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19 May 1998

Our current howler: It seems, when dead men tell wild tales, certain journalists just can't wait to repeat them

Synopsis: We've heard that dead men tell no tales. But, at least in the case of Jim McDougal, they do seem to traffic in howlers.

Book by McDougal Says Pardon Was Pledged for Ex-Wife
Stephen Labaton, The New York Times, 5/16/98

J. McDougal Book Says Clinton Lied Under Oath
Susan Schmidt, The Washington Post, 5/19/98

We're especially amused by Susan Schmidt's account of one new tale told by the late Jim McDougal--McDougal's new claim that President Clinton told him he'd give ex-wife Susan a pardon.

SCHMIDT: McDougal said he never told Starr's office about the pardon offer. "No one asked me," he wrote.

And so it goes when the celebrity press corps gets a new batch of accusations to traffic about--absurd accounts like this get straight-faced treatment, and big, bold headlines accuse President Clinton. Despite McDougal's famous fear of dying in prison, and despite his quest to get his sentence reduced, he never told Starr about this matter. And why not? Because Starr had never asked him! Of course! And Schmidt recites the story as if Moses himself has just breathed desert tales in her ear.

Schmidt refers, of course, to the late McDougal's new blockbuster bio, co-written with Curtis Willkie, which Schmidt and Stephen Labaton variously render in reports in The Post and The New York Times. Labaton doesn't mention McDougal's strange explanation of why the pardon offer wasn't reported to Starr, but then he also chooses to skip something else--he doesn't mention that Susan McDougal didn't get any pardon, and is currently, famously, sitting in prison. Schmidt at least mentions this rally-killing fact in the midst of her wide-eyed exposition.

But there's one other new story in both these accounts, and it's one that really caught our eye, because it reflects the ease with which groaners go to print--as long as they're accusations. It's the story of how McDougal allegedly funneled $2000 per month to then-Governor Clinton in the early 80s. Labaton recites how these cash payments stopped:

LABATON: These cash payments stopped in 1984, the book says, with the discovery of a way to get the money to the Clintons in a manner that would appear more legitimate: Mr. Clinton persuaded Mr. McDougal to put Mrs. Clinton and her law firm on a monthly retainer of $2,000, at a time when she was under pressure from her law partners to bring in more clients.

In short: instead of giving Clinton $2000 per month in cash, he gave the same amount to his wife in legal fees. Looked better.

But here's the problem: the story about the legal fees has been around a long time, and was officially shot down a long time ago. Gene Lyons discussed the story in his book Fools for Scandal; here's how Lyons 'splained it:

LYONS: Most people understand--even if poor McDougal had forgotten--that law firms share among the partners any profits after expenses. Given the Rose Firm's size and its monthly billings (about $800,000 in 1985), if Hillary pocketed $20 a month out of Madison Guaranty's $2000 retainer, it would have been a lot.

In other words: instead of handing Governor Clinton $2000 in cash, he was now handing Hillary a nice, crisp twenty! But don't trust Lyons--here's how it was explained in the Pillsbury Report, the report on Whitewater for the Resolution Trust Corporation prepared by the Pillsbury, Madison, and Sutro law firm:

PILLSBURY REPORT: ...The alleged economic motivation makes no sense...There is no evidence the Clintons ever received anything like $2,000 a month from this engagement, and every reason to believe that they never received more than a trivial sum of money...Even if all the retainer had been earned in fees, Mrs. Clinton's share would have been less than $20 a month.

Schmidt omits this in detailing McDougal's new story--she doesn't mention McDougal's claim that his alleged $2000 a month in cash turned into $2000 a month in legal fees. Maybe she thought there's no sense in ruining a great-sounding new story with a great-sounding old story that's long bankrupt.

For the record, we don't really know why Schmidt left out the part about the legal retainer. But it's remarkable that Labaton included it. An old story that was shot down years ago is right back in the middle of a new allegation. And the whole thing is reported in the New York Times, with absolutely no hint offered readers at all that a major part of the story seems to be bogus.

We're not quite sure just what this means. It almost seems that when dead men tell wild tales, certain journalists just can't wait to repeat them.