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Daily Howler: Why did the press feel disdain for Clinton? He just wasn't cool, Harris says
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JFK WAS JUST COOLER! Why did the press feel disdain for Clinton? He just wasn’t cool, Harris says: // link // print // previous // next //

STILL MONKEYS AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: How pre-human is American discourse? Last night, Larry King conducted a lengthy discussion on evolution and Intelligent Design. And no, we aren’t kidding; here was the first exchange, between Larry and author John MacArthur:
KING (8/23/05): John MacArthur, do you believe that the world is only 5,000 years old?

MACARTHUR: No, I wouldn't say necessarily 5,000. But I would say I doubt that it's more than 10,000 years old.

KING: So all this other proof of millions of years, cavemen, don't mean anything?

MACARTHUR: Well, I think there may have been cavemen, but I don't think millions of years has been proven.

King double-checked. “You don't think any of that has been proven?” he asked. Suitably assured that his guest didn’t think so, he turned toward a scientist lady (Barbara Forrest) and posed the following question:
KING: All right, hold on. Dr. Forrest, your concept of—how can you out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?
“Why are there still monkeys?” Forrest, startled, was forced to laugh, then she answered a less stupid question—a question drawn from her own mind.

And yes—all the above really did occur in just the first minute of last night’s debate. But then, King had something for just about everyone. Indeed, even before the first segment ended, Deepak Chopra would offer the following. It was good, solid, thought-provoking stuff:

CHOPRA: So how do we explain simultaneity in the university, how does a human body think thoughts, play the piano, kill germs, remove toxins, and make a baby all at once? How does DNA, which is very intelligent, emerge from inorganic chemicals? And they say, who designed the creator? If you think of the creator in human terms, which is the human imagination, then you're in trouble. But you know, in quantum physics, they refer to this field of infinite possibilities as a-causal, which means without cause, non-local, beyond space-time, infinitely correlated inter-relatedness, and when you start to understand that the very fundamental levels of nature are a-causal, they are beyond time, they're without—they transcend time, then you can have a different idea of the creator.
“We'll pick right up on this right after these words,” King said, without missing a beat.

“Why are there still monkeys?” King asked. The answer haunted us all night long. Indeed, wherever we turned on cable last night, King’s question seemed to capture the debate, and a second question entered our mind. In a world of nuclear weapons, can the human race survive if we completely give ourselves over to completely insipid debate? Will the human race survive a discourse designed by Rita Cosby?

Special report—The Missing!

PART 3—JFK WAS JUST COOLER: If you believe John Harris, the Washington press corps felt “disdain” for the newly-installed President Clinton—indeed, it felt something “close to contempt” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/22/05). They “extend[ed] him uncommonly little deference” when he took office, Harris judges. Indeed, at Harris’ own paper, the Washington Post, front-page stories by leading correspondents betrayed a “thinly veiled disdain.” And more: “In short order there was a low-grade war under way between the Clinton White House and the veteran reporters who covered it, which became one of the great antagonisms to mark the Clinton years.” This “contempt” and disdain” may seem surprising to those who have heard of the corps’ liberal bias. But Harris just keeps dishing details about the press corps’ puzzling conduct—for example, about the trivial matters for which the new prez was now mocked:

HARRIS (page 56): From Clinton’s perspective, perhaps the most surprising part of life in the presidency was the sensation of being constantly and mercilessly watched and judged. He was judged for his clothes. “The president’s suit, as he stood, looked to be a couple sizes too big,” read the White House pool report for January 25 [1993]. “Perhaps this is one of his fat wardrobe pieces from the campaign?”
Six years later, this same simpering corps would staged a two-year war in which they mocked a vice president’s clothes (his earth tones; his blue suits; his brown suits; his polo shirts; his boots; the three buttons he wore on his suits)—just one part of the brainless war which sent the hapless George Bush to the White House. But according to Harris, his colleagues mocked Clinton for more than his clothing during those first weeks in office:
HARRIS (continuing directly): He was judged for the company he kept. The Washington press said he was starstruck...Most famously of all in those early months, Clinton was judged for his haircut. It was performed under a “personal services” contract with the stylist Christophe, whose usual rate was $200 an hour. One day in May, Air Force One sat on the tarmac in Los Angeles for nearly an hour while Christophe clipped. This forced the closure of two runways, although initial reports that air traffic was kept circling for hours turned out some weeks later to be wrong. By then, Clinton had long since apologized: “The Secret Service asked and they were told there would be no delays. It was just a mess-up.” Too late—this trivial episode had already entered the anti-Clinton mythology.
Ah yes—the start of the “trivial episodes” which would dominate the Clinton-Gore era, “trivial episodes” which would eventually put the clownish George Bush in the White House. To his vast credit, Harris notes the press corps’ role in the pimping of these early episodes; he chooses to quote the simpering language from that early pool report, and he directly ties “the Washington press” to the claim that Clinton was star-struck. (Edited from the passage above: Pointless, sometimes-smarmy complaints about the way Clinton would visit with famous supporters—even with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.) But in this passage, Harris begins to betray his book’s largest problem—its relative lack of curiosity about the way these “trivial episodes” produced the “anti-Clinton mythology” which defined our politics in the 90s. For example, Harris doesn’t make any attempt to explain where the haircut story came from, and he continues directly to this judgment: “In popular perception, in his first months Clinton was laboring at once with the perception that he was a Hollywood-loving elitist as well as an Arkansas hayseed.” But was that really a popular perception—or was it mainly the perception of Harris’ press corps? Harris offers no evidence to support the claim that average people held these views—and reporters often shield their cohort by blaming the voters (or “late night comics”) for views which come from the press corps itself. Yes, Harris is much more frank than most in describing his cohort’s odd conduct toward Clinton, even at the start of his term. But soon enough, he too avoids the obvious questions about why the press corps behaved as it did. In the end, he offers weak, unconvincing explanations for the odd behavior he describes, and he tends to “disappear” his cohort when he describes the “trivial episodes” that came to define the Clinton era (more on that in Parts 4 and 5). In the end, Harris lets his cohort go AWOL as he describes the Clinton years. Why did the press corps behave as it did? Why did the corps have such disdain for Clinton? These questions never quite get answered. And in the episodes that define this era, the press corps ends up as The Missing. We learn what happened to Clinton (and to Gore). But as we’ll start to see tomorrow, the press corps is absent in these key episodes, their seminal role disappeared.

