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12 June 1999

A Howler follow-up: Just us chickens

Synopsis: Mara Liasson scolded folks who wouldn’t give Clinton credit. She neglected to mention the press.

Commentary by Mara Liasson, John Harris
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 6/11/99

Last Friday night, the analysts were prepping for a speaking engagement, but we let them watch one TV show, and of course they picked their end-of-week favorite, Washington Week in Review. In WWR’s brainy PBS setting, the pundits always are at their best, and the analysts swapped admiring glances as John Harris grilled Mara Liasson:

HARRIS: Mara, the president said this day would come. A lot of people didn’t believe him--it would never work. And there was a heavy expectation, I think, actually among some of our colleagues at the White House, what he would do is end up taking a half-a-loaf deal and perfuming it with political spin, and saying “Victory.” That didn’t happen.

Liasson agreed, completely:

LIASSON: That didn’t happen. Much to everyone’s surprise.

Harris, with a sly question:

HARRIS: And so he gets a lot of credit now, or what?

It was one of those questions the scribes “set up,” so expert panelists can fill in the rest of us. But the truth is, we were surprised to hear Harris asking this question. Just hours before, he himself had said that he didn’t think Bill had a “victory” here. Remember what he had said? Since the campaign would have been a big mess if it had turned out a different way, you couldn’t really call it a “win” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/11/99).

Anyway, Harris seemed to have changed his tune since he made his odd remark Friday morning. And we settled back, just waiting for Mara to open up on the scribes he’d described. We were sure that Mara would let them have it--those nay-saying nabobs who had thought Bill would fold. And when Mara began to give her answer, we could tell she was really annoyed:

LIASSON: Well, maybe he should, but he’s not getting [credit]. The president--this was his most significant foreign policy success. No doubt about it. He met the objectives. And he’s not getting credit.

Mara was really ticked off. Then she began to name some names. The analysts leaned ahead in their chairs:

LIASSON (continuing): He’s not getting credit from the American people...Right now you see polls where people say, “Was this a victory from President Clinton?” or “Was this a foreign policy success?” And I think CNN had a poll today where 48% said “No” and 46% said “Yes!” [Our emphasis]

Harris specifically mentioned the press corps. She’d probably get to them next:

LIASSON (continuing): And in the Congress you’ve got Republicans who have been very grudging about giving him credit. Some of them don’t want to give him any credit at all.

She went on to discuss another topic.

Well, we could see the long looks on the analysts’ faces after Liasson gave her oration. And the truth is, we ourselves were a bit surprised when we looked back over what she had said. By Friday night, many journalists--about whom she’d been asked--had written columns debunking Bill’s win (see postscript). But somehow, by the time that Liasson finished up, it was all that screwball public’s fault that Clinton wasn’t getting his propers.

But we’ve told you before, again and again: this press corps doesn’t deal in self-criticism. And they’ll be as slick as any pol in wriggling off a hook they don’t like. Harris himself said it wasn’t a win--but now he’d decided to change his tune. And when he asked poor Mara to name some scribes, she started crackin’ on the public instead.

The analysts had some long, long faces as they trooped off to rest in their quarters. We could see their hopes had been raised high again, only to be dashed to the ground. We try to tell them, in our weekly counsels, not to expect too much from this crew. But hope springs eternal in the analysts’ breasts--and so too does their deep disappointment.

Biblio: Had Wild Bill actually scored a “win?” Clearly, Liasson thought so. And she clearly thought it was pretty silly to act as if he hadn’t. Harris specifically talked about journalists when he directed his question to her. But when she gave him her reply, it was all about public and pols.

For the record, the following articles had been written by then, all saying that Bill hadn’t won. This is only a modest sample, and doesn’t include TV natters:

  1. Cal Thomas, “Vexatious ‘victory,’” Washington Times, 6/9/99: “NATO and the United States aren’t the victor. Slobodan Milosevic is.”
  2. Editorial, Washington Times, 6/10/99: “[T]he White House’s efforts to spin the conduct of the war with Yugoslavia have begun to border on the delusional.”
  3. A.M. Rosenthal, “Fruits of Victory,” New York Times, 6/11/99: “To Mr. Clinton and his fellow ‘leaders’--our contempt for their human and security ‘values.’ ”
  4. Charles Krauthammer, “Defining Victory Down,” Washington Post, 6/11/99: “By Clinton’s own standard, the war was lost--irretrievably, catastrophically lost--in the first week.”
  5. Arianna Huffington, “Avoidable war,” Washington Times, 6/11/99: “[I]t is critical for the administration to stop looking for winners and losers. Because there are none.”
Trust us--that’s just a sample. We think some critiques made reasonable points. Others we thought were pretty silly. But silliest of all? The spectacle of Harris turning on a dime from his odd remarks of Friday morning--and of Liasson refusing to discuss the press, blaming the public instead.

But then, that’s the level of analysis the public gets in CelebCorps’ most high-toned setting. Did Liasson think the scribes’ views were strange? If so, she wasn’t planning to say it.