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18 May 1999

Our current howler (part II): Free Willey

Synopsis: Kathleen Willey did interviews with Chris, John and Larry. It’s amazing how little they asked.

Commentary by Larry King, Kathleen Willey
Larry King Live, CNN, 5/12/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Kathleen Willey
Hardball, CNBC, 5/11/99

Commentary by John Hockenberry, Tom Squitieri, Kathleen Willey
Hockenberry, MSNBC, 5/13/99

Nine minutes into an hour-long interview, Larry King asked Kathleen Willey about her fateful meeting with President Clinton. In her narration, Willey had just left the Oval Office on November 29, 1993:

KING: Is that when Linda Tripp saw you? What was she doing there?

WILLEY: Well, Linda was upstairs in her office...I just went there. I just wanted to get out of that hall and out of that office and off that floor, and I went up to her office.

KING: And told her what happened?

WILLEY: ...She asked me a funny thing, she said, “Where is your lipstick?” And I just said, “I need to talk to you, and we talked about that after.”

It would have been the perfect place for King to ask about Linda Tripp’s grand jury testimony, in which Tripp gave a detailed, sworn account of the encounter to which Willey referred. In that testimony, Tripp swore that Willey had come to her office by prearrangement, to report on the results of the Oval Office meeting. Tripp said the meeting had been set up by Willey in large part to see if her flirtation with Clinton could be advanced. (Tripp said Willey had pursued a romance for eight months, since arriving at the White House in March.) And she said that Willey, in describing the encounter, “smiled from ear to ear the entire time.” Willey “seemed shocked, but happy shocked,” Tripp told the grand jury.

In short, Tripp’s testimony severely contradicted the story that Willey had told on Sixty Minutes last March. It contradicted the account that Willey was giving right there on Larry King Live. But King didn’t say a word, then or later, about Tripp’s startling grand jury testimony. He didn’t ask about the five other individuals who told Florence Graves of the Nation that “Willey told them she was thrilled by an alleged encounter with the President.”

But it’s hardly surprising that King didn’t ask because, in the course of three hour-long TV interviews last week, no one brought up the Linda Tripp testimony. No one asked Willey to discuss other awkward matters that have placed her credibility in doubt. Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing what did or didn’t happen between Clinton and Willey. But we do know that when someone makes a serious charge, she should be asked to speak to contrary evidence. Willey’s remarkable treatment on the news channels last week was journalism as bad as it gets.

Let’s stick with Linda Tripp’s sworn account, the most detailed contradiction of Willey. Here is Chris Matthews’ first reference to Tripp, midway through his interview:

MATTHEWS: There has been conflicting testimony, which I don’t think is conflicting. You could have come out of the room, as Linda Tripp said, joyous at the fact that he made his move on you and also disgusted by the move itself. I don’t want to be putting words in your mouth. It seems to me that those are not conflicting.

Understandably, Willey was puzzled by the talker’s construction. Moments later, he tried multiple choice:

MATTHEWS: Is it fair to say that your reaction to his behavior and his overall intentions to you was “mixed,” “disgusted,” “joyous”--give me the words that describe the total reaction you came out of this with, that Linda Tripp observed.

WILLEY: Flustered. I just wanted to get out of there so badly and so quickly.

MATTHEWS: So there was no way to read that as “joyous.”

WILLEY: I don’t think so. I hope not. My reaction to what she said to me is probably, I said to her, “You’re just not going to believe what just happened--”

MATTHEWS: Right. I understand that.

That was Matthews’ total effort to explore Tripp’s contradiction of Willey. Tripp’s detailed account of Willey’s pursuit of romance was never mentioned once on the show.

One can hardly expect more than that from Matthews, but John Hockenberry is another matter. Because one would expect him to play a journalist’s role, his interview was the most disappointing. Listen to Hockenberry’s account of Tripp’s testimony--when he finally raised the point halfway through his program:

HOCKENBERRY: How do you explain Linda Tripp’s testimony under oath that she had no impression from you that this was a negative thing that had happened in the Oval Office?

Journalists, avert your eyes! Tripp had testified that Willey “smiled from ear to ear the entire time” in describing the Oval Office smooching. Hockenberry’s paraphrase of this striking testimony? Linda Tripp “had no impression that this was a negative thing.” Is it any surprise that, when Willey replied “I have not spoken to her about that,” Hockenberry didn’t mention Tripp’s sworn account, in which she says they discussed it many times?

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing what did or didn’t happen in the Oval Office. But because we can read, we do know the things that Linda Tripp swore under oath. And we know that when someone makes serious charges, she should be asked to respond to contradictory evidence. And the public should be told the contradictions exist, so that they can evaluate the serious charges in the light of all available evidence.

King’s interview with Willey, while in our view unfortunate, is the downside of his famous approach, in which he doesn’t do pre-interview study, and just questions from the top of his head. But Matthews and Hockenberry have no such excuse for the work that they recorded. Virtually none of the evidence contradicting Willey was raised in the course of their hour-long sessions. Their audiences, in fact, were grossly misled about the state of the contradictory evidence.

Kathleen Willey looked good as she sat on their shows. Their audiences could gape at her clothes and her hair. But the work turned in by Matthews and Hockenberry was like work from a Serbian press corps. It was “journalism” in name and look alone--a nightmarish look at the sad state of our press corps. They didn’t have to book Kathleen Willey at all. Having booked her, they should have asked some real questions.

Won’t you be my neighbor? Tom Squitieri sat in for the second half hour of Hockenberry, and gave a particularly disappointing performance.

Squitieri repeatedly referred to Willey as “Kathy Willey” and “Kathy,” and addressed himself to his interview subject as if he were healing a three-year-old’s boo-boos. As usual, the analysts suggested a reason for Squitieri’s obsequious conduct.

At three separate points in Squitieri’s appearance, he suggested that Willey still has a scoop for some lucky reporter--the identity of the man who allegedly threatened her before her testimony in the Paula Jones case. At one point, he said, of her experience with Michael Isikoff, “I would advise her next time to talk to me.” Near the end of the program, he said this:

SQUITIERI: I think she knows or has an idea who this man is and I will be incumbent on Kathy Willey at some point, I think she’s going to have to tell someone in the media or someone else who this person is to get resolution.

It became clear last night that Darling Kathy has no earthly idea who this alleged person is (see our Thursday report). Was Squitieri fawning to get the scoop? We can’t say, but our analysts think so--though we all know how headstrong they are.