When Vice President Dick Cheney visited Northwest Arkansas May 3 to tour a Wal-Mart distribution center, all of the major media outlets in Arkansas were under the impression that it was an official White House visit.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article about the day's events was headlined "Cheney makes a visit to Wal-Mart; speech billed as administration event." In the report by the Arkansas News Bureau of the Stephens Media newspapers, the trip was referred to as a "taxpayer-financed vice-presidential visit."
Why is this detail worth mentioning? Well, Cheney seemed more interested in attacking John Kerry than in learning the fine points of retail distribution logistics. And when an elected official uses government transportation for a political purpose, he or she is expected to reimburse the government through a campaign fund.
The Times called the White House for an explanation. Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems said that the trip was always intended as a campaign visit.
"[The Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign] set it up," Kellems said. "They paid for it. It was a campaign trip from day one."
Confusion lingers, however. Cheney's remarks at the Wal-Mart event are still posted on the White House website, a government operation financed by taxpayers, not a campaign operation.
Also, at least one reporter has a distinctly different recollection of how the trip was billed.. On the condition of not being identified in print, the journalist who covered the Cheney visit told the Times that he specifically asked the Wal-Mart press handler whether it was a White House trip or a campaign trip, and he was told it was the former. Furthermore, the phone number distributed for information purposes was a White House number, not a campaign number.
Kellems did not know why every news organization made the same "error." When asked if he would be requesting corrections from the newspapers, Kellems said he would.
Even if the visit was originally intended to be official government business that was subsequently called into question by Cheney's partisan remarks, it would not be illegal to retroactively call it campaign travel. The Bush-Cheney campaign will reimburse the government for the portion of the trip that was used for political purposes, Kellems confirmed.
However, Cheney's exuberant attack on Kerry may have put Wal-Mart in a tricky position. According to Paul Sanford, the general counsel for the Center for Responsive Politics, there is a section of federal code that regulates candidate appearances on corporate premises. It says that if a candidate for federal office appears before employees of a corporation to deliver a campaign message, the same opportunity must be extended to the other candidates for that office. Now that the White House has confirmed that the trip was political, Wal-Mart is obligated to host John Kerry for a similar kind of visit if he requests it.
That may explain why the Wal-Mart officials might have preferred to call it an official White House trip and thus require no equal time for Kerry. In the last few election cycles, Wal-Mart has directed more than 80 percent of its political contributions to Republican candidates, and its corporate leadership has done little to hide its support for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Jay Allen, the vice president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart, personally raised at least $100,000 for the 2004 re-election effort, earning him the designation of Bush Pioneer.
Allen told the Times that Cheney's office originally contacted Wal-Mart's Washington, D.C., office to request the visit, but Allen ultimately assumed responsibility for making the arrangements. He believed that he was dealing with the White House, and that it was an official (rather than political) trip, but he was not focused on the distinction. Mainly, he was honored that Cheney wanted to come to Wal-Mart and say good things about the company. Although he was not aware that Kellems had definitively labeled the events as campaign-related, and also seemed surprised to hear that Bush-Cheney 2004 would be reimbursing the government for travel expenses, Allen said that Kerry would be welcome to sample Wal-Mart hospitality as Cheney did.
"If Senator Kerry requests to do the same thing, we would be open to that," Allen confirmed. "We are open to discuss the issues with anyone who wants to have a discussion about them."