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22 March 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: And the winner is...

Synopsis: On This Week, Sam and Cokie and the rest of the crew won the Oscar for ensemble acting.

Commentary by Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, George Will
This Week, ABC, 3/21/99

Commentary by Dick Morris, Sean Hannity, Ellen Ratner
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 3/19/99

It wasn’t hard to see why President Clinton didn’t answer Sam Donaldson’s question. At last Friday’s press conference, Donaldson asked if Clinton wanted to address Juanita Broaddrick’s rape charge himself.

Clinton, predictably, declined the offer, referring again to his lawyer’s statement. That evening, Dick Morris, on Hannity & Colmes, explained why Clinton had done so:

MORRIS: He gave the only answer he could give. If he denies the charges himself, whether they’re true or not, Juanita Broaddrick can bring an action for defamation and at that point he’d be subject to discovery, subpoena power and the whole bit. So it was a very skillful answer to avoid getting trapped in another lawsuit.

It was hardly a new explanation. For example, Tony Snow had referred to the same legal pitfall on Fox News Sunday two weeks before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/99). But Sean Hannity knows drama is based on conflict. So he pretended he just didn’t get it:

HANNITY: “My paid attorney is going to answer all questions about Juanita Broaddrick? I’ll answer no more controversial questions ever?” Is that what we expect?...Ellen, I want to bring you in here. Why can’t he just say, “It’s not true. The allegations are false. Here’s maybe some exculpatory evidence,” if he has it. Why is he hiding behind his $500-an-hour attorney?

Gonnnng! Sean just couldn’t keep it straight! Ellen Ratner recited, again, Morris’ familiar explanation.

But Sunday morning, on ABC’s This Week, the gang had its eye on an Oscar. Simply full of spin and vinegar, the pundits were ready to sit and pretend they didn’t understand Clinton’s jeopardy. Since August 17, it’s been de rigeur among the press to pretend that nothing Clinton does makes sense. And the puzzled pundits were prepared to pretend they simply couldn’t grasp his strange conduct.

Donaldson introduced the topic himself, with an account of the question he’d asked:

DONALDSON: Sort of an obligatory question was asked about the allegations of rape that the woman Juanita Broaddrick has made because he has not spoken directly to it, and he was invited to speak directly and reassure people it wasn’t true. And he couldn’t do that, he kept saying--

ROBERTS: “My lawyers”--

DONALDSON: On a few occasions, “My lawyers made a statement, I don’t want to discuss it,” because, he says, it’s time to get on with the business of the people--

ROBERTS: But then you gave him the opportunity to just flat-out deny it--

DONALDSON: [Unintelligible] to just deny it and see my lawyer, it won’t go away. Until you deal in things like this, as awful as they are, it won’t go away.

Donaldson and Roberts had given a reasonable account of the exchange that had occurred. Now the acting got under way, as George Stephanopoulos began a defense:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But Sam, there’s no evidence it actually, I mean--

Sam and Cokie jumped in together, as if they’d been shot out of guns:

ROBERTS: But why wouldn’t he just say “No?” [Our emphasis]

DONALDSON: Why didn’t he just say that, George? [Our emphasis]

And now the panel launched itself into the day’s least convincing skit. Surely, Sam and Cokie both knew the answer to the question that they had posed. It is hard to believe that any one of the panelists hadn’t heard the analysis that Morris offered. Surely, all four had heard, again and again, about the jeopardy a statement could pose.

But there are no bigger pols anywhere in town than the pundits on our Sunday talk panels. Listen as the poobahs pretend that they just can’t figure out Bill:

DONALDSON: Why didn’t he just say that, George?

STEPHANOPOULOS: I think he should have. I’m not justifying the answer. But it doesn’t mean it’s the wrong political strategy. [Our emphasis]

DONALDSON: The truth is the best political strategy.

ROBERTS: Well, maybe not, Sam.

WILL: Not in this case. Not in this case.

ROBERTS: The president seems to be doing very well politically.

Stephanopoulos then changed the subject, to the skill of Clinton’s various answers.

But if Stephanopoulos hadn’t “justified” Clinton’s answer, he hadn’t explained it either. Does anyone think that George Stephanopoulos (or Roberts, or Donaldson) hasn’t heard the explanation Morris gave? But rather than give their viewers information, the panel preferred to position themselves, placing themselves on the side of Truth, even as they spun truth away.

Sorry. We don’t believe any one of these four hasn’t heard the legal explanation. Indeed, if they don’t understand why Clinton can’t speak, they should be in some other line of work. But with Oscar madness all around, the panel decided to stage a scene too. The truth is, they didn’t really do their jobs in this case. But it was easy to see their motivation.

Let’s take a look at the record: On February 28’s Fox News Sunday, Tony Snow asked Dorothy Rabinowitz about the legal jeopardy Clinton would face if he responded to Mrs. Broaddrick. Rabinowitz said that the Broaddrick family had no intention of suing.

Oops. The night before, on Fox’s Drudge, Broaddrick’s son, Kevin Hickey, had said just the opposite. He explicitly left open the possibility that his mother would sue if Clinton denied her charges. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/99, for our report on the subject.

It would be malpractice if David Kendall didn’t know about this. But then, one could say the very same thing about our puzzled panel.