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Caveat lector

17 February 2001

Smile-a-while: Those stubborn facts

Synopsis: Two Journal killjoys dug up some facts. The press corps knew what to do—it ignored them.

Commentary by Mike Barnicle
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 2/15/01

Clintons Set To Return Some Gifts
Jackie Calmes and Phil Kuntz, The Wall Street Journal, 2/6/01

Presidency Takes Shape With No Fuss, No Sweat
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 2/10/01

Hay-yo! Don Imus introduced him as "Chris Matthews Lite." But Mike Barnicle, new host of Hardball's second hour, offered his own self-assessment:

BARNICLE: Actually, Mr. Imus, I am MSNBC's answer to the best and the brightest. I am proving every night that there's a new show on MSNBC called "Dumb and Dumber."

Barnicle said it, we didn't. One thing is quite obvious, though—Barnicle has clearly stopped stealing from Carlin, or he'd have better jokes he could lead with. Right away, he went to the blue stuff:

BARNICLE (continuing directly): And I gotta tell ya, I am so up today! I can't believe how up I am.

How up was he? Let him continue:

BARNICLE (continuing directly): I woke up this morning, I went down and looked at the paper—Viacom's growth is greater than Clinton's penis!!

Hay-yo! We were a bit surprised to hear the joke, since we all know it isn't the sex, it's the lying. Apparently, Mike missed that memo:

BARNICLE: You know something, Chuck and Don? This leaves a stain on the presidency—

Note to readers: can you see it coming?

BARNICLE: —bigger than the stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress!

Hay-yo! "And it leaves it in the eyes of kids," Mike complained, at 7:30 A.M., without irony. Hay-yo! Who but the press corps churns out stuff like this? Although even we will have to admit it—if there's anyone who's equipped to speak for adolescent boys, it would have to be Hardball II sage Mike Barnicle.

What had Mike so all het up? He rattled some standard recitations:

IMUS: Don't you think that it's kind of remarkable that a former president, I mean, stole the furniture. I mean, he stole the furniture!

BARNICLE: Well not only stole the furniture—the silverware, the ashtrays, the lamps, stuffing everything in his pockets, couldn't get out of a metal detector on the way out of the White House!

Once again, we were a little surprised. After all, everyone knows, from the last election, how much Mike and Don—and their media friends—just hate all embellishing and embroidering.

In truth, of course, our celebrity pundits live to embellish—and to deep-six the facts they don't like. That's why we couldn't help chuckling, in the past week, as pundits ignored the Wall Street Journal's research into the Clintons' vile gifts. For several weeks, we heard pundits refer to the loot, the swag, the haul and the plunder. But last week, Jackie Calmes and Phil Kuntz reported some facts. Here's what the two killjoys said:

CALMES AND KUNTZ: A look at recent years' reports of presidential gifts indicates the Clintons' overall take during their term isn't greatly out of line with the two previous administrations.

Say what? What about the way they "stuffed everything in their pockets?" What about the "plunder" we'd heard described? Jackie and Phil did the numbers:

CALMES AND KUNTZ: President George H.W. Bush, Mr. Clinton's immediate predecessor, kept an average $39,614 worth of personal gifts a year in inflation adjusted dollars during his four years in office. Mr. Clinton took gifts valued at an average of $38,838 a year, adjusted for inflation: both took more than President Ronald Reagan.

So Bush took slightly more than Clinton—once someone did some reporting. We know of nothing wrong with that, but it sure did kill the impression we'd gotten from two solid weeks of Big Spinnin'. Maureen Dowd, for example, had done some Big Pimpin'—"Bill and Hill took enough loot to fill a small hotel," she wrote. Salon's Eric Boehlert has done excellent work about Dowd's endless factual errors. But we thought the info in the Journal added a little more context.

