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10 June 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Like wine, it got better with age

Synopsis: Jim McDougal’s memory “got better with age.” This and other true-to-life tales from an accuser’s best friend, James B. Stewart.

A Voice from the Grave
James B. Stewart, The New Yorker, 6/1/98


You’d assume it was just a wry aside, James Stewart’s opening sentence on Arkansas Mischief:

STEWART: Jim McDougal is one of the few people I’ve known whose memory seemed to improve with the passage of time.

One would assume that this was a bit of sarcasm--a send-up of the way Jim McDougal began “remembering” various things when he stood convicted of white-collar crimes, and found himself trying to deal with Ken Starr to get a reduced prison sentence.

But life in this celebrity press corps means never, ever thinking that an accuser may be lying! And Stewart here goes to heroic lengths to keep this new tradition alive, as he struggles to overlook obvious doubts about a favorite accuser.

Was Jim McDougal a guy we could trust? Or should his new accusations be treated with caution? Listen to how Stewart treats this inevitable question--inevitable because, as Stewart himself writes: “The question of credibility, as McDougal well knew, is the shadow over Arkansas Mischief.

STEWART: ...Jim did lie on many occasions. He lied under oath; he failed multiple lie-detector tests; and he admitted all this to me and others. Yet, however much he lied, he stoutly denied that he was a liar, as he understood the term. As he told it, he was a traditional Southern gentleman, and lying went against a code he grew up with...

Stewart goes on to detail the reasons why poor ol’ Jim had to lie:

STEWART: ...He lied, he said, only to protect people: himself, of course, but also his former wife, Susan, and the Clintons. His lying pained and embarrassed him, and he didn’t like to see it in others.

And surely, of all the silly efforts we’ve seen to prop up accusers, this inane passage takes the large, gooey cake. Jim McDougal, we’re told, lied “only to protect people.” Why, it almost makes the guy sound noble. And who was the first person he chose to protect? Wouldn’t you know it? He protected himself! Of course! The man simply needed protectin’! But the desire to protect oneself from harm is a principal reason why most liars lie; and if McDougal told Stewart that “didn’t make him a liar, as he understood the term,” then the lesson that Stewart should have drawn from that nonsense is that James McDougal didn’t understand the term “liar.” Yep, that’s exactly right, boys and girls--if you lie a lot, that makes you a liar, whether you prefer to think you’re a liar or not; and even if your lies concern the Clintons, which seems to give you endangered species status in certain parts of this celebrity press corps.

Back to Stewart: before straight-facedly reciting McDougal’s outlook on lying, Stewart gives us the standard treatment about how “lively” and “engrossing” Curtis Wilkie’s book is. Curtis Wilkie, bless his soul, has captured Jim’s “engaging southern style,” and even anecdotes we’ve heard before come out sounding “fresh” in his telling. But how about one other question--do the anecdotes also come out sounding truthful?This is a question Stewart saves for the end, after he has rendered a long, loving treatment of ol’ Jim’s exciting new stories. Long after he has told us how “detailed” McDougal’s claims are; and long after he has lovingly toted up the number of times that ol’ Jim accuses the Clintons of lying; long after indulging in all that accusin’, Stewart finally gets around to tryin’ to figure out if ol’ Jim has been tellin’ the truth. His treatment of the credibility of ol’ Jim’s new claims is as silly as everything else in his treatise. Bear with us:

STEWART: Does “Arkansas Mischief” represent his best efforts to tell the truth?...(I)s the book a good-faith rendering of events? Documents may turn up that confirm some of McDougal’s more sensational allegations. So may witnesses, many of whom McDougal identifies by name. And it must be said that McDougal’s only acknowledged lies relating to the Clintons have been attempts to tailor his story to theirs. What he now claims to be true is invariably more damaging to them than his earlier versions of events. But neither does he seem to have augmented his account to curry favor with Starr. For one thing, if he fabricated Clinton’s presence at the Castle Grande meeting with Hale why wouldn’t he have offered an account that accorded more closely with Hale’s? For another, the story in the book about Clinton offering to pardon Susan McDougal wasn’t one he even shared with Starr. My gut feeling is that McDougal’s autobiography really is an attempt to tell the truth...

Stewart’s selective imagination is on full display in this passage. Ol’ Jim--struggling to get favorable treatment from Starr--never tells Starr about a corrupt pardon offer! And guess what never enters James Stewart’s mind? It never enters James Stewart’s mind that maybe this means the pardon offer didn’t happen! Doesn’t occur to him! And that’s not all: Stewart’s reader is never told that there is a long-standing problem with McDougal’s claim about the $2000 monthly retainer to the Rose Law Firm, which McDougal now tells us, for the first time, evolved from a $2000 monthly cash payment for influence. The howling problem with this story is never mentioned, though it’s been spelled out on the record for several years now. As we stated in our original treatment of the issue, why should we mess up a great new story with a great old story that’s now wrong? (Again, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/98.)

To state the obvious: it’s easy to believe ol’ Jim is truthful when we simply ignore what’s wrongwith his tales. After all--every story is a “credible” story, if we ignore the parts that just don’t make sense! But then, ignoring howling problems with Clinton accusers has been a part of press practice from Gennifer Flowers right on. Stewart is hardly plowing new ground with his loving treatment of his engaging ol’ accuser.

Was ol’ Jim tellin’ the truth in these tales? THE DAILY HOWLER has no special way to be knowin’. But we do know there are obvious, howling problems with these new tales, and it’s hard to imagine that James Stewart doesn’t know it. That he simply chooses to avoid their mention--well, do we even need to tell our readers? How it’s all just a part of what we dolove to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps?”