1 October 1998
Life in this celebrity press corps: Im mad; therefore its true
Synopsis: William Safire somehow thinks he knows what happened between Clinton and Willey.
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 Willeys charges. He minced no words in repeatedly stating that Willeys charges on Sixty Minuteswere untrue:
CLINTON: Mr. Bennett, I didnt do any of that...You know what evidence was released after the Sixty Minutesbroadcast that I think pretty well shattered Kathleen Willeys 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 werent hanging around the Oval Office that day, we have no way of knowing whether President Clintons 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 Willeys charges--much as if they were actually there--and help us judge Clintons 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 Clintons testimony about Willey. Heres his first paragraph on the subject; he refers at the outset to Clintons 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 Presidents slanderous attack on Kathleen Willey in his sworn testimony.
The notion that Clintons testimony about Willey could be a high crime or misdemeanor reflects the absurdity of what will follow. But note: in calling Clintons conduct slanderous, Safire asserts that Clintons statements are untrue.
Let us say it again: it is certainly possiblethat Clintons 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 Clintons 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 ones knowledge. Well--at least until ones 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 Safires principal charge. For all his deference to Willeys country of origin, Safire displays no way of knowing whether Willeys 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 Bills 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 Willeys 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 dont know! It depends on what the truth is.And sure enough, the fact that Clinton knows the truth, and Kelly doesnt, never seems to enter Kellys 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 theyre 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:
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 doesnt have a clue either, boys and girls. He just doesnt want you to know it.
- Willey is a mature woman. Apparently, in William Safires world, women over forty never lie.
- 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 theyve done something wrong
they dont want to discuss.
- She is a citizen of the United States. Were speechless. Sometimes the nonsense gets so rich, even we dont know how to respond to it.
Read on: The press corps routinely gives accusers wide berth. See Life in this celebrity press corps, October 2.