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Daily Howler: It went from Bernstein to Baker to Matthews--and it showed us the shape of our discourse
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THE SHAPE OF YOUR DISCOURSE! It went from Bernstein to Baker to Matthews—and it showed us the shape of our discourse: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 18, 2007

PREDICTING TUCKER: Just as we predicted on Friday, Tucker Carlson was suitably outraged. In Friday morning’s Washington Post, John Solomon reported that Bill Clinton was paid $150,000 for a speech to the Boys and Girls Club of Los Angeles. (Our research says it was really Long Beach.) We told you why Solomon highlighted that fact—and we told you that Tucker would rise to the bait (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/15/07). Sure enough, a few hours later, he thundered, on his eponymous program, about the disgrace involved in accepting that fee. (“Now, how in good conscience could you do that?”) And, to prove he was really was as dumb as a stone, Carlson complained about the stocks in the blind trust the Clintons have now dissolved. Heroically, Bill Press tried to stage an intervention. But, with Tucker, nothing works:
CARLSON (6/15/07): The Clintons liquidated their investments. They put them all into treasury bonds, cash. But up until now, they’ve owned more than $100,000 in News Corp, parent company of Fox, Pfizer, Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart. I mean, these are not the kind of investments you’d expect socially-conscious progressives to make.

PRESS: There’s a blind trust. They did not make the choices. Citicorp made the choices for them. They didn’t even know what was in their trust.

CARLSON: They could have told Citcorp, “Don`t invest in things we disagree with.”

PRESS: A blind trust is a blind trust.

CARLSON: They didn’t have to have a blind trust!
Needless to say, Maureen Dowd also complained, in Sunday’s column, about the fee Vile Clinton received from the Boys and Girls Club.

Why was Clinton paid that large (but cut-rate) fee to speak at the Boys and Girls Club event? Because the organization was staging a fund-raiser—and if Clinton is your speaker, you can raise a lot of funds from people who pay large sums to see him. But couldn’t Clinton have done this for free? Of course he could have—but if we adopt that standard, he could do free events every night of the year. In the original AP report on this subject, a Clinton spokesman was quoted saying that Clinton “typically donates millions of dollars in free speeches to charities.” Why was he paid for this event, but not for others? We don’t have the slightest idea—but now we’ve gone deep in the weeds.

The basic fact involved here is simple; Bill Clinton has gotten rich in the years since he left the White House. Yes, he could have donated more of his time. But then, Tucker Carlson (and Maureen Dowd) are paid large salaries—and they could donate more of their time to worthy activities too. And yes: If you’re willing to “reason” like a child, you could easily torture “hypocrisy” out of their vile conduct too.
By the way: How much are Carlson and Dowd paid? These prime Antoinettes are always happy to throw thunder-bolts at everyone else. (Sorry: At everyone else of whom they disapprove.) So how much are these pundits paid to maintain their apartments inside Versailles? Isn’t it time that the public was told? Who are these influential ciphers? At long last, the public needs to know.

SKIPPING RUDY: According to Media Matters, “Rudy Giuliani charged Oklahoma State University $100,000 for a speech he delivered in 2006 and an additional $47,000 for the use of a private jet.” Couldn’t Rudy have given this speech for less—for free? Couldn’t he have taken the bus? Yes, of course, he could have done that. But being a modern pseudo-journalist means never having to say you’re consistent.

And by the way, here as elsewhere: When it comes to presidential-level politics, the mainstream press corps has essentially become a Republican entity. We hear these themes aimed at Edwards and Clinton. But Rudy makes speeches all the way to the bank—and somehow, it doesn’t get mentioned.

OUR GREAT THINKERS, MISSING IN ACTION: Last Monday, Eric Alterman remembered the late Richard Rorty. We were struck by one part of Eric’s statement, the part we highlight below. Rorty is most commonly described as an American “philosopher:”
ALTERMAN (6/11/07): We became friends—I can't say close friends—but we enjoyed a rapport that meant a great deal to me. I remain fascinated about the disconnect between great thoughts, such as they are, inside the academy and the paucity of imagination in our public conversation. Rorty’s hero, Dewey, provided the ideal of bridging these worlds, and late in life, Rorty stepped into this role as well.
Rock on! We thank all the gods that Eric included that mordant phrase, “such as they are.” But the “disconnect” he cites in that passage remained in our thoughts all week. At present, our public discourse lies in tatters. Why do we get so little help from great thinkers inside the academy?

For ourselves, we’re unaware of any “great thoughts” within the contemporary academy. In our view, if any such thoughts are lurking there, their owners are holding them close. But Eric commented on the failure of these thoughts (such as they are) to spread to the broader public discourse. For us, this recalled one of the issues which led us to start THE HOWLER, back when. We thought of the hapless, mid-90s debate about cuts to the Medicare program.

