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19 May 1998

A Howler postscript: Still crazy after playing all this Hardball

Synopsis: Jim McDougal's still crazy after all these years. But on Hardball, stuff like that doesn't matter.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Mary Jacoby
Hardball,CNBC, 5/19/98

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

We were just so confused about Jim McDougal's new stories that we wanted some help in sorting them out. We knew what to do! We'd listen in to the Hardball gang, to get some no-nonsense analysis.

It was that story about the $2000 monthly bribes that we particularly wanted some help sorting out--the one that had gotten such respectful treatment from Susan Schmidt and Stephen Labaton. McDougal claims that he paid $2000 a month, cash money, to Governor Clinton in the early 1980s-- payment which he later replaced with a $2000 monthly retainer to Mrs. Clinton at the Rose Law Firm. You'll recall from yesterday's HOWLER that this was the part of McDougal's story that just had us all flat-out stumped.

This was a cleaner way to bribe the Clintons, McDougal said, but there was one little problem with his new tale. It had long been established that, as a Rose Law Firm partner, Mrs. Clinton herself would make $20 a month from McDougal's retainer, tops. But, wouldn't you know it? Neither Labaton nor Schmidt had flagged this apparent howler in their reports on McDougal's new bio.

Well sure enough, on last night's Hardball,the troubling new charges by McDougal came up. We settled in for some clarification. But, when former journalist-turned-TV-tabloid-talker Chris Matthews began to offer his take on the charges, well, it almost seemed like the tabloid talker hadn't done even the most basic homework! His question to the New York Observer's Mary Jacoby:

MATTHEWS: Let's ask Mary. Mary, $2000 a month. The accusation is that he was basically giving the president walking-around, cash money, as we say. But you know this is funny, it correlates almost uniquely, exactly, to the $2000 in legal fees that Mrs. Clinton was getting from the Madison Guaranty Saving and Loan as the request of the president. This is part of the old lore of this thing...

Quite plainly, Matthews seemed to think he was noticingthe fact that the $2000 alleged cash payments appeared to match the long-established retainer. But, of course, the alleged connection between the two had been fully spelled out in Labaton's New York Times piece; McDougal is charging that one replaced the other. Translation: as of Monday night, there had been two major articles written on these new charges, and the talker didn't seem to have read them!

But then, any time that you're factually unprepared on Hardball,you're likely to have plenty of company:

JACOBY: Well, I don't know if those two are exactly related. The accusation about the retainer with Mrs. Clinton was she needed some business, she wasn't pulling in enough business at Rose Law Firm, and Jim McDougal threw her some business...

Translation: Jacoby doesn't know what she's talking about, either. Labaton's article explained, with perfect clarity, how McDougal says the two payments are "exactly related." Jacoby hasn't done even the most basic reading on the accusations she's on TV to discuss.

But life in this celebrity press corps means you don't need to know facts to express your opinion. And you can be pretty sure what that opinion will be: accusers should all be believed. Jim McDougal, of course, makes a striking test case, because Jim McDougal's an especially tough cat to credit. Here's Max Brantley, from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, earlier in this same Hardballsegment:

BRANTLEY: Once again, this strikes me--Jim McDougal suffered from bipolar disorder, had a nervous breakdown, I think the record of his testimony and the record of his life outside court show he's a man who's a great story-teller, an exaggerator, a man given to delusions...

For the record, Brantley is being Arkansas-polite; while he's fairly frank about McDougal's long mental illness, he euphemizes "perjurer" in his list of descriptives. Jacoby, discussing McDougal's pardon charge, doesn't seem too impressed with Jim either:

JACOBY: But I just wanted to say something on the subject of the pardon. You know, it's interesting. Jim McDougal is not a very credible character. He's changed his stories a million times...

You'd almost think this would all suggest that maybe McDougal shouldn't easily be believed--the fact that he's a mentally-ill perjurer who's had a nervous breakdown, and all, and has changed his stories a million times. You'd almost think you were hearing a rationale for not rushing to believe Jim McDougal.

If you thought that, you weren't playing Hardball:

JACOBY: But I just wanted to say something on the subject of the pardon. You know, it's interesting. Jim McDougal is not a very credible character. He's changed his stories a million times. But the president, we must remember, did not specifically deny during the campaign in '96 that he would possibly pardon Susan McDougal. He was asked directly about it and left open the possibility.

MATTHEWS: And that tells you?

JACOBY: That tells you that maybe of all the stories that Jim McDougal is telling, perhaps this one has a kernel of truth to it.

Good answer! We never found out about the apparent howler that McDougal told about the $2000. But, thanks to a shaky account of something Clinton once said, Hardballviewers did get to go home with a suggestion that McDougal's stories may be true.

Journalists gossiping about stories where they don't know basic facts, searching for ways to go along with accusers--it's just the way that today's Hardball is played. And no, we'll be the first ones to agree--it probably doesn't matter all that much, in the end, what the Hardball gang is bruiting about concerning Jim and Bill's Excellent Pardon.

But, even as we played a little Hardballlast night, on the horizon was the China missile story, with much bigger issues now being discussed. And wait a minute: as the first China stories reach DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, are our analysts already seeing factually unprepared journalists assuming the worst about that matter, too?