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GERTH IN THE BALANCE! When Harris reports on the Whitewater mess, the press corps’ misconduct disappears: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, AUGUST 25, 2005

GROVER NORQUIST REMEMBERS: What explains our current discourse, in which a determined, resourceful conservative movement often whips a flaccid liberal cohort? We were intrigued by Grover Norquist’s recollections in a front-page New York Times report. The Times’ Janny Scott limned life at Harvard in the mid-70s, when John Roberts was an undergraduate, then a law student. Norquist attended Harvard then, too. He recalls the way it was for conservatives of the era:
SCOTT (8/21/05): ''There was a 'Boy Named Sue' quality to being a libertarian or conservative at Harvard,'' said Mr. Norquist, referring to the Johnny Cash song and Shel Silverstein poem (''Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,/ My fist got hard and my wits got keen.'') Conservatives at Harvard, he suggested, learned to be ''tougher than anyone else.'' Unlike students on the left, he said, they were constantly being challenged.

''There was this cowardice of the center to criticize the left,'' Mr. Norquist said. ''Somebody would make some left-wing comment and no one would challenge it, whereas if you made some right-wing comment, you'd get 20 questions. We grew up and we built tougher, smarter, better advocates on the right than the left did. You see this all the time: The left gets frustrated if somebody asks a second question.”

Norquist describes one group’s experience at one point in time. But he certainly describes the larger dynamic of our contemporary discourse. It’s true—in recent decades, we’ve seen “tougher, smarter, better advocates on the right than the left.” Does “the left gets frustrated if somebody asks a second question?” We’ve noticed that kind of boo-hooing too. In fact, we’ve seen it recently, as weakling liberals wept and cried because Bob Novak dared report that Valerie Plame played a (minor) role in Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger. It’s a smear, these weaklings cried, wiping the tears from their eyes.

Why are advocates smarter and tougher on the right? We’d suggest a broader explanation than Norquist’s; in recent decades, conservative advocates have typically tried to win, while liberal/Dem advocates often seem not to care. Example? When liberal elites refuses to discuss the press corps’ misconduct toward Clinton and Gore, we see this dynamic in stark relief. In recent decades, modern affluence has tended to drive a millionaire mainstream press corps toward the center or center-right. Bright young liberals want to cash in on—and they have no intention of telling the world what mainstream press organs did to Clinton and Gore. The future pay-offs are simply too big—and since the misconduct came from the “mainstream,” not the right, the misconduct simply can’t be discussed. They’ll earn their fortunes from those press organs. So these brave girls and boys keep it zipped. You put up with their studied silence every day, all over the Net.

But then, affluence has dulled the instincts of a wide range of career liberal advocates. Face it! When the Congressional black caucus tries to kill the estate tax, you have to see what is really involved—the steady dissolution of progressive instincts in the face of the mainstream culture’s big pay-offs. And so it goes all over the dial. Conservatives advocates still play to win, but well-heeled “liberals”—members of the same moneyed class—more and more don’t seem to care. Persistently, your famous reps don’t seem to care—and the skills of liberal advocacy wither from constant disuse.

By the way, we recall the Harvard of the late 1960s. We grew up “tougher, smarter, better” because we feared we might get drafted.

Special report—The Missing!

PART 4—GERTH IN THE BALANCE: It’s hard to know how to grade The Survivor, John Harris’ new book about President Clinton. If we grade it on the curve, Harris deserves a rather high score. He is much more frank about the press corps than other members of the cohort; indeed, he acknowledges his corps’ odd conduct and attitudes toward Clinton—although, in fairness, it can’t be said that this is a major theme of his book. But an absolute grade would have to be lower. Indeed, when Harris finally tries to explain why the press corps felt so much “disdain” for Bill Clinton, we are met with a familiar phenomenon—the Really, Really Bad Explanation of Kooky Press Corps Behavior. Why did the press feel disdain for Clinton? In part, Harris says, it was because the new president and his staff were disorganized and dishonest. (To some extent, this explanation is undermined as Harris shoots down the long string of “scandals” which were allegedly at the heart of the Clinton dishonesty.) But something else was “more important,” Harris says—and here the Really Bad Explanations begin. Why did the press feel disdain for Bill Clinton? Because of Vietnam, Harris says—and because this new president told corny jokes! Just to establish the record, here is Harris, trying to explain the press corps’ disdain for, and mockery of, a new president:

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. 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, like JFK! According to Harris, this explanation is “more important” than the Clinton gang’s alleged dishonesty. Why did the mainstream press corps show so much disdain for Bill Clinton? He wasn’t ironic enough, Harris says—and they were jaded by Nam, of course, which had happened twenty years in the past! These explanations are amazingly bad—but they’re pretty much par for the course when members of the Washington press corps try to explain their own cohort’s misconduct. Weird explanations inevitably follow when reporters take on this vile task. (Links to examples below.)

