From White House fundraisers to rogue IRS agents, September’s newsmakers in and around the nation’s capitol generously served up their share of soundbites (or, in the case of Arlington, Virginia, hotel guest Marv Albert, unsound bites). But no quote caused more teeth to be bared than one allegedly uttered by second-term U.S. congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston). Jackson Lee, whose district neighbors the Johnson Space Center, is a member of the House Committee on Science, and so it was that she spent part of her summer recess visiting the Mars Pathfinder Operations Center in Pasadena, California. While there, according to an article by Sandy Hume in The Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress, Jackson Lee asked if the Pathfinder succeeded in taking pictures of the American flag planted on Mars by Neil Armstrong in 1969. Of course, Armstrong planted the flag on the Moon, as any high schooler should be able to tell you, let alone a 47-year-old Yale graduate. Hume wasn’t on the trip, so he didn’t hear the question himself, but he says a committee staffer did, as did Jackson Lee’s Science Committee colleague Congressman Vernon Ehlers (R-Michigan), whom Hume quoted on the record pooh-poohing the significance of her boo-boo.
Such stories are, of course, old hat in an era of gotcha journalism, and this one surely would have gone away without much notice had it not been for what happened next. Livid over Hume’s article, Jackson Lee’s deputy chief of staff, Leon Buck, wrote a letter to the editor of the Hill accusing Hume, who is white, of racism. “You thought you could have fun with a black woman member of the Science Committee,” Buck wrote, comparing the article with racial slurs directed at Tiger Woods after the Masters Tournament. He also criticized Hume’s failure to use “the proper spelling of her name,” a reference to a hyphen that incorrectly appeared between “Jackson” and “Lee.” (As Hume notes, Jackson Lee’s name is hyphenated in Congressional Quarterly’s Who’s Who in Congress 1997 and Politics in America 1998.) What Buck didn’t do, however, was deny that she asked the question.
Still, she has other defenders. Shortly after the Hill story ran, the ranking Democrat on the Science Committee, George Brown of California, sent a letter to the Houston Chronicle in support of Jackson Lee (whose name, in a bit of delicious irony, he hyphenated). “My staff director, who accompanied Ms. Jackson-Lee and other Members on the NASA overnight trip, tells me that Sheila’s question had nothing to do with either the Mars Pathfinder mission or Neil Armstrong,” Brown wrote. Then there is Congressman Ehlers, who now says Hume misquoted him. “There was a question of some sort,” Ehlers told Texas Monthly, “but I do not recall her asking about Neil Armstrong.” Hume, not surprisingly, stands by his story.
What are we to make of all this? That it’s business as usual in Washington, D.C.—a cautionary tale in which what should have been a one-day gaffe story quickly devolves into name-calling, non-denial denials, and attacks against the media. But what really happened? We’ll probably never know. The truth of the matter, you might say, is lost in space.