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14 October 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: You’ll hear it first on Hardball

Synopsis: Any time there’s a bad argument floating around, you’ll hear it first--and best--on Hardball.

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 10/10/98

Commentary by Joseph Cammarata
Hardball, CNBC, 10/12/98

Any time there’s a really bad argument around, you’ll hear it first on Hardball. Since expanding to its hour-long format, the show has served as a sort of staging area for the ritual sacrifice of rational thought. And we weren’t disappointed, when we tuned in Friday night, ending the week of the impeachment inquiry vote. The hoo-hah flew thick and fast on the program--with a tabloid talker at the head of the pack.

A talker asked Lanny Davis what he thought of David Schippers’ reworking of the eleven Starr impeachment charges. In place of Starr’s perjury charges, the talker noted, Schippers was charging conspiracy to present false testimony. Davis was asked if that new set of charges “was going to work as an impeachable offense.”

Davis gave a detailed answer:

DAVIS: It doesn’t alter the issue of the standard being, I think, the gross abuse of power that only the president can exercise. When Richard Nixon used the FBI and the CIA, he was in a unique position to abuse presidential power. It was a crime against the state. I think most scholars say that that’s what the framers intended and I believe that right now it’s the reason the American people are not going to support, certainly as of what they know now, an impeachment, if all we’re talking about is what Mr. Schippers said, which is a false statement under oath about sex and a sexual relationship.

A standard position with which, we think, a reasonable person could disagree. But did we mention this exchange was on Hardball? Death to coherence quickly followed:

MATTHEWS: What amendment to the Constitution are we going to write some day that says that any crime committed that involves sex is not a crime? Are we going to get to that some day in the Constitution? I’m waiting for that language to be written. You could write it--you could have a role in history, Lanny--that any lie committed under oath that involves sex is not a lie.

Let’s be frank--it’s incredible, isn’t it? Isn’t it incredible to find this miserable work at the top of our national news chain? Remarkable! Davis hadn’t said that Clinton’s “false statements” weren’t lies--he had said they weren’t impeachable offenses. He hadn’t said that lying under oath about sexual conduct could never be a crime--he had said that, in this case, if it was a crime, it wasn’t a crime that would lead to impeachment. The distinctions involved here are hardly taxing, and they’ve been made so many times in the past eight months that kids on jungle gyms routinely limn them. But, as in Kelly’s 10/7 piece, even the simplest reasoning gets checked at the door when the Vesuvius Brigade gets riled up.

Davis decided to say it again, this time making it shorter:

DAVIS: The framers thought this through very carefully and they didn’t define “impeachable offense” as a crime, they defined it as something which, I think both James Madison and Mason both said, had to be an abuse of power and a crime against the state.

Maybe that’s true, and maybe that’s false, and maybe Clinton’s actions actually fit that definition. And maybe folks who don’t like intellectual squalor should just stop watching Hardball:

MATTHEWS: Are you making a counter a priori argument that any crime that involves sex is by definition not impeachable? You seem to be arguing that. I hear that on other programs on this network, that that is in fact the defense of this president.

But, what in the world had Davis said that would suggest he was making that argument? Presumably, some imaginable “crime involving sex” could be “an abuse of power and a crime against the state.” Davis was saying that this alleged crime didn’t happen to fit that description. Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts yowled and covered their ears when the talker made his response.

But the truth is, you can see this kind of thing on Hardball pretty much any night of the week. Monday night, Joe Cammarata threw out the week’s leading howler in a colloquy with Ed Koch. Matthews had mentioned the possibility of a deal in place of impeachment:

CAMMARATA: I don’t think there should be a deal. And contrary to what His Honor says--he’s a judge [on TV]--I find it remarkable for him to suggest that it’s OK to lie under oath...

So once again we were off to the races. Koch had said nothing at all to that point to suggest it was “OK to lie under oath.” In fact, he had said that, if he had his way, Clinton would be subject to “caning...I’d bring back the stocks.” But it’s just so much fun to pretend folks have said silly things that don’t make sense:

CAMMARATA: Mr. Mayor, you’re absolutely right, absolutely right. But however, I think you’re a member of the bar, are you not? OK. So you would not lie under oath, correct?

KOCH: Correct.

CAMMARATA: And you would not suggest a client would lie under oath, correct?

KOCH: Absolutely not. Not only that, if you do, you’re subject to disbarment.

CAMMARATA: And isn’t the president of the United States a lawyer?

KOCH: And he may be disbarred. But that has nothing to do with impeachable offenses. [Our emphasis]

They understand this by now down at Chuck E. Cheese; but it’s still a major mystery here on Hardball. By the logic of Hardball and the Vesuvius Brigade, to say that something is not impeachable is somehow to say it can’t lead to disbarment; and to say that something can’t lead to disbarment is the same as saying that it must be OK. It’s all just a part of the drill.

Cammarata’s response to the jurist Koch made the analysts fill with frustration:

CAMMARATA: Well, that’s the difference between your view and my view. I do think that they are impeachable offenses...

And guess what? If hadn’t wasted our time with the vacuous logic he had just gone through in his exchange with Koch, maybe Cammarata could have used his time to actually tell us why he thought that!

But that would have made too much sense for Hardball. The approach would have just been too rational. It’s much more fun to construct howling arguments--why, the mayor is saying that it’s OK to lie! Lanny says a lie involving sex isn’t lying!! Yep, as the analysts looked around with their wondering eyes, we had to remind them all over again--that it’s all just a part of what we do love to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps.”

Postscript: We repeat: we’re wide open to the view that President Clinton has committed impeachable offenses. We think it would move the debate along if commentators like Kelly and Cammarata told us why they think Clinton’s conduct does rise to this level. They waste our time with the silly venting we’ve repeatedly seen in the course of the past week. Clearly, not all misconduct is impeachable. Fellers--just tell us why this conduct is.

Read on: Only on Hardball! A scribe suggested the judge of The People’s Court could mediate the impeachment debate. See Smile-a-while, 10/14/98.