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15 January 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: Crackpot power

Synopsis: Unrepentant Wes Pruden helped readers see who’s really in charge of the discourse.

Something the prez is finally innocent of
Wesley Pruden, The Washington Times, 1/12/99

Fools for Scandal
Gene Lyons, Franklin Square Press, 1996

On the same day Woody West penned his clown-like retraction--recycling old gossip from the “love child” debacle--the unrepentant Wes Pruden was airing his views on the subject (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/14/99, for our review of Woody West). The Washington Times had placed slander right on its front page, and now the slander was known to be false. But Pruden was busy trashing big papers which hadn’t passed on the false story:

PRUDEN: The DNA tests are back at the Star, the supermarket tabloid that sometimes prints the parts of the news that’s fit to print that the New York Times disdains...

For Pruden, an ugly charge is presumed to be true, even after it’s been proven to be false:

PRUDEN: Maybe Mzzz Williams is, as the editor of the Star told Time magazine, the author of “a cruel hoax.” Or maybe she’s not...

Pruden goes on to say that Bobbi Ann Williams may have just been wrong, not making it up, when she said that Clinton was “the only white man she slept with that month.”

But sometimes it’s from the truly disturbed that we find out what’s really happenin’. Like West, Pruden goes on to recycle other “love child” slanders. And, as Pruden tells readers where the story began, we get a look at the remarkable way that crackpots now rule our press culture:

PRUDEN: The orphaned love-child story...surfaced first in 1991 when Robert “Say” McIntosh, a Little Rock restaurateur who styles himself “the Sweet Potato Pie King” (and his pies are very good), distributed handbills at Bill Clinton’s announcement in Little Rock, suggesting that the disclosure of the love child would sink Mr. Clinton’s presidential campaign...The son of the Sweet Potato Pie King was at the time in state prison on a drug charge, and the king was trying to persuade Mr. Clinton to spring him. Mr. Clinton never did...

And we’d have to say this: “Say” may bake a mean, mean pie, but he has a strange way of lobbying governors. Pruden goes on to suggest (we think) that Clinton had McIntosh fils released later on, though it’s hard to make out Pruden’s meaning (see “Slandering on,” below).

Assuming that Pruden’s history is correct, we found this a revealing little story. Here’s how it goes: as governor, Bill Clinton refuses to pardon a drug dealer, so the dealer’s father spreads slanders about him. Arkansas papers don’t print the tale, for what are surely the most obvious reasons.

But by 1993, Clinton is president, so the Globe hands money to Bobbi Ann Williams and types up her bogus account. And in 1999, with the Star now paying Williams, the story ends up getting page one treatment from the Times and other big papers.

The episode is reminiscent of a process described in Fools for Scandal, in which Gene Lyons laments “the dissemination of slapstick Arkansas political theater to an unexpectedly gullible nation.” Lyons describes “the zest for smutty buffoonery” that has long typified Arkansas politics:

LYONS: Given literacy levels among the lowest in the nation, what this adds up to is a populist brand of political warfare that often descends to the level of professional wrestling...During the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial primaries, for example, lurid tales of lust and fornication were widely circulated about three of the four serious candidates...There was talk of whores, drunken orgies at duck-hunting clubs, illegitimate children, hush money, even suicides. One Arkansas politician was rumored to have had carnal knowledge of a convicted murderess inside her jail cell. Interracial sex, of course, is a topic of perennial interest...

Some of these topics may ring a few bells for consumers of White House pseudo-scandals.

Lyons relates the surprise Arkansans felt when their “slapstick theater” showed up on the national stage--when the national press gave credence to stories that the Arkansas press had ignored. He couldn’t have known, when he wrote Fools for Scandal, that Say McIntosh would have his day in the sun, but McIntosh is hardly the first Arky crackpot to gain control of the national discourse. For example, the Gennifer Flowers debacle began with Larry Nichols, the Arkansas state employee who was fired from his job for making long-distance calls on state phones to the contras. Like McIntosh, Nichols vowed to get Clinton for this horrid offense, and he presented a list of women he claimed had slept with the contraphobe governor. Arkansas papers ignored his claim; Gennifer Flowers threatened to sue him; and the crackpot Nichols finally admitted he had no knowledge whereof he spoke. But by the time that Clinton was running for president, Flowers, well paid, had a better idea, and her unproven claims, typed up by the Star, have set the tone for the Clinton-era discourse. (See “Gennifer Flowers,” below.)

So we couldn’t help thinking of Larry Nichols as we read about the Pie Guy this week, and we couldn’t help marveling that a crackpot like McIntosh had finally hit the front page of several big papers. Many people will believe for the rest of their lives that Clinton had a child with an Arkansas prostitute; some of them, tutored by the fevered Pruden, will believe that Clinton just slept with Mzzz Williams. And a fat lazy press corps snores idly by, permitting the slanders to go unchallenged--and refusing, as our CNN panel did this week, to name names of disgraceful offenders.

Well, guess what, kids? At the HOWLER, we don’t play. We will name a name: Wesley Pruden.

Our cry: We repeat our claim: that CNN panel was disgracefully tolerant of the “love child” slander this week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/99). If you doubt us, we make a suggestion. A sitting president was badly slandered in a number of major papers this week. At the Washington Times, two writers penned stories, knowing the slander was false, recycling other “love child” buffooneries.

Pretty amazing, don’t you think? And a whole host of players were involved in the slander. We ask you this: let us know when you see one major journalist name a name or complain about this.

Slandering on: Here’s how Pruden tells the tale of Say’s drug-dealin’ son:

PRUDEN: ...The son of the Sweet Potato Pie King was at the time in state prison on a drug charge, and the king was trying to persuade Mr. Clinton to spring him. Mr. Clinton never did, not while he was the governor, but the first time his successor Jim Guy Tucker left the state, and a state senator was put in charge as the acting governor, the son got his pardon. Arkansas abounds with “Clinton coincidences.”

Which is hardly surprising, since everything’s connected if you’re willing to “reason” like Pruden. We presume Pruden is saying that President Clinton pardoned Son-of-Say through Jim Guy Tucker. Many readers of Pruden now believe this, too. Is there any evidence to support the charge? Pruden doesn’t mention any. Will any journalist ever complain about this? We’ll give you your answer now: No.

Gennifer Flowers: We know what you’re thinking, and the truth is, you’re wrong. Larry Nichols has not been proven right in his claims. See THE DAILY HOWLER of the following dates for an overview of Gennifer Flowers:

THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/98: The press corps Gennifer Flowers
THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/29/98: The press corps Gennifer Flowers, part II
THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/99: Accepting the lies that blind
THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/12/98: Must-see-(to-believe) TV