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Daily Howler: Harris describes the press corps' disdain for Clinton, going where career liberals won't
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CONTEMPT AND DISDAIN! Harris describes the press corps’ disdain for Clinton, going where career liberals won’t: // link // print // previous // next //

LET’S PLAY FREEFALL: Norah O’Donnell’s freefall continued as she guest-hosted last night’s Hardball. During one segment, she spoke with Colleen Rowley, the former FBI analyst who is now running for Congress as a Democrat. Rowley had recently gone to Crawford to show support for Cindy Sheehan. Try to believe O’Donnell’s questions and the fractured logic they describe:
O`DONNELL: You`re a Democrat running for Congress. It was reported that Republican leaders in your state were just thrilled that you had decided to align yourself with anti-war extremists. Do you think that this could affect your race for Congress?

ROWLEY: Well, I will quickly correct the record, that they are not anti-war extremists. The majority of the people I saw down in Crawford were actually veterans groups. There were military families and—

O`DONNELL: But, Colleen, they do oppose the war in Iraq, do they not?

By O’Donnell’s apparent logic, if you “oppose the war in Iraq,” that makes you an “anti-war extremist.” But then, O’Donnell was hapless throughout. Enjoy a good laugh at her follow-up question to loudmouth radio host Mark Williams, who is heading for Crawford on the “You don’t speak for me, Cindy” tour:
O`DONNELL (8/22/05): Let me bring in Mark Williams, who is a radio talk show host and is launching his caravan tour from California, heading to Crawford today. Why have you launched this tour?

WILLIAMS: Well, the pontifications of a self-serving Democrat political candidate notwithstanding, this tour is neither anti-Cindy Sheehan nor is it pro-war. I have not spoken with a single individual in the last three years who is pro-war, nor anybody who is anti-Cindy Sheehan. What we are against is the damage she is causing. I just got back from Iraq, talking with the troops, talking with the Iraqis. And I see the damage that`s done by pathetic creatures like the woman I`m talking to and Cindy Sheehan.

O`DONNELL: What specifically do you mean, Mark?

When Williams called Rowley a “pathetic creature,” O’Donnell wanted to know what he meant! “I’m about to get to that,” the rabid talker replied—and O’Donnell was willing to let him.

Most absurdly, Williams kept insisting that he wasn’t “pro-war”—that he was just “supporting the troops.” But then, with flyweights like O’Donnell running our discourse, inane claims like that have eternal life—and the gods on Olympus rock with laughter. Indeed, Williams kept it up to the close of the session, which ended with whimpers from his host:

WILLIAMS: We`re actually working towards supporting our troops and help the Iraqis build a country. What is this Democrat congressional representative candidate doing, besides flapping her jowls on MSNBC?

O`DONNELL: All right. Well, we have more anti-war people headed to Crawford. We have more that support the war headed to Crawford.

WILLIAMS: No, we`re not supporting the war. We`re supporting our troops.

O`DONNELL: Understood.

WILLIAMS: Big difference.

O`DONNELL: All right.

And that was where the session ended—with Williams insisting he was only supporting the troops, and with O’Donnell accepting this laughable claim. And with Williams insulting Rowley for “flapping her jowls,” of course.

For all that, nothing could have been any dumber than Hardball’s opening segments last night, in which O’Donnell tried to squeeze a scandal from a pointless old telephone tape. Has Hardball decided to dumb itself down even further, as several cable shows have done in recent months? We’ve gotten that impression in the past two weeks. Tonight, Nantucket’s finest is back in his chair, and we’ll likely see where the program is headed.

SHEARER SHIRKER? Meanwhile, has Harry Shearer been skimping on his all-important cable viewing? The signs were everywhere in yesterday’s post about the lack of missing white men. Harry nominated Olivia Newton-John’s missing boy friend—but cable’s biggest new story in the past month already concerns a missing white man! He somehow fell off a Mediterranean cruise ship—and from that day right up to this, Joe Scarborough has thought about little else. Readers, has Shearer been AWOL from Scarborough Country? We’d hate to think so, but we must ask: Has Harry gone “missing” himself?

Special report—The Missing!

PART 2—CONTEMPT AND DISDAIN: Yes, John Harris is often quite fair on the subject of President Clinton. In fact, in Harris’ new book, The Survivor, the scribe shoots down the long list of “scandals” which virtually defined the Clinton era—“scandals” which eventually put George Bush in the White House. Harris waves away Filegate, Travelgate, and the 1996 fund-raising “scandals,” and he even seems to wave away the grand-daddy of them all, Whitewater (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/22/05)—although in Part 4, we’ll look askance at his truncated treatment of this iconic matter.

Indeed, how fair is Harris willing to be? Early on in The Survivor, he even notes an intriguing fact—the Washington press corps had an odd “disdain” for the new president, even before he arrived in Washington. Right at the start of his book, Harris quotes Post pundit Mary McGrory’s column on the Clinton pre-inaugural, in which McGrory criticized a bell ringing-ceremony as “pretentious.” “McGrory’s sour review reflected the oddly conflicted mood of Washington that January,” Harris writes (on page 4)—and he goes on to describe a pre-inaugural Clinton press conference: “The news conference continued in this peevish spirit—both the questions and the answers freighted with a suspicion bordering on contempt” (page 7). Given all we hear about the press corps’ “liberal bias,” it may seem odd to hear Harris say that corps felt something like contempt for Clinton, even before the new leader took office. But Harris goes on to describe this press conference as “an exercise in mutual incomprehension, setting the tone for the contentious relationship between president and press that was to follow.” Indeed: “Far from enjoying the traditional honeymoon, Clinton and the Washington political class were quarreling like a couple who would have split up except for the kids” (page 8). Soon, Harris describes the press corps’ attitude during the gays-in-the-military flap, the first real flap of Clinton’s early days as president: “[T]he reporters and editors of the Washington press corps were all in their own ways testing the new president, extending him uncommonly little deference,” Harris writes on page 14. According to Harris, then, the “liberal” press corps gave this new president less deference than would be the norm. Soon, Harris is describing the “thinly veiled disdain” displayed by his own Post colleague, the late Ann Devroy, in a front-page report about Clinton (page 35). Indeed: “In short order there was a low-grade war under way between the Clinton White House and the veteran reporters who covered it, which became one of the great antagonisms to mark the Clinton years,” he writes one page later. Again, it may seem strange to read such claims about a press corps famed for its “liberal bias.” But then, we know more now than we once might have done about some reporters’ real attitudes:

HARRIS (pages 36-37): The tension flowed from various sources...An older generation of reporters bridled at the new team’s style: smart and savvy, and projecting a confidence that occasionally blurred into arrogance. Brit Hume, an acerbic and respected reporter then with ABC News, used to work his crossword puzzle while sitting in the front row of the Stephanopoulos’s news briefing, looking up occasionally to drill the young man when he heard a contradiction or some absurd claim. David S. Broder of the Washington Post once said after a heated phone call with Stephanopoulos that he felt like telling him to go to his room.
Impressions of the corps’ “liberal bias” to the side, we all know now what we may not have known back when these events were transpiring—that Hume is actually an “acerbic” (and angry) conservative, whose personal sense of what is “absurd” is rarely driven by “liberal bias.” Harris never describes Devroy’s views, but he provides a pungent look at his colleague in action, soon after Clinton took office:
HARRIS (page 37): To the Clintonites, the reporters seemed always to assume the worst about any set of facts. Once, Stephanopoulos was trying to assure Ann Devroy that a newsworthy rumor she had heard was untrue. Agreeing to hold off on a story, Devroy—from whom threats, laughter, profanity and cigarette smoke streamed in large measure—rasped, “George if you are lying to me I promise I will fuck you over!” Then she put Stephanopoulos on hold to take a call from her daughter. “Sweetheart,” she said, her voice metamorphosing into a lovely tilt,” how are you?”
This leads directly to Harris’ take on the Travelgate “scandal,” in which he judges that “the uproar that ensued” did reflect, among other things, “the insularity of Washington and the self-absorbed nature of the Washington press corps.” (For fuller quote, see yesterday’s HOWLER.) Was the press corps driven by liberal bias at the time Bill Clinton took office? By page 146, Harris is saying this: “The president did indeed generate a surprising degree of casual disdain from the rotating group of perhaps fifty writers, television correspondents, and producers assigned to the White House beat.” Indeed: “It seemed that every reporter flying on the press charter that accompanied Air Force One had a Clinton impersonation, and they regaled one another with warbling, raspy-voiced imitations of his signature lines.” Once again, Harris describes the attitude of the regaled, his own press corps colleagues:
HARRIS (pages 146-147): At times the antagonism between president and press corps had a high school dimension. Clinton, working hard on his grades, saw the reporters as slackers and bullies—more interested in gossip and carping than anything constructive. The reporters, shooting spitballs from the back of the class, regarded Clinton as a preening apple-polisher.
These portraits are hard to reconcile with standard notions of “liberal bias.” Indeed, by the time Clinton’s vice president ran for the White House, major pundits were performing their “impersonations” on national TV, even indulging themselves moments after Gore’s crucial speech at the Democratic Convention (links below). Since “career liberal” writers refuse to discuss this remarkable conduct to this very day, Harris deserves a good deal of credit for the portrait he draws of his own press corps. Obedient “career liberals” all know not to go there, no matter how much damage is done to your interests by their self-dealing silence. By contrast, Harris is much more frank in his portrait of his own cohort.

But at this point, our praise of Harris approaches its end. A question would occur to almost anyone: Why exactly did the press corps exhibit this “casual disdain” for Bill Clinton? The question is especially intriguing given the fact that Harris debunks many of the troubling “scandals” which seemed to fuel so much press disdain. But Harris’ answer to that question struck our analysts as being quite weak. And soon, our analysts were rolling their eyes as he raced through the Whitewater “scandal.”

TOMORROW—PART 3: Why did the press corps feel this disdain? Harris’ answer seems weak.

WILLING TO REGALE THE WHOLE NATION: By the time Clinton’s VP sought the White House, the press corps’ talented gang of impressionists were no longer willing to confine their work to the back of their charter planes. To cite one example, Margaret Carlson was willing to regale the whole nation with her mocking impression of Gore—first in an ill-advised Imus appearance, then in a CNN outing moments after Gore’s convention speech. Of course, others showed their disdain for Gore’s speech. At one time, David Broder wanted to send Stephanopoulos to bed. Now, he let the world know that Gore’s boring speech had almost put Broder himself to sleep! Broder’s disdain was on full display. This is where the “casual” disdain which Harris describes ended up.

For Carlson-on-Imus, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/03. For Carlson-on-CNN after Gore’s speech, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/4/04. (Sorry—we’ve never posted a full account of that remarkable CNN pundit session.) For Broder’s reaction to the Gore speech, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/7/04. By the time of the 2000 Dem Convention, the press corps’ “casual disdain” toward Clinton had grown into open disdain for Gore. This remarkable conduct put Bush in the White House—though fiery “career liberals” have agreed not to tattle, deep-sixing this crucial part of your history. Despite limitations which we will discuss, Harris is much more frank about the Clinton-Gore years—about the attitudes which put Bush into power.