Yes, reporters love to give strange “explanations” for their cohort’s misconduct. But there’s something they love even more at such moments—they love to make their group disappear. We weren’t there, they love to say, as they ignore their own cohort’s misconduct. And so it goes as Harris attempts to explain the Whitewater mess.

As we’ve seen, The Good John Harris is fairly frank about a range of Clinton “scandals.” Filegate? Travelgate? The 1996 fund-raising matters? Largely a big load of bunk, Harris says. But an evil twin quickly appears when Harris attempts to explain Whitewater, the pseudo-scandal which gave its name to an entire political era. Harris devotes Chapter 9 to the topic (pages 102-109). But try to believe the highlighted sentence in this, his second paragraph on the subject:

HARRIS (page 102): In the long history of presidential scandal, there was perhaps never a word freighted with more emotion and less precise meaning. In the minds of Clinton accusers, Whitewater became shorthand for cronyism, cover-up, and excess of the financial, political, and even sexual varieties. To Clinton defenders, Whitewater became a synonym for false accusations, partisan vendettas, and prosecutorial abuse. Even people well versed in the burgeoning Whitewater cottage industry soon had trouble remembering, much less explaining, how the whole mess got started. In the beginning, though, Whitewater stood for something specific, and narrow.
Say what? Even people well versed in Whitewater had trouble remembering how the mess got started? In fact, as Harris knows perfectly well, the Whitewater mess “got started” on the front page of the New York Times, in a series of weirdly bungled stories that became the subject of Gene Lyons’ seminal book, Fools for Scandal (published by Harper’s in 1996). But how strange! Jeff Gerth wrote those bungled Times stories. But Gerth’s name never appears in Harris’ book; Gerth has been deftly disappeared, along with everyone else in the mainstream press corps who created this definitive Clinton-era pseudo-scandal. For example, the Washington Post’s Susan Schmidt is absent from her colleague’s book, although she played a large role in Lyons’. But then, Lyons himself is among the missing; Fools for Scandal is never mentioned by Harris, nor are any of the problems with the press corps’ work which were detailed in that book. Indeed, in the paragraph quoted above, we see the press corps’ reliable skill at disappearing its greatest acts of misconduct. Quite accurately, Harris tells us what “Whitewater” meant to “Clinton accusers”—but he never gets around to saying who those “accusers” actually were! The hapless reader is left to guess at the identity of Clinton’s “accusers.” Harris suggests that he can’t recall—and Gerth, Schmidt and others disappear.

Indeed, how good is Harris at the key skill of making his cohort disappear? Early on, he contrasts the Wall Street Journal’s “arch-conservative editorial page” with that of “the ostensibly more sympathetic New York Times”—failing to recall or say that the “ostensibly more sympathetic” Times wrote endless editorials savaging Clinton over Whitewater and various other pseudo-scandals—editorials which turned out to be vastly misleading about the conduct involved in these matters. And three pages later, he makes his press corps disappear once again. Harris wonders what would have happened if the Clintons had released all their Whitewater papers to the gang of know-it-all snoops at his own Washington Post:

HARRIS (page 105): The decision to make a voluntary document disclosure to mews organizations produced one of the great what-if questions of the Clinton years. What would have happened had the Clintons listened to their political advisers instead of their lawyers or their own instinct for privacy? Might this have released the air from the rising scandal, letting Whitewater drift into obscurity? A voluntary document disclosure would not have satisfied the Clintons’ Republican skeptics, of course. However, presuming that such a disclosure would have yielded only embarrassment and not clear suggestions of illegality, it almost certainly would have satisfied the Democratic skeptics.
Yes, but would it have satisfied the Clintons’ press corps skeptics? Again, Harris completely erases the group which drove Whitewater right from the start. Harris refuses to tell his readers about his own cohort’s central role in this matter. His narration is all about R’s and D’s. The press corps’ central role disappears.

