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AUGMENTING FOSER! We’re big fans of Jamison Foser. We augment his recent time-line: // link // print // previous // next //

Augmenting Foser: In these parts, we’re big fans of Jamison Foser—and of his running-mate, Eric Boehlert. We don’t necessarily agree with every word Foser says. But his most recent column deserves to be read—and we think his facts deserve a small bit of augmentation.

Foser critiques a recent statement by the frequently hapless Mika Brzezinski, co-host of Morning Joe. Brzezinski is a reliable repository for Standardized Press Corps Conventional Wisdom. In his current column, Foser challenges her recent suggestion that the media tend to go harder on Republicans who have sex scandals.

It’s hard to measure such matters, of course. As always, we recommend Foser’s assessment. But quickly, Foser cited one of the obvious counter-examples:

FOSER (6/26/09): Brzezinski's claim of a double standard in which the media make a bigger deal out of the affairs of Republican politicians than Democrats is pure bunk and cannot be allowed to go undisputed.

Nobody would expect an affair involving a senator or governor or even a speaker of the House to garner as much attention as one involving a sitting president. But nobody who was paying attention in 1998 can plausibly claim that the media give Democrats a pass. The feeding frenzy set off by the Lewinsky story that January is simply unmatched in history. It was the dominant topic in newspapers, on evening news broadcasts, and on cable news every day for a year. Nothing has come close to the sustained level of wall-to-wall media coverage the Lewinsky story was given. Not the three presidential elections that have happened since, not the war in Iraq—nothing. Media coverage of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2000 recount arguably came close to that of Lewinsky in terms of intensity, but for a much shorter period of time.

Why do we like Foser’s work so much? Because he routinely offers sensible comments which undercut his own tribal preference. (“Nobody would expect an affair involving a senator or governor or even a speaker of the House to garner as much attention as one involving a sitting president.”) But it’s true: The Lewinsky story set off a stunning press corps frenzy—one which lasted longer than the year to which he sensibly refers.

Today, we want to extend that initial time-line a bit. (Foser himself notes the press corps’ lingering obsession with Miss Lewinsky.) In that time-line, he says the Monica frenzy “was the dominant topic in newspapers, on evening news broadcasts, and on cable news every day for a year.”

That’s true. But we’d add to that year.

The Lewinsky story broke into public view in January 1998. It was indeed the press corps’ dominant story over the next year. In fact, Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial was held in February 1999. As such, the basic season of this frenzy ran about thirteen months.

But the corps’ Big Love for Monica wasn’t about to end there.

In the past year or so, we’ve had occasion to review the state of the mainstream press in mid-June 1999. Within a four-day span that month, George Bush flew to Iowa, where he announced he would run for the White House. Al Gore gave his formal announcement speech four days later.

Bush announced on June 12; Gore on June 16. What was happening in the press at that time?

It was still Quite Massively Monica. Fifteen months had passed since this story began. Ten months had passed since President Clinton admitted to an improper affair. Four months had passed since his impeachment trial ended. But even now, in mid-June 1999, the national “press corps” was all a-tingle over this thrilling matter.

Indeed: As late as June 1999, many of Washington’s major journalists seemed able to focus on little else. In the week before Gore made his launch, the American war in Kosovo reached a sudden, favorable end. But the Lewinsky matter remained the corps’ focus at the time of Bush and Gore’s announcements. Bush and Gore sketched plans for the future. But the corps dreamed of The Big She.

The national press corps hadn’t “moved on” as Bush and Gore announced their intentions. Just consider the nation’s front pages on the weekend before Gore announced.

On Sunday, June 13, the New York Times ran a front-page report about Bush’s trip to Iowa. But on that same front page, the Times ran a report about special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who had now been investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton for the better part of five years. “Kenneth W. Starr, the Whitewater prosecutor, will not seek indictments of President Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton but has tentatively decided to issue a final report about their behavior,” the paper reported, citing unnamed “associates of Starr.” There was more, some of which was a bit slippery. “The report, which could land in the middle of Mrs. Clinton's Senate campaign, might be ‘blistering’ in its descriptions of her actions, one Starr associate said.”

