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28 February 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: All or nothing at all

Synopsis: It never occurred to the cheerleading press: some tales are part true and part false.

MO for a President? Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 2/25/99

Commentary by Steven Salzburg
Hardball, CNBC, 2/24/99

Imagine, then, that a woman engages in consensual sex that gets a little bit rough. So rough, in fact, that her upper lip gets injured in an observable manner. She has a roommate coming back to the room; she has a husband and a boyfriend to explain to as well. So she makes up what seems like a harmless tale about having been assaulted.

Did something like that happen with Mrs. Broaddrick? Obviously, at THE HOWLER, we can’t say. But is it possible that something of that sort occurred? Of course it is; of course it’s possible. Of course it’s possible that Mrs. Broaddrick is fibbing about what may have happened that day. Despite Pat Ireland’s absurd, self-saving rules, defining what folks get to wonder and say, the fact, well known to this planet’s dwellers, is quite simple: people lie all the time! So yes, dear readers, we must tell you the news. Sometimes, accusers do fabricate.

But life in this celebrity press corps means always believing accusers. Pundits find ways to play double-d dumb and pretend accusers’ claims must be true. Which brings us back to our man, Michael Kelly, the perpetually furious National Journal savant, and his very telling critique last week of Mrs. Broaddrick’s very serious charges.

Yesterday, we watched Kelly tell a standard story; Broaddrick lacks motive to lie. The fact that she isn’t out selling a book means there’s no reason at all to be fibbing.

It’s a recitation a third-grader might write--or a scribe who’s in love with Big Scandal. It’s the wide-eyed tale of a willing scribe who knows how he wants the Big Story to end.

But Kelly’s cheerleading for Broaddrick’s claim leads to another bit of daft, silly parsing. Kelly affects to have no idea that a story can be part true and part false. If any part of the story even seems to be true, then to Kelly, that’s proof that the whole thing is true. No one on earth ever thinks such strange thoughts--except the celebrity press corps.

Let’s review the part of Kelly’s column where he just marvels at how true it all seems:

KELLY: Broaddrick’s account is highly specific, filled with small, precise points of recollection that do not seem the sort of details someone would make up...

Kelly’s belief that he knows what kind of details people make up is, of course, unbelievably foolish. If we’re going to convict people of rape on this basis, we might as well just call in a team of phrenologists and trace the bumps on accused people’s heads. This same argument-from-detail has been offered elsewhere (see Dorothy Rabinowitz on today’s Fox News Sunday; Ann Coulter on Hannity & Colmes 2/25). Let’s review the rest of Kelly’s presentation about the amazing things Broaddrick remembers:

KELLY: ...She remembers what Clinton did in the moments before he suddenly kissed her. He pointed out the window at a dilapidated old prison and told her that when he was governor he would fix that up. Does that little detail not sound very, very much like our Bill?

Again, the inanity of Kelly’s writing is breathtaking. The notion that one would convict a public figure of rape on this basis simply defies comprehension. A person accused of the most serious of crimes stands convicted because a reported comment “sounds very much like him.” This is writing so foolish that one’s cheeks start to rouge, and one feels one’s eyes glancing away.

But what is especially striking about Kelly’s comment is what Kelly’s rumination leaves out. It doesn’t occur to Kelly that Clinton may have made this comment, without committing the alleged act of rape. To state the obvious, Broaddrick’s story may be partly true, and false in the part that actually matters. Nowhere does Kelly seem to grasp a simple fact: some stories are part true and part false.

Could Clinton have come to Broaddrick’s room, and made the comment, and not have committed the alleged assault? The answer is: of course he could have. Of course it’s possible that Broaddrick’s story is partly true, but false in the part that matters. The possibility would occur to almost any observer who had ever spent ten minutes on the planet. But it seems to be a foreign notion to a good deal of the cheerleading press.

All over the press corps one finds scribes like Kelly, who seem to think that if some part of Broaddrick’s story is true, then the story is true in the whole. On Dateline, Lisa Myers trumpeted minor details she’d been able to confirm, as if that could confirm the assault itself! On TV, pundits discussed the charge for hours without grasping the problem with this line of thought. Steven Salzburg, on Hardball, completely stood out when he offered a more complex thought:

SALZBURG: I think one of the problems here, you say, “Well, why don’t they mount a defense and publicly come out?” If there was sex at all, it’s very hard with the president in the position he’s in to make a defense which is, “Wait a minute. You know, what really happened was there was some rough sex, but it wasn’t rape.” That’s just not the kind of defense that’s going to get you very far.

Salzburg here suggests an obvious possibility, one which completely escapes Kelly. He suggests the possibility that some sexual encounter did occur, but that Broaddrick may not be describing it accurately. If Broaddrick describes many details correctly, that does not address the ultimate question. Even if Clinton was in Broaddrock’s room that day, making remarks about old run-down prisons, one can hardly tell from that irrelevant fact if a sexual assault did occur.

But life in this celebrity press corps means always believing accusers. If they say one thing that sounds like it’s true, that suggests their whole tale’s on the mark. Here at THE HOWLER, we do not know if Mrs. Broaddrick’s charges are true. But neither of course does Michael Kelly. He’s just practiced in hiding that fact.

Summary: Our complaints about Kelly’s analysis (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25-2/28):

  1. Mrs. Broaddrick does not seem to be writing a book; he pretends there can be no other motive to lie. This, of course, is utterly foolish. People lie all the time, for many reasons.
  2. He suggests that because she came forward reluctantly, that means she is telling the truth. That is, of course, plainly false.
  3. He suggests that, if some detail in the story sounds like it’s true, the basic charge must be true. Also false.
  4. He describes Kathleen Willey’s story as part of a pattern, without telling you that her story has been contradicted under oath.
  5. He finds in the Lewinsky matter a pattern of rape. This is the basis for his article’s title. It is surely his strangest conception.

Michael Kelly wants to say that the charges are true. He’ll spin all day to say it.