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Caveat lector

TABULA RUBA! When Michael Isikoff limned Sidney’s book, you could just hear him say it. Hey, rube!

THURSDAY, MAY 22, 2003

HEY, RUBE: On last Friday’s Hardball, Jimmy Breslin reviewed the commander-in-chief’s rocket ship trip to that carrier:

BRESLIN: Just a minute! Let me say this, then go home, huh? Wait a minute! He landed on the aircraft carrier. Everybody knows the picture. I haven’t heard anybody say that he said anything, as you would expect at a time like that, memorably, gracefully, something to the American public. No. Just a picture with him and a helmet under his arm. I heard one sound, though, did come out of that. Very softly at first, in the distance, it will grow louder. “Hey, rube. Hey, rube. Hey, rube!”
We thought of Breslin’s memorable moment after clicking to Slate Tuesday night.

We all know the press corps will do and say anything to keep you from buying Sidney Blumenthal’s book. Still and all, what could Jacob Weisberg possibly have been thinking when he put Michael Isikoff’s critique into print? Isikoff blandly insults Slate readers—for example, when he writes this:

ISIKOFF: If The Clinton Wars has any central point it is that the scandals that beset the Clinton presidency—from Whitewater to campaign finance to Lewinsky to Marc Rich—were each and every one of them entirely concocted, from start to finish. This is patently absurd. It is, of course, true that many of Clinton’s critics made wild, unsubstantiated charges and that Starr’s prosecutors overreached. But Blumenthal’s blanket whitewash is close to ludicrous—and sustainable only by erasing huge chunks of the historical record…

About Whitewater, Blumenthal has this to say: “There was never anything to in the beginning, middle or end.” What convinced him? In January 1994, Hillary Clinton called him into her office and told him so. “I believed Hillary Clinton,” he writes. “Her telling of the story…sounded convincing; her demeanor struck no false notes.” [Isikoff’s deletion]

Incredibly, that is Isikoff’s full account of Blumenthal-on-Whitewater. In reality, The Clinton Wars goes on and on about this mother of all pseudo-scandals. Blumenthal describes the December 1995 “Pillsbury report,” an official study which exonerated the Clintons—and which the press corps refused to report. He quotes Starr prosecutor Ray Jahn exonerating the Clintons in open court—an event the press corps refused to report (May 1996). He describes the oddly bungled New York Times reporting which started the super-hoaxed case in the first place. In The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal has many things to say “about Whitewater.” In the passage quoted above, Isikoff (and Weisberg) are simply deceiving you. You can almost hear them say it: Hey, rube!

If Isikoff insults the facts with his Whitewater passage, he insults simple logic elsewhere. What could have gone through Weisberg’s mind when he put this screaming nonsense into print?

ISIKOFF: Needless to say, I am not exactly a disinterested party. My reporting on the Monica Lewinsky story is maligned repeatedly in The Clinton Wars. (At least I am in good company: Jeff Gerth, the New York Times reporter who broke the original Whitewater story, is depicted as a credulous tool of Clinton’s enemies. The late Michael Kelly, who succeeded Blumenthal as Washington editor of The New Yorker, is portrayed as a hysteric who screams obscenities over the phone at the slightest provocation—“You fucking asshole! You fucking asshole! Your reputation will be nothing!”) But it is abundantly clear that distortion is standard fare for Blumenthal. Although there are slivers of truth in most of what he writes, the facts are dishonestly rearranged to settle scores or whitewash his and the Clintons’ actions.
Clearly, Blumenthal’s portrait of Michael Kelly is listed as a “distortion.” But Isikoff doesn’t make any attempt to show that the presentation is false. Indeed, other profiles have described Kelly behaving in much this same way (see below). To state the obvious, Isikoff has no way of knowing that this phone call didn’t happen. His writing here makes no earthly sense. Can you hear what he’s saying? Hey, rube!

