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Daily Howler: The press ignores Bush's overnight guests. We recall a different era
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SPINNING THE LINCOLN! The press ignores Bush’s overnight guests. We recall a different era: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 16, 2005

HAMMER TIME: How thoroughly does the pseudo-con world play those “red state” voters for fools? Watching yesterday’s Meet the Press, our analysts chuckled when Tim Russert played tape from Thursday’s DeLay testimonial dinner. The tape began with Cleta Mitchell, who emceed the event:
MITCHELL (videotape): Ladies and gentlemen, join in and let's sing, "We've Got A Hammer!”

(Singing): Now, we've got a ham-mer,
And we've got a ham-mer,
And he hammers in the evening,
All over this la-and....

Yes, Tom DeLay’s nickname is “The Hammer.” Everybody calls him “The Hammer,” including his most ardent supporters. But so what? When she wrote her kooky best-seller, Slander, Ann Coulter seemed to be looking for ways to laugh at the rubes even as she stirred their passions. Here are paragraphs 2 and 3 from the book’s first page:
COULTER (page one): As there is less to dispute, liberals have become more bitter and angry. The Soviet threat has been vaporized, women are not prevented from doing even things they should be, and the gravest danger facing most black Americans today is the risk of being patronized to death.

And yet still, somehow, Tom DeLay (Republican congressman from Texas) poses a monumental threat to democracy as we know it. The left expresses disagreement with DeLay’s governing philosophy by calling him “the Meanest Man in Congress,” “Dangerous,” “the Hammer,” “the Exterminator,” and the “Torquemada of Texas.” For his evident belief in a Higher Being, Mr. DeLay is compared to savage murderers and homicidal lunatics on the pages of the New York Times. (“History teaches that when religion is injected into politics—the Crusades, Henry VIII, Salem, Father Coughlin, Hitler, Kosovo—disaster follows.”)

In paragraph 3 of her laughable book, Coulter asked the rubes to get upset because “the left” calls DeLay “The Hammer”—the name that rang all over the land just last Thursday night! Later, of course, Time searched and searched, but couldn’t find Coulter’s “mistakes.”

For the record, Coulter’s legendary attribution problems were already evident here on page one. Did the New York Times (i.e., Maureen Dowd) compare DeLay “to savage murderers and homicidal lunatics?” As we’ve noted, Dowd’s quoted passage referred most directly to a different pol—Al Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/05). And when exactly did “the left” call DeLay “the Meanest Man in Congress?” Coulter’s footnote blames the Washington Post, but the Post was accurately quoting a blurb from the cover of George magazine, which had profiled the Texas tyro. In truth, George took a few liberties with the truth when it put this eye-catching phrase on its cover. The magazine’s profile cited a Washingtonian poll of 1200 Capitol Hill staffers—a poll which found that Tom DeLay was only the third meanest member of Congress. But so it went, from page one onward, as clowning Coulter stirred the rubes all over the red-state land.

LET THEM EAT HAMMERS: In Friday’s Washington Post, Mark Leibovich reviewed the DeLay dinner. Apparently, “the left” prepared the chocolate desserts over which attendees fought:

LEIBOVICH (5/13/05): Amid the rhetorical red meat, guests dined on filet mignon and salmon, topped off by frosted marble cake with chocolate hammers. At one table, diners grabbed for the edible hammers like kids at a birthday party. "Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats and it will facilitate the serving of our hammer desserts," implored Mitchell. When no one listened, she shushed into the microphone and asked, "Where is the Hammer when you need him?"
But how dare Mitchell call him “The Hammer?” It looks like someone in angling for a spot on page one of Coulter’s next book.

Special report: Spinning the Lincoln!

BUSH’S GUESTS: Last Thursday, USA Today’s Judy Keen reported an intriguing fact: “About a third of the 152 adult guests who slept at the White House or Camp David last year were fundraisers or donors to President Bush's campaigns.” As she continued, she quoted a Washington watchdog:

KEEN (5/15/05): Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan watchdog group, said that while the practice of inviting donors to spend the night at the White House and the presidential retreat isn't new, it doesn't look any better than when it sparked a scandal during the Clinton administration.
Ted Barlow cited the Keen report, and Kevin Drum linked to Barlow.

