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19 February 2001

Our current howler: Passing it on

Synopsis: A woeful column by a big, upset novelist helps show how propaganda gets peddled.

The Big Surprise? Our Surprise
Francine Prose, The Washington Post, 2/18/01

At the White House, 'Moving On' or Piling On?
John Harris and Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 2/18/01

Francine Prose may be a fine novelist. We don't read novels—they take too long—so we simply can't offer a judgment.

But on Sunday, Prose penned a piece in the Post "Outlook" section that brought us right out of our chairs. Silly and rambling—and deeply insinuative—it served to repeat, for the three millionth time, conventional wisdom about the Clintons' Last Days. Once again, Bill and Hill swipe the White House silver in Prose's pensive, complex account. The press corps' most treasured recent stories are once again on proud display.

But did the Clintons swipe the silver? Prose doesn't manage to say. Alas! Novelists don't have to know real facts. Based on much of Prose's piece, "Outlook" writers aren't so constrained either.

PROSE STARTS BY NOTING "HOW CONFUSING the world has become since Bill Clinton left the White House." Where once only Dan Burton would slam Vile Bill's conduct, now "the cast of characters in the public pillorying has shifted and regrouped." Even Dems are clobbering Clinton "for this latest in a protracted series of ethically suspect missteps." One of the missteps is the Rich pardon. But what other missteps have Prose all het up? Read her first description of Clinton's offenses and you'll see the Prose problem unfold:

PROSE: Many of Clinton's staunchest supporters have begun to question the morality, the intelligence, the garden-variety common sense of extending clemency to a billionaire who fled the country to avoid prosecution for tax evasion—and whose former wife has donated a small fortune to the Clinton library. Meanwhile, a succession of less egregious affronts (the image of the Clintons helping themselves to quantities of high-end White House cutlery, dishes and furnishings; Bill's apparently delusional assumption that taxpayers would be thrilled to rent him a rather grand piece of midtown-Manhattan real estate) have fueled an increasingly troubled conviction that we have been, well, conned.

We highlight two terms in the screed. Prose describes a "succession" of affronts—then goes on to list precisely two. And what is the first "affront" she describes? It is "the image" of Bill and Hill swiping the cutlery. "The image" of this conduct fuels a conviction that "we have been, well, conned."

Prose may well have been conned, dear friends, but who has been doing the conning? Throughout her piece, she returns to "the image" of pilfered White House property. But did the pilfering really occur? Our novelist never quite tells us. The second time she mentions the problem, she says, "[I]t should be said that the Clintons' alleged pilfering of White House property evokes all sorts of baser instincts connected with territory and possession" (our emphasis). In her penultimate paragraph, she waffles again, as she thinks about how Democratic pols have reacted to the latest Clinton conduct:

PROSE: If I found myself still worrying, but no longer encouraged to say so, that there was even a slight chance that an election had been stolen, I might be powerfully, even unreasonably enraged by the notion that a duly elected thief had, in broad daylight, pilfered silver, china and furniture from our symbolic national home.

Prose's hypothetical pol is powerfully enraged by "the notion" that Clinton is a "duly elected thief." But is he? Prose—slickly looking to "notions," not facts—again finds a way not to say.

Calling someone a "thief" is big business. Prose seems to do so all through her piece. But she is careful to use those weasel words that we have come to condemn by the term "Clintonesque." She persistently calls Wild Bill a thief—but then again, reading closely, she doesn't. Gaze on the self-described moral splendor of our corrupted, smug, inept elites.

Prose is upset by "the image" of stealing, by "the notion" of thievery," and, of course, by "alleged" pilfering. But does our scribe get around to the facts? No—but then, that hardly sets her apart from the bulk of today's sad-sack press corps.

IN PUBLISHING PROSE, "OUTLOOK" OFFERED THE LATEST recitation of the press corps' new favorite story. As luck would have it, the piece appeared on the same day as a news report by a pair of Post scribes. In Section One, John Harris and Dana Milbank report about some of the "ethically suspect missteps" to which Prose's piece refers. And oops! According to Harris and Milbank, some recent tales about the Clintons' vile conduct were simply not based on the facts. "Beyond the pardon," the reporters write, "the Bush White House and Republicans close to it helped fan a story—of questionable factual basis—about damage inflicted to the White House and Air Force One by Clinton aides." The writers note the lack of evidence that damage was actually done to the White House. And just this past week, the pair remind us, President Bush has said that it's "simply not true" that items were swiped from Air Force I.

