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THOMAS PLAYS THE FOOL! Evan Thomas played the fool—and helped us recover some history: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2009

Watching the Times perhaps defer: Last Friday, we were struck by the way the New York Times reasons—or perhaps defers.

First up: This report about attitudes toward abortion written by Laurie Goldstein.

Has there been a “decline in support for a woman’s right to have an abortion?” We don’t know—and such things can be quite hard to measure.

But note the way Goldstein reasons in her news report. According to Goldstein, recent polls by the Washington Post/ABC and the New York Times/CBS have “found essentially no change in Americans’ overall views of abortion.” But on Thursday, Pew released a poll which “suggests that support for abortion may have declined, with the public almost evenly divided over the issue.”

We’re simply going by Goldstein’s reporting: To the extent that these polls asked comparable questions, that would suggest that the Pew poll is the outlier. But the Times rushed into print with a story built around the outlier poll, not around the preponderance of evidence.

Is that the way the New York Times reasons? Or could this be an attempt to pay more attention to “conservative concerns?”

So too with this report by Adam Nagourney, also in Friday’s paper. Nagourney’s report concerns the proposed “individual mandate” in health reform proposals.

The mandate may or may not be a good idea. But Republicans have decided they want to call it a “tax,” a claim which always polls well but is, in this case, a considerable stretch of the language. No, it really isn’t a “tax”—if we’re still speaking English. It’s a mandate to buy insurance, which may be a lousy idea. But so what? In service to tortured Republican semantics, George Stephanopoulos wasted the nation’s time on this point in a recent interview with Obama. And now, Nagourney devotes a whole report to this new piece of tortured semantics.

(In the mid-1990s, the mainstream press corps, bowing to conservative power, got stampeded into another semantic war, concerning what is and isn’t a “Medicare cut.” In a concerted effort, the newly ascendant GOP told them they had to stop saying “cut.” Cowed, the press raced to comply.)

Is this the way the New York Times reasons? Or could this be an attempt to pay more attention to “conservative concerns?”

Last Sunday, the Times public editor suggested that the Times should perhaps pay more attention to conservative claims and issues (click here). He reported that Times honchos Bill Keller and Jill Abramson “said that they would now assign an editor to monitor opinion media and brief them frequently on bubbling controversies.”

Five days later, we couldn’t help wondering if the Deference Machine at this newspaper had swung into action again. Does the Times really reason this poorly? Or has it agreed to defer?

Special report: Recovering history!

PART 1—THOMAS PLAYS THE FOOL: Taylor Branch has published The Clinton Tapes, the fruit of 79 discussions with President Clinton during his presidency.

This has given various pundits a chance to play the fool—to show us the rules under which our history has been sifted and doled in the past twenty years.

Last Thursday, Chris Matthews played the fool in a session with Branch. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/2/09.) Sunday, it was Thomas’ turn. He reviewed Branch’s fascinating book in the Washington Post’s Outlook section.

As with Matthews, so with Thomas. Branch’s book covers a wide range of topics, topics defining a decade of history. But one sole topic remains in the minds of journalistic children like these: Clinton’s disastrous mini-affair with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. Little else entered Matthews’ head during his silly session with Branch. Little else seems to have occurred to our poor floundering Thomas.

What did Clinton tell Taylor Branch about the war conducted on his health care proposal? That topic might even seem relevant now. But not to millionaire toad stools like these, who are hired to go on TV and pretend to be a “press corps.” When fellows like Matthews and Thomas skim books, they look for talk about “that woman”—and for little else.

Only one other topic intrudes: Each fellow was brought up short by Clinton’s inappropriate, real-time comments about their own fraternal order—about the Washington “press.” When Thomas discusses this part of the book, he provides real comedy entertainment. In the process, he helps us see how our recent history has been stolen and lost—disappeared.

Alas! The perfectly fair-and-balanced Thomas “cannot help but wonder if [Branch] was too close to his subject to write a truly revealing book.” (On the Post web site, this statement forms the basis for the synopsis of Thomas’ piece.) As Thomas continues, it turns out that his assessment is built on a predictable foundation. Branch is a bit of a class traitor, it seems. You see, he has foolishly taken Clinton’s side against his peers in the “press:”

THOMAS (10/4/09):Like the Clinton presidency, Branch's book is promising, often engaging, yet ultimately a little disappointing. Branch had a unique opportunity to observe a president in an open and intimate way, yet the reader—at least this reader—cannot help but wonder if he was too close to his subject to write a truly revealing book.

Clinton's capacity for self-pity has been long established, but Branch was clearly taken aback by the president's moaning and ranting about his enemies, especially the news media. In October 1994, as Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution picked up steam, Clinton was so exhausted and depressed that he was falling asleep in midsentence during his interviews with Branch. His friend was disturbed but still concluded that Clinton was a far nobler figure than the scribes who mocked him.

