James O’Keefe Arrested, Undercutting ACORN Allegations

A new reality show: Louisiana Watergate?

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

James O'Keefe, who became a conservative media star last year for his videos skewering ACORN, was among four people arrested for trying to tap the phones in Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's office in New Orleans. The story is borderline comical. According to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Steven Rayes, O'Keefe was loitering around Landrieu's office when his two alleged accomplices, "each dressed in blue denim pants, a blue work shirt, a light fluorescent green vest, a tool belt, and carrying white, construction-style hard hat," came in, claimed they were from the phone company, and asked for access to the phones. O'Keefe used his mobile phone to film them.

It sounds like something out of the tritest kind of television script. And, if the charges are true, that's actually not terribly surprising. Judging by the ACORN caper, O'Keefe's style isn't simply to prove corruption but stupidity. It's ironic, then, that the rank lack of sense in his latest alleged stunt calls into question his ACORN charges.

His ACORN video, you will recall, featured shots of him dressing as a caricature pimp, with a similarly attired "prostitute," asking ACORN workers for help setting up prostitution rings, trafficking in children, and evading taxes. The message was ACORN perfidy; the sub-text was: Not only are these people corrupt, they're too stupid to see an obvious set-up. One can imagine the same sub-text surrounding whatever scheme he was (apparently) attempting with Landrieu's office: Not only are they corrupt, but we snared them with a plot contrivance straight out of the worst kind of spy TV. But it turns out that O'Keefe is less Michael Westen than Michael Scott.

This story is rife with humorous possibilities--this prostitution prankster sought corruption in the office of a Louisiana senator ... who wasn't David Vitter?--but this is a real problem for conservatives. Imagine their mixture of outrage and glee if, say, Michael Moore was caught in similar circumstances? And: What kind of person thinks it's a smart idea to try to tap the phones of a U.S. senator's office? One answer is that if you wander far enough into the political fringe--on either end of the spectrum--you find people who think their pursuit of the greater good transcends ordinary laws (not to mention artistes who think their work liberates them from mundane concerns). This may well be the case.

O'Keefe got heaping amounts of praise, including from the conservative corners of this blog, for his ACORN work. The group and its allies insist that he told a one-sided story, using shady editing and cherry-picking a few bad workers to paint the entire organization as corrupt. He was defended as a fearless investigative journalist. But the Landrieu stunt, if proven, would blow a hole in that defense. If he is willing to break the law, wouldn't he be willing to shade the truth in the ways the ACORN supporters have accused?

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