At any rate, Candidate Bush was on the front page this day—and so was Clinton’s prosecutor. But then, Starr was everywhere this weekend as the press corps continued reporting on various alleged Clinton scandals. Indeed, he appeared that Sunday on Fox News Sunday, sadly announcing that, four months post-impeachment, he’d be forced to continue his probes of the Clintons. Hours after Starr’s appearance, the AP reported his thoughts to the world. “Prosecutor Kenneth Starr said Sunday he has no choice but to keep investigating the Clintons,” the AP said, “a course that could collide with the 2000 presidential election campaign and a possible Senate run by the first lady.”

The damage this focus could do to Gore escaped the AP’s notice this day. Again: Starr’s investigations had now lasted almost five years.

On Monday, through the AP’s report, Starr moved from the Times’ front page to newspapers across the country. Gore made his announcement speech two days later. Alleged scandal still filled the air.

Just consider the Washington Post, whose own front page was still moving with Monica. On Sunday, June 13, a news report captured the sunny high spirits involved in Bush’s Iowa launch. But this upbeat report shared the front page with the latest dollop of Clinton/Lewinsky.

On that same day, the Post began a three-part serialization of Bob Woodward’s new book, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate. Woodward’s book studied the ways a “scandal culture” had affected five American presidents in the decades following Nixon. But more than half of Woodward’s new book would focus on Clinton, the Post now reported. And all three excerpts on the Post’s front page involved Clinton/Lewinsky. Nothing else.

On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday mornings, Monica starred on the Post’s front page. Gore gave his speech the next day.

Then too, there was the press corps’ embarrassing, childish conduct during Gore’s actual launch. It was fifteen months since the story began, four months since impeachment ended. But when Gore sat for interviews that week, he was routinely asked to discuss Bill and Monica—and little or nothing else. In the Post, Howard Kurtz reported the corps’ odd focus. In our view, Kurtz was a tad too kind to the press on this subject. But note what Simon said:

KURTZ (6/25/99): The tone of the early interviews is revealing. While the vice president has stressed specifics, such as improving education and health care for the elderly and curbing suburban sprawl, the media have pursued other subjects.

On ABC's "20/20," Diane Sawyer asked about the perception of Gore as boring, whether Hillary Rodham Clinton was "bigfooting" him by running for the Senate, and about his defense of the president during the impeachment process. Gore said that Clinton's behavior with Lewinsky was "inexcusable.”

CBS's Bob Schieffer also pressed the vice president about backing his boss, saying at one point: "But he turned out to be a liar."

NBC's Claire Shipman asked: "Are you worried that you will pay the ultimate price for Bill Clinton's impeachment?"

Roger Simon, chief political writer for U.S. News & World Report, defended the focus on Lewinsky: "It's still the story that has shaped our time. We want to hear him say what a terrible reprobate the president was, while defending his record. We're going to make him jump through the hoops. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

In fact, Schieffer asked about nothing but Clinton/Lewinsky in the interview segments he aired. (He interrupted Gore’s very first answer to declare Clinton a liar.) Sawyer’s inane, repetitive questions on the same subject were an embarrassment to the human race. And sure enough, there was Simon, committing a classic “Washington gaffe”—by unwisely telling the truth about something. Clinton/Lewinsky was “the story that has shaped our time,” the flush-cheeked fellow excitedly said. And then, he said a remarkable thing. He and his colleagues were “going to make [Gore] jump through the hoops” until he’d insulted President Clinton in the manner they deemed sufficient.

They were going to punish Gore till he said what they wanted to hear.

One other point must be mentioned here. That involves the groaning conduct of the Post’s Ceci Connolly.

