The War on Jim McDermott
The War on Jim McDermott
Republican Leaders in D.C. Want to Destroy Seattle's Defiantly Liberal Congressman. In the Process, They May Destroy the First Amendment.
BY ELI SANDERS
....What concerns McDermott most these days is the story's ending, which is still unwritten. It could very well take place at the U.S. Supreme Court. It has the potential to land McDermott in significant financial peril. And it could lead to new restrictions on the ability of the press to print stories, like the 1971 Pentagon Papers series, that rely on illegally obtained information.
THE PHONE CALL
The Republican legal crusade against McDermott has its roots in a 1996 ethics charge that bedeviled former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. At the time, McDermott was the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee and Gingrich, the mastermind of the 1994 "Republican Revolution," which gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, was facing complaints over his use of a college course for political purposes. To settle the complaint, Gingrich agreed to pay a $300,000 fine and promised not to publicly minimize, or "spin," the charge against him.
"That was the genesis of this phone call," McDermott says, referring to a conference call that Gingrich held in secret with Republican leaders shortly after the settlement. "Essentially, he was encouraging them to figure out how to spin it," McDermott says—a direct violation of his agreement with the ethics committee.
We are sitting in McDermott's ground-floor suite in the Longworth House Office Building as he recounts this episode, a picture of Mahatma Gandhi on the wall to his left, along with a framed magazine cover showing him holding a "Bush Lied" placard. On a large bookshelf built into the wall nearby sit old copies of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a totem from his days working as a psychiatrist. Other books trace his passions: AIDS, history, politics, Africa, social health. Maps of Iraq and Afghanistan are tacked up here and there, and on the coffee table is a book titled simply Guantánamo.
McDermott, 69, has an extremely expressive face; the corners of his mouth move from near the top of his cheekbones to his jaw line depending on his mood, and his nimble gray eyebrows can be deployed to great dramatic effect. Deep wrinkles only add to the expressive potential.
With 17 years in Congress, there isn't much in politics that shocks McDermott anymore. But what happened after Gingrich secretly broke his promise still leaves McDermott smirking with incredulity. "If you wrote it in a script for a Hollywood movie," he says, "they'd laugh you out of the studio."
Gingrich's secret conference call involved several members of the Republican House leadership, and as it happened, one of those leaders, Boehner, the congressman from Ohio, was driving through Florida at the very moment his colleagues needed him to be on the phone. So Boehner pulled into the parking lot of a Waffle House and joined the conference call on his cell. The date was December 21, 1996.
Not far away, a Florida couple, John and Alice Martin, were messing around with their police radio scanner and happened to pick up the call as the Republicans were talking about how to spin Gingrich's ethics charge. Being Democrats who followed politics, they realized whom they were hearing and decided to make a tape for posterity. Then, realizing what they had heard, they decided to tell their congresswoman, Karen L. Thurman. She, in turn, encouraged them to give the tape to McDermott because of his position on the ethics committee....