This “debate” consumed our public conversation from the summer of 1994 through the 1996 election. Night after night, the battle raged. On Crossfire, the same things were constantly said. Groundhog Day had more variety:
DEMOCRATIC GUEST: Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress is proposing large cuts to the Medicare program.

REPUBLICAN GUEST: No one is proposing any Medicare “cuts.” We’re just slowing the rate at which the program will grow.
Long ago, we discussed this debate at three lengths—short, medium, long. (Just click here.) But this debate went on endlessly, night after night. No one could bring any clarity.

Well—no one except two comedians! Al Franken untangled this pseudo-dispute in his 1996 book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. And we ourselves, working independently, explained it in the Baltimore Sun. Was it hard to clarify this pseudo-dispute? No, it was really quite easy:

In 1995, the federal government was spending $4800 per recipient on the Medicare program. According to CBO projections, it was going to cost $8000 per recipient to maintain the same program in the year 2002. But under Newt Gingrich, the GOP was proposing a budget which would spend just $6700 per recipient in 2002. Under this proposal, per-person spending would rise (unadjusted for inflation). But it would probably be necessary to cut Medicare services.

No, that wasn’t hard to sort out. A serious discussion could have followed from there. But for two solid years, our “public conversation” choked on the pointless semantic dispute which lay at the heart of that nightly discussion. Our most famous pundits and journalists were unable to clarify this. And, of course, as with all such debates, this dispute quickly turned into a referendum on Bill Clinton’s deeply troubling character. Endlessly, Clinton was accused of lying when he would speak, accurately and reasonably, about the GOP’s proposed “cuts.” But then, all our debates in the 1990s were designed to “prove” that Clinton was a liar. Until March 1999, that is, when all new debates were designed to “prove” the same darn thing about Gore.

Night after night, our time was wasted as four Crossfire figures butted heads on this matter. And no one from “the academy” stepped forward to help or offer guidance. To tell the truth, we didn’t need any “great thoughts” at this juncture; we just needed a few basic logical/analytical skills. But none of the “philosophers” who develop “great thoughts” inside the academy seemed to be up to the challenge.

Did Rorty and his colleagues know how to reason? We don’t know—but they didn’t step forward. In our mind, this is part of the “disconnect” Eric cited in last Monday’s post. In other types of public discussions, scientists and social scientists routinely come forward to offer their expertise. (Such as it is—and it’s often considerable). But no philosopher—no logician—was ready to serve at that time.

This of course raises an obvious question. At present, do any “philosophers” inside the academy have “great thoughts” or usable skills? Our guess would have to be no, they do not. They haven’t stepped forward to help us out because they have nothing to give us.

How great are the thoughts of our modern “philosophers?” In our view, Slate’s forum on Rorty was a rolling embarrassment; ditto today’s incoherent blather in the New York Times. No, it isn’t necessarily Rorty’s fault when our “philosophers and intellectuals” (Slate’s term) offer such blather about their own. But that blather suggests a possibility: Today’s academy, like today’s upper-end press corps, is largely a fatuous, landlocked elite, involved in a series of private conversations—conversations that are essentially meaningless. For pedants only, we may offer more thoughts on this matter by the end of the week.

Special report: Bern, baby, Bern!

READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Carl Bernstein’s book was transformed into scandal. Read each thrilling installment:
PART 1: Bernstein defines dishonesty down on an appalling book tour. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/11/07.

PART 2: Bernstein makes a second claim that doesn’t appear in his book. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/12/07.

PART 3: Bernstein twists his claims on TV—and shouts about Clinton’s bad character . See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/14/07.
Today, in our final installment, we see the shape of our discourse:

PART 4—THE SHAPE OF YOUR DISCOURSE: There’s a lot we could say about Carl Bernstein’s book, which cracked this best- seller lists this week. Let’s hit a few points, fairly quickly:

When written: We’d guess that Bernstein wrote this book quite a few years ago, then held it back for timely release. The book’s narrative arc seems to end in January 2001, as Hillary Clinton enters the Senate. Beyond that, Bernstein has tacked on a few crabby pages which briefly cover her Senate career. Bernstein likes to claim he spent eight years on this book. We’ll break those eight years down this way: Two years actually writing the book, six more years cooling his heels.

