In reporting that Sen. Mel Martinez had accepted an offer to become chairman of the Republican National Committee, CNN's John King failed to mention Martinez's admission in April 2005 that his office had authored a memo touting the Terri Schiavo case as "a great political issue" for Republicans because "the pro-life base will be excited" and it "is a tough issue for Democrats." King also ignored the controversies surrounding Martinez's 2004 Senate campaign.
On the November 13 edition of CNN Newsroom, chief national correspondent John King reported that Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) had accepted an offer to become chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). But while King discussed this development at length -- reporting that Martinez "will try to be an optimistic messenger for the party" -- he made no mention of Martinez's admission in April 2005 that his office had authored a memo lauding the Terri Schiavo case as "a great political issue" for Republicans because "the pro-life base will be excited" and it "is a tough issue for Democrats." Further, King ignored the controversies surrounding Martinez's 2004 Senate campaign.
The Schiavo memo
In March 2005, Republican congressional leaders attempted to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state, after a federal judge ordered that her feeding tube be removed. Amidst the legal and congressional battles over the case, a "talking points" memo surfaced on Capitol Hill that encouraged the involvement of Republican lawmakers in the Schiavo case, calling it "a great political issue" and a "tough issue for Democrats." The document read: "This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue." On April 7, following widespread and baseless speculation that Democrats had authored the memo, Martinez confirmed that his Senate office had been the source of the document. Despite Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-IA) claim that Martinez had handed him the memo on the Senate floor, Martinez denied having any knowledge of it. "Until this afternoon, I had never seen it and had no idea a copy of it had ever been in my possession," Martinez said, claiming that the memo had been written by one of his aides.
As Media Matters for America noted at the time, the Schiavo memo was not the only controversy stemming from Martinez's political tactics --nor was it the first in which he ultimately shifted the blame to a staffer.
Attack on McCollum
In the lead-up to the 2004 Florida senatorial primaries, Martinez's campaign mailed fliers to voters that referred to his Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, as "the new darling of the homosexual extremists," a reference to McCollum's support for federal hate-crime legislation. After Martinez won the primary, he apologized to McCollum for the smear, blaming it on "a couple of young turks" in his campaign. Miami Herald reporter Michael Putney wrote in a September 22, 2004, article:
''We made mistakes,'' Martinez told me after a news conference on the banks of the Miami River. ''A couple of young turks in my campaign went further than they should have. They didn't even have to do it, for gosh sake, we were ahead at that point. But I'm totally responsible for what happened, and I regret it.'' He added that his smearing of McCollum doesn't accurately reflect ''who I am or what I stand for.''
Attack on Reno
During the subsequent general election campaign against Democrat Betty Castor, a former school superintendent, Martinez's campaign attacked former Attorney General Janet Reno, who was campaigning for Castor, claiming that Reno's Justice Department had used "armed thugs" to seize Cuban refugee Elián González and send him back to Cuba, thereby "'allowing Fidel Castro to have his way." Martinez apologized again after it was noted that he had previously featured one of the federal agents involved in the Gonzalez raid in a campaign ad attacking Castor as "soft" on terrorism. In apologizing to the agent, Martinez again placed the blame on his staff. According to an October 13, 2004, Miami Herald article:
"The comment is a nonissue for me," added [former immigration officer Bill] West, who said the Martinez campaign told him the "armed thugs" wording had been a mistake by a staffer. "The whole Elián González operation is history. The operation went as well as possible."
From the 3 p.m. ET hour of the November 13 edition of CNN Newsroom:
DON LEMON (anchor): And we begin this hour of the CNN Newsroom with some breaking news coming out of Washington. Florida Senator Mel Martinez, we are told, has agreed to take over the Republican National Committee as a leader. He stepped -- Ken Mehlman stepped down, or at least he has said he would not be seeking the leadership position last week. For the latest on this, let's get to John King in Washington. John, what do you know?
KING: Don, this is a deal sealed by the White House. Senator Mel Martinez -- who, before becoming a senator back in 2005, was President Bush's housing secretary -- we are told that he has been asked by the White House, and has accepted, to become the next general chairman of the Republican National Committee. He will continue to serve in the Senate.
You're seeing the current chairman right there, Ken Mehlman. Ken Mehlman announced last week, after we first reported it here on CNN, that he would not seek a new term beginning in January, when the Republican National Committee holds its meeting.
Now, Mel Martinez will take over that job heading into the 2008 election cycle, heading out, of course, of this past cycle, where the Republicans took and what the president himself has called a "thumping" in the midterm elections. Why Mel Martinez? He is well-liked by this White House as someone who has the standing of a United States senator. He is believed that he could be an effective spokesman for the party. He is the first Cuban-American to serve in the United States Senate, and recruiting Latino voters is a top priority for the Republican Party. Senator Martinez, again, will stay in the Senate. He's not giving up that job, but he will take on this prominent role for the Republican Party coming out of a very difficult cycle.
And the man who will run the day-to-day operations of the Republican National Committee, we are told, is also a veteran Republican operative. His name is Mike Duncan. His formal name is Robert Duncan, but he goes by the nickname Mike. He has been a national committeeman from Kentucky for some time, has been at every Republican convention dating back to the 1970s, well-liked by the Republican National Committee around the country.
So the party deciding, coming out of this election, Don, to split the titles, if you will, to have a general chairman who helps raise money, who is the party's chief national messenger. And then a regular chairman who will run the day-to-day party operations. Again, President Bush and his political operation at the White House making these decisions; the national committee needs to ratify them at its meeting January, but that is considered pretty much pro forma.
LEMON: John, this happening so fast, as we are coming out of a commercial break, I neglected to say that you broke this story. And I think what people want to know is, what are the challenges that Mel might face, that Mel Martinez might face in this role?
KING: Well, you're seeing the challenges play out post-election. The president is having a new assessment of his policy in Iraq. There are leadership struggles in both the House and the Senate on Capitol Hill. Republicans saying, where did we go wrong in this past election and what do we need to do to go right? Some say, get back to cutting taxes and smaller government, balancing the budget. Others say, well, what about Christian conservatives, and how much of the blame should lie with the president?
So, there's a lot of finger-pointing in the Republican Party right now. Mel Martinez will have to try to convince Republicans the best way to build going forward is to stop pointing fingers, looking in reverse. And he also will have to manage -- and it'll quite interesting, being from the United States Senate himself -- he's going to have to manage now to try to keep peace in the party, try to be even-handed as the 2008 campaign begins in earnest.
One of his own colleagues, Senator John McCain, is running for president. That's crystal clear. Other Republican senators might join the fray as well. So Mel Martinez will try to raise money, will try to be an optimistic messenger for the party, will try to appear on television shows like this one when the party has something to say or questions to answer, will try to reach out to Latino voters, and will try to keep the 2008 campaign from becoming an early civil war, if you will, so they can rebuild after the drubbing they took in 2006.
LEMON: CNN's John King, breaking the news that Florida Senator Mel Martinez will take over as head of the Republican National Committee. John, thank you.
KING: Thank you, Don.