Retail Success

Now some fresh pickings from the Political Grapevine:

U.S. retailers recorded sales of $27.8 billion over the Thanksgiving weekend and the National Retail Federation says the industry is on track for its second biggest season since 1999. Weekend sales were up 22 percent over a year ago and discount chains and online retailers reported record sales. So how does The New York Times report the good news?

On the front page of its business section, The Times notes that shoppers avoided mall-based specialty stores in favor of discount retailers, reporting that Friday's mall sales dropped nearly a full percentage point from last year.

Weak-end Protest?

It was a rough holiday weekend in Crawford for anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan. After drawing hundreds of supporters during her month-long vigil in the Texas heat this summer, just 100 people turned out to hear Sheehan speak on Saturday and The Washington Post reports even fewer came to her book signing.

Undeterred, Sheehan called it "a good turnout." And former diplomat Ann Wright, who resigned to protest the war in Iraq, says, "What was important was for us to have a symbolic presence."

Called Him a Coward?

House Speaker Dennis Hastert says he never called Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha a coward, despite John Kerry's claims to the contrary. In an e-mail, Kerry accused Republicans of trying to "swift boat" Murtha, a former Marine who has called for withdrawing troops from Iraq, saying, "Dennis Hastert — the speaker of the House who never served — accused Jack Murtha of being a coward."

But while Hastert said America "must not cower" in fighting terror, and said Murtha and other Democrats "want us to wave the white flag," Hastert says he never used the word "coward" and has the utmost respect for Murtha. Hastert also accused Kerry of exploiting the withdrawal fight to raise money. The Kerry camp says that while there was a contribution link at the bottom of the e-mail, the body of the message never mentioned donations.

Free Speech?

CNN has asserted that the large X that appeared over Vice President Cheney's face during the network coverage of a speech last week was an unintended technical glitch. But when an irate viewer called to complain about the incident, the switchboard operator on duty called it "free speech,” saying, "We did it just to make a point. Tell them to stop lying, Bush and Cheney. Bring our soldiers home..." adding, "if you don't like it, don't watch." CNN called the operator's behavior "totally inappropriate" and fired him.

— FOX News' Aaron Bruns contributed to this report