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3 March 1999

Our current howler: Alter egos

Synopsis: Jonathan Alter and Dorothy Rabinowitz have recently become theater critics.

Paging Mrs. Roosevelt
Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, 3/1/99

Disgraceful all around
Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, 3/8/99

Commentary by Dorothy Rabinowitz
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 3/2/99

The analysts began grumbling about Jonathan Alter around this time last week. One of them raced into DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, holding Alter’s column aloft:

ALTER (opening paragraph): Remember those séances in the White House solarium? In 1996 Bob Woodward published a book claiming that Mrs. Clinton tried to make contact with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. Well, she apparently succeeded. Eleanor and Hillary are now thoroughly enmeshed, and living large among 20th century First Ladies.

The analysts muttered and shook their fists, amazed by Alter’s credulity. As was explained again and again at the time--and as had been obvious to anyone who could read in the first place--Woodward’s book had never claimed that Mrs. Clinton was conducting “séances.” But to crackpot spinners of the right, the claim was just too delish to pass up, and for months, the Washington Times opinion pages groaned under the weight of silly statements like Alter’s.

What do these pundits do all day, that they never unlearn such nonsense? How do they actually spend their time, that such howlers get lodged in their heads? We were still working on questions like this in our world-renowned Spun Pundit Unit when Alter made analysts frown with this passage from his current column:

ALTER: An affadavit in which [Broaddrick] denied the incident to Paula Jones’ attorneys, the serious grudges two of the corroborating witnesses had against Clinton and Broaddrick’s refusal to go public earlier would have doomed her in court. But on TV, the raggedness of her story, in which she readily confessed her stupidity, actually seemed to make it stronger. She would have to be Meryl Streep to be faking it. [Our emphasis]

And Alter would have to be Sigmund Freud to know if that statement is true. We doubt that Alter has extensive experience in judging when rape accusers are lying. We quoted former prosecutor Tony Blankley last week, pointing out how difficult judgments like that can be (see below). But somehow, a guy who can’t see through silly GOP spin can now tell, from TV, when accusers are fibbing! And he’s willing to charge a public figure with rape on a basis like that.

And by the way, someone else is sure she can see through public ruses. Here was Dorothy Rabinowitz--at least she met Broaddrick--publicly describing her craft:

RABINOWITZ: I think to see Mrs. Broaddrick as I saw her and as the Dateline piece also represented her is to see why so many people think that she is credible...I think Jonathan Alter of Newsweek says she would have to be Meryl Streep to have made this up.

So Alter’s remark gained a following! In her interview, Rabinowitz pointed out that she has experience with witnesses in sexual cases; we thought her work on the Amirault case was first-rate, original work. And we do not assert that Broaddrick’s story is false; obviously, we think this alleged incident may have occurred exactly as Broaddrick has said.

But credible people are sometimes fibbing, and we’d feel more sure of Rabinowitz’ judgment if it weren’t the case that she, like Alter, is cranking out silly old spin. Here she is, in the same C-SPAN session, with something else she believes to be certain:

RABINOWITZ: There are these women who keep popping up...If you remember Gennifer Flowers, when the Gennifer Flowers story first emerged, there were tapes of Ms. Flowers talking to Mr. Clinton at the time, and the press dismissed this, even though there was ample proof...And of course it was proved to be true, what Gennifer Flowers said, and there was no doubt about it.

But of course it was not “proved to be true,” what Flowers said, though the credulous Rabinowitz doesn’t know it. But the truth is, the tapes described were partial tapes, tapes which happened to reveal almost nothing, and when the Los Angeles Times had expert analysis done, they were told that the one dirty remark on the tapes had been overdubbed. Wouldn’t you know it? The tapes had been doctored! And there was more than that to the Flowers howlers, though doctored tapes should have been ample warning. The transcripts in the Star were also doctored; Flowers never let the full tapes be heard; and her actual story in the Star was larded with embarrassing errors. It was Alter himself who revealed the errors messing up the exciting tale, but the press corps chose, for reasons unknown, to pretend that they had the real article. And then, as we’ve reported again and again: when Clinton testified, in 1998, that he had engaged in one act of “sexual relations” with Flowers (not intercourse), the press corps chose to say that her tale was confirmed, though she had testified to a twelve-year affair. CelebCorps’ longing to vouch for accusers was never made so pathetically clear.

So Alter says that Hill held a séance, and Rabinowitz brags about doctored tapes. Man! Why should we take their word on Broaddrick, when they’re such marks about everything else?

Visit our incomparable archives: To sample past work on the absurd Flowers matter, start at THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/98 and 10/29/98.

The need to believe: At times, Rabinowitz sounds like someone who swears she has seen a statue of the Virgin weeping:

RABINOWITZ: I think you know when you are--there’s a smell of truth and a smell of falsehood. And when you listen to Juanita Broaddrick, there’s this unique moment of knowing or sensing as truly as one can sense that you are in the presence of a mind unreeling or unspooling details that happened...


RABINOWITZ: I think anyone meeting Mrs. Broaddrick feels that they are in the presence of someone who is narrating something real that really happened.

Our point is this: there’s also a “smell of falsehood” one gets when one is told that audiotapes have been doctored. What does it mean when the mainstream press doesn’t pick up on “unique moments” like that?

What Tony said: For the record, here’s Blankley on credible witnesses (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/99):

BLANKLEY: I watched [Mrs. Broaddrick’s] testimony, or her interview, just now. It was credible, but in my experience as a former prosecutor, I’ve seen people lie persuasively and I’ve seen people tell the truth unpersuasively. I don’t know what the public or even what I think ultimately is the truth to this.