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1 October 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: I’m mad; therefore it’s true

Synopsis: William Safire somehow thinks he knows what happened between Clinton and Willey.

Beyond Monica
William Safire, The New York Times, 9/24/98

Not for Me to Say
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 9/23/98


When President Clinton appeared before the Starr grand jury, he was asked about Kathleen Willey’s charges. He minced no words in repeatedly stating that Willey’s charges on Sixty Minuteswere untrue:

CLINTON: Mr. Bennett, I didn’t do any of that...You know what evidence was released after the Sixty Minutesbroadcast that I think pretty well shattered Kathleen Willey’s credibility...She was not telling the truth. She asked for the appointment with me. She asked for it repeatedly...[S]he made, I think, the grievous error of going on Sixty Minutesand saying all those things that were not true.

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing what may have happened between Clinton and Willey. And no--because we weren’t hanging around the Oval Office that day, we have no way of knowing whether President Clinton’s testimony about Kathleen Willey is actually true.

Luckily, there are high-ranking members of this celebrity press corps who seem to know precisely what happened. They write with clairvoyance about Willey’s charges--much as if they were actually there--and help us judge Clinton’s testimony about Willey in his August 17 appearance.

In so doing, they betray a tendency widely displayed within the ranks of this celebrity press corps--the tendency to give exceptionally wide berth to the word of presidential accusers. Normal rules of judgment go out the door in the rush to say Accusers Speak True.

Example: in his September 24 New York Times column, William Safire includes a three-paragraph discussion of Clinton’s testimony about Willey. Here’s his first paragraph on the subject; he refers at the outset to Clinton’s alleged berating of the Secret Service:

SAFIRE (pgh. 1): That offence, though rank, is not impeachable. But Congress will be obliged to examine in detail the President’s slanderous attack on Kathleen Willey in his sworn testimony.

The notion that Clinton’s testimony about Willey could be a “high crime or misdemeanor” reflects the absurdity of what will follow. But note: in calling Clinton’s conduct “slanderous,” Safire asserts that Clinton’s statements are untrue.

Let us say it again: it is certainly possiblethat Clinton’s statements are untrue, but it is hard to see how Safire could know it. But standards of evidence are rarely a burden, when one is defending the words of accusers. In his second paragraph, Safire presents evidence that tends to favor Willey, while failing to evaluate Clinton’s references to evidence that tends to favor hisclaims:

SAFIRE (pgh. 2): Here was a mature woman of good repute who reluctantly revealed a groping pass made at her in the Oval Office when she applied for a job. The President not only denied all (as at first with Monica, and Paula, and Gennifer) but, under oath, charged Ms. Willey with lying to the grand jury. He intimated that she first made a move on him with his sly “She was always very friendly.”

Nowhere does Safire betray an awareness of what would occur to almost anyone else, in any other context--President Clinton knowswhat Willey may have done, while Safire is merely inferring. Life in this celebrity press corps means never having to acknowledge the limits of one’s knowledge. Well--at least until one’s final paragraph:

SAFIRE (pgh. 3): Ms. Willey is a citizen of the United States who has been branded a perjurer by her president, whom she dared to say manhandled her unlawfully. Because she has no DNA evidence to prove him lying, White House operatives and hired snoops are eager to join their boss in trashing her further. But if her charge is true,this serious harassment has just been escalated by Clinton to potential perjury with intent to injure. Congress will not avert its eyes. [Our emphasis]

But take a look at Safire’s principal charge. For all his deference to Willey’s country of origin, Safire displays no way of knowing whether Willey’s charges are true. In fact, Safire now--two paragraphs later--states his case in the conditional: “ifher charge is true.” Having told us in his first paragraph that Clinton has committed slander, he now reveals that he knows no such thing. And by the way, how is Congresssupposed to determine the truth? The thought never enters Bill’s head.

We have often asked the following question of the miserable work that is found in this press corps: Could a college freshman pass in work like this, without having it pencilled and returned? One would hope that a college freshman would quickly be told that one cannot contradict oneself within a three-paragraph span. Yet here is Safire doing just that, in the sort of comically awful work so typical of the whole Clinton discourse. And of course, the perpetually-furious Michael Kelly had paved the way, just one day before:

KELLY: Does “brutish” really capture the behavior of a man who, in denying Kathleen Willey’s allegations that he pawed and mauled her in the Oval Office, uses the occasion to re-smear his accuser, hinting that Ms. Willey was a woman of affairs and poor reputation...and that she, not he, was the known liar?

To which the obvious answer is: We don’t know! It depends on what the truth is.And sure enough, the fact that Clinton knows the truth, and Kelly doesn’t, never seems to enter Kelly’s head. Instead, he fires off his latest silly screed, boldly calling Clinton a liar--although he demonstrates absolutely no way of knowing whether or not this is true.

The oldest distinction of western thought is the distinction between knowledge and “mere belief.” Three millenia of western thought disappear from view in these two silly columns. Safire and Kelly prefer to pretend that they can make something true if they’re just mad enough. In the process, they crank out miserable, worthless work. Were they freshmen, one would hope it would be handed back, with the suggestion they give it more thought.

For the record: Here is the evidence Safire displays to show that Willey was truthful:

  1. Willey is “a mature woman.” Apparently, in William Safire’s world, women over forty never lie.
  2. She came forward “reluctantly” to discuss the matter. But of course, Clinton came forward reluctantly too. No one said this proved he was truthful, when he finally was forced to discuss the matter. Earth to Safire: sometimes people come forward “reluctantly” because they’ve done something wrong they don’t want to discuss.
  3. She is “a citizen of the United States.” We’re speechless. Sometimes the nonsense gets so rich, even we don’t know how to respond to it.
This is a slender body of evidence indeed to show that Kathleen Willey was truthful. She was over forty--and she lived in this country!We repeat: we at THE HOWLER have no way of knowing if Kathleen Willey was telling the truth. But William Safire doesn’t have a clue either, boys and girls. He just doesn’t want you to know it.

Read on: The press corps routinely gives accusers wide berth. See “Life in this celebrity press corps,” October 2.