WASHINGTON -- The connection was obvious to senators of both parties, though nobody said so publicly. Four days before Sen. Joseph Biden declared he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination if he could find the financing, he held hostage an important, non-controversial Bush diplomatic appointee. His intent: to force President Bush to reappoint a billionaire backer of Biden to a government oversight board.
Nobody expected Biden's move when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened last Wednesday to send routine nominations to the floor.
Biden, the committee's ranking Democrat, blocked Senate consideration of White House personnel director Dina Habib Powell as the State Department officer named to use public diplomacy to improve U.S. relations in the Middle East. As the price for releasing her, he demanded retention on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) of radio tycoon Norman Pattiz.
It won't work. Bush has no intention of naming Pattiz. Biden rejected his staff's advice and let Powell's nomination out of committee Wednesday, but he can still keep his hold on her to block Senate floor action. The veteran senator's audacious maneuver was extraordinary. Senators occasionally trade off confirmations on two controversial nominees. But it is without precedent for a senator to pressure a president to make a specific appointment by this blatant political use of the confirmation process -- a process already in disrepair because of the mass Democratic assault on Bush's judicial nominees.
Biden tacitly admits he is just playing politics by not even pretending there is anything wrong with Powell's selection as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. At her May 26 hearing by a Foreign Relations Subcommittee, she was praised by Democrats who pressed to get the Egyptian-born Powell quickly on her Middle East assignment.
It's all about Pattiz, Biden admits. The senator issued a statement calling the president "short-sighted and doing the country a disservice" by not reappointing Pattiz to one of four Democratic slots on the eight-member board. In fact, Pattiz violated the ritual for minority nominations set up by Senate Republican Leader Robert J. Dole in the 1980s.
Pattiz, founder and chairman of the Westwood One radio conglomerate, in 2000 was a generous Democratic contributor ($360,000 for that election cycle alone) and an overnight White House guest. President Clinton named him that year to the BBG, which oversees the U.S. government's worldwide radio and television broadcasting services.
Bush in 2002 reappointed Pattiz as part of a conventional package deal to get the Senate, then under Democratic control, to confirm a Republican nominee to the board: conservative Kenneth Tomlinson, former editor of the Reader's Digest and Reagan-era head of the Voice of America.
Pattiz and Tomlinson, now the BBG chairman, was no marriage made in heaven.
According to sources, Tomlinson viewed Pattiz as a Hollywood control freak.
Still, Pattiz would have had another term this year had his name not appeared as a signatory in a Sept. 23, 2004, New York Times advertisement assailing Bush's record and calling for his defeat. That broke the unwritten Dole rule that a minority appointee cannot attack the president who appointed him. Pattiz claims he never signed the ad, but it is hard to believe this well-organized business executive was unaware that his name was used.
When Pattiz was sworn in for his second BBG term at Washington's Hay-Adams Hotel on Sept. 10, 2002, Biden made the cross-town journey from Capitol Hill to deliver a lengthy panegyric for his political benefactor. In 1992, Pattiz's Westwood One was fined $75,000 for offering to illegally reimburse employees who contributed to Biden's aborted 1988 presidential campaign.
Pattiz played a leading role in establishing a radio music service to the Arab world, but associates say he was not the dominant force Biden's statement claims. Certainly, he is less important in public diplomacy for the Middle East than Dina Powell would be.
Sen. John Sununu, a Republican who was there, described to me Powell's confirmation hearing almost a month ago: "We all agreed her job should be filled immediately because of the impact of public diplomacy." The hearing record bears him out. Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes urged committee approval "promptly, in the near future." Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold promised "strong allies on both sides of the aisle." Joe Biden was not present.