Despite ground rules, Steele protests publication of criticism



In the fallout from his remarks belittling the Republican Party, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele went after The Washington Post yesterday, saying his comments had been "off the record."

Steele told WBAL radio that The Post had violated the terms of a 90-minute luncheon meeting Monday with nine reporters at a Capitol Hill restaurant by being the only news outlet, initially, to publish a story about what was said there.

The Post, in its column Tuesday by Dana Milbank, did not identify Steele by name and said it was adhering to ground rules set before the meeting specifying that he be referred to "only as a GOP Senate candidate."

In his radio interview yesterday, Steele, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, blamed The Post for the controversy and suggested it had been wrong for the paper to publish his remarks at all, with or without his name attached.

"It's the usual `shoot the messenger,'" Milbank, who writes the paper's Washington Sketch column, said yesterday evening. "But we followed the ground rules scrupulously."

Milbank said Steele's press secretary, Doug Heye, was aware of which quotes he planned to use. Milbank forwarded to The Sun an e-mail he received after the luncheon from Heye, offering to "sign off" on the quotes.

"I can hold off on signing off for other press for the time being, as well," Heye volunteered, suggesting that he approved of Milbank having a scoop on the story.

"They never quarreled with it," Milbank said on the telephone last night. "He thanked me," Milbank added, referring to Heye.

Milbank said the ground rules for the luncheon were spelled out in advance by the hostess, who said the gathering would not be "off the record" but "on background," meaning that the comments could be used in print and attributed to an official, in this case a "Republican Senate candidate from Maryland."

Knowing that this would clearly identify Steele, Milbank and his editor, Maralee Schwartz, both said yesterday that they omitted any reference to Maryland from the column, including Steele's mention of the Chesapeake Bay. To disguise his identity further, they said, they also excised all of Steele's remarks about African-American voters and Bush's overtures to the NAACP.

"I took that out to try to protect him, because that would have been a dead giveaway," said Milbank, who taped the meeting, including the part about its rules for attribution.

Schwartz, reached yesterday in The Post's newsroom, said she had heard the tape and confirmed that the lunch was not "off the record," as Steele had claimed in his radio interview, but "on background."

"We were careful to play by the rules, and in fact we even scrubbed that story for anything that might identify him," she said.

In Milbank's column, he wrote that Steele campaign officials "toyed with the idea" of allowing his remarks to be on the record - meaning Steele would have been identified - "but got cold feet."

Sources said the luncheon was organized by Juleanna Glover Weiss, a well-known Washington hostess who is Vice President Dick Cheney's former press secretary. She declined to comment.

Steele's remarks prompted much commentary among pundits, some of whom suggested the whole thing was a carefully orchestrated ploy by Steele.

"The big story here is that we - and you, dear reader - got totally played," Wonkette, the political Web site, said. "Playing this two-day game of charades got him headlines like `Steele criticizes GOP,' which are exactly what he needs to play for Maryland voters who hate George W. Bush almost as much as they hated Lincoln."

Yesterday Steele canceled another radio interview on WYPR's Marc Steiner Show. The discussion, scheduled before the controversy, was to have centered on his senatorial campaign as well as on "stem cells, the war on Iraq and other crucial issues of domestic and foreign policy," the station's Web site said.

When Steele's office called to cancel 20 minutes before he was to go on air, an irritated Steiner suggested that the candidate had evidently chosen friendlier political territory over at WBAL.

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