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21 August 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Hentoff lays his hands on some rope

Synopsis: Mark Twain’s famous lynch mob had nothing this week on the work of this celebrity press corps.

A Legacy Lost
Nat Hentoff, The Washington Post, 8/22/98

Our Hero
Michael Kelly, The New Republic, 12/2/96


We’ve thought all this week of the scene from Huck Finnwhere the lynch mob chases Colonel Sherburn all through the town--you know, all through the backwater Arkansas town where the traveling circus is appearing? And we’ve thought of this scene--not just because a sort of Arkansas circus has been playing itself out all around town for the course of the week--but because the current mentality of our celebrity press corps just reminds us of Twain’s hopped-up posse.

Yep--the scent of blood is in the air, and common sense is out the door, and everyone’s pushing to the front of the pack, takin’ turns showin’ off, actin’ stupid. It’s the same old thing that always happens when lazy elites get their hands on some rope, but we had to chuckle today at Nat Hentoff’s valiant effort to push his way to the front of the posse.

At least Hentoff shows up with a tale all his own, instead of endlessly recycling Gennifer Flowers canards (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/19/98). Indeed, for a truly inventiveattempt to slander Clinton’s character, Hentoff may have the piece of the week.

Hentoff begins with a weepy lament about teachers who teach situational ethics. And, since we’re speaking of people with lousy ethics, it’s not long till we find out what Professor Nat Hentoff learned the first time he “researched” Governor Bill Clinton’s character:

HENTOFF: What I did find revealing had to do with his proposal to the [Arkansas] legislature for an increase in the state sales tax. A delegation of low-income citizens, who were among his strongest supporters, urged him to make exceptions for certain purchases necessary to the poor. Otherwise, the increased sales tax would place an undue burden on them.

Fair enough. But, in this week of Clinton-chasing, maybe you can figure out what’s (inevitably) coming next:

HENTOFF: [Governor] Bill Clinton assured them he certainly agreed with their point and would make the changes. When he found out those changes might possibly put his bill in peril, he kept it as it was.

Dag! And Hentoff goes on to conclude, in his very next sentence: “(T)he president...has been a skillful embodiment of situational principles.”

Even by the standards of this celebrity lynch mob, this nonsense earns special commendation. Get this! A governor learns that certain changes to a bill won’t be passed by the legislature--and so he decides not to offer the changes! What next? Perhaps Governor Clinton should have called out the National Guard, and told the legislature to go along or he’d have them all shot! Clearly, Hentoff’s a fan of strong-man rule, if he’s troubled by this sort of conduct.

Yet--incredibly--this is the drek that goes into print, to prove that ol’ debbil Bill Clinton Lacks Character! This is the nonsense that editors print, when the press starts to hanker for hangin’.

At any rate, stunned by Hentoff’s weird critique, our analysts turned to David Maraniss’ First in His Classto try to put Hentoff’s “research” in perspective. Surely, we figured, there must be something more to this wholly unremarkable Hentoff tale.

Sure enough, we were absolutely right. Here are some things you may not have known from absorbing Professor Hentoff’s brilliant study:

  1. The tax increase in question stemmed from an order by the Arkansas Supreme Court which declared that existing financing of the state’s schools was unconstitutional. In other words, Governor Clinton had been ordered by the courtsto do some additional taxing.
  2. The sales tax was selected as the tax to be raised because, in Arkansas, all other taxes require a _ vote of the legislature, and the legislature already believed, however irrationally, that the state was over-taxed.
  3. At the time that the sales tax proposal was made, Arkansas had the 49th lowest tax burden in the United States. Only Alabama citizens had a lower tax burden.
  4. According to Maraniss, even the principal proponent of the clause in question acknowledged that it would have been difficult to get the clause through the Arkansas senate. There is no reason to believe that Governor Clinton could have passed the proposed changes, had he actually tried to. It’s a bit hard to see what a governor should do, when he has to raise taxes by court decree, and the legislature won’t pass a proposal he favors. But again, in this Week Of Chasing Naughty Bill Clinton Through Town, the resulting conduct somehow counts as a sign of Bill Clinton’s Complete Lack Of Character.

A final, wonderfully comical note. Hentoff says he discovered this shocking bit of conduct when he began “researching [Clinton’s] record as governor of Arkansas to learn something about his principles.” The year would apparently have been 1991, “when Clinton announced his candidacy for the presidency for the first time.”

Meanwhile, as it turns out, the disgraceful conduct that Hentoff describes occurred in--get this--1983! Can you believe it? Hentoff has to go back eight full years, to find this evidence of Clinton’s lack of character! This is the worst thing Hentoff could find, all the way back to 1983? Most folks would think that a governor was pretty clean, if thiswas his worst sin through eight years in office. But then, that wouldn’t be an acceptable outcome--not when you find yourself chasin’ through town, keepin’ up with this celebrity lynch mob.


Postscript: Just how silly is this Hentoff piece? It reminds us of Michael Kelly! In his first, near-hysterical TRB piece, at the time he inexplicably became New Republic chief, Kelly sought to prove, of Bill Clinton, that “he is of course a shocking liar...breathtakingly cynical.” Here is one part of the bill of particulars that led Kelly to make that assertion:

KELLY: [He is] a man who signed the Republican bill ending welfare as a federal entitlement, and then asked Democrats to vote him back into office on the grounds that only he could fix the wrong he had done.

Leaving aside Kelly’s childish paraphrase, Kelly accuses Clinton here of having signed a bill that wasn’t perfect, then campaigning to change the parts of the bill he didn’t like. Can you imagine less shocking behavior? The notion that someone would be called “a shocking liar...breathtakingly cynical” on the basis of unexceptional conduct like that--well, the fact that anyone would even thinkof putting this nonsense into print tells us more than we’d ever really want to know about life in this celebrity press corps.

And here it is today, the same silly slander, as Hentoff blisters the “character” of an sitting governor who won’t propose in a bill what he knows won’t pass. You know that it’s been a big week for rope, when nonsense like this finds its way into print. But at least it wasn’t about Gennifer Flowers. You learn to be thankful for the small things in life, when you deal with celebrity lynch mobs.