DeSarno and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, with whom he had 22 phone conversations after which he filed paperwork to bill them, I simply don’t believe him. Sure, 1992 was a long time ago and people forget things. But 22 conversations? That it was a pro-abortion group? Uh uh.
Now, if “it” means lobbying John Sununu on behalf of the group, then it’s quite possible that Thompson was telling the truth. Sununu has denied being lobbied and we have no reason to doubt his integrity on this issue.
I’ve discussed this matter with someone close to the Thompson campaign and that’s their angle. Essentially, they say,
- Thompson was acting as a legal adviser rather than a lobbyist
- Thompson’s conversations with DeSarno were mostly administrative in nature — asking questions to form the basis for doing research and so forth — and his role was mostly to give advice on how Republicans would view certain arguments
- Thompson’s 3.3 hours of “speaking to officials” did not amount to “lobbying” and even the NYT admits “the records . . . do not specify which officials he met with or what was said”
Bill Dyer, a seasoned attorney familiar with billing practices and the ins-and-outs of law firms, strenuously objects in my comments section to my calling these misstatements “lies,” and then follows up at BeldarBlog with his customary thorough treatment of the matter.
Much of it amounts, essentially, to the Scooter Libby Defense: Fred Thompson was a busy man, the matter in question was incredibly insignificant compared to the other things on his plate at the time, and it was a long time ago. As with Libby, I’m actually rather sympathetic to that argument. In this case, though, I keep coming back to 22 conversations with the woman whose charges he was denying. It’s hard for me to swallow that, even 15 years later, Thompson wouldn’t have at least some fuzzy recollection, much less that he’d send a spokesman out to issue a vehement, categorical denial.
Still, Dyer reminds us that, at the time in question, Thompson was neither a particularly prominent actor nor a major political figure. He hadn’t yet been elected to public office. Therefore, “as someone with more information than clout, it makes perfect sense that the vast majority of the time Thompson billed to this matter was not for lobbying, but for other consultation — most likely meaning, here, client education.” That fits in with the campaign’s spin on this and, frankly, strikes me as quite plausible.
(Bill also makes a longish defense of lobbying in general as an honorable enterprise and making the case that one can lobby on behalf of a group with which one disagrees and still be a decent human being. On those points, we agree fully; indeed, I’ve taken that stance from the beginning of this controversy.)
Here’s the rub, though: Thompson didn’t send his spokesman out to defend the work he did for DeSarno and reconcile it with his positions on abortion. Nor did he say that, yes, he worked for DeSarno’s group but only as an attorney, not a lobbyist. Nor did he limit his denials to lobbying Sununu; he disavowed any knowledge of having worked for the group at all.
At best, we come down to Thompson being exactly as honest as Bill Clinton was during the Lewinsky affair. Clinton truthfully answered that there “is” no relationship because “is” implies present tense and, clearly, Lewinsky was not in the room doing that thing for which she is best known. In his mind, Clinton truthfully was not having “sexual relations” with that woman (Ms. Lewinsky) because, after all, oral sex is not sex to his way of thinking.
Does this incident disqualify Fred Thompson from the presidency? Probably not. If having been completely honest at all times is an absolute barrier to entry, we could almost certainly eliminate the entire field from consideration. As the philosopher-poet Erik Schrody once noted,
I’ve seen a rich man beg
I’ve seen a good man sin
I’ve seen a tough man cry
I’ve seen a loser win
And a sad man grin
I heard an honest man lie
Still, we should be honest with ourselves about identifying dishonesty.