Lazy and wrong: Bernstein seems to have soured on Clinton during her years in the Senate. It would help if he actually knew what she’s done there. On several shows, including Charlie Rose, Bernstein has said that Clinton supported (or even sponsored) last year’s flag-burning amendment; in fact, Clinton voted against the amendment, which failed by only one vote. (She supported a flag-burning statute, as Bernstein accurately says in his book—but not on his tour. This statute was proposed by Dick Durbin.) And the following presentation, about Clinton and Iraq, is just vastly misleading:
BERNSTEIN (page 549): As it became obvious to Hillary and other Democrats who supported the war’s authorization that the Iraq adventure was becoming a catastrophe, her tone and her words changed, though later than many of her Democratic colleagues. “If I had known then what we know now, there never would have been a vote and I never would have voted to give the president the authority,” she said in the winter of 2007.
Slick. In fact, Clinton had been saying the same thing since August 2004—much sooner than many of her Democratic colleagues. Simply put, Bernstein gives little sign of knowing much about Clinton’s Senate years. Amazingly, his book features only eight pages on the past six years—and he makes basic errors.

The good parts: That said, much of this book is perfectly OK—and some sections are actually interesting. The opening section on Clinton’s childhood is interesting, for example (though Bernstein has misrepresented this part of his book on his appalling book tour). And he features a very interesting section on Establishment Washington’s negative attitude when the Clintons first came to Washington. But that leads on to:

The bad parts: Bernstein ducks the basic challenge inherent in Clinton biography. How many of the scandalous charges lodged against Bill Clinton over the years were true? How many of these scandalous charges were inventions of the crackpot scandal machine which has now waged fifteen years of war against the Clintons? Bernstein agrees that this scandal machine existed, but he ducks the challenge this knowledge creates. For example, he simply states at one point that Gennifer Flowers and Bill Clinton “had an affair” (page 163). But how does he know that? And what does that mean? He cites no source for his claim (yes, we checked the endnotes)—and the record here is completely murky. (Clinton testified to one sexual encounter in 1977—unspecified, but not intercourse.) Did Clinton and Flowers have “an affair?” If so, in what did that “affair” consist? In his book, Bernstein simply ducks this question—and many others like it.

So there’s a lot to be said about Bernstein’s new book. But so far, the most remarkable thing about this book is the way it’s been used by the trained dissemblers who run your “mainstream” “press corps.” And yes: As we look at the way this gang has used this book, we see the shape of our modern discourse. We see the scandalous shape of American politics over the past fifteen years.

Over the course of the past fifteen years, how easily has this broken cohort been able to invent pseudo-scandals? One last time, let’s run through the three easy steps in the invention of scandal. Let’s see how an innocuous passage from Bernstein’s book was quickly transformed into scandal:

Step One—Bernstein’s book: To see the shape of our modern discourse, we start with Bernstein’s actual book. In it, Bernstein includes the following, largely innocuous account of what occurred when Little Rock crackpot Larry Nichols filed a nuisance suit against Governor Clinton. The suit was filed in October 1990, as Clinton sought re-election:
BERNSTEIN (page 189): The suit was an obvious attempt to damage Clinton not just in Arkansas, but in any future race for president. (Nichols was a surrogate for Clinton’s opponent and longtime antagonist in the governor’s race, Shef Nelson.) As such, it was particularly dangerous in both the short and long term to Bill and Hillary, as she recognized.

At the behest of Betsey Wright and Hillary, Webb Hubbell and Vince Foster were hired, by or through the campaign, to represent the women and obtain from the women their signed statements that they had never had sex with Bill Clinton. Some of the women were brought into an interview room to be questioned by Vince, Webb, and on one occasion, Hillary. Two of the women were prominent friends of Bill and Hillary—both black—and almost no one familiar with the case believes they were anything more than friends. But a line had been crossed, in appearance if nothing else. Hillary, or her law firm, or both were now acting as counsel to the women with whom her husband was accused of having illicit affairs. Acting through another lawyer, Betsey Wright was able to get Gennifer Flowers to sign a statement that she had never had a sexual relationship with Bill.
That is Bernstein’s account of what happened when Nichols, a prominent Little Rock kook, filed the suit for which he later apologized. (The suit was quickly thrown out of state court.) Struggling to find something negative to say about Hillary Clinton, Bernstein says “a line had been crossed, in appearance if nothing else,” when some of the women accused by Nichols met with Hubbell and Foster—and, in one case, with Clinton herself. But one thing is clear: Bernstein doesn’t accuse these lawyers of any actual wrong-doing. In particular, he doesn’t say that the (unspecified) women who met with the lawyers signed any false statements. Indeed, he doesn’t say that they were forced or induced to sign or say anything at all. He doesn’t say that any of the women who may have met with these lawyers had had affairs with Bill Clinton; indeed, he specifically says that two of these women didn’t have such affairs (he says nothing about the other two). Regarding Hillary Clinton herself, it’s reasonable to assume, based on Bernstein’s account, that she met with a personal friend who hadn’t been involved with her husband. But alas! For unknown reasons, Bernstein doesn’t spell out who met with whom—leaving room for the disgraceful conduct which would quickly follow.