For ourselves, we aren’t hugely disturbed to see Bush hosting some major fund-raisers. But then, we weren’t hugely disturbed when we “learned,” in 1997, that Clinton was hosting some donors too. Watchdogs like Noble snarl at the practice, and they’re entitled to their opinion. But one thing is abundantly clear—the outrage that was aimed at Vile Clinton will not be aimed at Prime Mover Bush. The numbers involved in Keen’s reporting are very similar to the numbers involved in Clinton’s Lincoln Bedroom “scandal.” But one thing has changed—the Washington press corps. They screamed and tore their hair out then, but roll over and play dead today.

Barlow provided a take on the numbers, but this topic has long been a favorite of ours; indeed, this is the topic which most directly led us to start the incomparable DAILY HOWLER (details below). How similar are the Bush/Clinton numbers? Let’s start by reviewing some basic facts from 1997. We thought you might enjoy recalling the days when the liberal press corps bristled with outrage over consuming “scandals” like this—when the press was so outraged by Clinton’s vile behavior that it hid elementary facts and simply made other facts up:

SPINNING THE LINCOLN: The story of the Lincoln Bedroom was a classic Clinton-era scandal—a story in which Washington’s “press corps” quickly got busy reinventing basic facts. For the record, here are a few of the ways those facts were reworked and improved. As usual, major scribes lied in your faces—and their colleagues kept quiet about the deceptions. Even the fiery liberals at your “liberal” publications seemed to know that they mustn’t speak up. But then, they ran and hid all through the years in which the press corps waged war against Clinton and Gore. Even today, they keep their mouths closed about what really happened. Here’s a bit of what occurred when the “press corps” chose to spin this sweet tale. Here are some of the basic facts about this consuming scandal:

How many overnight guests were involved? 831. Or 938, depending on how clownish a newspaper wanted to be. In March 1997, the White House produced a list of overnight guests for the Clintons’ four-plus years in the White House. 831 guests were listed. Beyond that, though, the White House noted that 35 family members had also stayed overnight, and that Chelsea Clinton—twelve to sixteen years old at the time—had hosted 72 additional guests (think: junior high slumber parties). Readers can probably guess what occurred. Wanting to make the scandal seem bigger, most news orgs took the relevant number (831), then added the 72 and the 35, producing a more pleasing total—938 overnight guests in all. There! That felt about twelve percent better! So when newspapers pimped the pleasing claim that the Clintons had hosted 938 guests, they were including 72 teen-aged friends of their daughter and 35 family members, although the papers almost never told readers that the numbers were being jacked up this way. In some ways, the Washington Post clowned most foolishly. On the first day of the story, the paper used the relevant number—831. After that, the paper switched to 938, apparently wanting to keep pace with its embellishing competitors. But as we’ve noted in the past, this is a standard practice in America’s “press corps.” Not uncommonly, news orgs which get a story right end up adjusting their accurate work to conform to conventional wisdom—to conventional tales which are wrong.

For the record, did all these guests stay in the Lincoln Bedroom? No. “Some guests stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom, but many stayed in other rooms,” the New York Times reported as the story broke. There are many bedrooms in the White House family quarters, and there was never any record of who stayed where. But so what? “Lincoln Bedroom” sounded better than “family quarters,” so accuracy was quickly abandoned, as is the norm in modern press culture. As we have endlessly noted, your “press corps” reports the story which sounds the best. Accuracy is abandoned to get it.

How many of the 831 guests actually donated to the Clintons? Many fewer than you might have thought. According to an op-ed column by Richard Cohen, “a Washington Post computer analysis showed that the White House raised [money] from about 291 overnight guests.” If this claim is accurate, of course, it means that about two-thirds of the ballyhooed guests gave the Clintons no money at all. But this central fact was rarely reported in the swirl of hyped-up claims. On Day One of the story, a Post news report did say this: “More than one in three White House guests gave money to the president or the Democratic National Committee during the past two years.” But the paper never explicitly noted the corollary: Two-thirds of the White House guests didn’t give any money at all. Instead, the Post published a string of flatly inaccurate accounts, as we will see below.

How many of the guests donated a significant amount of money? Many fewer than you might have thought. According to a list released by the New York Times, only 121 of the overnight guests donated to the DNC—the only way a person could give more than $1000 to the Clintons. In short, only about one in eight of the reported guests gave as much as $1000. Compare this to the baldly inaccurate press accounts reprinted below.

As far as we know, these facts and figures were never reported in the major papers. Uh-oh! When the Times published its list of DNC donors, it accidentally forgot to count up the names and report how many names were involved. Published in the Sunday paper, the list of names looked exceedingly long. But unless you actually counted the names, you wouldn’t realize how few people were involved. It’s as we’ve told you again and again: Your “press corps” has an endless array of tricks it uses to hype treasured stories.

