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5 September 1998

Minor mishaps, Volume I: Reinventing Clinton

Synopsis: What Clinton said wasn’t exciting enough. Tim Russert did a little reinventing.

Commentary by Tim Russert
The Today Show, NBC, 9/2/98


No, it wasn’t that big a deal, what Tim Russert said, not by the standards of this celebrity lynch mob--that gang of journalists currently riding through town, just yellin’ and actin’ real crazy. But Russert’s an awfully big guy in this town, and his position carries a whole lot of weight; and he ought to be able to report What Bill Said without doing some big reinventing.

Especially at a time like this, you’d think, the Big Dogs of the media would be careful indeed--careful not to put words in the mouth of an embattled, nearly disabled president.

But the hounds are baying, and the rope’s in hand, and it looks like the quarry is on the run. And though, no, nothing of substance will ever turn on what Big Tim claimed that Big Bill said, Russert’s interview reflected the miserable work that’s now second nature within this darn press corps.

At issue? Clinton’s remarks in Moscow Wednesday morning at his joint press event with President Yeltsin. Asked his views on reaction to his Monica Mouthings, here’s part of what The Big He said:

CLINTON: I read [the speech] the other day again, and I thought it was clear that I was expressing my profound regret to all who were hurt and to all who were involved, and my desire not to see more people hurt by this process and caught up in it. And I was commenting that it seemed to be something that most reasonable people would think had consumed a disproportionate amount of America’s time, money, and resources, and attention, and now continued to involve more and more people.

Clinton was referring to polls showing that many people--often, majorities--seem to think enough had been said about the Lewinsky matter, and that the matter had been given excessive attention within the government and the press corps. Many journalists have commented on the perception gap between the press and the public on this matter. Whatever one may think of the Lewinsky matter, it’s indisputable, at this point, that large portions of the public think the story has been over-played. And it’s hardly surprising that Clinton would mention this fact in assessing his gruesome situation.

Well, thank goodness the press corps is always on hand, to make a president’s remarks more exciting! Here’s what Russert had to say about the Clinton statement:

RUSSERT: One other phrase that really caught my attention: “Most reasonable people believe that this investigation has gone too long.” That obviously is a reference that you hear repeatedly from the White House staff about four years and $40 million. But the suggestion “most reasonable people” implies that people who disagree with the president on this are unreasonable. And I’m not sure that’s the posture his political advisers want him to be taking as he approaches a very perilous situation in Congress. It was Democrat Dick Gephardt, just last week, who said the president’s conduct was reprehensible, not a Republican. [Our emphasis]

But, look at the sentence we highlight above. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry over so elementary and absurd a misconstruction. To say that mostreasonable people think the story has been over-played is not to say that allreasonable people think so; but Russert rushes to take offence on behalf of the American people (and to agitate within the president’s party). All of a sudden, an innocuous statement by President Clinton becomes an insult, and a call to battle. When Clinton said mostreasonable people hold his view, he left room for many such people to disagree. But that wouldn’t be offensive enough--to the rescue, the celebrity press corps!

No, nothing of substance ever will turn on what Russert said on the Todayshow this morning. But, in a nation of 270 million people, is this really the best that the networks can do? Are we really supposed to believe it’s true: NBC can’t find a bureau chief who knows that “most” doesn’t mean “all?” Or, with a celebrity lynch mob all over the town--jes’ takin’ turns yellin’ and actin’ real crazy--is it just more fun to go on the tube and ratchet up what the president said?