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Caveat lector

15 June 2001

Our current howler: Facts later

Synopsis: Raspberry slammed Fleischer for the alleged White House trashing. Here’s what he wrote in real time.

No Joking Matter
William Raspberry, The Washington Post, 6/11/01

Revenge of the Wannabes
William Raspberry, The Washington Post, 1/27/01

Scenes from a Marriage
Marjorie Williams, Vanity Fair, 7/01

To his credit, he did fess up later. This past Monday, William Raspberry penned an op-ed column about the alleged trashing of the White House. By press corps standards, the pundit hit hard. He called the alleged White House trashing "a lie," and clearly blamed Ari Fleischer, by name. "Fleischer says there will be no apology" for the claims of trashing, the scribe noted. After citing a quote by Fleischer—"The White House is going continue to be gracious"—Raspberry came with the juice:

RASPBERRY (6/11/01, pgh 14): Let me get this straight: You encourage the belief that the departing Democrats are vandals, leak enough details to make the story irresistible, eliminate any possibility that the allegations can be either proved or disproved, refuse to apologize and then announce that you will "continue to be gracious"?

(15) That’s pretty funny, all by itself. [END OF COLUMN]

The actual facts in this matter are still unclear. But this is likely the toughest rebuke any pundit has dished out to Fleischer.

Does Raspberry know, even now, what happened? That is unclear from his column (see below). But we were intrigued by something Raspberry said when he reviewed the history of the silly affair. At first the whole story seemed funny, he said—W’s missing from computers and such. But reports of more serious problems came in, "and it stopped being funny," he said:

RASPBERRY (3): But then came reports that there had been actual vandalism—sliced computer cables, graffiti in the bathrooms, garbage in the refrigerators, overturned desks—and it stopped being funny. I wrote a column raking the Clinton staffers and, yes, praising the new president for his decision to play down the affair in the interest of setting a new tone in Washington.

Raspberry had trashed Clinton aides and praised Bush at the time? We decided to go back and take a look at what Raspberry wrote in real time.

The column to which the pundit refers appeared on Saturday, January 27. "At first it was funny," Raspberry began, even then, and he described those missing W’s. But after noting more serious claims of misconduct, Raspberry did just what he later described—he wagged his finger at the alleged vandals, and praised Fleischer and Bush for their conduct. Bush’s "no-prosecution decision" was "both elegant and gracious," Raspberry wrote. "If this is a class war," he said, "then it’s the Bush people who are displaying all the class."

But something else leaped off the page when we read the January column. It’s this: by his own admission, Raspberry clearly did not know the facts when he penned this initial report. Indeed, he sprinkled disclaimers all through his piece, offering a welter of hedges and qualifications. Raspberry offered sweeping judgments, twice saying that "criminal" conduct may have occurred. But he clearly wasn’t sure of the facts, and said as much right in his piece.

For example, here is Raspberry early on, discussing reports of conduct which "may be criminal:"

RASPBERRY (1/27/01, pgh 6): Graffiti in bathrooms, alleged in some reports, doesn’t strike me as funny…

Of course, graffiti is even less funny if it actually occurred; by his own statement, the scribe didn’t know if it had. Another such admission followed quickly:

RASPBERRY (pgh 7): The garbage in the refrigerator, cut phone lines and overturned desks (also reported) are clearly over the top. In Halloween terms, it’s the difference between soaping windows and breaking them.

"Also reported" was a second disclaimer, acknowledging that Raspberry didn’t know what was true. In paragraph 8, it happened again:

RASPBERRY (pgh 8): It’s hard to know just how much soaping or breaking was done in the waning days of the Clinton administration. The Bush people said they would catalog but not publicly disclose the extent of the damage. Nor do they plan to prosecute the perpetrators.

That was the Hat Trick—three straight disclaimers. But then, Raspberry had signaled uncertainty even sooner:

RASPBERRY (pgh 3): Now it turns out the "W’s" are the least of it. Bush administration officials said on Thursday that they were cataloguing numerous acts of vandalism, apparently committed by departing Clintonites: sliced phone lines, scrambled telephone identification tags (so that the extension on the telephone set is not the actual number of the phone), obscene messages left in copy machines and on voice mail, garbage in refrigerators.

The scribe left a string of disclaimers. But that didn’t stop him from speculating about "criminal" conduct, and jumping on a speeding bandwagon as pundits tutted and clucked about the "trashing" all over town. In fairness, Raspberry softened his blows at the end. "I don’t want to make too much of this nonsense," he wrote (having just devoted an entire column to it). "It is, after all, not a reflection on Democrats, or even on the Clinton administration, but rather on a presumably small number of immature wannabes who’ve found themselves out of their prestigious jobs." Even "presumably" showed that the facts were not yet in on this case.

It’s very much like the Washington press corps to do what Raspberry did in this column—to offer sweeping judgments about the meaning of events where the facts are quite plainly unknown. Clearly, Raspberry shouldn’t have written about what he called "this nonsense" in the first place.

But the real humor shows up in this past Monday’s column. Because, while Raspberry now is slamming Fleischer, hints are sprinkled that again make it clear: Raspberry isn’t sure of his facts even now:

RASPBERRY (6/11/01, pgh 4): Now, it appears, the entire business may well have been a hoax—no, a lie. A hoax, though it might be elaborate, is a joke; its perpetrator lives for the denouement, the gleeful "gotcha!" Liars hope not to be found out.

Fleischer’s promised cataloguing of damage "never happened," Raspberry says, soon thereafter. "Can it be because the alleged vandalism never happened either?"

And yes, of course, that could be the case. Next time, is it possible a pundit might try to find out before engaging in his serial condemnations?


The occasional update (6/15/01)

Not as I do: Readers may recall Marjorie Williams’ recent extreme high dudgeon (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/8/01). Scribes were acting just like shrinks, and the Post scribe had just had enough. Writing of the Jenna fandango, she said, "Let’s spare her the knowing psychoanalysis." Mocking the "Big Thoughts" which press corps shrinks had brought forward, Williams said, quite correctly, "The point is that none of us blabbing about this has the faintest idea which possibility is closer to the truth."

But that was then, and this is Vanity Fair. In its current edition, Williams quotes every unnamed shrink in town. But since they’re expounding on Clinton and Gore, their yammering is completely OK now:

WILLIAMS: "The psychodrama just overpowers everything," says someone who knows Gore well. "I think the guy just wanted so much for this to be his victory, and not Clinton’s. He didn’t want to wear the older sibling’s jeans."

Hmmm—heady stuff, sourced to "someone!" Williams continues, shrinking hard, speaking now in her own voice:

WILLIAMS (continuing directly): This, finally, is the other explanation for why Gore seemed so unnerved by his Clinton problem. As the son of a forceful father who had bragged of raising him for the presidency, Gore had struggled all his life with the assumption that he was wearing borrowed clothes. Even under the best of circumstance, it might have been harder for him than for others to manage with grace the eternal vice-presidential conundrum of how to stop looking like a second fiddle when his turn finally came. On some level, in addition to the real difficulties he posed, Bill Clinton was a very persuasive foil for Gore’s drama of filial rebellion.

Got that? It was the borrowed clothes, not the negative polls, that drove Al’s decision not to have Bill campaign. Well—it "might have been" this ("on some level").

Let’s say it—writing doesn’t get any sillier. At least when Gail Sheehy pens this kind of drek, she doesn’t first yell at others who do so.