More data: Only 101 of the overnight guests gave more than $1000 to the DNC. Only 42 gave as much as $50,000, an amount that was endlessly hyped in the press. Of the ten biggest donors to Clinton’s campaign, only four ever slept at the White House. These facts were never, or almost never, reported in the nation’s press. Their places were taken in our big papers by fake facts, like the fake facts which follow.

Despite all this, how were the overnight guests described? The Clintons hosted 831 guests. Roughly two-thirds gave no money at all. Only one-eighth gave as much as $1000. But so what? The usual suspects swung into action, producing ludicrous substitutes for these disappeared facts. Let’s start with the Washington Post. Here’s how Charles Krauthammer began an early column:

KRAUTHAMMER (2/28/97): Richard Nixon was laid low by his enemies list. How fitting that Bill Clinton should be laid low by his friends list—all 355,000 of them neatly packed into the White House computer, with that extra special 938 tucked into the Lincoln Bedroom.
Of course, that “extra special 938" included 72 teen-aged friends of Chelsea’s. And no, they weren’t all “tucked into the Lincoln Bedroom,” although it felt good to say otherwise. And of course, most of them didn’t give any money—nada; zero; nothing; zilch. But so what? Krauthammer baldly misled readers with this skillful construction:
KRAUTHAMMER (2/28/97): And then there are the special friends, the 938 Lincoln Bedroom overnighters who together gave $10 million to the Democratic Party—an assortment of (more) Arkansas cronies, rich executives, movie stars and other useful friends and not-yet-friends.
According to this skillful confection, “the 938 Lincoln Bedroom overnighters...together gave $10 million.” And yes, that statement is technically accurate—the very kind of “Clintonesque” statement hacks like Krauthammer love to say they despise. But how could Krauthammer’s readers know that 72 of these “overnighters” were thirteen years old; that 35 more were Clinton’s great aunts; and that at least two-thirds of the 938 hadn’t given any money at all? Oops! You couldn’t learn that from Krauthammer’s column—a column which was baldly designed to mislead. But then, Post readers were also vastly misled by Tony Kornheiser’s nationally-syndicated (and widely-read) Sunday “Style” column:
KORNHEISER (3/2/97): The president of the United States is running a bed-and-breakfast in the White House! How cheesy does this look? Nine hundred and thirty-eight guests have slept in the White House in the last four years—an occupancy rate higher than most Red Roof Inns. A huge proportion of them were fat cats, big-time Democratic Party financial donors.
“A huge proportion of them were fat cats?” As we’ve seen, this just isn’t true—but if Kornheiser was getting his facts from the Post, it’s easy to see why he might have thought this. But then, you would have gotten a vast misimpression from Richard Cohen’s Post columns, too. At the start of his February 27 column, Cohen wrote that Clinton “would invite almost anyone with a checkbook for a White House sleep-over.” On March 18, he vented again: "Bill and Hillary Clinton were housing...sleep-overs—an astounding number of them—all open, just like Planet Hollywood, to anyone with money." As far as we can see, at no point did the Post directly report that most of the guests involved in this astounding number of sleep-overs gave the Clintons no money at all. At no point did the paper report that only about one-eighth of the guests gave as much as $1000.

Of course, readers were also being deceived by the resident hacks at the Washington Times. If you read Suzanne Fields, you were encouraged to think that all the guests were Clinton’s “big campaign donors:”

