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9 June 1999

Our current howler (part I): Had his mojo workin'

Synopsis: How did Clinton escape a disaster in Kosovo? Grumbling pundits agreed: it was luck.

Commentary by Morton Kondracke, Fred Barnes
The Beltway Boys, Fox News Channel, 6/5/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Karen Tumulty
Hardball, CNBC, 6/8/99

Commentary by Bill OReilly
The OReilly Factor, Fox News Channel, 6/7/99

Why He Blinked
Johanna McGeary, Time, 6/14/99

War Scores
Unattributed, Newsweek, 6/14/99

Not much to go back to
Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report, 6/14/99

With a Kosovo settlement taking shape, the Beltway Boys acted like gentlemen:

KONDRACKE: OK now, we gotta do it, Fred. Do you want to take the first bite, or shall I? Do you like your crow steamed or baked?

Fred let Mort continue:

KONDRACKE: We were wrong. We thought that Clinton would fail in this, thought it would be a miserable disaster. We were wrong.

Fred pointed out what the boys had said: that only use of ground troops would stave off disaster.

Indeed, Washington pundits, large and small, had been howlingly wrong on the Kosovo action--had recited tired tidbits of conventional wisdom that had all ended up being wrong. But others would find more creative ways to deal with the awkward peace outbreak. A tabloid talker had the new spin, as he barked brisk brio at the start of his show. How had Clinton avoided disaster? How else? The darn guy was just lucky:

MATTHEWS: You know, once again I’m wondering. Is Bill Clinton the luckiest man who ever walked on this planet? Karen Tumulty, is he going to walk out of this war that nobody wanted a winner?

Chris must get his points from our fave, Bill O’Reilly. Bill had said the same thing Monday night:

O’REILLY: President Clinton is obviously not a wartime leader. He can talk softly, but the big stick is much too heavy for him. We are lucky to have won this action and it’s almost miraculous more Americans weren’t killed.

Miraculous that more Americans weren’t killed? There weren’t any Americans killed at all! 15,000 casualties to none, and the commander in chief just got lucky! But Bill’s luck also caught the eye of the news magazines. Johanna McGeary, caught grumbling in Time:

MCGEARY: Bill Clinton proves--again--to be the luckiest President alive.

Michael Barone, in U.S. News:

BARONE: [S]uddenly we face dangers of daunting proportions for which we are unprepared, just as we were for a ground war against a derisory military power in Kosovo--and we may not always be so lucky.

A number of pundits, like Fred and Mort, were great big grown-up beltway boys. For others, the notion that Clinton may have made a judgment that turned out somewhat well simply provided too much dead bird to swallow.

We thought that Newsweek did the best job of acting out the gloomy Goth anger--anger that Daddy, who’s always wrong, may have had something turn out semi-well. Fareed Zakaria wrote a balanced lead article, giving credit to NATO’s leaders, even as he noted that problems lie ahead. He even said that Clinton’s judgment “looks canny in hindsight” in Kosovo. But someone else, with a dark gloomy view, decided to balance things off a bit more. Here are the first three entries in Newsweek’s “War Scores,” a boxed feature inside the lead article:

Clinton: Bungled the ground-war issue, but still fortunate in his enemies.
Albright: Hard-line Munich baby lucks out.
Milosevic: Serbian strongman keeps Kosovo, but keeping his job will be tougher.
Amazing, isn’t it? Only Milosevic, the recently-indicted war criminal, managed to escape a sneering review. With Clinton and Albright, the gloomy weekly was right back on message: They were lucky.

We thought Newsweek’s review was especially intriguing, because it returned to a familiar theme: Clinton is lucky in his enemies. Time and again gloomy pundits have said it: Clinton stinks, but others make him look good. Karen Tumulty knew the song when Matthews asked about the Republicans:

TUMULTY: If you say that Bill Clinton is the luckiest man alive, it’s often because of his choice of enemies. And at this time the Republicans have been so badly divided both on whether this is a just cause and on the means that the president has taken us into it with, that they really haven’t been able to come up with any sort of coherent criticism.

Get it? He’s not only lucky in how things turned out. He’s also lucky because an entire party can’t explain what’s wrong with what he did. There’s just no end to some pundits’ sense of how lucky that Vile Bill has been.

But then it’s no wonder that some in the press corps refused to give credit and eat their crow. The ten weeks of the Kosovo war had been another showcase for their relentless bad judgment. Reciting memorized nuggets of wisdom, all of which turned out to be wrong, the pundits had turned in another example of their uselessness and incomparable bad judgment. No wonder they now found themselves driven--more shamans than scribes--to luck and the gods to explain the war’s tides. They wrote a presidency off to luck; in time, able historians would finally judge just when Bill’s mojo got workin’.

Maybe it’s only human nature. Even Fred and Mort tried to find a way out:

BARNES: I’ll have to say, I thought ground troops would have to be actually put in to win. But I would note one other thing and that is it was only when President Clinton was threatening to use ground troops in the last couple of weeks that Milosevic caved.

KONDRACKE: So we were right after all. [Laughter]

The boys, being men, were only kidding. But others would try that very dodge...

Tomorrow: The ground troops mantra.