1 April 1998
Life in this celebrity press corps: ...regardless of veracity
Synopsis: It just didnt sound like David Maraniss. We looked at his book. It wasnt.
Clinton has taken I-feel-your-pain persona to Africa,
Richard Benedetto, USA Today, 3/30/98
It didnt sound like Clinton biographer David Maraniss when we came across the quote in Richard Benedettos column--not the civilized writer whose First in His Classwas praised for its nuanced view of Clinton. And of course, were always on the look-out for our favorite occurrence, the thing that always made Socrates smile--situations where writers fib about Clinton, to persuade us that hecant be trusted! (See SOCRATES READS, now in progress.)
For the record, heres what Benedetto had said, in a bell-ringing piece about Clinton. In the column, Benedetto complains that Clinton has been freely dispersing apologies for Americas past sins on his trip to Africa this week.
BENEDETTO: [Clinton] has long been willing to tell people what they want to hear, regardless of veracity. Clinton biographer David Maraniss described him as too eager to please and prone to deception.
Good old-fashioned, tried-and-true Clinton-bashing, but it just didnt sound like Dave Maraniss! So we assembled our internationally-acclaimed team of quotation verificationists and set them to work on the matter.
First our experts called Benedetto himself, and we found him hard at work in his offices. And guess what? When we asked Benedetto where the Maraniss quote had originated, he offered a familiar rejoinder--he couldnt recall! He suggested the chapter The Permanent Campaign from First in His Class, and we looked--but it just wasnt there.
Well, now we decided to go straight to the source, and we put in a call to Maraniss himself, who promptly and graciously returned our call and recognized the quote as soon as we read it. He immediately sent us to page 355 of his book, and waited for us to find it in our own volume--and we were just as surprised as youll likely be when we saw what hed actually written:
MARANISS: With Bill Clinton, it is often tempting, but usually misleading,to try to separate the good from the bad, to say that the part of him that is indecisive, too eager to please and prone to deception, is more revealing of the inner man than the part of him that is indefatigable, intelligent, empathetic, and self-deprecating. They co-exist. [Our emphasis]
Can you believe it? In the snippet of the passage that Benedetto presents, its as if he does exactly what Maraniss says is usually misleading with Clinton! He takes only the part of the passage that is negativeabout Clinton, and absent-mindedly omits the rest! Its almost as if hes done the very thing his source had said would likely mislead us!
We searched our minds for some explanation of how such a bone-headed error could have occurred.
It would be easy enough for a cynic to say that Benedetto had deliberately misquoted Maraniss--that he had deliberately snipped out only part of his view, and thereby misrepresented what the biographer had said. In this view, Benedetto would have been looking for a negative quote, and would have found the makings of one in the passage we cite. So he simply decided to shorten up what Clintons biographer had said, to reinforce his own negative judgment!
But of course, that would be an ascription of motive, which we try to avoid at THE HOWLER. So we decided that wed simply get off a letter to USA TODAY, with our permission to print it for the newspapers readers. Surely the paper would want its readers to what David Maraniss had actually said, and to share a good laugh at the way Benedetto had absent-mindedly printed--under Maraniss name!--exactly the type of characterization that Maraniss had said would mislead us!
We faxed off our missive early yesterday morning, after our exhaustive research procedures were done. Well let you know when the USA TODAY editors reprint our note for their readers. But in the meantime, heres our letter, for DAILY HOWLER readers to preview:
THE DAILY HOWLER Building
Baltimore, Maryland 21217
April 1, 1998
To the editor:
In his March 30 column, Richard Benedetto writes, of President Clinton: Clinton biographer David Maraniss described him as too eager to please and prone to deception.
We thought your readers might want to read what Maraniss actually said, on page 355 of his acclaimed book First in His Class:
With Bill Clinton, it is often tempting, but usually misleading, to try to
separate the good from the bad, to say that the part of him that is indecisive,
too eager to please and prone to deception, is more revealing of the inner man
than the part of him that is indefatigable, intelligent, empathetic, and self-
deprecating. They co-exist.
In his selective quotation, Benedetto does exactly what Maraniss says is usually misleading with Clinton--he calls attention to the negative and fails to mention the positive. He also misrepresents what Maraniss said. There is a part of Bill Clinton that is prone to deception? Maybe the same could be said of some journalists.
Managing Editor, Quote Verification Department
NOTE: We always jazz up our letters with innuendo about motive. Editors love it, because it stirs up debate.
Postscript (1 May 1998): Wierd! Our letter still hasnt been published...