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22 September 1999

Our current howler (part III): What’s their motivation?

Synopsis: Coverage of FALN clemency has showcased another New Rule--today’s pundit should focus on motive.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Christopher Anderson
Hardball, CNBC, 9/13/99

Commentary by Susan Molinari
Hardball, CNBC, 9/9/99

Clemency for Clintons
William Safire, The New York Times, 9/13/99

Commentary by Mary Matalin
Crossfire, CNN, 9/10/99

Commentary by Morton Kondracke
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 9/21/99

Here at THE HOWLER, we have a rule of thumb. To observe our press corps in the wild, we always try to play a little Hardball. And sure enough, there was a tabloid talker with a helpful guest, having some fun with the clemency flap. The pair were discussing—Come on, what else?—questions of the president's motive. Here is the interview's first exchange, following a taped clip of Hillary:

MATTHEWS: I have to say that people have told me that Hillary Clinton, when she campaigns, doesn't introduce herself. That's been explained as an arrogant sort of statement about her. It could be—I'm just guessing—she's not comfortable saying, "Hi, I'm Hillary Clinton."

CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON: Yeah, I think "Rodham" still sticks in her mind, you know. It took her so long to jettison the "Rodham" from her name.

Hey, this was just good, solid stuff! Anderson continued directly:

ANDERSON: There's some other things about the body language you'll notice and I've noticed quite a lot. When she's making these statements, she's constantly shaking her head. You know, not as if she's affirming what she's saying, but in a way she's negating what she's saying.


There's absolutely nothing these Carnacs can't decipher if you're prepared to accept nonsense like that. And sure enough, in no time at all, Anderson—the Clintons' clip-snipping biographer—achieved his pre-ordained demonstratum. Why had Clinton granted clemency? To help his wife's senate campaign:

ANDERSON: But obviously she's been the person behind—she's the great strategist, from the git-go she has been that...Obviously when the president ignores 3000 requests—well, with the exception of three—3000 requests for clemency, to address this specific issue that could have had, they thought, benefit for Hillary Rodham Clinton's senate campaign in New York, you know this wasn't a mistake and it was something they obviously consulted one another about.

It was all so—well, so obvious! Anderson threw himself up on destiny's shores with the motive for Clinton's behavior.

Did Clinton grant clemency to help Hill's campaign? To steal a phrase, that's an "obvious" possibility. Indeed, it's a possibility that has been reported as fact by the press corps again and again. Anyone who's watched the ongoing discussion has seen it said a thousand times. Susan Molinari, reciting flawlessly, just knew that the Clintons had plotted:

MOLINARI: She and her husband "discuss everything"—"just over coffee the other day, we talked about day care"—but then something that has such profound implications on her senate race was something that was just, I guess he forgot to mention it? Nobody's buying it.

Bill Safire certainly wasn't:

SAFIRE: "I did not discuss it with her," insists the President who discusses every political angle with her. Try that for credibility: he supposedly panders to an ethnic group his wife needs without even a hint from her...And Hillary will stick by his story that they never discussed it at all.

Hardball's Svengali had the sound-bite down too:

ANDERSON: But when you said before about whether they work in tandem: as recently as a month ago, Hilary said we talk constantly. We talk in the kitchen. We talk in the solarium. We talk in the bedroom. We work in tandem. Those were her words, and if that's what she said then, she can't ask us to believe now that they didn't know what was going on—that they weren't working in tandem over the clemency deal.

See how obvious the whole thing is? In Zeus' great halls, the gods hang their heads at the work of the hapless mortals.

Because anyone who has ever given the matter any thought knows motive is hard to determine. It's possible to imagine a range of motives for any action you might discuss. Here, for example, was Mary Matalin, the voice from the right on Crossfire:

MATALIN: I actually believe he didn't tell her. I believe it's some bauble for past misdeeds. He's going to hand her this big reward, OK, and it just blows up in both of their faces. You know, the new rumor around town is that he's trying to sabotage her campaign.

We love it when they actually say "rumor!" But do you see how much fun it can get to be, when they turn themselves loose about motive? Just last night, Morton Kondracke was still considering that last suggestion—sorry, folks, "rumor"—earlier voiced by Matalin:

KONDRACKE: Who knows what operated in Bill Clinton's head? In fact, he may have been doing this unconsciously to damage his wife. I'm not entirely convinced that he likes this idea that she's going to be the political star of the family and, it may be unconscious, but what is this all about?...Why does he do this with the effect of, which is to damage his wife?

Brit Hume was humming the theme song to "Twilight Zone" as Kondracke spelled out his intriguing critique. See how much fun the scribes can have, when they get themselves going on motive?

But the discussions about the clemency offer have simply wallowed in talk about motive—to the repeated exclusion of basic discussion of elementary issues of fact. What were the crimes these prisoners committed? How did their sentences compare to others so convicted? Basic matters that would help us judge Clinton's action have gone unreported to this day. In normal life, one doesn't start worrying about issues of motive until one ascertains that an action doesn't make normal sense. Did Clinton's decision make such sense? The press corps, endlessly chirping on motive, hasn't described the basic facts of this matter to this very day.


Tomorrow: New Rule #2: Focus on motive! Incredibly, we haven't seen basic facts reported, right to this very day.

Smile-a-while: We couldn't help chuckling when a tabloid talker said this to the well-scripted Anderson:

MATTHEWS: Now she's saying that she never had a conversation with him about the Puerto Rican terrorists...Of course, it's very easy for them to square their stories. They can just get on the phone and talk.

But has any program ever featured more "squared stories" than the relentlessly pre-scripted Hardball? Reread, for example, this interview's opening exchange, which we have quoted above. Would a talker have asked his odd leading question without knowing that his guest had a pleasing reply? Two minutes later, a talker complained that the Clintons were squaring their tales.

Later in the interview, Anderson was asked a question where he wasn't quite sure what his answer should be. He hemmed and hawed, until he got clues. We'll report in a "Smile-a-while" tomorrow.