How strange was the atmosphere confronting Clinton? Harris makes no bones about it—at least when it came to their political foes, the Clintons were irrationally loathed:

HARRIS (page 144): [N]o clever quip could disguise the essential grievance the Clintons felt about being the target of a political opposition that loathed them both. The hatred directed toward them was obvious. The reasons for it were not. Here was one of the essential mysteries of the Clinton years: Why did this couple inspire such animus?
In this passage, Harris is discussing the “animus” of Clinton’s “political opposition,” not that of the press corps itself. But he goes on the discuss the “lurid strain of hatred” involved, even as he puzzles about the cause of this loathing for Clinton:
HARRIS (page 145): And a lurid strain of hatred it was. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, a television evangelist, promoted a videotape to his flock hinting darkly that Clinton was complicit in Arkansas murders. This was nicely supplemented by a group called the American Justice Federation, which put out a periodic newsletter called The Clinton Body Count: Coincidence or the Kiss of Death? Floyd Brown, a veteran conservative operative in Washington, launched a daily Clinton-Watch newsletter documenting every possible scrap of fact or tendentious rumor about the president’s allegedly deficient character. “Impeach President Clinton—and her husband, too,” read a favored conservative bumper sticker.
At this point, Harris reaches a question that has to be central in any analysis of the politics of the 90s. According to Harris, Clinton believed that the mainstream press should confront and challenge the public lunacy described in the passage above. “It was Clinton’s belief that the establishment media—the networks and large newspapers that covered him daily—should expose the unfairness of such attacks,” Harris writes. And of course, if those were Clinton’s views, Clinton was absolutely right—the media soaked itself in shame during this period, refusing to confront or clarify the crackpot, “lurid strain of hatred” emanating from the desks of public fakes like the pious “Reverend” Falwell. Here at THE HOWLER, we first raised this issue in 1999, in our first full year of operation. In the summer of that year, Gennifer Flowers was invited, several times, to go onto cable TV and pimp her own disgraceful Clinton murder list; amazingly, Howard Kurtz didn’t even mention the ugliness of her charges or the bald-face clowning involved in her “evidence” when he reviewed these ugly appearances for the Washington Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/25/99 and 9/26/03). By now, the mainstream press had accepted a startling notion—the notion that public crackpots could go on TV and accuse a sitting president of murder, even as they offered up the most ridiculous patterns of “evidence.” If Harris’ reporting is accurate here, then Clinton was perfectly right in his view; obviously, “the establishment media” should have “exposed the unfairness of such attacks”—or should, at least, have exposed the way the ugliest kinds of personal attacks were being spread in the absence of evidence. But by now, the simpering children of Harris’ cohort had thrown in with the Falwells, the Flowerses and the Browns; the corps had learned to turn its head while they made accusations of murder. While reporters were pimping their own bogus “scandals”—their Filegates, their Travelgates, and even their Whitewaters—while they were pimping their dumb haircut tales, they now agreed to look away while powerful forces of the crackpot pseudo-right made a sick joke of our national discourse. Why exactly did that happen? Why did Harris’ cohort mock Clinton for his clothing, the company he kept, and his haircuts, then look away while the Death Lists were peddled? Eventually, Harris attempts to explain this for us, but his answer is weak and unconvincing. Why did the press corps mock Clinton’s clothes? Why didn’t they challenge disgraces like Falwell? Harris explains on page 146—and his explanation is utterly silly.