So here's our question, boys and girls. Ten days have passed since Calmes and Kuntz laid out the figures on the Clinton/Bush gifts. And can we make a simple guess, dear friends? Can we guess that you have never seen those facts cited anywhere else? Those facts went down the memory hole as fast as our spinners could flush them. Thursday morning, Barnicle continued to push the line that the Clintons had taken all they could grab. The Journal's facts provided some context—and that is why you won't see them repeated. Our press corps' spinners know this one thing—when the facts hurt your spin, you ignore them.

Did someone once talk about "stubborn" facts? Alas! When "stubborn" facts don't help tell their tale, our scribes dump the facts as fast as they can. Instead, they joke—about Clinton's big $%^&*. Are we sure that it wasn't the sex?


The occasional update (2/17/01)

Bruni effusive: We couldn't help chuckling when we read Frank Bruni's February 10 profile of President Bush. The page one headline was a standard pander: "Presidency Takes Shape With No Fuss, No Sweat." The inside headline was a good one too: "Bush's Leadership Style Is Simply Presidential." They called to mind the fawning headlines atop Bruni's pandering 1999 profiles—back before the McCain Swoon began, when Bruni began pounding The Dub (links below).

Just how silly can these profiles get? Look at Bruni's work last week. After some snapshots of Dub-in-charge, Bruni penned this estimation:

BRUNI (paragraph 7): Every new chief executive inhabits the role in a distinctive way, and George W. Bush is establishing a no-fuss, no-sweat, "look-Ma-no-hands" presidency, his exertions ever measured, his outlook always mirthful.

It sounded terrific. The next 'graph did, too:

BRUNI (paragraph 8): If Bill Clinton's trademark expression was the quarter-bitten lower lip, a deliberate signal of empathy, Mr. Bush's is the impish grin, a deliberate signal of confidence and good cheer. He revels in unpretentiousness, and he seems wholly undaunted by his new responsibilities.

No wonder the headlines said what they did! But just as we began to revel in that impish grin too, Bruni—doggone it!-said this:

BRUNI (paragraph 9): Then again, it is awfully hard to tell...

Hay-yo! The scribe went on to report some signs that it may not be "no sweat" at all. Apparently, the guy who wrote the cheerful headlines quit work without reading that far.

No one—absolutely no one—writes a sillier profile than Bruni. All throughout 1999, he wrote pandering reviews of Bush-as-frontrunner, culminating with the embarrassing November 27 headline, "Levity Is at the Soul of Bush, the Puck In the Political Pack." That's right—Bush was now a figure from Shakespeare, "jazzy and jaunty," but also "folksy and feisty, a politician more playful than most of his peers." Here's the way Bruni closed the piece—not that Timesmen ever hand out endorsements:

BRUNI: Mr. Bush seems to be having a ball, and why not? His campaign treasury is ripe. His poll numbers are robust. And with every wink, hug and bit of effortless banter, he projects a spirit as mirthful as many voters would undoubtedly like their futures to be.

Good gorry! At the time, of course, Bush's "poll numbers" in New Hampshire had been dropping for weeks, a fact that was being noted everywhere except in Bruni's fawning profiles. This profile was the biggest pander of the entire campaign—which made it surprising when Bruni turned on a dime, and began trashing The Dub just weeks later. That's right—all throughout the month of January, Bruni savaged Bush for minor verbal slips. The witty candidate—"Interestingly," Bruni had written in his November Puck-piece, "it is sometimes Mr. Bush's most mischievous moments that demonstrate how astute he can be"—had overnight become a world-class bumbler. It was only after Bush stopped McCain that the fawning got started again.

Has there ever been a better example of why our scribes should stick to hard facts? When today's reporters starts recording impressions, awful things wind up in print. Last Friday, Bush's "leadership style" was "simply presidential"—except it was "awfully hard to tell." Hay-yo! If Bruni would simply be kept to hard facts, we'd have fewer laughs on a typical morning. But then again, there would be this reward—the Times would be a much better paper.

Visit our incomparable archives: Hay-yo! By the time Valentine's Day 2000 arrived, Bruni's love for Bush had gone on the rocks. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/00.

But then: Forced to bow and scrape to the press, Candidate Bush gave us Bruni restored. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/00.