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8 August 2001

Smile-a-while: The king holds court

Synopsis: If it’s sheer dissembling that you enjoy, Chris Matthews is still a best bet.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Deborah Orin
Hardball, MSNBC, 8/6/01

Mr. Bush and Congress
Editorial, The New York Times, 8/4/01

Al, Again
Editorial, The New York Times, 8/5/01

When you’re a full-time dissembler like TV’s Chris Matthews, you have to keep spinnin’ them yarns. And so the millionaire pundit performed some invention on his creative cable show Monday night. The New York Post’s Deborah Orin spoke in praise of vacationing Bush. "You think, ‘Well, gee, not much is happening,’" she said. "And then you look at what he’s actually done, and it’s actually a pretty impressive series of legislative accomplishments."

That set the stage for the King of Invention. As usual, he was up to his task:

MATTHEWS (8/6): When is The New York Times going to agree with what you just said?

It was a perfect softball, right down the middle–and stated with real indignation! Orin eyed Matthews’ big, fat pitch. And she slammed it right out of the park:

MATTHEWS (8/6): When is The New York Times going to agree with what you just said?

ORIN: Never. I mean, it’s in–it’s actually sort of fascinating to read The New York Times because I think it’s inconceivable for The New York Times to acknowledge–even if you don’t like the victory Bush won on the Patient Bill of Rights, at least acknowledge it was a victory. "We don’t like that victory, but it was a victory." But The New York Times, I think it’s sort of blinded by its hate for Bush.

Just a typical day for the King and his Court. And maybe you chuckled, much as we did, because maybe you had actually seen what the Times had already said on this subject. Two days earlier, the Times had said this:

THE NEW YORK TIMES (8/4): You don’t have to agree with Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim that President Bush’s first six months in office were among "the most remarkable in any administration" to acknowledge that Mr. Bush has done surprisingly well in his dealings with a divided and sometimes difficult Congress.

Wouldn’t you know it! The Times had already said exactly what the King and his Court said it "never" would do. "[E]ven Mr. Bush’s opponents would have to acknowledge he is on a winning streak, however flawed the legislative results," the Times said. "He has shown far more skill in handling Congress than many people expected." And the hate-filled Times explicitly complimented Bush’s skill on that bill of rights. "On the energy bill, he helped build winning coalitions in both industry and organized labor," the paper said. "He did the same thing on patients’ rights, using personal diplomacy to produce a measure closer to his liking than the Senate bill."

So the New York Times had already said the things that it "never" would say. But then, are you really surprised by this comic moment? By open dissembling to please misled viewers? Dissembling remains the key stock in trade of Matthews’ long-running cable gong show. We hope his money is spending real good, because Matthews earns his check at the expense of America’s precious, jointly-held public discourse.

But we know what you're surely saying. You’re saying, “Maybe Matthews and Orin hadn’t read what the Times said on the subject.” But it’s not as if Matthews doesn’t read the ed page. Indeed, in that very same roundtable, he quoted a Times editorial written on Sunday, August 5. And once again, he showed the skills that make his show an insult to the transcendent values children read about in civics textbooks.

This time, the subject was Al Gore. As per the unvarying rules of Hardball, loud, forced snickering pervaded the discussion. After a series of mindless comments about why Gore had grown a beard on vacation, Matthews began to speculate about his pending return to the public debate:

MATTHEWS (8/6): Oh! He’s on sabbatical! He’s on sabbatical. Who is going to be the first smarmy, fawning journalist to write the following phrase: "Al Gore is back. He’s tanned. He’s comfortable in his skin now." Who is going to write that first? Is that going to–where is that going to be? The New Republic? Just guessing. Lawrence [O’Donnell], The New Republic will do that one?

