10 August 1999
Our current howler (part II): What she said
Synopsis: Its hard to know what Hillary thinks. But dont bet on the press corps to say so.
The Last Days of Socrates
Plato, Penguin Classics, 1993
The Boy Cant Help It
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 8/4/99
First Lady Opens Up About Husbands 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
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
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 isthe new dodge, I'd have to call
itis 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 himevery loyal Democrat in the country got called into
service in that warit 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 yesthis 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 wordnot oneabout 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 deathsand 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
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 saythe 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 possiblebut 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 closelyshe 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 quoteMrs. 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 itshe seems to say it,
Roberts says, revealing the press corps' habitual standard of
proof. If she seems to say it, then say it she didnever 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 weaknessirresponsibility and lack of discipline, you
saidwas 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
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 storyand
he wants to defend his earlier claimsso he tells us what Mrs.
Clinton "suggests." Like Roberts, he gives himself easy
standardsand 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 storyand
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.