But then, Harris disappears more from his story than Gerth, and Schmidt, and Howell Raines and Gene Lyons. He also disappears the simplest information about how this definitive “scandal” turned out. He isn’t bashful about giving readers a fright-list from the affair’s early days. Of course, he keeps suggesting that the attacks came from the “arch-conservative” Journal, not from his colleagues at the Post:

HARRIS (page 103): Inevitably, in the small world of Arkansas politics, all manner of other Clinton associates now serving in Washington had links of one kind or another with McDougal and his tangled financial history. “The narrow issue is simply put: Where did the money go when taxpayers were forced to pick up the tab for the failure of Madison and Capital Management (another Arkansas firm connected to the mess)?” roared the Wall Street Journal’s arch-conservative editorial page. “Were these institutions run as piggy banks for a self-dealing circle in Little Rock? Did some of the taxpayers’ money go to cut the loss in Whitewater, or to fuel Bill’s political ambitions? Why were state and federal regulators slow to curb the abuse?”
Harris lists a string of early insinuations. But uh-oh! Nowhere in this 400-page book are these nasty questions ever answered! In particular, we’re never told about the 1995/1996 Pillsbury Report, in which the federal agency investigating the S-and-L scandals exonerated the Clintons of wrong-doing. We’re never told about the 1998 trial of Jim McDougal, in which Ken Starr’s prosecutors told the jury, in open court, that Clinton hadn’t engaged in the charged misconduct. And we’re never told about the endless clowning that made this fake scandal so definitive—the name-brand “scandal” of an era. We’re never told about the clownish D’Amato hearings, which Harris’ paper pimped so eagerly (see Fools for Scandal). Indeed, we’re never even told how Ken Starr got involved to begin with; on page 225, we simply meet “Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who had replaced [original prosecutor] Robert Fiske..” We’re never told about the partisan machinations that put Starr into place (nor are we ever told that Starr was a long-time Republican operative). But then, all these omissions provide a service to someone disappearing his cohort. After all, if we simply aren’t told about the partisan clowning that kept the Whitewater “scandal” alive, we won’t have to answer any questions about how the press corps handled such matters. Were those “Clinton defenders” right (see quote from page 102, above)? Did Whitewater become “a synonym for false accusations, partisan vendettas, and prosecutorial abuse?” If Harris simply doesn’t describe all the clowning, he doesn’t have to answer that question—or explain how his own cohort acted in the face of these matters. “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, in another context (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/24/05). But if we’re trying to disappear the press—if we can’t even remember the role Jeff Gerth played—then we’ll also want to disappear D’Amato, and Starr, and Judge Sentelle, and hapless D’Amato witness Jean Lewis. If we disappear these people, we don’t have to explain how the press corps covered them. More specifically, we will never have to explain why the corps didn’t expose “the unfairness of such attacks”—why the press corps didn’t confront this fake pseudo-scandal, a scandal which started on the front page of the mainstream press corps itself.

No, Harris never really explains how the Whitewater matter turned out. Weirdly, he conflates Whitewater with the Clinton sex scandals early on (see page 106), and from that point on, the term “Whitewater” more or less means “Monica Lewinsky.” (Many of his index’s “Whitewater” listings take us to passages about Lewinsky—passages which have nothing to do with Whitewater itself.) Indeed, a reader who hunts all through this book will never find any explanation of how the Whitewater matter turned out—will never find any attempt to answer those Wall Street Journal questions. As such, it seems that Harris must intend the following passage to be his judgment on Whitewater—not that anyone can remember how it actually started, of course, or who was involved in its endless propagation. Yes, this is the passage with which we began Part 1—the passage in which Harris discusses why Hillary Clinton wouldn’t give her private papers to the big snoops at the 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.
According to Harris, there was nothing in the Clintons’ Whitewater papers that would have caused more than passing discomfort. Is this supposed to be Harris’ assessment of the Whitewater “scandal” as a whole? If so, it’s woefully lacking—and yes, it lets him skip the specifics of later events in which the Clintons were specifically exonerated. Harris’ failure to answer those Wall Street Journal questions is a huge failure of this book.

Even today, Harris refuses to mention the exonerating Pillsbury Report. Why didn’t Hillary Clinton give her papers to the know-it-all snoops at the Post? Perhaps because she understood how these natterers actually work—understood that, a dozen years later, writers would still disappear their own cohort and refuse to report basic things that they knew. Maybe she understood a key fact—when journalists don’t want to discuss their cohort’s conduct, that make their cohort disappear.

TOMORROW—PART 5: Harris describes the 2000 race. And guess what? The corps disappears!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: The press corps simply luvs to disappear the Pillsbury Report. To see it disappeared in April 2000, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/18/00. To see it disappeared some five years later, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/18/05 (scroll to “Smirking Rich”). To see it disappeared in the Times review of The Hunting of the President, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/00.

Most Americans have never heard about the findings of this report. The report was disappeared in real time, and it continues to not-exist to this day.