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15 March 1999

Our current howler: What he didn’t hear

Synopsis: Something Stephanopolous couldn’t have heard crept into the Newsweek excerpts.

What I Saw
George Stephanopolous, Newsweek, 3/15/99

Anatomy of a Scandal
James Retter, General Publishing Group, 1998

The analysts are withholding judgment on the Stephanopolous book, until they get a chance to read it. They’ll offer their comments next week.

But they greedily fell on the Newsweek excerpts, to get a taste of what George had wrought. And, as they read aloud in the public rooms, here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, murmurs arose from the puzzled throng when they heard George saying this:

STEPHANOPOLOUS: I never showed the world, but during the dark days of New Hampshire, I did give up. Remembering that made me feel sorry for Hillary. She’d had to gulp hard on prime time television when Sam Donaldson read back her husband’s farewell to Gennifer: “Good-bye, baby.” She’d had to pull it together every single day...and she never knew what was coming next. [Our emphasis]

But one of the things that was coming next was a welter of false accusation. And indeed, sometimes even top scribes like Sam got taken in by the lying. Had Mrs. Clinton really heard “her husband’s farewell,” when Sam had read the passage in question? Sorry--here’s Jim Retter, in Anatomy of a Scandal, discussing this very passage:

RETTER: In other discrepancies, the [Flowers phone call] transcripts have Clinton saying, “...we have to watch as we go along,” and they have them using words of endearment, “Good-bye, Baby,” though neither is on the audiotape.

That’s right. When Flowers typed up her innocuous tapes, she knew that they needed improving. So she threw in a couple of incriminating passages that no one had actually said. Perhaps it’s not that surprising that Sam got took, back in the first heady days of the chase. But seven years later, there’s Lonesome George, still passing on Gennifer’s fables.

At an earlier passage in the excerpts, Stephanopolous discusses how he felt, in 1992, when Flowers released her tapes:

STEPHANOPOLOUS: Then came the Flowers tapes--scratchy but apparently authentic recordings of Clinton and Gennifer talking in intimate tones about their personal relationship and the presidential race. When I heard them, I was hit by a wave of nausea, doubt, embarrassment, and anger. Mostly anger. He lied. Even if he didn’t, what’s he doing talking to her in the middle of the campaign?

The italicization is in the text, and represents Stephanopolous’ contemporaneous thought process.

It is surprising that Stephanopolous talks about “intimate tones,” because several commentators, including Retter, have remarked on the total lack of intimacy heard on the Flowers tapes. Indeed, it is precisely due to the lack of such matter that Flowers had to juice up the transcripts she released, and had to dub in the tapes’ one off-color remark (so reported the Los Angeles Times, who had the tapes reviewed by an audio expert). But what is truly sad about the Stephanopolous text is its reference to “apparently” authentic tapes, seven years after the report by the Times put that judgment into question. Stephanopolous has had plenty of time to make an informed judgment about these tapes, and whatever it is he has come to believe, he ought to be stating it outright. We realize that would step on his narrative flow, and might disturb his gratified readers. But in 1999, it is too late to be saying how the Flowers tapes seemed. George has had seven years, and three millions dollars, to figure out what is actually true.

But there it is, again, full-blown, CelebCorps’ love of story. Stephanopolous tells a lively tale, and avoids getting slowed down by fact. Clinton did not sign off with the tender remark that Stephanopolous recites to his readers. And Stephanopolous’ actual judgment, about the transcripts and tapes? Apparently, he wasn’t paid well enough to give that.

Visit our incomparable archives: The endless failure to examine the Flowers matter has been the saddest example of press corps incompetence. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/98 and 10/29/98.

Later today: David Gergen couldn’t imagine a reason why Mrs. Broaddrick could possibly fib.