Let's return at this point to Prose's renderings. Many people were "powerfully enraged," in the past few weeks, by "the image" of thefts from Air Force I. And many people were troubled by "the notion" that White House offices were trashed. We weak-minded people are always subject to manipulation by claims that are false. But what about poor Prose herself, troubled by "the image" of theft? Did the Clintons "pilfer" the silverware? A good deal of reporting has now suggested that those "images" were based on spin, too. But clever Prose picks her words all too well. In her article, she keeps suggesting that silver was stolen, while being careful—the lady's slick—never to actually say so.

Prose's op-ed shows all too well how propaganda gets peddled. Over the course of the past few weeks, the press corps has repeated—again and again—the "images" which it finds pleasing. On Sunday, to put a new face on the tired old script, the Post called in a troubled novelist, who mused on and on about a matter where she seemed not to have the real facts. By the way, in the very same "Outlook" section, Patti Davis was also published; she wrote a whimsical piece about—what else?—White House stealing. The piece bore an unintentionally comical title: "Taking Liberties," the boxed column was headed. We couldn't help chuckling at the piece's apt billboard. But after our mordant chuckling subsided, the corps' preferred "images" were still being spread. That's the way propaganda works. It was also working in Prose's piece—Big Time.

Alas! Our hapless press corps has been "taking liberties" ever since Bill and Hill blew the Big House. On Sunday, Harris and Milbank debunked a few "images." One artiste, musing hard, helped spread more.

Those stubborn facts: Again we quote the stubborn facts that the press corps has known to ignore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/17/01):

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 administrationsPresident 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.

How does propaganda work? If reporters had simply repeated these facts, even our novelists might have seen them. And it's hard to keep thinking that Bill and Hill stole the White House blind when you see that H.W. and Bar took more gifts. Why did these facts disappear from sight? Because they mess with the press corps' favorite story. Someone may have been "conning" our artists. But it may not have been that Wild Bill.


The occasional update (2/19/01)

This silly: How silly did Prose's rumination become? Listing "the reasons for our uneasiness" with Bill, Prose at one point offers this:

PROSE: The often-shown film clip of Denise Rich presenting Bill with the special gift saxophone is particularly unfortunate, partly because the footage of a woman thrusting herself at our president recalls the still-embarrassing image of Monica fairly leaping out of the crowd to embrace him, and partly because those occasions when Bill picked up the horn and blew for various heads of state were not precisely among the most glorious, shining moments of his presidency. Finally, it should be said that the Clintons' alleged pilfering of White House property evokes all sorts of baser instincts connected with territoriality and possession, and recalls, for each of us, some variation on the experience of moving into a new apartment to find that the previous tenants had made off with the refrigerator.

Why are "we" so all het up? First, because "we" can't look at Denise Rich without thinking of Monica! "We" are driven along by our reptilian mind; one woman is always just another. Meanwhile, "each of us" thinks of some old, stolen fridge when we hear about Bill's alleged pilfering. Hay-yo! And Prose is disturbed by one other thing—the embarrassing moments when Bill blew his sax for "various heads of state." We were puzzled by that passage. Did such incidents actually occur? Bill blew for Arsenio—did he blow for Ehud too? Or does that construction inevitably force "us" to think about Monica also?

At any rate, after the paragraph posted above, Prose muses on, saying this:

PROSE: In situations such as these, the Clintons continue to remind us of what in them is flawed, unattractive—but, in the end, all too human. I prefer to think that, in a similar situation, I'd draw a very clear line between what belonged to me and what belonged to the White House, but frankly, I can imagine a spiteful little gremlin taking over the packing as I got ready to make way for Laura Bush. On the other hand, those who have felt all along that our politicians should be above the normal, unseemly human failings, will be confirmed in their view of the Clintons as great sinners in need of severe punishment and immediate repentance.

Here, Prose tells us what she "can imagine." It's the standard of proof for that novelist breed—and increasingly, of course, for the press.