SHOCK, AMAZEMENT, DISMAY. These were just some of the reactions to the Seattle Timess endorsement this Sunday of Republican dim bulb George W. Bush.
The surprise, at least in some quarters, had nothing to do with the choice of candidate per se. The astonishing part was the Timess failure anywhere on the editorial page to note Bushs stance on an issue most dear to Times publisher Frank Blethen Jr.: estate taxes.
For several years now, Blethen has led a national lobbying and public relations campaign to eliminate these taxes, which apply to the wealthiest 1-to-2% of people in the country. He has donated advertising space in his newspapers to the cause, maintains an advocacy website (deathtax.com), and has recruited business owners around the country to lobby with him in D.C. Last year Blethen hired a Director of External Affairs whose top mandate was to help repeal the tax.
In an interview on this subject last year, Blethen noted that his campaign is not about enriching his heirs but rather perpetuating a multi-generation business. Says Blethen of his children: "If it was financial benefit I wanted for them, we would sell this puppy [the Times] in a heartbeat and make them wealthy beyond their dreams."
Blethen believes the estate tax leads to the breakup of family businesses, as heirs are forced to sell off assets to cover the government bill. As the fourth-generation owner of one of the last family-controlled newspapers in the country, Blethen contends that the financial pressures of the estate taxand efforts to avoid ithave helped consolidate the newspaper industry into a world of giant chains. (The Seattle Times Company itself is 49% owned by Knight-Ridder, which is eager to gobble up the rest.)
This year, Blethen and his supporters made their best progress to date. Thanks to a bill sponsored by Bellevue Republican Jennifer Dunn (hmmm, wonder if shell get the Times nod this year), the House of Representatives voted for the first time to completely eliminate estate taxes. The only thing standing in the way of that vote becoming law: a veto from President Clinton, which the House could not override.
THE ELECTION OF George W. would likely be the coup de grace for this battle. Bush has promised to do away with estate taxes, thereby saving Americas wealthiest deceased some $30 billion a year.
But there was no mention of Bushs plan in the Times endorsement. Instead the Times declared that the country needed more "integrity and civility."
In an accompanying column, Times editorial page editor Mindy Cameron made it plain that while she herself had lobbied for Gore, the decisive force in the Timess decision was exerted by "the publishers side." Publishers, she wrote, "focus on the big picture."
In an interview, Cameron says that the estate tax issue "was not discussed in any of our meetings" regarding the endorsement, though she notes, "I think its widely assumed by those who are most upset, unhappy, outraged, whatever about this endorsement, they immediately jump to that conclusion. Its my belief, based on how the discussions went, and knowing Frank, that was not the deciding issue."