Even for a Republican White House that was badly stumbling through George W. Bush's sixth year in office, the revelation on April 12, 2007 was shocking. Responding to congressional demands for emails in connection with its investigation into the partisan firing of eight U.S. attorneys, the White House announced that as many as five million emails, covering a two-year span, had been lost.
The emails had been run through private accounts controlled by the Republican National Committee and were only supposed to be used for dealing with non-administration political campaign work to avoid violating ethics laws. Yet congressional investigators already had evidence private emails had been used for government business, including to discuss the firing of one of the U.S. attorneys. The RNC accounts were used by 22 White House staffers, including then-Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who reportedly used his RNC email for 95 percent of his communications.
As the Washington Post reported, “Under federal law, the White House is required to maintain records, including e-mails, involving presidential decision- making and deliberations.” But suddenly millions of the private RNC emails had gone missing; emails that were seen as potentially crucial evidence by Congressional investigators.
The White House email story broke on a Wednesday. Yet on that Sunday's Meet The Press, Face The Nation, and Fox News Sunday, the topic of millions of missing White House emails did not come up. At all. (The story did get covered on ABC's This Week.)
By comparison, not only did every network Sunday news show this week cover the story about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emails, but they were drowning in commentary. Between Meet the Press, Face The Nation, This Week, and Fox News Sunday, Clinton's “email” or “emails” were referenced more than 100 times on the programs, according to Nexis transcripts. Talk about saturation coverage.
Indeed, the commentary for the last week truly has been relentless, with the Beltway press barely pausing to catch its breath before unloading yet another round of “analysis,” most of which provides little insight but does allow journalists to vent about the Clintons.
What has become clear over the last eight days however is that the Clinton email story isn't about lawbreaking. “Experts have said it doesn't appear Clinton violated federal laws,” CNN conceded. “But that hasn't stemmed the issue that has become more about bad optics and politics than any actual wrongdoing.” The National Law Journal agreed, noting that while the story has created a political furor, “any legal consequences are likely to prove negligible.”
Still, the scandal machine churns on determined to the treat the story as a political blockbuster, even though early polling indicates the kerfuffle will not damage Clinton's standing.
Looking back, it's curious how the D.C. scandal machine could barely get out of first gear when the Bush email story broke in 2007. I'm not suggesting the press ignored the Rove email debacle, because the story was clearly covered at the time. But triggering a firestorm (a guttural roar) that raged for days and consumed the Beltway chattering class the way the D.C. media has become obsessed with the Clinton email story? Absolutely not. Not even close.
Instead, the millions of missing Bush White House emails were treated as a 24-hour or 48-hour story. It was a subject that was dutifully noted, and then the media pack quickly moved on.
How did the Washington Post and New York Times commentators deal with the Bush email scandal in the week following the confirmation of the missing messages? In his April 17, 2007 column, Post columnist Eugene Robinson hit the White House hard. But he was the only Post columnist to do so. On the editorial page, the Post cautioned that the story of millions of missing White House emails might not really be a “scandal.” Instead, it was possible, the Post suggested, that Rove and others simply received “sloppy guidance” regarding email protocol.
There's been no such Post inclination to give Clinton any sort of benefit of the doubt regarding email use as the paper piles up endless attacks on her. Dana Milbank: “Clinton made a whopper of an error.” Ruth Marcus: “This has the distinct odor of hogwash.”
As for The New York Times, here's the entirety of the newspaper's commentary on the Bush White House email story in the week following the revelation, according to Nexis:
Last week, the Republican National Committee threw up another roadblock, claiming it had lost four years' worth of e-mail messages by Karl Rove that were sent on a Republican Party account. Those messages, officials admitted, could include some about the United States attorneys. It is virtually impossible to erase e-mail messages fully, and the claims that they are gone are not credible.
Three sentences from a single, unsigned editorial. That's it. No Times columnists addressed the topic. By comparison, in the week since the Clinton story broke, the Times has published one editorial dedicated solely to the subject, and no less than five opinion columns addressing the controversy.
Just to repeat: In 2007, the story was about millions of missing White House emails that were sought in connection to a Congressional investigation. Yet somehow the archiving of Clinton's emails today requires exponentially more coverage, and exceedingly more critical coverage.
Of course, back in 2007 Fox News seemed utterly uninterested in the Bush email story days after the news broke. A search of Fox archives locates only one panel discussion about the story and it featured two guests accusing Democrats of engineering a “fishing expedition.”
From then-Fox co-host, Fred Barnes: “I mean, deleted e-mails, who cares?”