FIELDS (3/3/97): The president can't help it if his 938 closest friends are also big campaign donors. It would be inhospitable of him not to invite them to stay over at Motel 1600. Hillary, who never bakes cookies, is said to make very good biscuits.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! But then, all of Washington’s resident hacks were busily pimping this line. Bruce Fein picked out a few pleasing names, then began misstating:
FEIN (3/4/97): Typical of donor invitees to sleep in the Lincoln and Queen's bedrooms were Hollywood producer David Geffen ($200,000); Ron Burkle, a California grocery store executive ($100,000); Dirk Ziff, a former publishing executive ($300,000); and Alan D. Solomont, a Boston nursing home executive ($120,000). The likes of Oliver Twist were nowhere to be found on the list released by the Clinton administration of 938 who enjoyed overnight accommodations at the White House.
Having selected these names because they weren’t typical, Fein falsely said that they were. Meanwhile, it’s odd that Fein would mention the absence of Oliver Twist, since 72 of the 938 actually were under-age waifs, like the famed Dickens icon. Of course, whenever the public is being deceived, Donald Lambro is there, pen in hand:
LAMBRO (4/10/97): In all, 938 people were invited to sleep over at the White House during Mr. Clinton's first term, mostly during the 1995-96 election cycle. Most were big donors who brought in at least $10 million to the party's coffers. The Lincoln Bedroom was the most popular fund-raising attraction of all. Contrary to Mr. Clinton's denials, it was in effect rented out to fat-cat contributors.
Baldly false. But in this, as in so many matters, Washington’s “press corps” did what it does best; it omitted the relevant facts, replacing them with fake “facts” it found pleasing. Meanwhile, did your “liberal” magazines challenge this clowning? Here was the New Republic’s first comment:
NEW REPUBLIC, UNSIGNED (3/17/97):
FINANCIAL ARTS: The just-released list of 831 Clinton friends who slept at the White House in the president's first term offered more than an inside look at how the administration peddled influence. It also provided an inadvertent picture of the sorry state of America's cultural life. The Clintons divided their guests into five categories. Some in the "Arkansas friends" group, we regret to inform, were rather crass characters. But the real shocker came in the fifth, and most highbrow, category, the exalted "Arts and Letters," which sounds like a new section in the Times. Only sixty- seven qualified for this prestigious designation. Among their number, such artistic and literary giants as Ted Danson, Judy Collins, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Ted Turner and Chevy Chase. Thank goodness Clinton didn't have to raise the money necessary to win a close race in 1996. He might have opened up the Lincoln Bedroom to mere commercial entertainers.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Perhaps you’d forgotten the sheer inanity of this magazine in the days of the late Michael Kelly.

Luckily, no one will have to pen a perspective piece about the Bush “overnighter” scandal. Keen’s piece has already come and gone, although the numbers she cites are not unlike the Clinton numbers on a per-year basis. Meanwhile, note something else about her piece—she refers to Bush’s “152 adult guests.” Did the Bushes let some children in? If so, Keen intelligently omits them from her reporting. But things were different in 1997. In 1997, clowning newspapers took Chelsea’s friends and eagerly added them onto the total. In those strange, still-unexplained days, it was always “the more the merrier” when the press corps conducted a Clinton-Gore scandal. Chelsea’s 72 friends were grabbed and happily thrown on the pile.

WE’VE SEEN RIVERS: For us, this event led us to build the sprawling campus from which THE DAILY HOWLER emerges. When he profiled TDH in the Atlanta Constitution, Scott Shepard knew and told all:

SHEPARD (4/9/00): Somerby taught the fifth grade in Baltimore public schools for 13 years before becoming a stand-up comedian in 1981. He also began writing free-lance commentaries for the Baltimore Sun...

Somerby launched the Daily Howler in early 1998 after the Sun rejected a commentary criticizing media coverage of President Clinton's political supporters staying overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

''I realized, 'Ohhh, articles on the national press corps don't get published,’” he said, slapping his forehead in mock surprise. ''Articles criticizing Clinton will. Articles criticizing (former House Speaker Newt) Gingrich will. Articles criticizing The Washington Post and The New York Times won't.''

For the record, we don’t know why that piece was rejected. But yes, a light bulb did go off in our heads. Patrick Butters also included this memorized tale in a 1999 Washington Times HOWLER profile.

Soon after, construction began on our sprawling campus. Of course, we struggled mightily in real time, hoping to bring real facts to real people. Our second letter to the Washington Post actually got published:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (3/22/97):
There he goes again! Richard Cohen [op-ed, March 18] writes: "Bill and Hillary Clinton were housing marathon coffees (103 of them), receptions (at least 58), and sleep-overs—an astounding number of them—all open, just like Planet Hollywood, to anyone with money." The spin, while familiar, is grossly misleading.

Of the Clintons' 831 overnight guests, only 121 gave money to the DNC—the only way a donor could give more than $1,000. Did the overnight guests comprise a stream of big donors? Of the 831 overnight guests, 710 gave the DNC no money at all!

But it’s hardly surprising that Cohen seems not to know this, because, in all your coverage of this overblown story, you have never yet printed these basic facts—facts that would help your readers evaluate this familiar but misleading spin.

We also sent letters to the Washington Times and to USA Today. According to Nexis, the fact-laden letters never found their way into print.