Step Two—The Post’s front-page report: On Friday, May 25, Peter Baker of the Washington Post reported the highlights of Bernstein’s new book on his excitable paper’s front page. In the following, widely-cited passage, note the way the Post-man embellished what Bernstein had really said:
BAKER (5/25/07): In Bernstein's account, both Clintons went to great lengths to keep the lid on [Bill Clinton’s] infidelities. At the behest of Wright and Hillary Clinton, two partners with Hillary Clinton at the Rose Law Firm, Webster L. Hubbell and Vincent W. Foster Jr., were hired to represent women named in a lawsuit as having secret affairs with the governor. Hubbell and Foster questioned the women, then obtained signed statements that they never had sex with Bill Clinton. On one occasion, Bernstein reports, Hillary Clinton was present for the questioning.
Wow! According to Baker, Bernstein’s account of the Nichols incident shows that “both Clintons went to great lengths to keep the lid on [Bill Clinton’s] infidelities.” But of course, that isn’t what Bernstein said at all—and it’s a very tendentious account of the incident Bernstein describes. What Bernstein had actually said is this: “But a line had been crossed, in appearance if nothing else.” Baker’s account made this claim—already a bit of a stretch— sound a great deal more dramatic. Please note: Baker said that the women involved here had been “named in a lawsuit as having secret affairs with the governor.” From that, you might think they’d actually had those affairs. Absent-mindedly, Baker forgot to include the disclaimers that Bernstein had included.

Step Three—Matthews serves power: And then, as always, Chris Matthews took over, making wild accusations about the way Hillary Clinton had “strong-armed” these women. On the evening of Baker’s report, Matthews was making nasty claims on his disgraceful program, Hardball. Two days later, on The Chris Matthews Show, the following, astounding conversation took place. For the record, the pundits were discussing the Baker report. The only incident they were discussing was the incident Bernstein describes in the passage we’ve included above:
FINEMAN (5/27/07): It shows Hillary, to a greater degree than we even realized, controlling the process of shutting down stories about infidelities by her husband, about her looking the other way personally and skirting the edge, I think, in terms of legal ethics, in terms of clamping down on people back in Arkansas who

MATTHEWS: Right. Getting women who were ready to speak against Clinton—in terms of relationships with him in the past—getting them lawyers who were her friends to get them to sign affidavits that these affairs didn't occur.

HEARN: Yeah!

FINEMAN: Perhaps emotionally understandable, but not legally cool.

BORGER: But it turns her into the Godfather, essentially.

MATTHEWS: It's Luca Brasi behavior.


MATTHEWS: To try to use people, through intimidation, to get people to sign affidavits to deny what they believe.
In that exchange, the pundits were calling Clinton a thug. And, simply put, they were making it up. They were describing vicious, illegal conduct—conduct that plainly doesn’t appear in Bernstein’s account of this incident.

It went from Bernstein to Baker to Matthews—and a largely innocuous incident was transformed into a scandal. No, there’s nothing in Bernstein’s book about anyone being strong-armed or intimidated. There is no claim that anyone “denied what they believed.” There is no claim that any of the women interviewed had had an affair with Bill Clinton. But so what? Baker spun things up a tad—and then, this gang of evil harpies took over. And this is precisely the way your discourse has worked over the past fifteen years. This helps explain how Clinton got impeached. It explains how Bush got to the White House.

First, they did this to Bill Clinton. Then, they did it for two years to Gore. Now, they’re after the current Dem leader. Your political discourse lies in the hands of a powerful, moneyed cartel—a cartel that seems willing to do and say almost anything. And guess what? As this has happened, liberals and Democrats have largely stared into air. Incredibly, many liberals now repeat the claims about the Clintons that this sick, vicious gang has whipped up.

Bernstein’s account alleges no wrong-doing. He says appearances may have been bad, without quite saying why that was so. But Baker spun things up a bit—and after that, Matthews took charge. We’ll say again what we’ve told you before: GE’s Jack Welch knew what he was buying when he made this “Lost Boy” a multimillionaire. Why, he even let Christopher move to Nantucket! Since then, the hireling has served the boss quite well—and we liberals have rarely been willing to utter a peep of complaint.

That’s the way your discourse has worked. That’s the shape of your present discourse. That’s the way your politics works. Until liberals decide to stand and fight, that’s the clear shape of your future.