Lee Zeldin was given a golden opportunity Sunday.
Appearing on Fox News two days before being sworn in, the freshman Congressman from Shirley was asked about a speech that current House majority whip Steve Scalise had given years earlier to a group of white supremacists in Louisiana, while he was serving in that state’s House of Representatives.
Mr. Zeldin, who throughout his campaign described his predecessor as a back-bencher more concerned with advancing the Democratic agenda than progress in the Capitol, had a front-and-center chance to state publicly that one of his Republican colleagues should never have made that appearance.
Instead, he blamed the media.
There were two paths of defense GOP officials chose to take on Sunday’s political talk shows, where the decade-old speech was the hot topic. Some, such as Mia Love of Utah, the first black female Republican elected to the House said, “There’s one quality that [Mr. Scalise] has that I think is very important in leadership, and that’s humility. And he’s actually shown that in this case.”
This, to me, is a reasonable response considering Mr. Scalise had, in fact, shown contrition when he called the speech a mistake that he regrets.
Considering Mr. Scalise’s apology, as many have called it, and comments by folks like Ms. Love, I’d have figured our own congressman might offer a similar sentiment when questioned by talk show host Chris Wallace.
Then he opened his mouth.
“It’s unfortunate that so many news reports don’t even mention the fact that this was a dozen years ago and don’t mention the fact that this was about a very specific issue to reduce wasteful spending,” said Mr. Zeldin, echoing comments made that same morning by former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on another news show.
It’s a conspiracy theory statement that might appeal to a portion of the public that shares a general distrust for the American media. It’s also a mostly untrue response.
For starters, I searched the Internet archives of many major American newspapers this weekend and could not find a single example of a media report that failed to mention that the speech took place in 2002. The Washington Post and The New York Times, the leading mainstream political newspapers, went so far as to state the year in the Internet headlines of their stories.
The issue of what the speech was about is also completely irrelevant. It’s not a story today because of what Mr. Scalise said 12 years ago; it’s news because he said it to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Certainly it’s fair for media of any stream to question Mr. Scalise’s judgment and character in light of the recent discovery that the congressman had met with that group in 2002 — a story that was actually broken by leftist blogger Lamar White Jr. and not the “mainstream media.” Even the Boston Herald, that city’s more conservative paper, has called for Mr. Scalise to step aside from his leadership role, saying, “The revelations can only hurt the party if he stays.”
Apparently, Mr. Zeldin doesn’t agree.
“I think that there are many in the mainstream media who look for any opportunity to try to tear down Republicans to help back up the President of the United States and the Democrats in Congress,” he went on to tell Mr. Wallace.
Suffolk Times editor Michael White asked Mr. Zeldin about his remarks the following day in an interview he’d begun setting up days earlier to talk about the congressman’s plans for his first term in office.
A few minutes before Mr. Zeldin was scheduled to call our newsroom, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a statement slamming Mr. Zeldin for his comments on Fox News. So Mike asked him about that. Here’s the congressman’s response:
“It’s greatly unfortunate that anyone would want to completely take anything I say out of context to distract from more important discussion about how to solve many of the challenges facing America. It is outrageous that the Democratic …”
Then he asked to speak to us later. But he didn’t call back when he said he would, so Mike sent the congressman’s press secretary, Jennifer DiSiena, an email, to which she responded: “We are not going to waste away an entire term in office responding to every ridiculous press release that any Democratic campaign operative sends out to try to change the subject away from issues that matter most to the residents of the First Congressional District …”
Mike explained why he felt it necessary to bring up Sunday’s interview with Fox News — since that was now the news of the day — and he included the questions he had intended to ask the congressman. Ms. DiSiena responded to the questions herself. Here are two of the highlights:
• “Why is it that the national media makes this whole thing a huge issue, but it’s not a big deal when the President of the United States has 82 meetings with Al Sharpton at the White House? That’s a pretty valid question as well.”
• “Congressman-elect Zeldin personally reviewed dozens of various articles covering this story and noted how some of them didn’t mention that this was 12 years old and/or was a speech about a change in state budgeting policy to save money. I can ask him your question, but I’m not sure if he was cataloging which outlets said what in case the Times Review called questioning his honesty.”
On Tuesday morning, I picked up a copy of Newsday and read that when Mr. Zeldin was asked about his appearance on Fox News and pressed for comment on the propriety of Mr. Scalise’s speaking engagement, the congressman responded that “[Mr. Scalise] shouldn’t have spoken to that group.”
Finally, an appropriate answer.
The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-354-8046.