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7 January 1999

Smile-a-while: Back for more

Synopsis: A TV talker kicked off the New Year with one of his trademark howlers.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Alan Lichtman, Doug Brinkley, Bob Dallek
Hardball, CNBC, 1/4/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, William Bennett
Hardball, CNBC, 1/5/99

Clintons top ‘most admired’ survey
Ron Elving, USA Today, 12/31/98

Those wandering analysts returned to town from far-flung New Year Weekend retreats. And sure enough, a TV tabloid talker rang in the annum with some no-nonsense, two-fisted reporting:

MATTHEWS (1/4/99): We’re going to end [tonight] somewhat on a lighter note, not because it’s light, but because we--we didn’t expect it to be light, but the American people have a profoundly odd view of what admiration means...

We didn’t know what he was saying either, but the het-up host went on:

MATTHEWS: ...[W]hen asked to name the ten--actually, asked to name the most admired woman in the country...the trouble with that question was that in answering it, many people...listed Monica Lewinsky as one of the top ten. They tied her with Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain as one of the most admired women in the world...

And the analysts almost came out of their chairs at the news the talker delivered. Imagine! That the naughty nymph of “sexgate” fame could be “admired” by so many people! No wonder Matthews now asked the question the analysts had on their lips:

MATTHEWS: And I’m going to start with Alan Lichtman, my pal. Do we trust public opinion in anything if they make these kinds of judgments?

Lichtman’s a no-nonsense presidential historian, so he spelled it out for his buddy:

LICHTMAN: Look, it means one thing and one thing only. They admire her chutzpa, a great Jewish word that needs no translation...

MATTHEWS: You really believe that?

LICHTMAN: Absolutely, I do.

Well, the analysts were shaking their heads in disbelief, vowing to disregard all public opinion, when an adjunct scholar came rushing in with an article from USA Today. Ron Elving had covered the Gallup poll to which the tabloid talker referred, and raised fists fell down in the analysts’ laps when they read what Elving related. The top three gals? Hillary, Oprah, and Liddy; and then ol’ Ron wrote on:

ELVING: Completing the women’s top ten list were former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (4%)...Queen Elizabeth (1%), Attorney General Janet Reno (1%), and Monica Lewinsky (1%), the former White House intern whose affair with the president led to his impeachment.

Well, we couldn’t help chuckling when the analysts saw the game slick Chris had been playing. One percent had named Miss Mo, a fact he never mentioned! In fact, it was one percent of “the American people” who had the “odd view of what admiration means” that he and Lichtman had volubly limned; but throughout the segment of the show that ensued, no one ever said it.

But even though the topic turned out to be totally meaningless, a collection of major presidential historians Helped Put The Whole Thing In Perspective. Doug Brinkley, beaming in from New Orleans:

BRINKLEY: I think maybe people feel sorry for her, feel that she’s a victim. But her name’s been talked about at the end of the year here. I mean, “Biography” on A & E was talking about who was the person of the year. Is it Monica Lewinsky?

Bob Dallek also gave his view, displaying the kind of savage insight that he showed us all through his Flawed Giant:

DALLEK: Chris, I think Doug is right that it’s her notoriety that people are responding to, not her attributes. I don’t think they find her an admirable person.

By Tuesday night, Chris was “still stunned” by the news, as he chatted with Outrage Czar Bill Bennett, and Bennett also said that it was a matter of citizens confusing celebrity with personal quality. No one had mentioned, in the course of two nights, that they were talking about one percent of the public; and needless to say, no one let on, in two nights of chat, that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Paid to opine, they rattled on, explaining a matter on which they quite plainly were ignorant. And the analysts saw a rich New Year dawning, overflowing with howlers and chaff.

The real insight came on Tuesday night, with Bennett rattling onward:

BENNETT: It’s important to make the distinction between the real and the apparent.

A tabloid talker saw himself in the portrait. “We don’t,” he sadly said.

It all depends on what the meaning of “still stunned” is: Here’s how Chris put the issue to the perpetually-piqued Bennett in the second night the non-outrage was discussed:

MATTHEWS: The American people were asked in a poll by the Gallup organization, I mentioned this last night, I still am stunned by it, to list the ten--actually were asked to name the most admired woman in the country, the one you personally most admire. And Hillary Clinton won it, first ladies often do, I take nothing away from that decision. But in the same Top Ten, Monica Lewinsky. [Our emphasis]

Bennett immediately discussed Daniel Boorstein. Stick around. It should be quite a year.