Slate's Politics: Zinsmeister's Web Spin Control

Karl Zinsmeister, the new domestic policy advisor to President Bush, was quoted as calling people in the nation's capital "morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings." He tried to alter those remarks at a Web site that posted those original comments. Madeleine Brand discusses the controversy surrounding Zinsmeister's comments — and his attempt to soften them — with Slate White House correspondent John Dickerson.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up on the first day of the hurricane season, we will check in with an evacuee from hurricane Katrina, someone we've been following.

BRAND: But first, for anyone who's ever been quoted in a newspaper, the idea that you could go back and alter the wording of your quote probably seems attractive. But if your President Bush's new domestic policy advisor and you actually did go back and alter a quote, perhaps it no longer seems like such a good idea.

Joining us to explain Washington's latest teapot tempest, is John Dickerson, he's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate. Hi John.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief political correspondent, Slate Magazine): Hi.

BRAND: Well this new domestic policy advisor - his name is Carl Zinsmeister - tell us about who he is and how he landed this important job.

Mr. DICKERSON: Carl Zinsmeister was the editor-in-chief of the American Enterprise Institute magazine, that's a magazine for the conservative think tank, and he also has written two books about Iraq. He was embedded for the National Review with the 82nd Airborne in Kuwait, in 2003. And he's left his post at AEI and he's now the new chief domestic advisor for the White House.

BRAND: And tell us about this charge that he changed a newspaper quote.

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, there was a newspaper profile of him, and he took that newspaper profile and reposted it on AEI's website. And in doing so, he altered some of the quotes - he says for accuracy. But the original writer of the profile, which showed up in a newspaper called The New Times, said that Zinsmeister never contacted him and never told him what he was doing. And even if he had, of course, you're not supposed to go back and fix quotes after the article's been written.

BRAND: And John, can you give us an example of a before and after?

Mr. DICKERSON: Sure, in one example the original article attributed to Zinsmeister said, people in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings. On the AEI website he said, I learned in Washington that there's an overclass in this country stocked with cheating, shifty human beings that's just as morally repugnant as our underclass.

Zinsmeister's explanation for the change, was that he thinks the reporter got it wrong during the interview, and he was giving the more accurate quote.

BRAND: And he's also said some pretty nasty things about journalists. When he was embedded, he observed the journalists and he said he - that they were whiny and appallingly soft, and a bunch of other things. And his comments, along with the one that he changed, were the subject of a spirited discussion at a White House press briefing, between Tony Snow, the press secretary, and veteran journalist Helen Thomas.

Let's listen to that.

Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Senior White House Correspondent): Why did the President pick a man who is so contemptible of the public servants in Washington to be his domestic advisor?

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House press secretary): You meant contemptuous as opposed to contemptible, I think.

Ms. THOMAS: Pure contempt.

Mr. SNOW: Well, I'm not sure it's pure contempt. I know Carl Zinsmeister pretty well and he's somebody who expresses himself with a certain amount of piquancy. You're perhaps familiar with that aren't you Helen?

BRAND: Piquancy, piquancy - anyway - what, John, is the White House's defense of Zinsmeister?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, the defense is sort of - he says some things that are pointed, to use a word people might be more familiar with, and that, you know, this does not represent the totality of his remarks, just some of perhaps the more fringe ones. And that Helen Thomas and the rest of us shouldn't take umbrage at the domestic policy advisor's low opinion of people in the press.

BRAND: Hmm. Well, so what do you think this is going to mean, in terms of the press' coverage of him, and the president's domestic policy agenda?

Mr. DICKERSON: I don't know how much it will mean. It's certainly off-message to go calling reporters soft when we have news of - recent news of - CBS reporters dying and getting severely injured. It's also always odd when people talk about the softness of others. But, I think, other than being sort of a psychological comment about the person who says it, I don't think there's very much that the press is going to worry about with respect to domestic policy.

The domestic policy advisor is kind of hidden from the press, doesn't have a particular public role. And setting policy in this White House, in particular, is domestic policy - is a kind of lower-down position than it used to be in other White Houses. Because you have so many other powerful policy setting forces, and there also, politics play such a role in the creation of policy, there are others in the orb that the press tends to look to first for their guidance about policy.

So I'm not sure, other than being a moment of turmoil, that it's going to actually play out and affect policy or the press' coverage of policy in terms of this White House. Plus, his predecessor Claude Allen was arrested for shoplifting, so Carl Zinsmeister has a long way to go before his reputation is that tarnished.

BRAND: Okay, great. Thank you John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

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