18 January 1999
Our current howler: Sunday, muddy Sunday
Synopsis: The worlds 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 wasnt confusing for Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), speaking on Foxs The Beltway Boys, in an interview recorded after the end of Saturdays 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: Thats an issue Im still struggling with. Youre right that its 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: Theres an argument which is making the rounds now which is, even if everythings true, that still doesnt 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, whos been spinning since the day he hit town, was up to sustaining the fiction:
SCHIPPERS: Well, thats the latest spin on it. It began that there was nothing true. Then it began that the facts didnt 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 dont want him removed...
The latest spin, of course, had been argued daily for months, a point Brit Humes 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 thats 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? [Snows emphasis]
He kicked off the panel the very same way:
SNOW: Lets begin with this kind of new argument thats been making the rounds this week, which is that even if everythings true, even if hes guilty, he can still stay.
Explanations by Hume and Mara Liasson didnt help. Later, Snow was still confused by the simple matter thats 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 doesnt say in there that you are making up different standards. It says convicted of. Im wondering how we decide that, if you decide that all the facts are in there, you still dont convict?
Needless to say, you dont convict if you decide that all the facts dont constitute high crimes and misdemeanors. And, as Collins statement helped to show, its been an established element of Impeachment Law 1 for months in the public discussion.
Snows 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 programs viewers had to suffer again through Sams silly incomprehension:
DONALDSON: I dont see how a senator can go to the constituents and say, He committed perjury, he committed obstruction of justice, but its 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: Hes the chief magistrate. He swore to faithfully uphold the laws...And if its 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 doesnt 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. Were 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.