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Caveat lector

18 January 1999

Our current howler: Sunday, muddy Sunday

Synopsis: The world’s simplest issues can create High Confusion on our underfed Sunday talk programs.

Commentary by Tony Snow
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 1/17/99

Commentary by Sam Donaldson
This Week, ABC, 1/17/99

It wasn’t confusing for Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), speaking on Fox’s The Beltway Boys, in an interview recorded after the end of Saturday’s impeachment trial session:

MORTON KONDRACKE: Suppose the evidence does convince you that [President Clinton] did commit perjury and he did obstruct justice. Does that constitute in your mind a high crime and misdemeanor for which he should be thrown out of office?

SEN. COLLINS: That’s an issue I’m still struggling with. You’re right that it’s a two-part test. First I have to evaluate the evidence to see if the allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice are sustainable. Then second, I have to decide whether that constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors” under the constitutional test...

Kondracke and Collins were fully aware of the two-part nature of the Senate deliberations. Each understood that, under constitutional authority, the alleged misconduct, even if shown, would have to be proven to be a “high crime.”

But somehow, on this past Sunday morning, this simple distinction, discussed for months, became a source of High Confusion. On at least two of the major talk shows, hosts displayed a puzzling ignorance of this widely-discussed, simple matter. We saw it again: the amazingly low intellectual standards that often rule the Sunday shows. It all began with a Tony Snow question to gruff old David Schippers:

SNOW: There’s an argument which is making the rounds now which is, even if everything’s true, that still doesn’t rise to the level of removing a president.

Here at THE HOWLER, the notion that this established argument is “now making the rounds” was immediate cause for puzzlement. But Schippers, who’s been spinning since the day he hit town, was up to sustaining the fiction:

SCHIPPERS: Well, that’s the latest spin on it. It began that there was nothing true. Then it began that the facts didn’t support an impeachable offense. Then it went to the impeachable offense is not enough to remove him. Now apparently the last effort is to appeal to the polls and say the American people don’t want him removed...

The “latest spin,” of course, had been argued daily for months, a point Brit Hume’s follow-up suggested. Hume did not directly address the point Snow raised. But Hume did make it clear that, when senators vote, they will decide more than whether perjury happened.

But all throughout the hour-long program, Snow seemed to be hearing, for the very first time, this long-established notion. He raised the point with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY):

SNOW: Senator, which gets me to a point that’s of some interest right now. Let us suppose that the Senate decides that the House managers were right, that all these facts were right, that the president did commit perjury, that he did obstruct justice. Is it still possible, even given that, for the Senate to say, “We still acquit him?” [Snow’s emphasis]

He kicked off the panel the very same way:

SNOW: Let’s begin with this kind of new argument that’s been making the rounds this week, which is that even if everything’s true, even if he’s guilty, he can still stay.

Explanations by Hume and Mara Liasson didn’t help. Later, Snow was still confused by the simple matter that’s been universally agreed on for months:

SNOW: I want to read what is in the Constitution...“The president, the vice president and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment and conviction of treason and bribery blah blah blah.” Now it doesn’t say in there that you are making up different standards. It says “convicted of.” I’m wondering how we decide that, if you decide that all the facts are in there, you still don’t convict?

Needless to say, you don’t convict if you decide that “all the facts” don’t constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors.” And, as Collins’ statement helped to show, it’s been an established element of Impeachment Law 1 for months in the public discussion.

Snow’s puzzling performance reminded the analysts of endless confusion on the part of Sam Donaldson, who has blighted This Week programs, week after week, with obtuseness on this simple matter. This Sunday, the program’s viewers had to suffer again through Sam’s silly incomprehension:

DONALDSON: I don’t see how a senator can go to the constituents and say, “He committed perjury, he committed obstruction of justice, but it’s OK.”

DONALDSON: What about the “no man is above the law” argument?...Maybe we should let all these people [who have been convicted of similar offenses] out of jail.

DONALDSON: He’s the chief magistrate. He swore to faithfully uphold the laws...And if it’s determined that he broke the law, how do you say, “Well, he can stay?”

Week after week, month after month, Donaldson has implied that he doesn’t understand the simple point: not every crime is a “high crime,” authorizing removal, under constitutional authority. The way “you say that a president can stay” is to find that his offense is not a high crime. Everyone in the country understands it, except Sam--and now, strangely joining him, Tony.

We think a reasonable person can make a case that Clinton has committed a removable offense. If a pundit wishes to argue that case, we urge him to get right to it.

But a great public discourse deserves protection--even cleansing--from moderators who fail to grasp even the most basic points. We’re surprised that Snow, who show has made a real contribution, would be muddying up the public discourse in a way we expect now from Donaldson.