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19 May 1998

Smile-a-while: A tabloid (s)talker gets his man

Synopsis: Even Walter Shapiro had to change his view when a tabloid talker didn't hear the right answer.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Walter Shapiro
Hardball, CNBC, 5/18/98

It really has been quite a while since we played some Hardballin these pages--although our analysts review the show every night--because frankly, the show's last-clown-out-of-the-Volkswagen brand of buffoonery that so delighted us back in March had begun to wear a little bit thin as spring's breezes swept DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters. Chris Matthews continued to do his best to let visions of oral sex dance in our heads; but how many times can you hear the TV tabloid talker turn conversation back to Monica's charms before the delight one once felt in his shameless guile turns to a sense of debasement--even boredom?

That much said, we couldn't help chuckling as we watched the pundits last night, as the gossip turned to those "talking points"--the notes that Monica Lewinsky allegedly gave Linda Tripp to direct her future testimony. Although the talking points are so absurdly crude, as a legal document, one is surprised they weren't drawn up with a fingerpaint set, it's part of the ethos of TV tabloid talkers to pretend that they must have come straight from the White House; and Cal Thomas quickly took last night's conversation to a place where Hardball viewers almost always find succor:

THOMAS: Those talking points--where did they come from? Who in the White House? ...The talking points, which some people suggest come from somebody in the White House, or with political clout, who were trying to protect the president.

Can you see why Thomas knew the points must have come from "somebody in the White House?" It's because "some people suggest" that they did!

Delighted with Thomas' turn of thought, the tabloid talker turned to Walter Shapiro, and launched one of his trademark rambling questions. But when the exhausted talker finally paused to let Shapiro take his turn--the unthinkable! Shapiro plainly suggested the comic-book "points" may not have come from the White House at all:

SHAPIRO: Well, I've always thought the talking points, which were given by Monica Lewinsky to Linda Tripp to tell Linda Tripp how to fabricate the truth about Kathleen Willey, I've always thought they were pretty crude documents and I've never been sure where they came from. They are clearly an effort to obstruct justice, but it is very hard to claim that they are from the White House...

Saying this on Hardball, need I tell the reader, is like having a leopard show up at the Discovery Channel, and loudly announce he doesn't like to chase zebras. A sense of awkwardness surely swept the set, as Lynn Sweet interrupted Shapiro's statement.

But on this night, as on so many others, Chris Matthews, relentless, would bring down his man. Twenty minutes later, the former-journalist-turned-TV-tabloid-talker gave Shapiro another chance at the question:

MATTHEWS: Walter Shapiro, let me ask you this. Who are the people that the president--knowing the dramatis personae and spending a lot of time, as I have, at those hearings trying to figure out what's going on here with this president--who would he have trusted to deliver talking points to Monica Lewinsky to cover up perhaps a relationship with, or an encounter with, Kathleen Willey, to cover up a relationship with Monica Lewinsky? Who would he have entrusted to give that cue to her?

Get it? It's the very thing Shapiro, earlier on, had said that he didn't think happened!

Life rewards those who accept second chances. Shapiro, pursued by a tabloid stalker, wisely sought the high grass of the subjunctive:

SHAPIRO: Ifsuch a situation existed [Shapiro's emphasis], the two most likely people have both figured in this case so far. One is Vernon Jordan, whose name hasn't popped up for a while but is still of interest to Kenneth Starr, and number two, of course, is Bruce Lindsey. These are the people who Bill Clinton trusts their loyalty, their discretion, their ability to clean up his messes. And the issue here is A, what's provable, B, what they did, and C, the PR black eye that Ken Starr will get if he puts Monica Lewinsky on trial.

See what's happened? Shapiro, chastened, is now giving us names, to tell us who did what he doesn't think happened!

We were sorry to see our old friend put to rout, for at least two principal reasons. First, we never discuss Shapiro in these pages, unless we simply must, because we enjoy his ready wit, his insight, and his excellent manners. It's one of a handful of conflicts of interest THE DAILY HOWLER readily acknowledges.

But more important, it would have been intriguing to see a discussion of Shapiro's first premise--to see tabloid talkers forced to defend their assumptions about those vexing points. You rarely hear said what Shapiro was saying--that it may turn out that those nagging points aren't really the work of any lawyers at all. It would have been intriguing to see someone put it up on the screen--this magisterial legal document to which we always seem to hear such vague allusions.

But it's just not a view Hardball fans need to hear, and Matthews showed last night that he knows it.The tabloid talker may have spent lots of time "trying to figure out what's going on here with this president." But some possibilities, to which wayward guests may give voice, just don't seem quite right for his program.

OUR PREDICTION: Who may have helped out with those maddening points? We predict that eventually we'll hear that, if there was such a culprit, the culprit was Monica's mother.