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Call Them Coelho-Coddlers

Have you noticed how the media regularly declare the Republicans to be on the political ropes, while the Democrats never seem to have a bad week? The second week of May was a case study. Print and broadcast outlets alike pronounced the Republican Party battered and bloody by their deadly ties to the NRA.

But it was also the week Al Gore quietly named a new campaign chairman: Tony Coelho. What? You mean, Tony Coelho, the ex-Congressman who resigned in disgrace ten years ago rather than face any investigation of his sweetheart loan deal with an S&L executive to buy junk bonds from Drexel Burnham Lambert? Tony Coelho, the man who ran the Democrats' House campaign committee in the 1980s by taking favors from the top S&L crooks and then pressuring the S&L regulators to take a hike? Tony Coelho, one of the top 22 check-bouncers at the House Bank, with more than $300,000 in hot checks? Tony Coelho, the man who stuck up for Jim Wright aide John Mack, after it was revealed this beast brutally assaulted a woman, almost killing her? Tony Coelho, the political mastermind under whose leadership the Democrats lost the House in 1994?

Yikes. Now there's a political gaffe for the Gore campaign. How do you fix the image of Buddhist-temple monk-tapper by bringing in the Sultan of Soft Money? How do you run against the Republican "Decade of Greed" nostalgists by recruiting this reaper of ripoff artists? How do you distance yourself from Bill Clinton's callous approach to women, including Juanita Broaddrick, by hiring this defender of woman-beaters? How do you project a winning team for 2000 by topping it with 1994's Master of Disaster?

Answer: you don't have to worry. The press will ignore it all.

We can guess how the media would greet a Republican candidate who decided to select Bob Packwood or Enid Waldholtz to head his or her campaign. And yet Coelho's appointment drew no news stories at ABC, CBS, or NBC. Time and U.S. News dispatched the news in a sentence or two. Newsweek's Howard Fineman at least wondered about the appearance of it all, but noted "A Justice Department probe [of the sweetheart loan to buy junk bonds] resulted in a clean bill." Yes, and plenty of Reagan aides, like Attorney General Ed Meese, were given a "clean bill" by the Justice Department. A fat lot of good that did with the media.

If you're enough of a political junkie to watch CNN, you would have seen the Coelho move discussed, but not as a political gaffe or an ethical breach. Bruce Morton's profile insisted Coelho "was never formally accused of anything improper." White House reporter John King said "they need to bring in what one senior official told me a short time ago was 'an adult to run the campaign.'" King repeated the mantra two days later: "One of the reasons they have brought in Tony Coelho is to have a so-called adult in the room."

On May 17, Post investigative reporter Charles Babcock (who unearthed the two Coelho scoops in 1989) probed Coelho's more recent business dealings, but "adult" wasn't the word sources favored: "In interviews last week about Coelho's business ventures, a number of his friends and critics described him as a man who at times is gullible about the people who approach him with business propositions." A "Democratic business executive...[said] 'He doesn't always do the due diligence [of checking out prospective deals]....He's almost naive.'" The Securities and Exchange Commission is currently probing Coelho's business ties to New Mexico prescription-by-mail millionaire Nunzio DeSantis, including charges that Coelho and DeSantis "diverted company assets for their own enrichment."

That's probably as tough as the Post will get on what they called Coelho's "enthusiasm for profit." The Post filed only two investigative stories on Coelho in 1989, nothing like their cascade of column inches designed to take down Bush chief of staff John Sununu two years later. When Coelho walked away from the House in 1989, Post reporter Tom Kenworthy shook a pair of pom-poms: "Rep. Tony Coelho spent his last day in the House yesterday doing what he always did best: adroitly shaping a message." Kenworthy praised him for how he "has managed to cut the cord with his usual surgical precision, jauntily heading into a new life with what he said is enthusiasm and no regrets." Perhaps Coelho knew that after a few years, he could return to the political scene without a single worry about scrutiny by our Democratic Party press.