By the time of his announcement, Gore had criticized Clinton’s conduct with Lewinsky for nine solid months. Over and over, he had said the same things: The president’s conduct had been “inexcusable,” “indefensible”—“terribly wrong.” (Clinton himself had said similar things. So had many Big Democrats.) But so what? Over and over, reporters kept asking Gore the same questions, making him repeat the same comments. Despite this, the usual gang of stooges and hacks came up with a good idea this week. When Gore repeated these statements to Sawyer, they began to pretend that the slippery fellow had just flip-flopped about Clinton’s conduct! They began to insist that the slick, slippery Gore had just said these things “for the first time.”

Poor Ceci! She’d endlessly reported Gore’s earlier comments, dating back to September 1998! But membership in this high cohort means Always Repeating The Approved Standard Story. And so, she knew what she had to do. She had to imply that Gore had flipped, without ever quite saying so.

Connolly was slick—and wonderfully skilled. In the evolving formulations shown below, she implies that Gore had just criticized Clinton for the first time, without ever quite saying that. (Warning! She came damn close!) Indeed, by her second and third formulations, she had figured out how to use the explicit phrase, “for the first time,” while still saying things which were technically accurate. By June 27, she and John Harris were even pretending that there was something “stunning” about Gore’s comments that week—comments she had routinely reported over the prior nine months:

CONNOLLY (6/16/99): Gore begins his 2000 marathon carrying Clinton baggage. Whatever private misgivings he may have had about the president's personal conduct, he soldiered loyally in public. Most famously, on Dec. 19, the day Clinton was impeached, Gore appeared at a South Lawn pep rally to say the vote "does a great disservice to a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents."

Now, however, Gore is blunt in his criticism of the president's affair: "I want you to understand that there shouldn't be any mystery," he told ABC's Diane Sawyer in an interview to air on "20/20" tonight. "I thought it was awful, I thought it was inexcusable. But I made a commitment to serve this country as vice president."

CONNOLLY (6/17/99): Gore mentioned Clinton by name only twice in his speech—in reference to the economy and Kosovo.

In recent days, Gore has had harsh words about the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and blunt talk about personal responsibility. In interviews with Tennessee reporters, Gore for the first time acknowledged he was “upset” by Clinton's illicit affair with the former White House intern. Referring to "that awful year we went through," he said, "I felt what the president did, especially as a parent, was inexcusable.”

HARRIS AND CONNOLLY (6/27/99): Gore's announcement speech was laced with references to morality and personal values, which aides acknowledged were meant to draw an implicit contrast with Clinton.

His most stunning remarks, however, came in conversations with Tennessee reporters the night before his formal announcement. In those interviews, Gore for the first time acknowledged he was "upset" by the scandal and the "wasted time" of the year-long controversy. Referring to "that awful year we went through," he said: "I felt what the president did, especially as a parent, was inexcusable."

Ceci was slick. “Now, however, Gore is blunt in his criticism of the president's affair,” she wrote on June 16—as she repeated the very remarks she’d reported for nine solid months at that point. On June 17, she got even slicker—and what she wrote was still technically accurate! It was true—Gore had used the word “upset” for the first time when he spoke with those Tennessee reporters. In this slick and slippery way, Ceci slithered in line with the flagrant misstatements now being made by her colleagues.

Monica was the woman they loved—the only woman they ever could care for. Even now, in their sixteenth month, they kept squeezing this perfect garbage through their loins and out onto the land.

Happening that same week: During that same week, the “press corps” was inventing the claim that Hillary Clinton lied about the Cubs and the Yankees. Almost surely, their judgment was wrong—but their denunciations were savage (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/16/08). This too was part of the howling storm through which Gore launched his formal campaign. And since you asked, this is of course the way Bush reached the White House.

The only woman they’ll ever love: She’s the only woman they’ll ever love! Just note how quickly Chief Dunce Milbank mentioned her name in yesterday’s “Sketch. ”(Sorry. You’ll have to read to paragraph 6. Lovers don’t like to be obvious.)