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13 April 2000

Our current howler (part II): Why so modest?

Synopsis: In large part, The Hunting of the President concerns the press. Two reviews didn’t much seem to notice.

The Hunting of the President
Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, St. Martins Press, 2000

Conspiracy Theories
Neil Lewis, The New York Times, 4/9/00

All the president's apologists
Peter Jay, The Washington Times, 4/12/00

Several reviewers seem to think that The Hunting of the President is a book about the Clintons. For mainstream scribes, this conceit is convenient, because the book is in large part about them. As we saw yesterday, Conason and Lyons make it clear, in that preface, that their book is largely about press corps misconduct. For clarity's sake, let's repeat the passage, which Peter Jay mostly glossed in the Times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/12/00):

CONASON AND LYONS: [This] is also the story of important journalists and news organizations succumbing to scandal fever, credulously and sometimes dishonestly promoting charges against the Clintons in heavily biased, error-filled dispatches, columns, bestselling books, and TV news specials, and thus bestowing "mainstream" prestige upon what was often little more than a poisonous mixture of half-truth and partisan malice.

About half the preface concerns the error and dishonesty ascribed to the mainstream press corps. This section of the preface closes out with this paragraph, which, in a burst of prescience on the part of the authors, seems to describe the approach of some reviews:

CONASON AND LYONS: For reasons that will become clearer as the narrative proceeds, the mainstream media have—with some honorable exceptions—been reluctant to explore that element of the story. Suffice it for the moment to observe that, as George Seldes said, "the sacred cow of the press is the press itself."

Several reviews have started out as Jay's did, with a passage saying how Conason and Lyons just seem to love them ol' Clintons. The reviewers seem not to have noticed that the book is about them, not about Bill and the missus.

So it is with reviewer Neil Lewis, in last Sunday's New York Times. Lewis opens with a famous appearance by Hillary Clinton. We do need to quote him in full:

LEWIS (paragraph 1): On Jan. 27, 1998, Hillary Rodham Clinton told Matt Lauer on the "Today" show that there was nothing to the idea that her husband had been involved in an intimate relationship with a White House intern. She dismissed the notion as just another bit of nastiness in what she said was the real story, which the press had been ignoring: the existence of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" directed against the president. Her invocation of a conspiracy helped set the outer boundary of the rich historical debate about the Clintons that is bound to occur. Have they been admirable and magnificently motivated public servants relentlessly, as she would have it, pursued by dark, malign forces? Or have they been, as their most devoted detractors insist, a pair of scheming and ambitious frauds?

In the next paragraph, Lewis foreshadows the start of Jay's review. He suggests that Hunting is essentially an effort to heap praise on those fabulous Clintons:

LEWIS (2, continuing directly): As the argument unfolds, the answers will surely be complicated. But not to Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, the authors of "The Hunting of the President," essentially a journalistic brief in support of Hillary Rodham Clinton's assertion.

The book is "essentially a brief in support of Mrs. Clinton's assertion." But we found ourselves plunged into instant confusion. Which "assertion" do the authors support? In paragraph 1, Lewis has listed a string of assertions by the first lady. Do they support her assertion of "a vast right-wing conspiracy?" Many readers will surely think so, although Conason and Lyons explicitly say they do not. (In that preface! See yesterday's DAILY HOWLER.) Lewis pretty much tells us, in paragraph 4, that the authors do not prefer to assert a "conspiracy." (Or does he? See postscript). But then—daggone—there's the term again, right there in paragraph 7:

LEWIS (7): The book does cover two episodes that could bear the description "conspiracy": the Arkansas Project, involving Richard Mellon Scaife; and the behind-the-scenes help provided by several smart, conservative lawyers in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit against the president.

And the title of the review is "Conspiracy Theories." The synopsis, right beneath it? "Two reporters contend the campaign to discredit the Clintons was a plot." Lyons and Conason explicitly say they do not prefer to call this complex tale a "conspiracy." Lewis is either a vastly flawed writer, or he wants people to think something different.

But then, failing to note what this book is about is becoming a small cottage industry. At one point, Jay rouses his head from his divan to gripe that there's nothing new in this book:

JAY: This admirable investigative diligence hasn't produced much new information, however, or even many new villains. As the familiar tale unwinds, Linda Tripp, Kenneth Starr, Richard Scaife, Lee Atwater, Matt Drudge, Jerry Falwell and the rest of the usual suspects are rounded up and pelted with unfriendly adjectives.