O’Donnell, understanding the scripting, suggested it might be the New York Times. And his host stepped in with the goods:

MATTHEWS (8/6): Well, let’s look at the Times–one of the likely suspects. The New York Times editorialized on Gore today [sic]. "Mr. Gore is sorely needed as a voice on behalf of the issues he championed in 2000. The Democrats have missed having a leader in the national debate over the Bush policies, particularly in foreign affairs and the environment. And if Mr. Gore decides to opt for being a sort of elder statesman rather than a presidential hopeful, he will never have to hear another critique of his wardrobe." Boy, the–talk about phony journalism.

Let’s take that invitation. What was the point of Matthews’ quote? The Times was fawning about Gore. But Matthews was rather selective in his excerpt. He quoted paragraph eight of an 8-paragraph piece. But what follows is some of the "phony journalism" he forgot to include in his tirade. As we start, the Times is referring to Gore’s public silence over the past six months:

THE NEW YORK TIMES (8/5): (pgh 5) Some Democrats were furious at the silence from the top. Others are still so angry about the loss of the White House that they don’t have room for additional ire. It is probably fair to say that a sizable chunk of his party would be perfectly happy if Mr. Gore stayed out of sight indefinitely. He is, after all, the man who wrested defeat out of the longest economic boom in American history, the champion debater who managed to go 1 for 3 against George W. Bush.

(6) Mr. Gore’s fans point out that Richard Nixon rebuilt his political career after narrowly losing a race he should have won against John F. Kennedy. (It is a measure of Mr. Gore’s luck that even his friends wind up comparing him to people like Mr. Nixon. And that 500,000-vote winning margin in the popular vote will mean a lifetime of being lumped with fellow Electoral College victims Samuel Tilden and Grover Cleveland.)

(7) Obviously, Mr. Gore has a right to leap back into the presidential sweepstakes and take his chances. The number of invitations he gets to campaign for Democratic candidates in high-profile races over the next year will be one indication of how good his standing in the party is, and his success or failure as a drawing card may indicate something about the public’s It could be a tough comeback. There are plenty of other people, including virtually every Democrat in the Senate, who think they could have run a better race last year and are ready to try to prove it.

In short, this editorial was hardly a pander to Gore. But Hardball is built on constant dissembling. And helpful hacks like Orin and O’Donnell know their role on the gruesome program–to keep hitting the softballs over the fence, to keep the deceptions alive.

We’ve long since stopped making the obvious point–that NBC disgraces itself by leaving this show on the air. So let’s just say this: if it’s sheer dissembling that you enjoy, Hardball is still a great evening. Its host is a loathsome historical type–the loudmouth beast that has always stalked democracy. We’d love to know what he tells his kids about his assault on their dearest inheritance.

Next: When Gore grew a beard without asking permission, leading imbeciles leaped into action.

In search of a talker’s great pique: Maybe The King was upset with a couple of jibes the Times had aimed at his vacuous court. Let’s revisit that paragraph 8:

THE NEW YORK TIMES (8/5): But Mr. Gore is sorely needed as a voice on behalf of the issues he championed in 2000. The Democrats have missed having a leader in the national debate over the Bush policies, particularly in foreign affairs and the environment. And if Mr. Gore decides to opt for being a sort of elder statesman rather than a presidential hopeful, he will never have to hear another critique of his wardrobe. [End of editorial]

On Monday night, Matthews and his simpering crew were upset about Gore’s deeply troubling beard. But they spent the better part of the two prior years yakking about the hopeful’s wardrobe. We wonder what the loathsome host tells his children about such idiot fare. But on Monday, we may have seen how Great Kings react when their emptiness is even gently chided.


The occasional update (8/8/01)

Got a new sen-sa-shun: Adding to Monday’s general merriment was a visit from Lisa DePaulo, who shared her latest apparent embellishment of the Chandra Levy story. The apparent reinvention began right away:

MATTHEWS: Well, let’s talk about the deal that this young woman, this 24-year-old woman, had with this congressman. It’s been well-reported by your piece and elsewhere that the deal was absolute silence, the code of omerta, like in the mob. Nobody talks. Did she ever break that deal?

