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8 June 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: It’s true because ol’ Jim said so!

Synopsis: Curtis Wilkie “decided” Jim McDougal was credible. But just how credible should we find Curtis Wilkie?

Commentary by Curtis Wilkie
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 6/2/98

Curtis Wilkie Preface, Arkansas Mischief

To his credit, the I-man asked the obvious question, when he interviewed Curtis Wilkie on his program last week:

IMUS: So--how do we know ol’ Jim’s not jerkin’ our chain here?

Good question! And the question, of course, is an obviousquestion, for reasons we examined back on May 19. Remember? We pointed to a pair of apparent howlers in ol’ Jim’s new Arkansas Mischieftales, and we went over past problems that ol’ Jim had when it came time to be tellin’ the truth. An admitted perjurer; a convicted swindler; a manic-depressive with documented memory loss--Jim McDougal isn’t exactly the guy who you’d normally trust to make damaging claims about important world figures, especially when he’s trying to receive a shortened prison sentence, or when he wants to make a couple of bucks off an exciting new book that he’s peddlin’. Brother Imus was right to put the obvious question to the co-author who helped type ’n hype ol’ Jim’s book, which is now the source of thrilling new claims about alleged conduct by the confabulatin’ Clintons.

But if you thought Curtis Wilkie would have a thoughtful reply to this obvious question about his mischievous mate, you won’t be all that thrilled, we’d guess, when we show you his lazy response:

WILKIE: Well, you know the two revelations in the book that have not been made public before, it’s Jim’s word against the president’s, and that involves Jim’s assertion that he paid $2000 a month under the table to Clinton while he was governor for a few months in 1984 and then Jim’s claim that Clinton offered to pardon Susan following his testimony in the case in the White House a couple of years ago...

All of which is factually accurate--and unresponsive to Imus’ question. Nothing Wilkie said tells us why we shouldn’t think Jim was just makin’ it up--not just in his two new claims, but in the various, shifting, contradictory assertions he has made in the course of the past decade. And so Imus interrupted the beaming co-author with a question about ol’ Jim that was a bit more precise; and Wilkie again implied that he had faith in Jim’s story, while never giving a specific idea of how he arrived at that crucial judgment. (Text of Imus Q & A supplied in our HOWLER Postscript.)

But then, it’s hardly surprising that Wilkie made so little effort to help Imus know why to put his faith in ol’ Jim. Reason? Because, in his very own preface to Arkansas Mischief,Wilkie himself makes so little real effort to deal with this obvious problem. In the preface, Wilkie discusses how he came to believe in the truth of Jim McDougal’s new claims, and the “explanation” he offers is thin gruel indeed:

WILKIE (paragraph 1): When Jim McDougal’s agent called to ask if I might collaborate with McDougal on his memoirs, I wasn’t really interested. He had the image of an eccentric with a credibility problem, I told her. Eventually, she persuaded me to visit him at his Arkadelphia home a few days before he was to enter prison. Instead of meeting a crazy, embittered man, I found a charming raconteur. Jim had a wealth of funny Arkansas stories and a philosophical attitude about his impending imprisonment.

All of which is well and good, except “charming” people can be dishonest--even mentally ill, or “crazy,” for that matter--and the fact that a person knows a few funny tales hardly answers credibility problems. Tireless in his search for the truth, Wilkie labors on:

WILKIE (paragraph 2): Obviously, I knew we were fellow southerners, but I discovered we were born within a month of one another, each an only child of Scots-Irish parents. We liked books and history and appreciated the quirky rhythms of southern politics. More importantly, I decided he was believable. (Journalists who covered the Whitewater case say he was a very reliable source.) Before I left Jim that first day, a friendship was formed.

Each one an only child! Imagine that! Wilkie’s account sets the stage for a good buddy film, but gives us absolutely no idea why he believed the things ol’ Jim was sayin’. According to this sketchy account, Wilkie decided ol’ Jim was “believable” right there at their very first meeting. But wouldn’t you know it? Wilkie doesn’t make any effort to tell us how he arrivedat this judgment! What a slip-up! (World to Wilkie: Some journalists who cover the Whitewater case seem to think that all accusers are reliable.) Nothing in these passages--not a word--tells us how Wilkie drew this crucial conclusion. And so we see it again, in all its vacuity: the lazy, dishonest adoration of accusation that lies at the heart of this celebrity press corps. Given McDougal’s obvious credibility problems, the first two paragraphs of Wilkie’s preface are a shameful abdication of a writer’s responsibility--a textbook example of how a slick, lazy writer pretends he’s dealt with credibility problems.

For the record, there is one further passage in the preface where Wilkie addresses this problem:

WILKIE (paragraph 8): Where it was possible, the quotes in the book were taken from transcripts, periodicals, and court documents. In some cases, the quotes were reconstructed from Jim’s account and confirmed with the individuals involved. In a few cases, I had to rely on Jim’s memory. The research undertaken convinces me of the truth of his account.

All of which would be well and good, except that Wilkie recounts, in the course of the book, at least two new claims by Jim McDougal that seem to make no sense at all, and he makes no effort whatsoever to square them with logic or facts. (These, of course, are ol’ Jim’s two new charges; again, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/98.) Wilkie is perfectly willing to type up Jim’s claim that he gave Clinton $2000 a month in cash, without attempting to address the howling problem that has long since been established with the second part of that story; and, straight-faced, he types up the following account of why ol’ Jim never told his new buddy, Ken Starr, that President Clinton had said he’d pardon Susan:

WILKIE (for McDougal): I never told them that Clinton agreed to pardon Susan, because no one asked me.

Incredible, isn’t it? A guy who’s trying to get his prison sentence reduced just forgets to mention felonious conduct by Clinton! What an oversight! Or, as Wilkie asks, in a loving frontispiece-tribute to his perjurious partner: “Oh! Didn’t he ramble, ramble? He rambled all around, in and out the town.”

Does the press corps wink at credibility problems when they stand in the way of a good southern story? Does it even matterif the things ol’ Jim said were true? Curtis Wilkie seems only marginally concerned with examining the truth of Jim McDougal’s new stories. But when it comes to accepting these exciting new tales without any effort at scrutiny whatever, Curtis Wilkie, bless his soul, is hardly alone in the Washington press corps. Read on, dear reader, the rest of this week, to see again the thing we’ve said all along--how it’s all just a part of what we do love to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps...”