By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by Jack GouldGrave-sounding Congressman Christopher Cox made the national-media rounds last week, meeting with news organizations ranging from the Fox News Network to The Washington Post. The endlessly ambitious Newport Beach Republican wanted the nation to know that he had conducted a nonpartisan, bias-free five-month congressional study of U.S. policies on Russia. His taxpayer-funded conclusion? An incompetent Al Gore fumbled numerous easy opportunities to strengthen Russia's emerging free-market economy and democratic systems. The upshot: Gore is a foreign-policy idiot.
Yes, it's Democratic presidential nominee Gore who is responsible for eight years' worth of Clinton administration policies—not President Bill Clinton. Never mind, too, that Cox's dire outlook came on the heels of a rosy International Monetary Fund forecast that Russia is on the verge of its largest economic boom in decades. Or that 18,000 formerly state-owned businesses have gone private and 5,000 Russian nuclear weapons have been dismantled under Clinton/Gore.
Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat, said Cox's report "should have come out under the letterhead of the Republican National Committee." Representative Sam Gejdenson (D-Connecticut), a leader of the House International Relations Committee, said he was given no chance to contribute to the 209-page report and dismissed it as nothing more than a "political hatchet job" and an "election gimmick." Gore's campaign characterized it as "not worth the taxpayer-provided paper it was printed on."
But Cox—who works assiduously to cultivate the impression he's a statesman and helps spread rumors he's on everybody's shortlist for higher office—is nothing if not shameless. He is a onetime corporate lawyer who advised one of Orange County's most notorious swindlers of the elderly in the 1980s and then boldly launched his congressional career by introducing legislation that would hinder the prosecution of such swindlers. Each year, the ballsy congressman also spends hundreds of thousands of public dollars to send anti-government-waste (but pro-Cox) mailers to the voters in his district.
With all that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Cox didn't crack a smile when he told the Post the timing of his Gore-bashing report on Russia was coincidental to the upcoming presidential election. He did not seriously address why his report on Clinton administration policies highlighted unflattering photographs of Gore. Nor did he fully answer questions of whether the release of the report—which was due in July—was timed to aid a drifting George W. Bush campaign in the election's waning days. "This report was not intended as a partisan attack," the six-term congressman told reporters.
One White House official chuckled at the claim. "The congressman is clearly desperate to help his friend Bush win the election," the official said. "I am sure that even die-hard conservative Republicans in Newport Beach can see through this one."
But there may be more to it than giving a cheap boost to Bush. The timing of Cox's latest sensational report also conveniently coincided with revelations that the congressman's previous "bias-free" report was little more than a McCarthy-style witch-hunt. In May 1999, Cox released a report on alleged Chinese espionage. For more than a year, the report was headline news, while the congressman pouted publicly that the proof to back up his spy allegations was contained in the classified sections of his report. While making celebrity-style appearances on countless television shows, Cox spooked the nation by claiming that incontrovertible evidence proved every American lived in the shadow of towering Chinese missiles, thanks to a spy at the super-secret Los Alamos National Laboratory.
That conclusion represented a dramatic turnaround for Cox. In December 1998, the congressman had announced his committee's tentative conclusion: not spies but corporations had leaked U.S. technology to the Chinese. Cox reported that Loral and Hughes Aircraft, two immense U.S. aerospace corporations, illegally transferred top-secret U.S. military technology to the Chinese government in exchange for access to cheaper satellite launches in China.
All that is in the Cox Committee's massive final report. But reporters rarely read reports, a fact Chris Cox apparently understands. Ignoring the evidence of his own committee's research, Cox made the rounds of TV and radio studios implying that a spymaster at Los Alamos had leaked the missile technology.
Cox's flammable rhetoric prompted his colleague Dan Burton (R-Indiana) to call for public hangings—a fact that had to make Wen Ho Lee nervous.
Lee was the only scientist under investigation at Los Alamos. But things went badly for Cox this month when a judge dismissed all serious charges against Lee. The judge's move underscored the utter emptiness of the still-classified sections of the Cox report.
As the Chinese spy allegations unraveled, you might have expected the national media to jump on Cox and deliver the sound thumping he deserves. Think again, and consider Cox's best-defense-is-a-good-offense counterpunch—the delivery of his new and sensationalistic report on Russia.
Nevertheless, the congressman has shown signs that he knew his game might someday be up. In response to a July 1999 Fox News reporter's question, Cox tried to downplay his committee's use of Lee as a scapegoat—an Asian face to dramatize his partisan claims that the Clinton administration had allowed the Chinese to steal nuclear weapons secrets.
"Wen Ho Lee literally is a name that we had not heard [my emphasis]," said Cox about his committee's work. The congressman may not have heard of Lee specifically by name because investigators supposedly always referred to the scientist by the code name "Kindred Spirit." But in the end, it seems that Lee had far less in common with Chinese communists than Cox has with Clinton. The clever political wordplay Cox employed about the scientist's name has its own moniker these days: Clintonesque.