And it's true—the "villains" in Hunting are familiar old names, if you leave out the ones who are not. And if you leave out the ones who are journalists. Lewis does say that Lyons' previous book, Fools for Scandal, "contended that the national press, notably the New York Times," was "gulled" and "dishonest" in its coverage of the Whitewater real estate venture. But there isn't a single word in the Lewis review that tells us that Hunting also critiques mainstream journalists. Here is Lewis' description of the book's purview:

LEWIS (4): That the Clintons attract enemies of uncommon ardor is indisputable. The book provides an admirable and useful catalog of the people who dislike, disdain, and even detest them. But its thesis takes quantum jumps beyond that. The authors contend that the Clinton foes have not, for the most part, been separate actors. If not quite a conspiracy, they say, they have uncovered a "loose cabal," a "great crusade," hatched years ago in places like the Republican National Committee...

Lewis goes on to mention Chief Justice Rehnquist and the "loopy Clinton-haters" who make up large parts of the book's narration. But like Jay, he never mentions that this book, like Fools, provides repeated descriptions of press corps bungling and misconduct. In fact, by the end of the review, the New York Times turns up as the hero of the piece, for its coverage of those "smart" Paula Jones "elves!"

Jay's claim that there is "nothing new" in this book provides the strongest suggestion that he just didn't read it. Like Fools for Scandal, this book is full of descriptions of mainstream press conduct that one can read almost nowhere else. At THE HOWLER, for example, we were very surprised by the book's recitation of the OIC's closing statement at the 1996 Tucker-McDougal "Whitewater" trial. The authors quote parts of Ray Jahn's statement to the Little Rock jury:

CONASON AND LYONS: "The President of the United States," [Jahn] reminded the jury, "is not on trial. Why isn't the President of the United States on trial? Why isn't he on trial? Because he didn't set up any phony corporations to get employees to sign for loans that were basically worthless. He didn't get $300,000 from Capital Management Services like Jim and Susan McDougal did by falsely claiming their use..."

"In a stunning reversal of more than four years of accusations," the authors write, "Jahn took the jury step by step through the Whitewater maze, showing that Jim McDougal had abused the Clinton's trust." And it wasn't reported in the papers the next day, they seem to say. "Within minutes of the verdict, television pundits were informing the nation that the verdict meant more trouble for President Clinton because the jury had taken [witness] David Hale's word over his." As you know, we try to follow this kind of thing, and we don't remember ever reading the words Jahn spoke to the Little Rock jury. We do remember the immediate flap about what the jury surely had thought—and the jurors' insistence that pundits were wrong in speculating that they Hadn't Believed Slick Ol' Bill. (Point of fairness: The authors quote Stephen Labaton of the Times, giving voice to the jurors about that.)

This book is full of accounts of mainstream press spinning, things few readers will ever have heard. When Fools for Scandal made such claims, in detail, the New York Times essentially didn't answer. In this review, when Lewis gave his one example of how The Authors Are Wrong, we thought we might have seen why.


Tomorrow: Disconsolate analysts slumped in their chairs when Lewis gave his One Great Example.

Ironic: We're massive fans of Alanis Morrisette. But never, ever be ironic, lest your words be read back to you straight. Here is the passage in which C & L describe how they see these events:

CONASON AND LYONS: [This] is the story of a loose cabal, if not quite a "vast conspiracy," involving longtime Clinton adversaries from Arkansas and elsewhere...

Later, they write: "Arguably, not even the chief justice of the United States held himself aloof from the great crusade."

We take "great crusade" to be an irony here. Lewis reads the words back straight. At any rate, after the writers say they do not prefer the term "conspiracy," it sits there in the title of the review; the synopsis says they believe in a plot; and the first two paragraphs may well seem to assert the same thing. Surely, greater care than this can be taken not to put key words into somebody's mouth.

We give up: On yesterday's Inside Politics, Carlson and Carlson were discussing Gore's critique of Bush's health care tax credits. Margaret Carlson said this:

CARLSON: Well, Gore really needs to change the subject in that it's hard for anything to get through but Elian, and Gore did not show himself to be steady in that regard, and Bush outflanked him—I think Bush wanted to make Elian a citizen and Gore only wanted to make him a permanent resident. So to get the subject off Elian, he does a quick turn-around on the health thing...

Last week, you'll recall, Carlson and Carlson were trashing Gore as a panderer for offering Elian the status he did. The word "pander" was used eight times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/6/00). Now, Carlson seems to say that Gore was "outflanked" because he didn't offer Elian enough. We've given up trying to make sense of this stuff. Can anyone explain this? Please e-mail.

Meanwhile, cut to Sunday's Late Edition: Steve Roberts was warmly praised by the scribes for changing his mind on the Elian matter. In politicians, this is known as a "flip-flop." It's the law. You can e-mail us to explain this one, also.