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2 November 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Getting to yes back in March

Synopsis: A passel of pundits rushed to judgment when Kathleen Willey first appeared back in March.

Willey Testifies Before Grand Jury
Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt, The Washington Post, 3/11/98

Willey Debts in Foreground Of Efforts to Sell Her Story
Jill Abramson and Don Van Natta, Jr., The New York Times, 3/20/98

Unslick Willey
Charles Lane, The New Republic, 4/6/98

In the wake of Linda Tripp’s grand jury testimony, it’s hard to avoid the obvious thought: Kathleen Willey may have been fibbing on Sixty Minutes, when she described an assault by President Clinton in the Oval Office. Tripp told the grand jury, under oath, that Willey had long pursued an assignation with Clinton. And she said that Willey “smiled from ear to ear the entire time” when she described the encounter right after it occurred. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/26/98, for our review of Tripp’s account.)

Tripp’s testimony was hardly the first warning sign about Kathleen Willey’s accusation. Indeed, for anyone who wanted to pay attention, there were problems surrounding Willey’s account every step of the way. In Newsweek’s original reporting on the incident, Tripp was quoted saying that Willey seemed happy upon relating the encounter with Clinton. And by the time Willey appeared on Sixty Minutes in March, various matters had been reported that tended to cast doubt on her account of the Oval Office event.

Baker and Schmidt in the Post, and Abramson and Van Natta in the Times, penned detailed accounts, at the time of Willey’s appearance, that could only cast doubt on her credibility. The writers detailed financial problems, approaches to publishers, and challenges to credibility by Willey’s friends. They reminded readers of Tripp’s original statement that Willey had seemed pleased by the encounter. They described slippery conduct in Willey’s financial life, in which she gimmicked the system to avoid paying debts. They reminded readers of the friendly notes Willey sent Clinton in the aftermath of the disputed encounter, and they said Willey had told guests at her husband’s funeral that Clinton might be able to attend.

None of this proved that Willey was lying in her account of the meeting with Clinton. To state the obvious, we at THE HOWLER have no way of knowing what occurred in the Oval Office that day.

But as of March 17, cautious writers would have seen that Kathleen Willey had motives for fibbing. And it was far from clear that Willey’s character simply compelled our belief.

But life in this celebrity press corps means always putting one’s faith in accusers. And so, in the immediate aftermath of Willey’s appearance, the celebrity press corps rushed into print, insisting Kathleen Willey told it true.

Willey appeared on Sixty Minutes on Sunday, March 15; by Tuesday, the reviews were appearing. Pundits swooned for their latest love; spring amour was already in bloom. George Will asked, “What kind of person can continue the intellectual contortions necessary to sustain doubt about who is lying?” And Will weepily told readers this:

WILL: Willey’s painful--for her, and for her civilized viewers--appearance drew dignity from her patent reluctance, and her grown-up’s incredulity about Clinton’s crudity at the time and his continued mendacity.

George Will had quickly made up his mind.

William Safire made it clear Willey’s run would continue: “Here was no slick Willey,” he wrote, of the new star’s “gripping interview.” Maureen Dowd understood why Willey remained friendly with Clinton: “Anita Hill and Kathleen Willey were prepared to extract the good from the bad, and make their bosses’ libidos work for them.”

We always turn to Michael Kelly for the least temperate reaction to any situation, and he didn’t disappoint with an angry rant in which he affirmed every word Willey said. Even Walter Shapiro accused the White House of “smears” for suggesting that Willey spoke false, though Shapiro himself was only “95% convinced Willey’s charges are true.”

Remember, the pundits were vouching for an accuser on whom they had just set eyes for the very first time. They were endorsing an accuser whose problems were being described in the news pages of their very own papers.

But even some who acknowledged Willey’s problems couldn’t resist the call of love. Example: Charles Lane, in the New Republic, with the strangest swoon that we found in the bunch.

Lane began by making it clear where he stood on Willey’s credibility:

LANE: Kathleen Willey is pretty clearly telling the truth about what happened between her and Bill Clinton on November 29, 1993. And the episode is pretty clearly a far more offensive matter than Clinton’s alleged dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. With Monica, it was consensual. The president’s advance toward Willey even included a modest measure of physical force...So the president is a groper and a liar. He must be held accountable. The question is: How?

Nowhere does Lane even attempt to say how he knows that Willey is telling the truth, or how he knows that President Clinton used force, or how he knows that Clinton is “a groper.” He doesn’t devote one word in his column to defending the judgments he asserts. And his total certainty is especially striking because he lists every factor raising doubt about Willey! Lane presents a litany of problems surrounding Willey’s account.

Lane wonders why Willey didn’t look elsewhere for work if she had been so offended by Clinton. He mentions that Tripp had said that Willey “looked happy upon emerging from the Oval Office.” In one sweet sentence he shows that he knew that Willey was in need of money; had tried to sell her story; and hadn’t been honest in financial dealings. Let’s read this sentence, from the very same guy who’s so sure his new love tells him true:

LANE: Not to mention the fact that Willey’s lawyer tried to sell her story to a publisher for $300,000--because she’s still desperate for cash to make restitution to a client from whom her late husband had allegedly embezzled and whom Willey declined to pay from the proceeds of her husband’s $1 million life insurance policy.

That’s right, folks--with a million dollars safely in hand, she wouldn’t pay $300,000 in (court-certified) debt. This from the person whom Lane is so certain just has to be telling the truth.

This writing from Safire, Will, Dowd, and Kelly was writing as bad as it gets. By now, in the wake of Tripp’s account, only a zealot could fail to see that Willey may not have been truthful. But there was plenty of reason to be careful about Willey, even back in the middle of March. But Clinton wasn’t the only one who thought Kathleen Willey was lookin’ good. Ardent pundits believed she looked pretty cute too--and you know how they heart image those accusers.

All true: For a full list of the columns to which we’ve referred, see “Biblio, 11/2/98.”