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13 February 1999

Our current howler (part II): A little light (on) reading

Synopsis: Anyone ever read any transcripts around here? KBH and her Hardball host were unaware of some basic facts.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, TX)
Hardball, CNBC, 2/9/99

Amazing. It’s amazing to think that, one year in, we were still subjected to such arrant nonsense. Everyone knew a president must commit high crimes before he could be impeached and removed. But we still read that President Clinton had lied under oath, and therefore must leave office. Olympian pundits felt no need to defer to even the simplest of concepts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/12/99).

But as acquittal week dawned bright and unclear, it wasn’t just conceptual problems that tarnished the sorry discourse. Despite hour upon hour of cable debate; despite the voluminous record from the OIC; factual groaners littered the record, converted by spin into fact. Case in point: on Tuesday night, Kay Bailey Hutchison showed up to play a little Hardball. She’d been fighting to open up the debate. Now she turned gossip loose, too:

MATTHEWS: It seems to me that...the reason Richard Nixon faced impeachment before the United States Senate in 1974 is because there was a very clear piece of evidence, that smoking gun tape...Is there anything like that in this pile of evidence amassed by the House managers?

“A stained blue dress” would have been a good answer, but KB had a soundbite to pass:

HUTCHISON: I think it’s more of a pattern, Chris. I think it’s a pattern on the obstruction of justice issue and I think the things that happened taken together are really overwhelming. And I also think, actually, that there is now some discussion about whether there is a tape that we have not heard of the telephone conversations of the president...The famous telephone conversation with Monica Lewinsky is, it is said, perhaps on a tape. [Our emphasis]

There. That felt good. The conversation “is said” to be “perhaps” on a tape, if the tape should exist, of course. Anyway, now that militia members in far-flung hovels had been thrown their daily crust of bread, Matthews asked Hutchison to describe the hard evidence which showed that Clinton should leave.

And again we saw the way major players have held back from reviewing the record. The following give-and-take occurred about poor Sidney B:

MATHEWS: Do you believe [Clinton] obstructed justice when he talked to Sidney Blumenthal and trashed Monica Lewinsky as a “stalker,” or is that simply rotten public relations tactics used to achieve his own political ends, and it did not have a role in the trial itself?

Hutchison knew what it was:

HUTCHISON: No, once again I think that was tampering with a witness.

As we’ve noted, this allegation has been all over the air since Blumenthal’s Senate deposition. It’s been charged by the House managers, and never refuted: Clinton planted stories with Blumenthal on January 21, stories he wanted Sid to tell the grand jury. Now, an influential senator was telling the world it was part of why she would vote to remove--though the simplest review of the grand jury transcripts showed the claim was absurd on its face.

As we’ve discussed before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/8/99), Clinton spoke first to Dick Morris, and then to Blumenthal, on the fateful 1/21. But, far from planting clever tales for the grand jury, Clinton had essentially incriminated himself in each of the conversations. He explicitly told Morris that he’d “slipped up sexually” with Lewinsky, and then repeated Dick’s advice when he spoke to Sid; Morris had advised him to make a confessional speech, the way Nixon should have done. Both of the boys ran and told the grand jury the incriminating things that Clinton had said. Alarms surely rang in the Starr boys’ heads when Sidney recalled Clinton’s comments.

Whatever one thinks of what Clinton may have done--and we do agree with Senator Hutch; there’s plenty of evidence he may have messed with witnesses--it’s absurd on face to believe he was planting stories with Blumenthal on 1/21. But life in this celebrity press corps means never having to read the record. In his follow-up question challenging Hutchison, Matthews proved that again:

MATTHEWS: But how did he know that Sidney would be called as a witness if, unless Sidney had him lie to him? It’s almost circular, like, the only reason Sidney would be called as a witness is the president lied to him; the president lied to him so Sidney was called as a witness. If he hadn’t lied to him Sidney wouldn’t be a player in this, would he? [Our emphasis]

We can’t follow the first part of that either. But Matthews’ final question again reveals a howling ignorance of the simplest facts. As the simplest review of the record would show, Blumenthal was called as a witness because the OIC wanted to ask him about alleged efforts to trash the OIC operation; he was asked over and over about whether the White House had given negative information about prosecutors to the press. But then, why in the world would we think that Matthews would know a basic fact like that? It was precisely that point that was grossly misstated all over the media on February 3. Remember? A host of scribes said Sid was not asked about his contacts with the press (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/99).

Sadly, we no longer marvel at media ignorance of even the simplest issues of fact. But if we did have a press corps that did its job--a press corps that actually read the evidence--we’d all be puzzled and feel dismay at the Hardball that was played Tuesday night.

Coming Monday: Hey! We’re still planning.