OLYMPIA, Aug. 22.—A rather choice four-letter word from a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate raises some of those big questions every reporter has to think about during a political campaign – what really matters? And where do you draw the line?
State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, the underdog challenger to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., sick of answering questions about the latest partisan flap-of-the-day, finally dropped the f-bomb Monday night.
He’d spent part of the afternoon on the line with a reporter from a Seattle website, Josh Feit of Publicola, explaining in excruciating detail how his position on abortion differed from that of some Republican out in Missouri who said a few dumb things over the weekend, and wishing to heck people wanted to talk about more important things. Like jobs or the Afghan War. Why wasn’t anyone talking about the Afghan War? The abortion story had just gone up. News hit the wires that a friend had been killed in combat north of Kandahar. Baumgartner emailed a picture of the two of them in the field. “Josh, this is Pat Feeks, a Navy SEAL killed last week in Afghanistan,” he said. “Take a good look and go f— yourself.”
And now that Feit has reposted the whole thing on his website for the world to see, Baumgartner says he’s not sorry he said it. “Let me be clear, I am not apologizing to Publicola,” he says. “Josh had it coming.”
Two thousand Americans dead in Afghanistan and all anyone wants to talk about is abortion? Give him a break.
The Forgotten War
Baumgartner, a former counter-insurgency adviser for the state department who worked with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been trying to elevate the Afghan War as a major issue in the Senate race. He is as critical of the Republican Bush Adminstration for launching it without a plan as he is of Sen. Cantwell for supporting it.
Certainly Baumgartner is at a disadvantage in the race. He’s raised $700,000 to Cantwell’s $8 million, and in the Aug. 7 primary he finished a distant second, 55-30. If there’s any sign Cantwell has noticed Baumgartner it’s not in evidence. But Baumgartner knew what he was up against when he entered the contest.
The thing that gets him, though, is that nobody seems interested in talking about what he thinks ought to be a central issue in the campaign. “We have 2,000 Americans dead, it’s the longest war in our history, we’ve spent over a trillion dollars, and there is no interest in holding Cantwell responsible for her votes. The divorce rates are real, the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] rates are real. And there are many in the media who take a cavalier attitude toward an extremely important issue.”
Hits His Button
There’s no telling what exactly went on during that interview. Baumgartner says he doesn’t want to discuss it, except to say he’s had a long-running dialogue over time with Feit. For his part, Feit has posted an account on his website that describes it as the sort of conversation reporters have all the time with political candidates. Certainly it was a newsworthy topic, he says. And to be perfectly fair, Baumgartner invited the call by issuing a press release Monday deploring comments made by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Missouri, about how women’s reproductive tracts shut down in cases of “legitimate rape.” Dems were having a field day; Cantwell’s team used it as an excuse to pump out a fund-raising letter. Baumgartner, for the record, calls Akin’s comments “ignorant and idiotic,” just as did Republican candidates across the country. In his posting, Feit said he just wanted to probe the nuances of Baumgartner’s abortion position. He argues that they sounded pretty much like Akin’s.
So after a couple of calls and many clarifying questions, Feit posted a story pinning down Baumgartner and quoting him at great length. Baumgartner basically said he was a Catholic and believes life begins at conception.
The story went up and Feeks’ death was announced in the press two hours later. Something about it all pushed Baumgartner’s button. A few hours later, Baumgartner hit the send button.
Expression of Grief
The photo shows Baumgartner standing with Feeks, 28. He was among seven soldiers killed in a military helicopter crash during a firefight with insurgents. Also killed was a Des Moines, Wash., man, Sean P. Carlson, 32, as well as four Afghans who were on board.
Why go public with something that appears a private expression of grief? Why not cut a guy some slack? Feit tells Washington State Wire it struck him as a temper tantrum, and adds, “The question is how appropriate is it for someone who is running for U.S. Senate to respond to an on-the-record interview about women’s health by sending me an email telling me to go f— myself?”
To be sure, politicians get hit with questions every day on things they don’t want to talk about. It’s one of the jobs of political candidates to either talk about them or find a polite way not to answer, or make it look like they’re answering when they’re actually not. And most manage to avoid the f-word. Baumgartner says that night he just had it with the game. He didn’t get into the race to fight the culture wars and he’d rather be talking about getting people back to work and getting the troops back home.
His campaign issued a statement of apology. But Baumgartner says he doesn’t stand behind it. If there’s anything to regret, it’s that he mentioned the soldier’s name. “I certainly never intended it to go public,” he says. “In the past, Josh and I have traded emails. …[Feeks] is someone I knew. The family is still grieving and it was not my intent to make him a political football.”