Photo By Dennis Myers U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is trying to portray the Abramoff scandal as a GOP one, but critics keep pointing to his money from Abramoff clients.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has spent a couple weeks on a tightrope—trying to exploit the Abramoff scandal for his Democratic Party while also trying to avoid becoming the John McCain of the scandal.

“Republicans are looking for ‘their’ John McCain,” wrote National Review editor Rick Lowry, recalling that McCain’s presence among the “Keating Five” made that earlier scandal bipartisan. So far, no Democratic lawmaker has been found who received money directly from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Even Lowry—editor of the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr.—has had to concede that it’s still a GOP scandal: “But this is, in its essence, a Republican scandal, and any attempt to portray it otherwise is a misdirection.”

But it’s not for lack of trying that Reid hasn’t been nailed, and in some ways, Reid himself has invited such attention. He set off on a tour of heavily Republican states to publicize the scandal, rather like rubbing salt in GOP wounds, saying things like, “This is a Republican scandal.” And if he didn’t receive money directly from Abramoff, an Associated Press report earlier this year suggested something questionable—one of Reid’s political funds received a check for $5,000 from an Abramoff client one day after Reid sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton pleading the case of the client (“Supply and demand,” RN&R, Nov. 25 2005).

The Washington Times reported that Reid was under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, but the Times is the arm of the Unification Church. Reporting in other publications said that Reid had been ruled out as a target by Justice Department officials.

Reid’s tour to GOP states received heavy coverage by local newsrooms, if not the national press. At some stops he faced a hostile press, at others a very friendly one. And online journalists, including bloggers, did a better job of keeping the lines straight on the story than did the mainstream press.

In much of the editorial commentary, Reid was criticized for vagueness. And the right wing launched an effort to paint Democrats, including Reid, as players in the scandal equal to the Republicans.

During the tour of GOP states, Reid described the scandal as something bigger than past congressional scandals—”This is a scandal that’s hardly ever been seen in the history of this country.” That met with skepticism, but Reid also received good coverage at some stops. In Pocatello, Idaho, where major Democratic leaders seldom venture, Reid got television coverage from station KPVI, the tone of which is suggested by the lead sentences of its reports:

“The man shining light on scandal in Washington, D.C., makes a visit to the Gem State—a Democrat in a Republican stronghold.”

“A leader in the United States Senate, the man from Searchlight, Nevada, shines light on what he calls a corrupt Congress.”

In Phoenix, on the other hand, a FreeMarketNews.com report said, “Just got back from the Harry Reid press conference in Phoenix. The reporters were vicious. They kept waving papers from the GOP think tanks and demanded that Harry stop calling this a GOP scandal. Harry stood his ground and repeated, continuously … that ‘NO Democrats took any Abramoff money.’ He said he was uninterested in anything the GOP-sponsored Institute for Responsible Politics, or whatever it is called, had to say. He reminded us that this is the first time in 145 years someone in the [White House] has been indicted, and that this is one of the most corrupt administrations in our history.”

Reid’s tour took him to Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska and Utah.

While the tour was going on, Republicans and conservatives launched an effort to equate Democratic involvement with Abramoff clients with Republican involvement with Abramoff. On Sean Hannity’s program, in statements by state Republican officials, on MSNBC’s Hardball, and along Reid’s tour, the line was repeated again and again that Reid was tainted by money from Abramoff clients. (Nevada GOP chair Paul Adams put out a statement saying, “The further Harry Reid gets from Washington, D.C., the worse his hypocrisy gets. Harry Reid has no credibility in talking about ethics, considering his pockets are bulging with Abramoff-affiliated cash.”)

In an editorial, the Denver Post said, “Many politicians are sending Abramoff’s ill-gotten gains to charity, but some have not. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who comes to Colorado today as part of a national campaign tour for Democrats, is drawing some heat. Reid says he’s never met Abramoff and never received money from him; however, he did receive $61,000 from 2001 to 2004 from Abramoff’s Indian tribe clients and other members of his firm, Greenberg Traurig, LLP, according to reports. Reid is telling voters that Democrats want to clean up Washington. To emphasize the point, he should cleanse himself of any Abramoff-related money.”

The campaign contributions Reid got from Abramoff clients seemed to be a moving target, ranging from $61,000 to $67,400, depending on what news outlet was telling the story.

The best explanations of the issues came online. At The QandO Blog, a libertarian page devoted to free markets, Jon Henke wrote:

“But there are two different levels of payment being alleged here. There’s Direct: money that flowed directly from Abramoff, and Indirect: money that flowed from organizations with which Abramoff was involved (or, if you prefer, Abramoff Money and Abramoff-related Money). The Direct Money all went to Republicans. All of it. You can check for yourself at OpenSecrets.org. The Indirect Money went in both directions, but Republicans got more ($3.41m) than did the Democrats ($1.88m) by a margin of almost 2:1. … As far as I know, none of the above is in dispute. The only dispute centers on what contributions should be held against politicians and whether Indirect Money is substantively different than Direct Money.

“In this, both Republicans and Democrats want to have it both ways. Republicans want to claim that this is a bipartisan scandal, with Democrats on the hook like the Republicans because they took Abramoff-related money.”

Geov Parrish at AlterNet produced a step-by-step guide to the scandal that makes it much easier to understand than daily news reports (www.alternet.org/story/29827/). The guide includes this item:

“Edward Ayoob: Former veteran legislative aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, hired as a lobbyist by Abramoff. Reid, who undertook several actions favorable to Abramoff’s clients, ultimately received more than $66,000 in Abramoff-related donations from 2001 to 2004. Ayoob held a fundraising reception for Reid at the offices of Abramoff’s firm, Greenberg Traurig.”

Some liberal voices argued that the right’s effort to tar Democrats with the Abramoff scandal through indirect contributions had worked: “But they have also dirtied some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who accepted more than $66,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff’s operations. Reid now says the Republican-led Congress is ‘the most corrupt in history.’ Perhaps, but that does not mean that, come November, the American people will necessarily decide that Washington’s ills are best addressed by shuffling control of Congress.”

Even more serious for Reid was a widespread impression that he was being critical without actually offering a program.

Carl Leubsdorf, D.C. bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, wrote that both political parties need new leaders: “But neither Reid nor [House Democratic Leader Nancy] Pelosi is a very effective public face for the party out of power. And neither has yet presented a positive agenda for next fall’s elections. Assailing the GOP’s ‘culture of corruption’ and its handling of Iraq will only go so far.”

That was a common theme around the nation. In the Yale Daily News, Roger Low wrote, “And yet what is the Democratic response to this ethical implosion? Of course, minority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are making the predictable rounds on the morning talk shows to piously condemn the “culture of corruption in Republican Washington.” But as is usually the problem for the party these days, Democrats must do more than criticize the Republicans in power. They must actually articulate what they would do differently.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...