Access Denied to O'Donnell's Social Security Essay

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The Colorado Freedom

Access Denied to O'Donnell's Social Security Essay

by Ari Armstrong, August 16, 2006

It was a clever bit of political spin, if a calculated risk. The O'Donnell campaign released a document damaging to O'Donnell in the hopes of quelling a potential attack by Democrats.

Rick O'Donnell is the congressional candidate whose positions on Social Security I evaluated last week.

In February, 1995, O'Donnell wrote the essay, "For Freedom's Sake, Eliminate Social Security," published in American Civilization by the Progress and Freedom Foundation. This is according to a July 11 story in the Rocky Mountain News, which obtained the essay from O'Donnell's office. (Presumably O'Donnell's campaign saw the News as more friendly or at least less hostile than The Denver Post.)

I wanted to read the entire essay to see if it contains any interesting material not quoted by the News. For example, as I suggested in my previous article, I wanted to learn whether O'Donnell then wanted to "slay" Social Security (by which he meant replace it with mandatory accounts) immediately or over some time interval.

Unfortunately, neither O'Donnell's office nor the News will send a copy of the essay to me.

I don't know whether O'Donnell's staff knew or suspected that the Democrats already had a copy of the essay. If the Democrats had it, it would have been in their interests to keep a lid on it until right before the election. (The News reported, "Democrats said... that they knew about the essay...") If neither the Democrats nor the media had it, it would have been in O'Donnell's interests to never release the essay. But apparently O'Donnell saw an attack coming, so he decided to play offense. That's smart, because it gave him the opportunity of being first with the information and of stressing the changes in his position.

I first asked the obvious source for the essay: O'Donnell's campaign. KC Jones, O'Donnell's campaign manager, denied my request over the phone (on August 9). The same day I sent via e-mail a second request for the essay. On August 10, Jones replied, speculating that I "don't need" the article because I'd already written about the subject. On August 14, I replied that I do indeed still want the article. Her reply of the same day was unhelpful, though mildly humorous:

Dear Mr. Armstrong:

As much as our opponents are trying to make otherwise, we do not believe that an essay Mr. O'Donnell wrote before he was even old enough to serve in Congress and he has since made clear that he is better informed and no longer supports should have little or no bearing on this election.

Distributing Mr. O'Donnell's old essay, written when Forest Gump was still in the movie theaters, will only further remove the conversation from what it should be focused on, which is what Rick and his opponent will do in Congress to fix Social Security. Mr. O'Donnell's position on Social Security is posted on our website -- that is what is important in this election.

Our decision not to widely distribute Mr. O'Donnell's old essay is to try to keep the focus on the here and now and not the past; it has nothing to do with you personally -- we have chosen not to distribute it to many who have asked for a copy. We hope you will keep covering our race and the many important issues voters are talking about in this campaign.

Best regards,


KC Jones

While I understand Jones's desire to bury the essay, it is quite relevant to the election. Obviously it's important to note that O'Donnell's position has changed. But understanding what it changed from is helpful. O'Donnell made the conscious decision to write the essay for publication.

Besides, what does Jones think will come of her refusals? Does she imagine I'll give up my hunt? If her goal was to minimize coverage of the essay, her obstinance only guarantees more discussion of it.

In addition, purposely keeping (some) material related to public policy out of the public eye isn't exactly encouraging behavior for a congressional candidate. While I acknowledge the right of O'Donnell's campaign not to send the essay to me, I also note that O'Donnell is trying very hard to enter public life as a member of the United States Congress. Would O'Donnell be equally "helpful" as a member of that body?

I know for sure that O'Donnell and the News have the '95 essay. After both of them turned down my request, I expanded my search. I called the Progress and Freedom Foundation. "Amy" said, "I don't have any copies of that... I searched extensively [after receiving other inquiries]... and came up empty handed."

On August 15 I left a message with Herb Rubenstein, who attacked O'Donnell on Social Security prior to losing the Democratic primary. I also talked with JoAnn Herrick from Ed Perlmutter's office. (Perlmutter won the Democratic primary.) Today Herrick didn't say whether Perlmutter's office currently has a copy of the essay, but she said that, even if her office did have a copy, her office would not release it to me. She said that the press staff in the office told her that the essay would be released at a politically opportune time. While the refusal of O'Donnell's office to release the essay to me strikes me as ridiculous, the refusal of Perlmutter's office makes even less sense.

I sent an e-mail to The Denver Post, tried in vain to get ahold of a couple of Republican party leaders, and called and e-mailed a few other individuals. No luck.

Finally a ray of hope. I called the Denver library, whose reference department is consistently helpful. After a few minutes of searching, a librarian found a couple of leads. He thought the Young Research Library at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) had a copy. However, a librarian there found only a couple of volumes of the publication that don't match the date in question. The other lead is the University of Kansas, which (I discovered) houses the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements. While it does appear that the collection does contain at least one issue of the publication, I have not yet learned whether it contains the issue in question.

I will keep searching for the essay until I find it. I again encourage Jones to simply send a copy to me. I also encourage the Rocky Mountain News to send me a copy or, if possible, release the entire essay on its web page. If any reader has a copy of the essay or knows where it might be found, I would appreciate the information.

It is now a quest.

* * *

Unfortunately, some commentators aren't even taking into account published information about O'Donnell's essay. Today I sent the following comments to Colorado Media Matters regarding its discussion of the essay:

I am surprised that your media watchdog site with "rigorous editorial policies" has, in the very process of criticizing a radio program, committed a similar error as the one criticized.

The page claims that "... Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman allowed Republican 7th Congressional District candidate Rick O'Donnell to misrepresent the substance of a 1995 essay in which O'Donnell called for Social Security to be 'eliminate[d].' ... O'Donnell falsely claimed, '[A]t the time I wrote a paper saying, "Social Security needs to be fixed, and I think a way to fix it is to do X."' Neither Caplis nor Silverman challenged O'Donnell's statement."

Your page cites a July 11 article from the Rocky Mountain News. However, your page does not quote all the relevant passages from that article. Chris Barge also includes a quote from O'Donnell's old essay in which O'Donnell stated that he wanted to "then institute a mandatory, private savings scheme."

So O'Donnell did not advocate simply the elimination of Social Security, as your page suggests. Instead, he advocated replacing Social Security with mandatory accounts. O'Donnell's old position is substantially similar to his new position insofar as both call for state interference in investment. (You can find my own analysis of his positions here.) [Note: Of course, Social Security does not actually count as "investment;" here I mean any income devoted to retirement.]

True enough, O'Donnell in his old essay called for a dramatic transformation of the system, which counts as more than a mere "fix." However, your web page has quoted O'Donnell out of context and has thus "misrepresent[ed] the substance" of his (old) position, the very failing of which your page accuses Caplis and Silverman.

By the way, O'Donnell's campaign manager has refused to send me a copy of the old essay. I would very much like to obtain a copy of the entire essay. If you know how I can do that, I would appreciate the information.

-Ari Armstrong

The Colorado Freedom