By law, Thomas is required to start with a remark about Clinton’s “self-pity.” But somehow, Taylor Branch failed to draw the obvious conclusion about Clinton’s weeping and moaning! Good God! Breaking with everything good and decent, Branch saw more to admire in Clinton than in “the scribes who mocked him!” He felt this way as early as 1994, the incredulous Thomas notes. The penalty for this is prescribed by law—Thomas creates a formulation designed to mock Branch himself! By law, Thomas can’t say something simple and direct—can’t say, for example, that Branch saw the merit in Clinton’s complaints. By law, he must say that Branch found “his friend” to be “a far nobler figure” than those in the press. Branch sided with Clinton—not with scribes who mocked him. So Branch must be mocked here too!

Branch saw more to admire in Clinton! But then, what fair-minded observer wouldn’t have seen the situation that way? As he continues, Thomas shows us why an outsider like Branch would almost surely have reached that judgment—and he gives us comedy gold in the process. As he continues, Thomas joins Friedman is telling the truth many years too late. And he pens one of the most comical statements we’ve seen in our years at THE HOWLER:

THOMAS (continuing directly): It is possible to sympathize with Clinton. Today, when the mainstream media seems so weakened, we forget how powerful—and arrogant—the New York Times and The Washington Post, along with the networks and news magazines, seemed to be in the early and mid-1990s. They were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington in the first few years after the Cold War. The endless string of special prosecutors and the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive in retrospect.

“It is possible to sympathize with Clinton,” Thomas grandly allows, showing the greatness of his high class. He then shows why any informed observer—any observer like Branch—would have felt that way in real time.

Why is it possible to sympathize with Clinton? Good lord! Because the New York Times and The Washington Post (and the networks; and the news magazines) “were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington” during the years of his presidency! This is a truly remarkable statement. But just like Friedman last week, Thomas brings us this remarkable news exceptionally late in the game—about fifteen years too late. And why is Thomas telling us now? Enjoy the comedy gold:

The endless string of special prosecutors and the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive in retrospect.

In retrospect, the war against Clinton seems obsessive! So says Evan Thomas, lying right in your face.

In retrospect! In this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman recalls just a few highlights of that disgraceful era. These things “seem excessive” to Thomas—now. But not so at the time!

It didn’t seem excessive to Thomas when Rush Limbaugh suggested that Hillary Clinton helped murder Vince Foster.

It didn’t seem excessive to Thomas when Jerry Falwell spent years peddling the Clinton murder tapes—remaining an honored guest on Meet the Press, and on cable “news” programs.

It didn’t seem excessive to Thomas when Dan Burton was shooting up pumpkins in his back yard, showing how Foster may have died.

It didn’t seem excessive (or strange) to Thomas when the original special prosecutor got canned by a panel of right-wing judges—and was replaced by a well-known conservative functionary.

It didn’t seem excessive to Thomas when Fools for Scandal published the documents the New York Times had disappeared in the course of inventing the Whitewater “scandal.”

It didn’t seem excessive when a first lady was called a “congenital liar” by a bungling major columnist. It didn’t seem excessive when the Village called her every name in the book as they pretended that she had lied about the Cubs and the Yankees. It didn’t seem excessive when the Post published that disgraceful piece by Andrew Sullivan, two days before the 1996 election. (Headline: “Clinton: Not a Flicker Of Moral Life.”) It hadn’t seemed excessive when that same baboon had published that crap by Betsy McCaughey, in 1994—a piece whose fraudulence became quite clear in rather short order.

These events made perfect sense at the time! To Thomas, they only seem excessive in retrospect! By the way, did it seem excessive when the Post and the Times invented all that sh*t about Candidate Gore, then pimped it for twenty straight months?

Did that seem “excessive” in real time?

Let’s try to follow Thomas’ logic:

In the Clinton/Gore years, our two biggest political papers “were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington.” So were our TV networks. So were our news magazines. (Presumably , this includes Newsweek, for which Thomas still works.)

Those are truly stunning statements. But it didn’t seem excessive at the time! It only seems excessive now—“in retrospect!”

The serial wars against the Clintons and Gore only seem excessive “in retrospect!” From this, we can draw two conclusions:

First: Thomas should resign from the “press corps,” having acknowledged his cosmic inability to observe real things in real time.

Second: Like Friedman, Thomas has started telling the truth about our recent disappeared history. This pair of tools have started telling the truth. They’re just telling the truth very slowly.

The week after next, we ourselves will post a new site designed to shine light on our recent history—on history which remains disappeared. But make no mistake:

Hirelings like Thomas have flushed your history for twenty years. A nation can’t function that way.