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10 August 1999

Our current howler (part II): What she said

Synopsis: It’s hard to know what Hillary thinks. But don’t bet on the press corps to say so.

The Last Days of Socrates
Plato, Penguin Classics, 1993

The Boy Can’t Help It
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 8/4/99

First Lady Opens Up About Husband’s Trials
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 8/2/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 8/2/99

The Intimate Hillary
Lucinda Franks, Talk, 9/99

Did Not! Did Too! Wanna Bet?
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 8/5/99

Pardon Us, Mrs. Clinton...
Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post, 8/5/99

2500 years ago, at the dawn of the west, Socrates sat in his dank death chamber, and explained to followers how he came to realize he was the wisest man in Greece after all. So described by the Oracle (you talk about pressure!), he began interviewing others with reputations for wisdom, convinced that they would surely turn out to be wiser by far than he. His interviews convinced him otherwise. In Plato's rendering, Socrates describes his thoughts upon leaving one meeting:

SOCRATES: [W]hen I began to try to show him that he only thought he was wise and was not really so, my efforts were resented...However, I reflected as I walked away: "Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something that he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance."

In that manner, the west's greatest epistemological rule was propounded: wisdom lies in openly acknowledging how much one doesn't know.

But time has passed, and it's become quite clear: this press corps isn't reading its Socrates. Today, the three dirty words you can't say on TV are The Greatest Greek's faves: "I don't know." And rarely have the press corps' grisly habits been displayed so clearly as they were last week, as pundits rushed to tell the world what Mrs. Clinton had said to Talk magazine.

Once the Sunday pundits Told All, their judgment was cast in hard stone:

DOWD: Fans and foes of Mrs. Clinton were left reeling by her contention that the President's chronic philandering was caused by "abuse" he suffered as a little boy when his mother and grandmother battled over him.

Others were somewhat more careful:

KURTZ [8/2]: Hillary Rodham Clinton says her husband's sexual behavior may stem from a troubled childhood and that she is trying to help him with his "weakness."

On the buffoon-like end of the spectrum, tabloid talkers told the tale with abandon:

MATTHEWS: The new excuse is—the new dodge, I'd have to call it—is well, it's psychological. You have to understand modern psychology. And everything from the lying to the impeachment problems to the six months of recruiting an army of half the country to lie for him—every loyal Democrat in the country got called into service in that war—it was all because his grandmother had a fight with his mother.

Grandma's scrappin' even caused the lying! But then, Matthews was chatting with Gennifer Flowers. All the big experts came in.

Does Mrs. Clinton think childhood family dynamics somehow "caused" President Clinton's infidelity? Based on this article, we don't know, because Mrs. Clinton wasn't asked, and didn't say. It is possible that she may think something like that, based on things she does say here. But to be honest, the conversation the article reports is so limited it's simply impossible to say (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/9/99).

But while we can't really say what Mrs. Clinton thinks, we can repeat what she said. Here is the paragraph in which Mrs. Clinton refers to the tussles between mom and grandma:

FRANKS: I tell Hillary that I read his mother's autobiography, in which she wrote about the atmosphere of alcohol, violence, and chaos that forced her son to be the man of the house while he was still a child. Hillary leans over and says softly, "That's only the half of it. He was so young, barely four, when he was scarred by abuse that he can't even take it out and look at it. There was terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother. A psychologist once told me that for a boy being in the middle of a conflict between two women is the worst possible situation. There is always the desire to please each one."

That is the end of the discussion of the childhood dynamics; the article moves on to another topic. And yes—this is the only place in the entire article where the conflict between mom and grandma is discussed. Not a word is said here to suggest that this experience led to the president's infidelity. It is Franks who brings up the childhood home, and Mrs. Clinton doesn't say a word—not one—about Bill's future wandering.

Do other passages suggest Mrs. Clinton believes that "the boy couldn't help it?" Other passages make it possible that she may think something like this. For example, two paragraphs before the passage we have quoted, Franks writes this about the "complex whole" that Mrs. Clinton sees in her husband:

FRANKS: That whole is something she still admires and defends. Hillary points out that her husband's latest infidelity occurred after the deaths of his mother, her father, and their old friend Vince Foster. Then there was the shutdown of the government. "He couldn't protect me," she says, skipping over the trysts themselves, "and so he lied."

