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2 June 1998

Smile-a-while: A noble scribe shows the gang some old tricks

Synopsis: When AP’s Walter Mears joined the Chris Matthews gang, he didn’t know how today’s Hardballis played.

Commentary by Walter Mears
Hardball,CNBC, 5/28/98

Our internationally-acclaimed Task Force on Classical Allusions was scratching its head as we watched HardballThursday night, as we enjoyed a surprise appearance by AP’s Walter Mears on the inventive CNBC program.

And then, of course! The team had it at last! It was noble Nestor whom Mears evoked--Homer’s noble Nestor, king of Pylos’ sandy harbor, seasoned old chieftain to the long-haired Achaeans, who counseled Agamemnon, lord of men, in the days when men fought around Ilium! We think Professor Fagles has it just about right when he renders Nestor’s seminal Book IX speech, as the old driver is advising wide-ruling Agamemnon to return Briseis to the headstrong Achilles. You recall:

Nestor was first to speak--from the early days
his plans and tactics always seemed the best.
With good will to the chiefs he rose and spoke...

Professor Fagles captures Nestor’s noble desire to seek what’s best for all the Argives. But he also limns Nestor’s indomitable spirit, as he speaks truth to the wide-ruling field marshal:

PROFESSOR FAGLES:, my illustrious King, infuriated Achilles--
You went and took from his tent the girl Briseis,
And not with any applause from us, far from it:
I for one, I urged you against it, strenuously.

My gosh! With counsel like this, rendered by the clear speaker of Pylos--well, is it any wonder the headstrong lord of men could repent of his error so quickly?

Anyway, we couldn’t help thinking of Nestor last night, when the silver-haired Mears turned up for an evening of Hardball. Mears isn’t a regular guest on the creative program, and he didn’t seem to know how today’s Hardballis played; and he did what most scribes refuse to do when they appear on the inventive show--he repeatedly spoke up, and challenged howlers, when a former journalist turned-TV-tabloid-talker allowed the discourse to stray from the facts!

First exchange: the gang had been talking about White House counsel Bruce Lindsey, who has debriefed friendly witnesses to the Starr grand juries. Predictably enough, Matthews had suggested that Lindsey may have been improperly attempting to influence the witnesses, and there were even suggestions--without evidence, of course--that Lindsey helped write those “talking points.” But just when things were going so well, Matthews turned to Mears for the first time, and, a mere eight minutes into the show, the seasoned scribe voiced this puzzling objection:

MEARS: ...But something was said earlier. I have fallen into a den of lawyers here so I’m a little bit nervous--

MATTHEWS: Not me. You’re not alone--

MEARS: Is there something wrongwith Bruce Lindsey debriefing grand jury witnesses--

RICHARD DAVIS (jumping in): Not at all--

MEARS: They’re free to talk when they emerge from the grand jury. If I were Bruce Lindsey or Clinton, and people associated with me had been in that circumstance, I would certainly debrief them.

DAVIS: It’s very common...

And there followed an exchange in which earlier insinuations were replaced with a nuanced discussion! On Hardball,we’re saying this occurred!

But the seasoned old journalist had just gotten started. A few minutes later, Matthews again turned to Mears with a question about Monica Lewinsky:

MATTHEWS: Walter--what do you make of this? I mean, it seems to me this is a real problem for the president. His presidency is disappearing in the hourglass as we watch this story unfold. It’s June practically next week--it is June next week--halfway through the year, and we’re still talking Monica Lewinsky because the president won’t tell us.

Of course, if you believe that Matthews is being forced to discuss Monica Lewinsky, you probably think someone blackmailed Bill Cosby to discuss Jello pudding. And the guileless old counselor almost seemed to suggest it, as he asked, “Is it because the president won’t tell us?” and seemed to imply that the story dragged on--at least in part--because some journalists can’t get enough of the topic.

But it was Mears’ third chastening of the council that won us, this time when the gang was discussing Chinese missile topics. Michael Barone had made the following statement about those vexing Loral missile waivers:

BARONE: ...The president agreed to let Loral, headed by his biggest campaign contributor, to go into China and help them learn how to aim their missiles, which they did. He dismantled the Defense Department inspections of those missile launchings and put Commerce Department in, which had no obligation to inspect them for national security affairs...

Both parts of Barone’s statement were flagrantly false. And three minutes later--right there on Hardball!--the noble Mears actually challenged Barone on the first part of his egregious, groaning howler!

MEARS: ...Michael said something earlier that I don’t agree with. My understanding was not that Clinton had signed off on Loral improving the Chinese missiles. I thought that was the unauthorized action that was taken by a team from that company after one of their satellites was blown up on top of a faulty Chinese missile.

Barone’s response gave a picture of the chaos that ensues when somebody breaks with all known precedent by correcting false statements on Hardball:

BARONE: That was investigated and then they took it away from Defense Department inspectors and put Commerce in.

Barone’s response ignored the error that Mears had actually challenged. And wouldn’t you know it--this being Hardball--Barone’s response was misleading as well! Barone implied that the transfer of authority from Defense to Commerce somehow followed from the Loral investigation. This is plainly false. By all accounts, Loral first informed the government (the State Department) of its unauthorized communications with China on May 10, 1996; the White House first announced that President Clinton had transferred responsibility for communications satellites to the Commerce Department on March 14, 1996. As for Matthews’ statement, just after Barone’s--well, we’ll let you try to parse it:

MATTHEWS: Well actually Janet Reno was probing that transfer, that advice on how to, on that launching power, and in fact, that, how to, the technology that helped launch the missiles after they’d lost the satellite, thatwas in fact not Clinton’s.

We swear it. We’ve gone over the tape a thousand times, and that really is what the flustered host said!

We couldn’t help thinking, as we took in the chaos: maybe the Hardballgang deals with correction so poorly because so few journalists, like Walter Mears, are ever willing to come on the show and provide it. Most modern scribes seem to know all too well just how today’s Hardballis played. It takes a guy like Mears to come on the show and perform an ancient, time-honored service. And once again we saw Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, standing on the plains around Ilium, nobly speaking truth to power in the western world’s great, distant past.

As we ushered our team of classical scholars off to enjoy an evening of feasting, we couldn’t avoid one nagging thought--maybe if Time and Newsweek would hire a few Nestors, and make them speak up when they go on this show, maybe a tabloid talker and his flagrant friends would know what to do when corrections arrive. And here’s another thought that passed through our minds, as the scholars reached out for the things that were good--maybe if the press would occasionally do its job, and speak up when pundits are flagrantly wrong, maybe the Michael Barones of this world wouldn’t feel free to be so flagrantly wrong in the first place.

For the record: Both parts of Barone’s original statement were disgracefully, flagrantly false. As Mears pointed out, no one has suggested that the White House “signed off on” Loral’s communications with the Chinese. This assertion by Barone is absurdly inconsistent with all current published accounts. It is also absurd to assert that the Commerce Department “had no obligation” to consider national security. It has been explained in the press corps, again and again, that State and Defense must still sign off before Commerce can approve missile launches.

As we discussed above, Barone was also wrong in implying that the transfer of authority from State to Commerce somehow followed on the failed Chinese launch. So can someone explain this: can someone explain why a pundit who is so flagrantly misinformed on all aspects of an issue is “explaining” it on CNBC?