Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A perverse game of peekaboo

Why the White House needs to cough up details on the alleged Sestak job offer

This is getting farcical. Joe Sestak, Pennsylvania's Democratic senatorial candidate, continues to say that the Obama White House sought last summer to lure him away from the Senate race (thus clearing the field for Arlen Specter) by offering him a juicy federal job - yet Sestak continues to stonewall on the details. Since February, he has played this perverse game of peekaboo on Comcast, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC News, CBS News, CNN, and in the pages of The Washington Post. I may have missed a few. The CNN appearance, which aired late yesterday, bordered on the tragicomic.
John King asked Sestak, "What specifically did they offer you, sir?"

Sestak replied, "I'll let others talk about their role."

King then said, "You cast yourself - and I don't question it - as a man of great integrity...If somebody (in the White House) was playing politics as usual, or possibly breaking federal law, sir, and trying to induce you to leave a political campaign with a federal appointment, that could possibly be breaking the law. We're trying to get just the basics of who said what and offered what."

Sestak replied, "Yes, sir. And I'll let others speak for themselves."

King asked, "What is the harm of you saying 'this is the person who called me and this is what they offered me,' so that we can to that person and get the other end of the conversation?"

Sestak replied, "I'll tell you what the harm actually appears to be. You and I should be talking right now about how people were slammed in this economy, John."

King said, "I'm simply asking you, who offered you a job to...get out of the race?"

Sestak replied, "Yes, sir. And I said all I'm going to say on the matter."

The White House, as we know, isn't talking either. Last Thursday, press secretary Robert Gibbs kicked away 13 queries about the alleged job offer, with the footwork of a Philly Flyers goalie. And yesterday on CNN, top aide David Axelrod said simply that the lawyers had "looked into" the allegations and concluded that the summer '09 conversations with Sestak "were perfectly appropriate" - even though "I can't relate to you what the conversations were."

If everything was "perfectly appropriate," then why doesn't the White House dispel the cloud of mystery, and put this (presumably) minor story to rest, by simply telling us what happened?

Sestak was right yesterday when he suggested that viewers probably preferred to hear him talk about the economy. I truly doubt that most voters in Pennsylvania - or political junkies in general - are outraged that the White House apparently tried to entice Sestak to leave the Senate race as a favor to incumbent Specter. Every White House, of every political persuasion, has tried to influence elections, by encouraging or discouraging candidacies. As Ron Kaufman, political director for the senior President Bush, reportedly remarked yesterday, "Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington."

Granted, there is a federal statute (18 USC 595) that prohibits such behavior; according to the language, no federal executive employee is permitted to use "his official authority for the proposal of interfering with, or affecting, the nomination or election of any candidate" for federal elective office. But if we were to take that statute literally, a president commits a crime whenever he tries to affect an election by stumping in person for his favorite candidate, or whenever he tries to recruit somebody to run. The statute language is so broad as to be meaningless.

Another federal statute (18 USC 211) appears to bar the awarding of "any appointive office" in exchange for a political favor, but the language is murky, and ethics experts say it's always tough to prove a definitive quid pro quo; indeed, Sestak has told The Washington Post that the White House had reached out to him via "some indirect means."

Most voters typically dismiss this kind of lawyerese as inside baseball. But what could really hurt the White House (and, potentially, Sestak) is the perception of a coverup. As we know from recent political history, a coverup is generally deemed to be worse than the original behavior. And any coverup looks particularly bad in this case, because this White House has talked so much about being more transparent than its predecessors - and because this particular Senate candidate talks so much (as he did on CNN yesterday) about the importance of "personal accountability."

Nature always abhors a vacuum, and the press corps by definition is determined to fill it. Reporters will keep asking the questions as long as the principals remain determined not to answer. Some Democrats now appear to recognize this truism. National party chairman Tim Kaine said on Sunday, "If the question gets asked, it's something the (administration) should deal with," and New York congressman Anthony Weiner told MSNBC yesterday: "What the White House should do is, to some degree, say, 'Here are the facts'....Someone has to help us out here, and I think the White House and Congressman Sestak need to make sure we're not talking about this next week."

Will we be?