So how did it happen? How did a straightforward question and blunt answer bring anxiety to the White House? I’ll tell you the story.For over three months now, friends and others have asked me to recount the events of February 18th of this year, when a single question from me to Congressman Joe Sestak unleashed a controversy that remains to this day. Is it a political issue? Is it illegal? I can’t answer those questions, but I can tell you how casually it all happened, and what basis I had for asking the question. Here’s the transcript:
“Larry Kane: I have a question for you. I don’t know how accurate this is but a lot of reports are that the party has tried very hard to get you out of this race.
Joe Sestak: Haha, yes.
LK: Were you ever offered a federal job to get out of this race?
LK: Was it the Navy Secretary?
JS: No comment. I – let me –
LK: Was it high-ranking?
JS: Let me just say that both here in Pennsylvania and down there, I was called quite a few times and all I’ve said is, look, I felt when a deal was made that it was hurting the democratic process, I got into this because I think that deal started getting us off the track of where the Democratic party should go. I would never get out for a deal. I’m in this for the Democratic principles and working families.
LK: Okay, but, was there a job offered to you by the White House?
LK: That’s what I want –
JS: Yes. Someone offered — yeah.
LK: It was big, right?
JS: It was — never — let me not comment on it. We had a closed comm–
LK: Yeah, but you’re going all the way.
JS: I’m in this all the way for the working family. Look, I love the Navy. It’s the best thing I ever did in my life except get married. It took me 8 years, I proposed to my wife, 8 years later she said yes. And have my beautiful daughter. But this is the next best job — to pay back this nation for having had those wonderful years in the Navy–
LK: Well, we’ve run out of time with the best question I had.”
And that was true. But why was I the first. There was buzz about this story since last summer. A few days before the February 18th taping of Voice Of Reason for The Comcast Network, I was advised by two reliable sources that someone in or close to the White House had dangled a high level job offer to Sestak, to give a clear path to Senator Specter for the nomination. I thought it would be a good thing to pose the question to Sestak in the upcoming interview.
The Sestak interview was the second in this contest. I interviewed Specter a week before.
I prepared for the program with an outline of questions. But on that Thursday I was having a very hectic day. I was a little overwhelmed with work. I forgot to put the question in my outline. Suddenly, with 90 seconds left, I remembered!
The news business can have moments that are so unpredictable. I knew the questionwas a good one, based on some really good sources, but I was flabbergasted when Sestak said “Yes.” There was no hesitation. No delay. He just said, “Yes.”
As the Congressman left the building, there was an obvious dilemma. The show wouldn’t air till Sunday the 21st. The story could be big. I called Comcast executives. With their blessing, I broke the story with an audio interview on KYW Newsradio. But first there was work to do. I needed a White House response.
I called the White House Press Office. I played the interview for the individual who answered the phone. She said someone would call me back. A few minutes later, another individual called. She said the White House would call back with a reaction “shortly.” That was 3:45 in the afternoon.
The report aired all night without a White House response.
At 6:45 the next morning, 15 hours later, a Deputy Press Secretary called. She said, “You can say the White House says it’s not true.”
A similar call was placed to the Inquirer’s Tom Fitzgerald. Tom was in the studio during the show taping. He was following Sestak around, working on a feature story. He took the story to page one of the Friday Inquirer.
A few days ago, both of us were still wondering why it took the White House 15 hours to issue a simple denial.
The rest is history, peculiar history. The “job offer” story never became an issue in the campaign although some would suggest the story played well to Sestak’s argument that he was a real Democratic independent.
But on May 19th, a day after his upset victory over Specter, the February interview became an internet hit. Republcans, arguing that it may have been a crime to offer a job in return for a withdrawal from a political contest. Democrats, only recently, called for the truth on this story. The President, saying nothing was improper, promised a White House statement “shortly.”
The entire episode, now broadcast and printed around the nation, is also a popular item on the web.
There are several things I want you to know. I’m surprised that Washington reporters never asked the question in the first place, I’m surprised that Sestak answered so quickly when I posed the question.
But most of all, I’m stunned that a rather simple question, turned into a political firestorm. You never really know where the pursuit of news will take you.
The story may not be over. Republicans will want more than just a White House counsel’s report.
But the beginning to this saga may be more interesting than the end.
One thing I do know is that, as the question was being asked, Joe Sestak never hesitated. In a split second, he just said, “yes.”