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18 April 2000

A Howler postscript: Clinton calls his shot

Synopsis: Clinton said the press corps wouldn’t report what he said. Four days later, it seems he was right.

Commentary by George Stephanopoulos
This Week, ABC, 4/16/00

Remarks by President Clinton
ASNE Convention, 4/13/00

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

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Michael Isikoff
Reliable Sources, CNN, 4/15/00

Why They Hate Clinton
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 4/12/00

The pundits were saying that President Clinton hadn't totally ruled out a pardon. George Stephanopoulos showed off his parsing skills for This Week's admiring pundits:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Look at those words. The president did not say—did not rule out a pardon. He said, I don't want it, I don't have an interest in it, I don't think it'll be necessary. He did not rule it out.

The president had made his remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors last Thursday, in response to an editor's question. The question of a pardon had first been raised the day before, in a question to Vice President Gore at the same conference.

Pundits buzzed and parsed all week, examining Clinton-on-pardon. But there was something else the president said that got no attention at all. This is the start of what Clinton said to the question about the pardon:

CLINTON: Well, the answer is I have no interest in it. I wouldn't ask for it. I don't think it would be necessary. I think it's interesting that you would ask that question without going through the facts here. Let me remind you that there was a truly independent review of the whole Whitewater matter, which was concluded four years ago in 1996 by a predominantly Republican law firm for the Resolution Trust Corporation that said that neither my wife nor I did anything wrong...

Clinton was clearly referring to the Pillsbury Report, the $3.6 million study done for the RTC by the San Francisco law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro. He raised it early on in his answer. As we noted last Friday, the Conason/Lyons book, The Hunting of the President, describes the report in some detail, as did Lyons' 1996 book, Fools for Scandal (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/00). The firm had been hired by the RTC to examine the Clintons' conduct in the Whitewater matter. For clarity, we'll again briefly cite some of what C & L wrote:

CONASON AND LYONS (page 199): The firm's findings could hardly have been more favorable to the White House. Based on the Clintons' sworn interrogatories, interviews with forty-five other witnesses, and some two hundred thousand documents, the report concluded that the president and first lady had told the truth about their Whitewater investment: The Clintons were passive investors who were misled about the actual status of the project by Jim McDougal almost from the start. The report failed to challenge their account on a single substantive point.

Conason and Lyons quoted from the report:

CONASON AND LYONS (page 199): The Pillsbury Report found no evidence that Whitewater's losses had been subsidized by taxpayers in the savings and loan bailout. But even if they were, it concluded, the Clintons were not at fault: "There is no basis to assert that the Clintons knew anything of substance about the McDougals' advances to Whitewater, the source of the funds used to make those advances, or the sources of the funds used to make payments on the bank debt...There is no basis to charge the Clintons with any kind of primary liability for fraud or intentional misconduct. This investigation has revealed no evidence to support any such claims...There is evidence that the McDougals may have engaged in intentional misconduct. There are legal theories by which one can become liable for the conduct of others—e.g. conspiracy and aiding and abetting. On this evidentiary record, however, these theories have no legal application to the Clintons."

Remember, this report was issued in 1995 and 1996—more than four years ago. Its findings made it all too clear: It was extremely unlikely that the Whitewater probe would ever produce any charges against the Clintons.

But most Americans didn't hear about the Pillsbury Report at the time—and haven't heard a word of it since. Why not? According to The Hunting of the President, major newspapers "with an investment in Whitewater" buried the evidence contained in the report. Last Friday, we quoted Conason and Lyons' account of the way the New York Times misreported its contents, for example. It is only one of many descriptions of press misconduct found in the authors' new text.

