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12 January 1999

A Daily Howler retrospective: Ignoring what Stu knew

Synopsis: When Stuart Taylor spilled most of the beans, it didn’t stimulate Chris Matthews’ curiosity.

Commentary by Stuart Taylor, Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 11/24/98

Our recent spate of stories about Tripp-on-Willey began as we were playing some Hardball Thursday night, as host Chris Matthews challenged Liz Holtzman’s statement that Linda Tripp had contradicted Kathleen Willey (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8/99). Holtzman, of course, had been absolutely right, but Matthews jumped in to swear she was wrong. He and Bill Sammon just swore up and down: Linda Tripp had not challenged Faire Willey.

And we were a bit surprised as we watched the host, because it wasn’t the first time a Hardball guest had referred to Linda Tripp’s testimony. On November 24, Stuart Taylor had been asked for his views on Willey, and here’s part of what Taylor said:

TAYLOR: I frankly don’t believe her whole story. I believe enough of it so that you’ve got a few more perjuries by the president. But frankly, at this stage, perjuries by the president are almost a daily occurrence.

Permit us to offer a thought as to what Taylor may have meant. If Linda Tripp’s sworn account is true, then both Clinton and Willey are currently dissembling about the Oval Office encounter--Willey by saying that she was assaulted, Clinton by saying no encounter occurred. Clinton’s sworn statement about the matter would be possible perjury, though he’d be lying about a consensual encounter, not a grope and assault.

Tireless in his search for the truth, Matthews asked Taylor if he would explain what part of Willey’s story he doubted:

TAYLOR: I question, I think she was not as resisting. I think she welcomed it more than she wants us to believe, and the reason I think that is the most credible account I think of what really happened is what she supposedly said to Linda Tripp moments afterward. [Our emphasis]

According to Tripp’s account, of course, Willey did not merely “welcome [the advance] more than she wants us to believe;” she had been actively seeking romance for the course of a year. But Matthews then asked a perfectly fair question--one which is answered in Tripp’s account:

MATTHEWS: Right. If she welcomed this advance by the president, which has been called “groping,” it’s far worse than that, it’s kind of a gross attempt to start something in the most carnal fashion in a business office, in fact the Oval Office--if she were guilty of encouraging it, why did she not encourage it subsequently? Why did she not take advantage of a chance to have an affair with the president of the United States who so clearly, according to her testimony, wished to have one?

People familiar with actual evidence know that Tripp’s testimony directly addressed that. In her testimony, Tripp described phone calls she says she had with Willey after Ed Willey’s tragic death:

TRIPP: [W]e discussed the fact that this would be enough to spook [Clinton] for at least a year, that, you know, she can pretty much understand that he would not have anything to do with her on a personal level after this because of the tragedy.

According to Tripp’s account, it was not Willey who lost interest in the romance. To the contrary, Tripp testified that, in the phone calls. Willey “didn’t cry, she didn’t dwell or even speak much about Ed. It was more about the president...” (Tripp had made clear early on in her account that Willey’s relationship with her husband had been distant.)

This is, of course, an unpleasant narration, about matters one would rather not discuss. But that provides us no excuse to substitute stories we like. Here is the way that Taylor answered the question from Matthews we’ve quoted:

TAYLOR: Well, there could be a lot of reasons. One possibility is that, as we know now and as she soon learned, her husband was off committing suicide while she was in the Oval Office with the president, or at least that day, and I imagine that would lead one to have a lot of strange emotions about the whole business afterwards.

And that is, of course, one “possibility,” which a pundit might well “imagine.” But for the record, it is quite plainly not the story Tripp told in what Taylor calls “the most credible account.”

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing what may have occurred between Clinton and Willey. We do know what Linda Tripp has said, and we know it should be an integral part of the record of this sad affair. There is no excuse for reporting Willey’s charge without reporting Tripp’s contradiction. And it’s strange to discuss the indictment of Julie Steele without reporting what Tripp has said.

One other thing: we also know that Stuart Taylor’s appearance didn’t do much to stimulate Chris Matthews’ curiosity. Six weeks later, when Holtzman spoke up on his show, Matthews aggressively, thoroughly misinformed his viewers about what Linda Tripp has said. And as of last night’s show (1/11/99), he hasn’t corrected or amended his misstatements. Sic semper this celebrity press corps.