WASHINGTON -- Two days before Christmas in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson, visiting the Vatican, presented Pope Paul VI with a foot-high bust of Lyndon Johnson. Small choices can reveal the character of a person.
Or of an institution. Consider The New York Times' choices concerning MoveOn.org's issue advocacy ad in the Times calling Gen. David Petraeus "General Betray Us" and accusing him of "cooking the books for the White House."
Last June, the Times was in high dudgeon -- it knows no other degree of dudgeon -- about the Supreme Court's refusal to affirm a sweeping government power to suppress political speech. The court ruled that a small group of Wisconsin citizens had been improperly refused the right to run an issue advocacy ad urging the state's two senators not to filibuster the president's judicial nominees.
Because one of those senators was seeking re-election, the group's ad was deemed an "electioneering communication" -- one that "refers to" a candidate for federal office. McCain-Feingold bans such communications by corporations, including incorporated nonprofit citizens' groups, in the weeks before an election -- when the Times' editorial page is in full-throated enjoyment of speech rights it would deny to others.
Concurring with the court's judgment that the Wisconsin group's ad should have been permitted, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that although McCain-Feingold was written to prevent "corrosive and distorting effects" by entities with "immense aggregations of wealth," it actually muzzled -- with the Times' strenuous approval -- a small group of Wisconsin citizens.
Less than three months after the Times excoriated the court for weakening restrictions on issue ads, the paper made a huge and patently illegal contribution to MoveOn.org's issue advocacy ad. The American Conservative Union, under Chairman David Keene, immediately filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, noting that the purchaser of the ad, MoveOn.org Political Action, is a registered multicandidate political committee regulated by the mare's nest of federal laws and rules the multiplication of which has so gladdened the Times.
The Times, a media corporation that is a fountain of detailed editorial instructions about how the rest of the world should conduct its business, seems confused about how it conducts its own. The Times now says the appropriate rate for MoveOn.org's full-page ad should have been $142,000, a far cry from $65,000, which is what the group paid. So the discount of $77,000 constitutes a large soft-money contribution to a federally regulated political committee. The Times' horror of such contributions was expressed in its enthusiasm for McCain-Feingold.