So wasn't it lucky that President Clinton referred to the report this past week! Finally—the scribes would have the perfect chance to make up for any past oversight! Here was Clinton, making news with aggressive comments about the report. Here is more of what he said in his extended statement to the ASNE:

CLINTON: If you want to know what's really been going on, you have a good book here, Mr. Toobin's book [Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy]. You have the Joe Conason and Gene Lyons book, which explains how this all happened...And no one has yet written the full story. I can imagine why you wouldn't, particularly given the way a lot of this has been covered...But I would like just once to see someone acknowledge the fact that this Whitewater thing was a lie and a fraud from the beginning and that most people with any responsibility over it have known it for years.

Phew! That was some pretty tough stuff! Clinton had said that the original Whitewater probe was "a lie and a fraud from the beginning," and that Kenneth Starr and his staff "ha[d] known it for years." He also said he could understand why newspaper editors might not want to "write the full story," "given the way a lot of this has been covered." Ouch! These were stinging remarks by the president, of a type he had never made before. Given the press corps' widely-recited love for the truth, surely we'd see a lot of coverage, helping readers understand just what the president had said!

Grow up, dear readers! As if! In the five major papers we review each day, the words "Pillsbury Report" never appeared (New York Times, Washington Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal). No one thought it was worth telling readers what the president had been talking about. In the New York Times, for example, Marc Lacey said this early on, in a full-length story about Clinton's statement: "Mr. Clinton's remarks, displaying deep-seated anger at his accusers, were some of the most revealing he had offered about the darker moments of his presidency." Lacey thereby showed he understood that Clinton's remarks were new and newsworthy. Lacey quoted Clinton's remark that the Whitewater probe was "a lie and a fraud," and that "most people with any responsibility over it have known it for years." But what exactly did he mean by that? Even in a boxed feature quoting excerpts of the president's remarks, the reference to the RTC probe didn't appear. In his article, Lacey didn't cite the remark, or name the Pillsbury Report, which would have explained what the president meant.

The Sunday pundits also played it dumb, but Michael Isikoff was our personal favorite. Due to his involvement in this story, Isikoff surely understood every word Clinton said, as many slacker pundits likely didn't. Howard Kurtz popped the question to Isikoff on Reliable Sources:

KURTZ: Michael, the president says on Thursday, When are journalists going to get around to reporting that the Whitewater investigation, quote, was a lie and a fraud from the beginning. Your reaction.

Michael was completely flummoxed. He didn't have a clue what Bill meant:

ISIKOFF: Well, I mean I don't know who's judged it a lie and a fraud. I think we're still waiting for the report by the independent counsel. And I think where most people will come down on this is that the investigation went on way too long, that it didn't produce criminal charges against the president, but it did produce a lot of criminal charges against a lot of characters including the sitting governor of Arkansas at the time, and the president's business partners. That was not a lie, that was not a fraud...

And that had nothing to do with what Clinton meant, as Isikoff surely understood. Michael, let us explain this, just for you. Clinton has judged it "a lie and a fraud;" he said so to the editors Thursday. He was referring to the Pillsbury Report, as you surely must have understood. The McDougals were convicted of crimes for defrauding the Clintons, as Ray Jahn argued in the Little Rock courtroom four years ago (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/00). Clinton meant that the Whitewater charges against him were a fraud—not those against Jim McDougal.

We assume that Isikoff understood all of this. But, being a member of the celebrity press corps, he also knew enough not to 'splain it.

Understand what we're saying here, readers. We're not saying that the press corps had to bring this stuff up on their own. We're not saying they had an affirmative duty. (God forbid!) But when Clinton himself made these remarks—"some of the most revealing he had offered about the darkest moment of his presidency"—the press corps, by any normal standard, was obliged to explain what he'd said. But Clinton had been right as rain in something he had said to the editors. Let's remember one part of his comments:

CLINTON: No one has yet written the full story. I can imagine why you wouldn't, particularly given the way a lot of this has been covered.

Ouch! Mr. Bill! Where's your manners? At any rate, we haven't read or heard the words "Pillsbury Report" since Clinton made his "revealing" comments. Scribes have fumbled and bumbled, as Isikoff did, pretending they didn't quite get Clinton's comments. The truth is, many scribes knew what Clinton meant, full well. They also knew enough not to tell you.


