This Thursday, Congress sustained the President’s veto of an expanded Children’s Health Insurance bill. But two poster children, Bethany Wilkerson and Graeme Frost, got the lion’s share of media attention. Reporter James Carroll covered Senator Mitch McConnell’s connection to attacks on Frost.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Thursday, Congress failed to override the President's veto of an expanded SCHIP, Children's Health Insurance bill. But before the battle was over, two children and one senator came under scrutiny. It began late last month, when the Democrats put forth 12-year-old Graeme Frost of Baltimore to present the Democratic response to the President's veto. GRAEME FROST: Most kids my age probably haven't heard of CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program. I know all about it because if it weren't for CHIP, I might not be here today. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sensing a sympathetic subject in Graeme, conservative bloggers and pundits, including Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, went to town. A leading charge was that Graeme Frost and his sister attended private school, making them unworthy recipients of government help. Even CNN asked whether Democrats had done enough vetting of their poster child.
It turns out the Frost kids are on scholarship. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was all over the attempt to "Swift-boat" Graeme. Here's Rachel Maddow on Countdown. RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah. Twelve-year-old Graeme Frost, meet Cindy Sheehan, meet 9/11 widows, meet Staff Sergeant Brian McGough, meet Michael J. Fox, meet the kids who were targeted by Mark Foley, meet Jack Murtha. I mean, Graeme Frost as a 12-year-old now joins an esteemed list of Americans who have been personally attacked, personally slimed, called liars and cowards and frauds and threatened for daring to publicly espouse a view that the Right disagrees with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile, a second SCHIP poster child emerged -- Bethany Wilkerson, a two-year-old born with a serious heart defect. BETHANY WILKERSON: Hi. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the ad, she holds up a sign that reads "Don't veto me." Well, observed The National Review Online, the Wilkersons wouldn't have had to worry about the veto if Mrs. Wilkerson hadn't been so irresponsible as to conceive Bethany four years after quitting a job with health insurance. Yes, chided The National Review, quote, "The couple went on to have a baby anyway."
Poster children, whether Graeme Frost or David Petraeus, are symbols, and when they are defaced Congress debates the symbols instead of the issues.
James Carroll is Washington Bureau Chief for the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal. Soon after the controversy started, he began receiving emails drawing his attention to another email sent from the office of the senator he covers most closely, Kentucky Republican and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Apparently, the McConnell email, sent to selected reporters, repeated the charges against 12-year-old Graeme Frost, so it seemed McConnell was propagating the smear. JAMES CARROLL: And I wanted to just nail that down. Did McConnell, or people on his staff, have something to do with these emails? And by the end of last week, I was still working that story, so we started again on Monday. McConnell's Communications Director Don Stewart, called me on the phone, told me, yes, he had sent the emails, first alerting reporters to the fact that the blogosphere was talking about Graeme and the Frost family and then that he had sent emails some hours later, basically waving reporters off and saying, no, the family was legit. There's no story here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: However, it did manage to get, I think, on CNN before McConnell's man called the press off the story. JAMES CARROLL: Right. What had happened until Don had called me last Monday was that McConnell's office was not commenting on the origins of the emails and whether they had something to do with any of it. So that made me, obviously, just even more curious.
And so, you know, Don basically told me what he did, what his motivations were, what he was trying to do, and that he said, you know, I helped kill the story on the Frosts. BROOKE GLADSTONE: He neglected to tell you that he helped propagate the story on the Frosts as well? JAMES CARROLL: Well, what he said was that the blogs were actually talking about the Frosts two days before he sent out his first email, just alerting reporters that this was going on. He said he did not start it. This is what he told me. He did not start it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile, the senator's communications director, Don Stewart, is telling you one thing. At the same time, the senator is telling a different story on TV. JAMES CARROLL: What happened was we published a story last Tuesday morning in The Courier-Journal, and WHAS-TV in Louisville had interviewed Senator McConnell on this very subject the previous Friday, in which McConnell said there was no involvement of his staff whatsoever in the emails. WHAS-TV, I am assuming, looked at our story, remembered what he had told them and thought something here doesn't quite connect.
And so that night, Tuesday night, WHAS ran the entire exchange they had with McConnell. The story was already in our paper that morning, saying that Stewart had said he'd already told McConnell the day before that McConnell was asked by WHAS about this. He had told McConnell about his role in this. But when McConnell was asked the next day on camera, he said there was no involvement by his staff, whatsoever. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess you're too objective to call that a lie? JAMES CARROLL: I think there's a, a disconnect. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what are the consequences here for the senator? JAMES CARROLL: It's part of the game in Washington to try to make your strongest case in any way you can. And Mitch McConnell's office is, no doubt, going to continue to do that. Harry Reid's office is going to continue to do that.
Has this injured McConnell? I, I don't know. I mean, I've gotten plenty of emails and phone calls from both sides on this, some people who say, you know, this is terrible and this has just exposed his craven political ambition, and other people saying, you know, you're a bunch of socialists and, you know, you're going after a good man who's standing up for America. [LAUGHS]
McConnell's political position in Kentucky at this very moment appears to be pretty secure. But, again, he has no opponent yet, but he's gathered a gob of money. The polls show he's got about a 54 percent approval rating. So will this have any long-term damage? I think only time will tell. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much. JAMES CARROLL: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Carroll is the Washington bureau chief for the Louisville Courier-Journal.