But then, there’s a wide assortment of screaming howlers in Isikoff’s rube-rousting piece. He spins the facts behind the iconic tale of how Sidney was scolded by the grand jury forewoman. He tortures facts to sustain the iconic claim that Sidney lied about what he was asked. And how about the insult to readers contained in this small, screaming howler?
ISIKOFF: Time and again, in the book as in life, [Blumenthal] rearranges facts, spins conspiracy theories, impugns motives, and besmirches the character of his political and journalistic foes—all for the greater cause of defending the Clintons (and himself)…Meanwhile, Blumenthal wonders repeatedly why so many people dislike him. At one point, bizarrely, he suggests it is because he is “intellectual” and “Jewish.”
But how “bizarre” is this suggestion? In The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal describes the sliming he took as the Clinton wars reached their full fury. This was one example:
BLUMENTHAL (page 445): Vanity Fair, the magazine of fashionable moods, published an article in May [1998] that was a snide compendium of anonymous animosity. It wrote that if Blumenthal “turned up murdered, everyone in town would be a suspect.” The Washington Times, under the headline “Sid the Red?” reported that Vanity Fair “insinuates that Mr. Blumenthal is—or at least was once was—a Communist.”…Drawing a full stereotype, [Vanity Fair] also wrote that “Blumenthal seems to ooze intellectual superiority” and quoted another anonymous source: “He comes from an intense family, of emotion, a certain kind of Jewish family. They don’t spare your feelings. It would have taken a lot of work on his part to become a truly gracious person.”
Which part of “intellectual” and “Jewish” doesn’t Slate understand? Isikoff—treating you like a hay-fed rube—omits the background of Sid’s “bizarre” thought. Unsurprisingly, Blumenthal’s mother was able to grasp what Weisberg and Isikoff couldn’t:
BLUMENTHAL (page 445): My lovely mother telephoned me, very upset that she and my father had been demeaned by someone who had no idea who they were. She took the gratuitous attacks personally…She understood all too well the caricature of “a certain kind of Jewish family.”
So would every Slate reader on the face of the earth—so Isikoff decided to play them. Hey rube, he cleverly said.

At Slate—indeed, across the press—they’re busy pretending that the press corps was right, that the events described in The Clinton Wars simply didn’t happen. They’ve engaged in a hoax—then a cover-up—for years, and now their deceptions are growing bolder. They refuse to stop spinning the Whitewater hoax; they keep pretending that their colleagues were champions. And as they deceive you, they all say one thing. Can you hear what they’re saying? Hey, rube!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: What was Blumenthal asked in that grand jury session? Isikoff rattles off a long-debunked, iconic tale. For a bit of background information, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/99. Meanwhile, treat yourself to the things Joe knows. You know what to do. Just click here.

KELL’S BELLS: Was the late Michael Kelly a prince of decorum? When Kelly was named the Atlantic’s editor, Eric Alterman profiled him in The Nation. At one point, he recalled Kelly’s reaction when victims of Stephen Glass’ inventions complained about his lies:

ALTERMAN: Finally, there was Kelly’s temperament, tellingly displayed in his handling of the Stephen Glass matter…When one of Glass’s victims insisted that the reporter had published a “fictionalized account” of his work, Kelly fired back: “You have shown that you are willing to smear someone’s professional reputation without any concern for truth…I await your apology to Stephen Glass and to this magazine.” Kelly replied to another of Glass’s critics that his letter was “meritless: dishonest, wrongheaded and clearly motivated by devotion to ideology rather than by any concern for truth or accuracy.” The New Republic’s own investigation later concluded that Glass had invented anonymous sources, inflammatory quotes and false witnesses in that very story.
Alterman was quoting Kelly’s irate letters to Glass’ victims, letters which had been published before. Kelly’s defenders swear by their man. But why would Isikoff simply assume that Blumenthal’s brief anecdote was a “distortion?”

At another point, The Clinton Wars quotes a Kelly column referring to Blumenthal as “Sid the Human Ferret.” Of course, if you aren’t allowed to hear the Jewish stuff, why should you hear the animal imagery? Readers, the “press corps” is scrambling to scrub its past conduct. Can you hear what they’re saying? Hey, rube!

The Daily update

WHY NOT FLUNK THE TEXAS SCHOOL BOARD? We’ll postpone our comments on Michael Winerip’s brilliant piece; he deserves to be held apart from the hustlers we’ve profiled today. But on the front page of this morning’s Times, you will find another must-read item. As we’ve told you, the notion that “social promotion” can somehow be outlawed is—in a simple word—insane. Now Texas becomes the latest state to pull back from a bungled calculation:

SAM DILLON: Fearing that thousands of students would fail the new test and be held back a grade, and that hundreds of schools could face penalties under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the [Texas state school] board voted to reduce the number of questions that students must answer correctly to pass it, to 20 out of 36, from 24, for third-grade reading.
Could engineers build bridges this way? The Texas school board is baldly incompetent. But this has happened all over the country as out-of-touch school boards plunge pell-mell into politically correct, talk-show-pleasing “solutions.” If we had a few more Michael Winerips, this clowning might get the debunking it needs. But today, once again, the Times serves.