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THE MISSING (PART 1)! One cohort is AWOL in Harris’ story. Perhaps you can guess who it is: // link // print // previous // next //

THE LATEST DISAPPEARED FACT: As Paul Krugman notes in this morning’s column, pundit reaction to his previous (August 19) column was truly remarkable. In that prior column, Krugman reported a simple fact about the Florida vote in Campaign 2000: “Two different news media consortiums reviewed Florida's ballots; both found that a full manual recount would have given the election to Mr. Gore.” This fact has been perfectly clear since November 2001—but most Americans have never heard it! And amazingly, pseudo-con typist John Podhoretz seemed to be numbered among them last Friday. As a general matter, it’s hard to tell when modern pundits are faking, dissembling, playing dumb or lying. But when pundits make statements as laughably wrong as those which follow, you can generally assume that they’re truly uninformed. Go ahead! Emit dark laughs as Podhoretz responds to Krugman’s original column:
PODHORETZ (8/19/05):
KRUGMAN TRIES TO PULL A FAST ONE: Paul Krugman tells a whopper today in his column about media recounts in the 2000 election: "Two different news media consortiums reviewed Florida's ballots; both found that a full manual recount would have given the election to Mr. Gore." Um—no. Wrong. Bzzzzz...This will be the subject of about a billion blog entries today. Did Krugman really think he could get away with this?
Podhoretz spent the next several days back-tracking from this remarkably uninformed post. But, most simply put: Um—yes. True. As Krugman is forced to waste time explaining today, both consortium recounts showed that Gore would have won if all Florida votes were recounted. Almost surely, Podhoretz didn’t know this fact—a fact which has been clear for four years. And therein lies a remarkable tale—a tale which Krugman under-tells in this morning’s column.

Why is it? Why is it that most Americans, including Podhoretz, never heard that Gore would have won if all Florida votes were recounted? Krugman is “charitable”—a bit too much so—as he gives his answer:
KRUGMAN (8/23/05): So why do so many people believe the Bush win was rock solid?

One answer is that many editorials and op-ed articles have claimed that no possible recount would have changed the outcome. Let's be charitable and assume that those who write such things are victims of the echo chamber, and believe that what everyone they talk to says must be true.

The other answer is that many though not all reports of the results of the ballot reviews conveyed a false impression about what those reviews said. A few reports got the facts wrong, but for the most part they simply stressed the likelihood—in some cases presented as a certainty—that Mr. Bush would have won even if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't intervened.

Krugman is right—press reports tended to “stress the likelihood” that Bush would have won under certain scenarios. And they tended to bury the fact Krugman cited last week—the fact that Gore would have won if all votes were recounted. Unsurprisingly, this tendency was visible in Krugman’s own paper, where Richard Berke’s “analysis” of the Times recount completely failed to mention the outcome that had Podhoretz so bollixed last week. (The Times news report, by Ford Fessenden, was more forthcoming.) People like Berke deep-sixed this result—and four years later, people like Podhoretz were outraged by Krugman’s “whopper!” But so it has gone, in so many areas, over the past dozen years.

For our money, Krugman continues to be a bit too polite as he explains why newspapers reported the recounts in the manner they did. “The tone of these reports may have been influenced by the timing: the second consortium's report came out just two months after 9/11,” he writes. “The country wanted very badly to believe in its leadership. Nobody wanted to write stories suggesting that the wrong man was sitting in the White House.” That’s all well and good, but in fact, the press corps’ reporting of these recounts plainly matched its bizarre reporting of Campaign 2000 as a whole. In fact, the press corps adopted a Bush-friendly line throughout Campaign 2000 as they conducted their War Against Gore; the way they tilted their recount reporting was of a piece with their earlier work. And the results of the Miami Herald recount were released in May 2001; 9/11 hadn’t occurred when this first recount was released. But the press corps managed to look away from the Gore-friendly outcomes there, also.

Most Americans have never heard the fact which had Podhoretz so flummoxed last week. Funny, isn’t it? As with so much of our recent history, the mainstream press corps kept its mouth shut—and as a result, the public is clueless. Such deceptions, of course, are much more important in other parts of the Clinton-Gore era.

Special report—The Missing!

PART 1—PERHAPS YOU CAN GUESS WHO IT IS: John Harris is generally fair on the subject of President Clinton. As we have noted, he’s even capable of believing that the Clintons’ marriage is based on actual human feeling—an ability that sets him apart from many sneering press colleagues (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/1/05). But Harris’ fairness extends beyond the personal in his new book, The Survivor. In it, Harris does argue, fairly convincingly, that a “not ready for prime time” quality damaged Clinton in his first two years in the White House. But he also shoots down a long string of claims about the “scandalous” Clinton years. Treasured “scandals” come undone as Harris peruses the Clinton era. And Harris even dishes out praise for many policy achievements.