Harris starts by saying that Clinton was right—there was something wrong with the way he was covered. But land o’ goshen! Strangely, the scribe goes back two decades and more to explain the press corps’ “new mood:”

HARRIS (page 146): [Clinton’s] brief against the news media went well beyond Whitewater. He believed the national press had an unhealthy compulsion to reduce every significant story to political process. These process stories, more often than not, imparted self-serving motives to nearly every substantive decision he made. He found few things more maddening. His diagnosis was in many respects right. There was a cynical new mood in the Washington media, which reflected a cynical mood in the political culture that had been building since Vietnam and Watergate—national traumas that showed that a large measure of cynicism about presidents was often fully justified.
According to Harris, it was all about Nam! There was “a cynical new mood” in the media—but the explanation went back twenty years! Watergate and Vietnam! That is why they scorned Clinton’s clothes and let crackpots’ murder lists go unchallenged. To state the obvious, this “explanation” strikes us as absurd; for example, why didn’t the press corps’ “cynical new mood” also inspire them to go after Falwell? But an even worse explanation follows as Harris explains the “surprising degree of casual disdain” the Washington press corps was feeling for Clinton. Here’s how the expose starts:
HARRIS (page 146): The president did indeed generate a surprising degree of casual disdain from the rotating group of perhaps fifty writers, television correspondents and producers assigned to the White House beat. Many reporters felt that the Clinton White House had misled them purposely on an array of important and trivial controversies...More important, however, was a cultural clash between a president who, unlike most of his predecessors, was only a little older than most of the reporters assigned to him.
And no, that last sentence doesn’t parse. But finally we get to the real explanation—to some sort of “cultural clash” between Clinton and the press corps. Why did the press corps have such disdain? Why was Clinton covered in the way that he was? Readers, prepare to be grossly underwhelmed. Clinton wasn’t cool, the way JFK was, Harris finally tells us:
HARRIS (continuing directly): There is a certain kind of politician for whom journalists tend to fall. John F. Kennedy, with his cool detachment, humor and irony, was the supreme example. Journalists of that era recall that JFK was breathlessly candid about his political strategies, and even the contradictions between his public statements and private views. Clinton was not a man of detachment. He was immersed in his performance, utterly earnest, offended by suggestions that his private motives were any different from his public pronouncements. At times the antagonism between president and press corps had a high school dimension. Clinton, working hard on his grades, saw the reporters as slackers and bullies—more interested in gossip and carping than anything constructive. The reporters, shooting spitballs from the back of the class, regarded Clinton as a preening apple-polisher.
Clinton wasn’t cool, Harris says. He wasn’t cool, like JFK was! Indeed, Harris has already explored this notion at an earlier point in his book. “Clinton by no means lacked humor,” he writes on page 35, “but his natural bent was toward cheerful patter and oft-told yarns. Washington humor is different—ironic and knowing, the sort of detached wit that John F. Kennedy used to beguile a generation of journalists.” But alas: “Sardonic wit was not Clinton’s style. He was dead earnest about the work of his presidency, and sorely resentful of how Washington journalists seemed to reduce his noble purposes into stories about political process and tactics.” On page 35 of Harris’ book, this leads directly into the anecdote about Ann Devroy’s “thinly veiled disdain” for Clinton, disdain exhibited on the Post’s front page (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/23/05). Later, on page 146, Harris takes this peculiar theme—Clinton wasn’t cool like Kennedy—and makes it the most important reason for Clinton’s odd coverage The press corps was filled with disdain for Clinton because he wasn’t cool and detached—and because reporters had become more cynical due to Nam, of course.

In our view, this explanation is so bad that it achieves instant hall-of-fame status. Remember, according to Harris, Clinton was savaged by a string of “scandals” which all turned out to be more more-or-less bunk. Beyond that, Clinton was being tormented by trivial stories about his clothes, his friendships and his haircuts—stories which also turned out to be wrong in important instances. Meanwhile, a gang of crackpots were spreading vile stories fueled by a “lurid strain of hatred”—and the press corps failed to confront or challenge them. And why was all this going on? Because Clinton wasn’t cool, like JFK—and because the press had been soured by Vietnam, which happened twenty years before! Alas! As often happens when the press corps pretends to explain its own odd behavior, we receive an utterly strange explanation. The press corps felt disdain for Clinton because of lame jokes that he told!

As we’ve noted in the past, this is what tends to happen when the press corps sets out to explain its own conduct. And soon, Harris’ narrative breaks down altogether, at least in so far as the press is concerned. Readers, what about that Whitewater episode—the matter which gave its name to an era? Uh-oh! When Harris explains it, the press joins The Missing. His colleagues aren’t present at all.

TOMORROW—PART 4: When Harris explains the era’s biggest “scandal,” the press corps is totally AWOL.