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Caveat lector

31 January 1999

The Daily Howler retrospective (part II): Ignoring the winds that followed

Synopsis: The press corps discreetly directed its gaze away from David Schippers’ misconduct.

Debate On Impeachment Begins As Lawyers Make Final Pleas
Alison Mitchell and Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times, 12/11/98

A No-Holds-Barred Attack on President
Ruth Marcus, The Washington Post, 12/11/98

Sum-Up Day: Sex, Lies and, Yes, Videotape
Francis X. Clines, The New York Times, 12/11/98

Interlude: a minor moment of comic relief, 12/10/98

On December 10, the Judiciary Committee was on its way to approving four articles of impeachment against President Clinton. In the course of his presentation recommending impeachment, David Schippers made the following remark, explaining why Clinton had testified that his Monica-smooching began in 1996:

SCHIPPERS: Even [Clinton’s prepared grand jury] statement is false. President Clinton claims that he engaged in wrong conduct with Ms. Lewinsky, quote, “on certain occasions in early 1996 and once in 1997,” closed quote. Notice he didn’t mention 1995. There was a reason. On the three occasions in 1995 Monica was a 21-year-old intern.

You’ll recall how we chuckled, here at THE HOWLER, over Schipper’s remarkable error (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/11/98). While able to read the president’s mind, Schippers couldn’t state the simplest facts of the case! What could explain the counsel’s recitation of this simplest false element of GOP spin? Either the majority counsel, immersed in the case, hadn’t established the simplest matters of fact. Or, knowing that Mo had been 22, Schippers had chosen to go ahead and recite basic GOP spin.

Improbably, a pair of scribes noticed Schippers’ error. Here’s how Mitchell and Alvarez dealt with his blunder, the very next day, in the Times:

MITCHELL AND ALVAREZ: Mr. Schippers, a former prosecutor, tried to raise fundamental questions about Mr. Clinton’s character, suggesting several times that he was not fit to be President. He noted that Ms. Lewinsky, then a 22-year-old White House intern, had never spoken to Mr. Clinton before their first sexual encounter.

He “noted” that Lewinsky was a 22-year-old intern? The tidy Times twosome, catching the gaffe, had cleaned the matter up for Schippers. Their work provided minor comic relief from more serious errors the press corps overlooked.

On the road to the secret “sex vault”

Remember those winds about which Schippers had warned, at the end of his October presentation? Well, by December, the winds were blowing pretty good as the avuncular lawman got testifyin’. As Mitchell and Alvarez correctly noted, Schippers gave a sarcastic, eye-rolling performance in which he savaged the president’s character. In the Post, Ruth Marcus described “a kitchen-sink assault on President Clinton’s conduct that made...Starr’s brief for impeachment look almost mild by comparison.” Francis X. Clines said this in the Times:

CLINES: The rawest of emotions were to be felt in the committee room as Mr. Schippers attacked Mr. Clinton the man as much as the President, describing him as someone with “a conscious indifference and complete disregard for the concept of the truth.”

Clines described Schippers as “dripping sarcasm” as he reviled Clinton’s “crafty mind.”

But troubling elements of Schippers’ mind were also on display in the chamber. The groaning errors of fact Ruff and Kendall would cite were being made before the newsmen, though no one would notice them at the time, or worry too much, later on, when Ruff and Kendall revealed them. But a larger warning had sounded, loud and clear, in paragraph two of the counsel’s remarks, when the avuncular Schippers (“bare-knuckled,” Clines now said) offered this troubling recitation:

SCHIPPERS: Unfortunately, because of the extremely strict time limits placed upon us, a number of very promising leads had to be abandoned. We just ran out of time. In addition, other allegations of possible serious wrongdoing cannot be presented publicly at this time by virtue of circumstances totally beyond our control. For example, we uncovered more incidents involving probable direct and deliberate obstructions of justice, witness tampering, perjury and abuse of power. We were, however, informed, both by the Department of Justice and by the Office of Independent Counsel, that to bring forth publicly that evidence at this time would seriously compromise pending criminal investigations...We have accordingly bowed to their suggestions.

Poor babies! Piously praising the rule of law, Schippers rattled off crimes that he couldn’t describe, but wanted to rail about anyway. Democrats complained, in the papers the next day, about this “McCarthyite” approach from the great man of law; but the truth is, a search of opinion sections in major newspapers reveals little concern, in the days that followed, about Schippers’ remarkable presentation. The press was now overlooking large warning signs about David Schippers’ strange concept of law. Here’s how one cheerful writer described the man who intoned against undescribed crimes:

GUGLIOTTA: He was the outraged outsider, father of 10 from Chicago, methodically walking the committee through reams of material to prove that it was perjury, it was obstruction of justice... [Gugliotta’s emphasis]

And, as Ruff and Kendall would later show, some of it was completely made up. But a press corps enthralled by the father of ten didn’t locate the howlers in Schippers’ statement--and wasn’t disturbed by the way that Chicago’s top dad trashed the rule of law, even while praising it.

For the record, Schippers’ smear wasn’t the only strange matter the press corps overlooked. Also passing without comment was an article of impeachment based on those 81 answers from Clinton. In responding to Schippers’ famous 81 questions, Clinton had rudely failed to confess any crimes, and had even committed the grave offense of repeating his own previous testimony. Imagine! And, like the kind of lawman the gulag once knew, Schippers added this new crime to the previous counts, proving that show-trial prosecutors all over the globe know just how to pile up the charges. The press corps, by the way, never said a word about the way Clinton was charged for restating his testimony. Instead, the pundits railed at those 81 answers, though the related impeachment count was so absurd it was even voted down by the House. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/4/98, for press outrage at those 81 answers.)

By this time, Schippers had plainly broadcast warning signals to anyone willing to see them. He had made improper remarks at the October hearing, remarks Henry Hyde had removed from the record. He had assailed Clinton’s character in remarkably strong terms, while reciting strings of howling, false facts. He had produced a ginned-up impeachment count, based on the defendant’s refusal to confess. Most disturbing, he had immediately referred to secret charges in urging a sitting president’s removal--had engaged in the kind of murky allegation that was straight from old Uncle Joe’s book.

Soon, House members were being taken off to a secret “sex vault” to look at “secret evidence” about undescribed, rumored crimes; at least one journalist reported, on Hardball, that enough votes in the House may have been changed in this way to permit passage of one of the articles. But, as we reported at the time (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/98), the press corps sat by, even then, and said virtually nothing about this procedure. Is it any surprise that, when Ruff and Kendall revealed groaning errors--errors derived from Schippers’ committee work--the press corps again sat silently by, and didn’t ask how he’d made such errors? Even the repeated suggestion that Schippers had lied piqued no interest on the part of the press.

At THE HOWLER, we have not supported the impeachment of Clinton, but we do support a robust public discourse. Sadly, the press corps’ acceptance of Schippers’ work short-changed the discourse again and again. Worst of all, it eventually led to a secret impeachment campaign that overturned due process and the “rule of law.” A press which ignored early warning signs would soon avert its gaze from disgraceful misconduct.

So, is it true, what Charles Ruff said? Is there a special burden we place on prosecutors? Sorry, Charlie: it’s hard to see any burden at all, based on press tolerance for the work of David Schippers.

Visit our incomparable archives: Review our incomparable past work:

  1. David Schippers didn’t seem to know Monica’s age. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/11/98.
  2. When House members went to a secret “sex vault,” the press corps didn’t report it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/98.
  3. The press corps just hated those 81 answers. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/4/98 and 12/6/98. (THE HOWLER reported on this topic from 11/30 on through 12/8.)