DEPAULO: She did. She broke it at the very end. In fact, there were several things that were happening that I would consider crisis moments at the very end. One was that she just lost her job and suddenly had no plans. The other was that she started telling people, which we know–now know from people like Anne Marie Smith that, that was the cardinal sin. And the third was that his wife came to town–town at a time that she was pressuring him to leave her and–and make a commitment to her.

MATTHEWS: Why are those facts critical, the fact that she was leaving her job, the fact that she had begun to talk about her relationship with the congressman. Why are those facts critical to what happened to her?

DEPAULO: Because all of this starts happening in the last week or two of April, she disappears on May 1, and I think that’s an awful lot of coincidences to be happening at the same time to a woman who suddenly vanishes off the face of the earth.

If reinvention of facts is your favorite thing, DePaulo almost never disappoints. Throughout this appearance, she asserted that Levy began to break the code of silence "at the very end" of the affair, "in the last week or two of April." This makes her exciting speculations work better, but has little connection to reported facts. Take the Washington Post’s July 6 and 8 stories on its interview with Levy’s aunt, Linda Zamsky. According to these articles, Levy–who showed up in Washington on October 23–named Condit as her lover over Thanksgiving weekend! How much faster could she have blabbed? Meanwhile, when DePaulo appeared on Larry King last Thursday night, she reviewed Levy’s discussions of Condit with her friend, Sven Jones:

DEPAULO (8/2): It was interesting. What was so striking to me about Sven was, I thought the only person she had confided in the end was her Aunt Linda, and in fact in these crucial months, she was also talking to him almost every day. These crucial weeks, these crucial months, and what struck me was what he remembered, what he divulged was so consistent with what Linda Zamsky had said.

From DePaulo’s various comments on King, one would think that Levy had long discussed Condit by name with Jones as well. And here she was on Friday’s The Edge:

PAULA ZAHN (8/3): Let me put up on the screen now something that Sven Jones also told you that you’ve included in this article. He said, "I tried to tell her that if you push a man like that too hard, he’s going to feel as if he’s lost some self-control. If you really want to hook this guy, you should lay low and let him feel like he’s making the decisions."

DEPAULO: That’s right. And–

ZAHN: So Sven was guiding her throughout the last couple of months of this relationship?

DEPAULO: Oh, yeah, that’s right. But Chandra was beyond laying low

It didn’t sound like the name was withheld. But by Monday, DePaulo was pushing "she only revealed his name at the very end." Here, in her Hardball appearance, she seems to dissemble again. Note her initial non-denial denial:

MATTHEWS (8/6): Did she ever use the congressman’s name to Sven Jones or anyone else and say, "This is the guy I’m having to deal with?" Did she ever use the name or did they have to put it together?

DEPAULO: They put it together, but it was interesting. With each person–and Linda Zamsky, very similar to Sven, started with, you know, "I’m, it’s a powerful man." Then it was, "married, powerful man." Then it was "married, powerful congressman." And pretty soon–you know, "Gary" did not come out in the first conversations with any of these people.

MATTHEWS: Well, did it ever come out?



DEPAULO: At the end.

"They put it together" seems to be simply false. In the Post, Levy’s aunt describes how Levy simply blurted out Condit’s name at Thanksgiving. But then, "at the end" is simply false too, if the detailed Post stories were accurate.

In a rational world, the host would have asked DePaulo to explain the apparent contradictions. But on cable, spinning Chandra is an imperative, a key part of the new tabloid culture. No clarifications were ever sought, and DePaulo’s improved story, right or wrong, went forward, exciting the masses.

Commentary by Lisa DePaulo, Chris Matthews
Hardball, MSNBC, 8/6/01

Commentary by Lisa DePaulo
Larry King Live, CNN, 8/2/01

Commentary by Lisa DePaulo, Paula Zahn
The Edge, Fox News Channel, 8/3/01