Tomorrow: We return to those scripts

Prize package: The analysts insisted we visit Michael Kelly before leaving The Hunting of Conason and Lyons. There he was in the Post, repeatedly calling the two authors "Clinton's apologists" (four separate times). But what had the naughty lads said that was wrong? Kelly never got around to explaining. At one point, Kelly sketched out local attitudes in Arkansas toward then-Governor Clinton:

KELLY: He was a generally competent governor and bettered the state in some important ways, and he was immensely likable. Yet it soon became a widely held opinion in Arkansas that he was, in a fundamental sense, both contemptible and destructive: a Slick Willie, a man whose word was flatly no good on matters both personal and public, an abuser of power and of persons (female persons) and, in terms of the disjunction between his public character and his true self, a fraud.

Weird! How did he ever get elected five times despite this widely-held opinion? And think how well the guy could have done if he hadn't been widely viewed as a fraud! Does Kelly know what he's talking about? He doesn't quote any specific Arkansan. And how can you be thought "immensely likable" by a group of people who also think you contemptible, abusive, a fraud, and destructive? It's the kind of question that rarely occurs when the press corps starts to tell favorite tales.

Anyway, "Clinton's apologists" overlook all this mess. On this point, Kelly did name three names:

KELLY: As Clinton's apologists do not like to mention, aspects of this considered opinion were held by many people who had professional dealings with Clinton, including many who shared his partisan and ideological leanings. [No names given here.] As they also like to skip lightly over, many who have played roles in the efforts to bring Clinton down are people who have personal reason to sincerely think him unusually unfit for office—people such as Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, and Linda Tripp.

Just to show how lightly "Clinton's apologists" have skipped over those three, here's part of the index from The Hunting of the President:

Tripp, Linda, 280-281, 329-31, 373
      book proposals, 284, 290, 307, 323, 324, 329-30, 331-32, 354
Bill Clinton, animosity toward, 284, 284-85, 285-86, 289-90, 371
and Michael Isikoff, 297, 303, 303-04, 324, 330, 331-332, 333, 333-35, 336, 337
and the Paula Jones lawsuit, 337-338, 339-340, 362
and Monica Lewinsky, 287, 289-90, 297-98, 304, 324, 335-36, 342, 342-43, 348, 353-56
Monica Lewinsky's stained dress, 337, 354-55
the Monica Lewinsky tapes, 331, 332-33, 334-35, 336-37, 348, 352-53, 357, 362, 366
and the Office of Independent Council, 349-50, 350-51, 351-52, 352-53, 357, 362, 366
Senate Banking Committee testimony, 279-80, 280, 281
suspected of being "Deepwater," 282-83
and Kathleen Willey, 272, 279, 279-80, 285, 286, 287-88, 288, 290, 297, 339

Thanks God they didn't go into detail.

By the way: In the section on Tripp and Kathleen Willey, Conason and Lyons accurately report Tripp's detailed grand jury testimony about Willey. Tripp repeatedly testified that Willey's charges against Clinton on Sixty Minutes were not truthful. The press corps buried that news way deep in the ground, uniformly refusing to report it to readers. Do "Clinton's apologists" skip over people? If they do, it's a familiar old trick.

Anyway, Kelly's column is full of comments about how hopeless "Clinton's apologists" are. But he doesn't name one thing they've said that is wrong. That part, he lightly skips over.

Visit our incomparable archives: Kelly joined all major pundits in burying what Linda Tripp said about Willey. It was one of the most remarkable press episodes of our tenure. For annotated links to our basic reports on this subject, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8/99 (annotated links found in postscript). In this remarkable episode, the mainstream press corps—remember, they seem to work off a script—agreed not to report basic, obvious news, as they had done earlier with the Pillsbury Report.

We agree, folks—this is hard to fathom. But did you see anyone report what Tripp testified? It can be found in The Hunting of the President—the book that lightly skips over facts.