11.30.11

Greta Van Susteren’s Husband Defends Role Advising Herman Cain

Should Greta Van Susteren have disclosed her husband’s connection to Herman Cain on Fox News? John Coale tells Howard Kurtz he is only an informal adviser to the candidate.

John Coale, a Washington lawyer who has been informally advising Herman Cain for eight months, says he’s not sure what the fuss is about.

“It’s as you would advise a friend: ‘What do you think about this, what do you think about that?’” Coale told me. The friendly advice—Coale shares his thoughts with prominent politicians in both parties—included a phone call from Cain after an Atlanta woman declared that she had a 13-year extramarital affair with the Republican presidential candidate.

But the fuss has to do with Coale’s wife, Greta Van Susteren, and whether she should have disclosed her husband’s role on her Fox News program. The anchor has interviewed Cain 10 times since August—most recently last week—and was granted the only interview with his wife, Gloria, after several women accused the candidate of sexual harassment.

On her blog this week, Van Susteren said her husband “has lived in Washington for a long time and has lots of friends and he makes friends … My husband has never worked for any of them nor taken a dime from any of them. He is not a lobbyist (never has been) and he is not looking for a job. These are simply his friends … people he finds interesting. As friends, he gives them advice, and they give him advice … he tells them things and they tell him things … Many in the media have spouses—unlike my husband—who actually WORK for politicians and or in government.”

But Van Susteren did not make such a disclosure on her 10 p.m. show On the Record, where it would have reached a far wider audience of nearly 2 million viewers. Bill Shine, the executive vice president for programming who approved Van Susteren’s handling of the situation, declined an interview request and has made no public comment. He directed reporters to her blog posting instead. The lack of on-air disclosure has upset several Fox journalists who have privately expressed concern that it casts a shadow on their campaign coverage.

Van Susteren was busy preparing for her show Wednesday night and suggested by email that I call her husband.

Coale says his role as “friendly adviser” is “not to the point where Greta should go on her show and say, ‘My husband is a friend of Cain.’ Three out of five nights I know the people she’s interviewing.”

Should she have made the disclosure sooner? “Because she’s used to me being friends with all these people, it probably didn’t occur to her,” Coale told me. There would be a perception problem only “if I were making a living” providing political advice, “or I was just hanging out with partisan Republicans or partisan Democrats. But I hang out with both.”

“It is not to the point where Greta should go on her show and say, ‘My husband is a friend of Cain.’”

Marital issues can be tricky for two-career couples, and some journalists deal with them by recusing themselves. Michele Norris recently stepped aside as co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered after her husband joined President Obama’s reelection campaign. George Will recently began disclosing on ABC and in his Washington Post column that his wife, Mari Maseng, has become a Rick Perry adviser. But both cases involve spouses in full-time jobs, as opposed to Coale’s informal role.

Coale says he met Cain around the time the onetime radio host was launching his White House bid and that they have had at least four dinners at such places as the Capital Grille. He says he rode on Cain’s bus in Iowa before one Fox debate. They have often talked about Cain’s "9-9-9" tax plan, “maybe too many times.”

Cain called him, says Coale, after Ginger White went public on Monday with her allegations of a long-term affair with the former pizza executive, which he has denied. Cain told Coale he was “taking the temperature of my friends and supporters.”

Coale says he told the candidate that “it’s a shame in the culture now that you’re guilty until proven innocent, but that’s the way it is. I didn’t ask him if this was true. He didn’t deny it. I didn’t advise him what to do or who to hire.” Coale also joined a conference call with advisers Tuesday in which Cain said he was “reassessing” his campaign. “He’s seriously looking at staying or going,” says Coale, who bets Cain will remain in the race—unless his money dries up.

Cain also called Coale separately and asked him to cancel a dinner the candidate was slated to attend at the apartment of New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams. Coale helped set up the dinner a couple of months ago, with Cain’s acquiescence, and the guests were to have included Matt Lauer, Barbara Walters, Lesley Stahl, and Bill O’Reilly, among others.

Coale recalls Cain telling him he didn’t think he should attend “because of all the stuff that’s going on, and all the things I have to do in reassessing.” Coale called Adams with the news, which she reported in her column.

Advice giving—and the access it implies—is the coin of the realm in Washington. Coale’s role as a friendly sounding board for politicians has raised questions before.

Van Susteren has frequently interviewed Sarah Palin, who is a Fox contributor, while Coale has been an informal adviser this year as Palin wrestled with whether to run for president. Coale told me that he and his wife spent the Fourth of July weekend with the Palin family in Alaska, and that he went on a fishing trip with Palin’s husband, Todd, and daughter Piper.

Coale describes himself as a “Clinton Democrat,” saying he has been friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton for nearly two decades. “I do not like Obama, and I’ve never hidden that,” he says. Coale says he had breakfast with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi a month ago and is quite friendly with another Democrat, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“I don’t play golf—this is what I do,” he says.

On her blog, Van Susteren cited an ABC headline—“John Coale Now Advising Herman Cain”—in saying: “I do think many in the media take this a tad too far with the headline … These are his friends. It may also be hard for some journalists to believe you can be friends with people.”

The bottom line, she told her critics: “Stop for a second and think about my interviews. Are you getting information? Am I fair?”