Which Clinton “scandals” get debunked in The Survivor? Let’s start with the granddaddy of them all—Whitewater, the pseudo-scandal which gave its name to a political era. On Wednesday, we’ll pay more attention to Harris’ treatment of this iconic matter. But was Whitewater really a “scandal” at all? In his only real summary of the matter, Harris discusses the Whitewater documents—documents which Hillary Clinton didn’t want to hand to Harris’ imperious employer, the all-knowing Washington Post:

HARRIS (page 105): Why did she feel so strongly? Theories abounded, then and later. Some took her at face value: She simply regarded the family’s private papers as nobody’s business, never mind the questions being raised by Whitewater. Later, as many of the papers she was shielding were indeed made public...there were certainly embarrassments within. These included the revelations that years earlier she had scored big through trades in the commodities markets—a fact that seemed a bit hypocritical from a couple that had denounced the 1980s as a “decade of greed.” Even so, there was nothing in those documents that would have caused the Clintons any more than passing discomfort. There was shoddiness, perhaps, but not illegality.
Please note the standard way Harris disappears the Post’s role; in this construction, questions were being raised “by Whitewater,” not by his paper’s loud-mouthed editors. As we will eventually see, Harris makes little attempt to explain the way a trivial non-scandal like this could come to define the Clinton years. But was there an actual Whitewater “scandal?” Sorry—“there was nothing in those documents that would have caused the Clintons any more than passing discomfort,” he judges. But then, so he judges on a long string of celebrated Clinton-era pseudo-scandals. Travelgate? “That name is surely overblown,” Harris writes on page 38. Indeed, he even takes a poke at the press corps in this one: “The uproar that ensued, both [Hillary Clinton] and the president believed with some cause, reflected the insularity of Washington and the self-absorbed nature of the White House press corps” (page 40; emphasis added). But then, Harris also bats away the “Filegate” pseudo-scandal (details below), and he offers a remarkable judgment about the fund-raising “scandals” from Campaign 96. His judgment is striking because of the heat these “scandals” provided right through Campaign 2000:
HARRIS (page 273): Despite the president’s protests, the campaign finance furor of 1997 was not an inventions of the news media or the Republicans...Still, what happened in 1996 was about sloppiness and excess, nothing more. No criminal wrongdoing was ever uncovered. The Democratic moneymen, including [John] Huang and [Johnny] Chung, pleaded guilty to fund-raising violations, but no link to espionage or Chinese government infiltration was ever established. And like so many of the Clinton scandals before it, it faded slowly away.
“It faded slowly away”—after it helped put Bush in the White House! (More on this later on in the week.) In our view, Harris is strikingly blase about the remarkable pattern he describes, in which a string of pseudo-scandals somehow managed to drive a whole political era. But as with so many Clinton “scandals,” Harris brushes the 1996 fund-raising “scandals” away. As noted, Harris’ press corps flogged these chimerical scandals all through 1997—and continued to flog them during Campaign 2000, until they finally put Bush in the White House. As we’ll see later on in the week, even as he dismisses these “scandals,” Harris fails to come to terms with the endless way his cohort flogged them—with the way these now-dismissed “scandals” changed the face of American life.

But then, how many “scandals” bite the dust as Harris reviews the Clinton years? One measure of this question is Harris’ treatment of Louis Freeh, the incompetent, hackish FBI head who lay at the heart of several more debunked “scandals.” By the end of his book, Harris is quite hard on Clinton—for having failed to fire Freeh from his post as FBI head. “Freeh’s suspicions to the contrary, Clinton was not a corrupt public figure,” Harris writes (page 408), during a discussion of Freeh’s irresponsible conduct regarding the pursuit of international terrorism. But Harris savages Clinton for lacking the nerve to fire Freeh’s ass from his critical post, and clearly agrees with the position he quotes Richard Clarke taking:
HARRIS (page 408): It would not have been possible for an FBI director to hold hostage a president with a scrupulous personal reputation. Nor should a responsible president have allowed himself to be held hostage—no matter the firestorm that would have resulted. The president’s refusal to assert the authority that belonged to him over the FBI and insist that the agency become a fully cooperative partner in the campaign against terrrorism was a critical abdication of leadership.

As Clarke, who despised Freeh and regarded him as a serious obstacle to an effective counterterrorism policy, later concluded, “He should have fired Freeh and taken the shit it would have caused.”
Meanwhile, what of the famous first-term “scandal” in which Freeh was involved—the deeply troubling “Filegate” matter? Harris shoots that turkey down too. “Many of the same Republicans who hated Clinton treated his FBI appointee as a golden boy,” he writes on page 278. “Which side was Freeh on?” And uh-oh! “The answer became obvious [in 1996],” Harris judges, when the pious Freeh self-pityingly claimed that “the FBI and I were victimized” during the Filegate flap. Harris bats that statement away—and puts down the whole Filegate “scandal:”
HARRIS (pages 278-279): Freeh’s statement was not only gratuitous; it was wrong. The White House security office had requested the FBI files for permanent White House employees who were holdovers from the Bush administration. This was a proper request. What came back from the FBI headquarters were the files not only of the permanent employees but of the political appointees who had left with the change of administration. No doubt it was sloppy for the Clinton White House not to notice this immediately and return the wayward files. It was sloppier, and more troubling, for the FBI to have sent over the errant files in the first place....In the meantime, the matter of the FBI files was added to the growing brief of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Four years later, his inquiry would find no criminal violation by the Clinton White House. Clinton’s explanation of a bureaucratic snafu had been correct.
Four years later, the “scandal” died! At any rate, Harris savages Freeh as a self-dealing, incompetent Republican shill—and shoots down Filegate as he does.

So let’s see: Harris debunks Filegate; Travelgate; the fund-raising “scandals”—and he even seems to bat away the grandddaddy of them all, Whitewater itself! Yes, to all appearances, Harris can be quite fair on the general subject of Clinton. But uh-oh! One major cohort is largely AWOL as he tells this remarkable story. It’s the cohort that drove this long string of fake “scandals.” Perhaps you can guess who it is.

TOMORROW: The press corps’ odd “contempt.”