Again, the sketchiness here makes it hard to say just what Mrs. Clinton has said. But she seems to be saying that the emotion of family deaths—and of the government shutdown!—led to the "weakness" of the Lewinsky affair. If that is what Mrs. Clinton is saying, many will regard that as quite a free pass. But it is impossible to read that sketchy passage to mean that the childhood problem "caused" the infidelity. She says at one point that "it is remarkable given his background that he turned out to be the kind of person he is, capable of such leadership." But it is plainly remarkable, given Clinton's background, that he was president at age 46. Later on, Mrs. Clinton comments further:

FRANKS: "He has been working on himself very hard in the last year," she tells me. "He has become more aware of his past and what was causing this behavior." Public office has prevented the president from seeking therapy, but friends told me they expect him to after leaving the Oval Office.

But what part of his past does Mrs. Clinton refer to, and in what way has it "caused" the behavior? Mrs. Clinton isn't asked, and doesn't say—the Franks interview style is quite passive. Those determined to make a buffoon of Mrs. Clinton will assume she is referring to the battlin' with grandma. But this passage is in a different part of the article than the other passages we have quoted, and there is no way of knowing just what she means. Does Mrs. Clinton think the early conflict "caused this behavior?" Anything's possible—but this piece doesn't say

When James Carville protested that Mrs. Clinton hadn't said that the squabbling caused the philandering, at least one pundit was willing to admit that the gentleman did have a point. "Semantically speaking, Carville had a point," Howard Kurtz said in the Post. But then Kurtz began calling media bigfeet, asking them to defend their claims. He encountered the lazy standard of proof that typifies Big Press On The Prowl:

KURTZ [8/5]: "I read the article closely—she seems to say that," said ABC's Cokie Roberts..."The whole tone and tenor is 'poor baby. He had a rough time, it's remarkable he turned out as well as he has, he has a weakness."

Roberts shows that she knows how to quote—Mrs. Clinton did say, in the Talk article, that it's remarkable Clinton turned out so well, and that he has a weakness. But Roberts doesn't cite a passage where Mrs. Clinton says that the early squabbling caused the later philandering, which is she announced to the waiting world on This Week August 1. But then, it doesn't matter whether Mrs. Clinton said it—she seems to say it, Roberts says, revealing the press corps' habitual standard of proof. If she seems to say it, then say it she did—never mind that an actual passage can't be cited.

It got even worse in other quarters when pundits defended their work. Gene Weingarten, in the Post's endlessly puerile "Style" section, offered an "analysis" of what was said that made our analysts first cringe, then glance away:

WEINGARTEN (addressing Mrs. Clinton): In the article, you called Bill's womanizing a "weakness." Then you suggested that this weakness—irresponsibility and lack of discipline, you said—was caused by Bill's "background..."

This completes step two of Weingarten's gruesome effort to prove that Mrs. Clinton Really Said It (step three tomorrow). But while we're talking about a lack of discipline, let's take a look at what Mrs. Clinton said, and compare it to Weingarten's paraphrase:

FRANKS: "My husband is a very good man," Hillary insists. "They are jealous of him. Yes, he has weaknesses. Yes, he needs to be more responsible, more disciplined, but it is remarkable given his background that he turned out to be the kind of person he is, capable of such leadership..."

Mrs. Clinton certainly doesn't say that Clinton's "weakness" was caused by his "background." What she actually says in this passage is that given his background, it's amazing that Clinton turned out to be such a leader. Does Mrs. Clinton think the background caused the philandering? There is no way to say from this passage. But Weingarten wants an embarrassing story—and he wants to defend his earlier claims—so he tells us what Mrs. Clinton "suggests." Like Roberts, he gives himself easy standards—and he tells us the story he likes.

As we'll see tomorrow, Weingarten's effort to prove What She Said only gets more awful as it goes along; indeed, it is simply embarrassing to review press corps efforts to prove that She Really Did Say It. In fact, in its habitual intellectual squalor, the press corps displays the same lack of discipline it claims to despise in Wild Bill. But the press corps wanted a negative story—and this press corps doesn't say, "I don't know." From Talk, it's impossible to say what the First Lady thinks. Don't bet on the press corps to say so.


Tomorrow: Intellectual squalor! You'll blanch when pundits describe the details of an article they don't seem to have read.