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20 August 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: In which the pundits and poo-bahs save us all some big time just by keeping their stories real simple

Synopsis: In discussing the way that the president lied, the press corps chose to keep things real simple.

Now What?
Editorial, The Washington Post, 8/20/98

Saturday Night Bill
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 8/19/98

Perspective at the Wall
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 8/20/98

A Sorry Confession
Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 8/20/98

There are times when even we at THE DAILY HOWLER grow tired of bashing this celebrity press corps, and this would have to be one of those times, as we wind down from Bill Clinton’s Big Speech. Yes, we agree that the president’s smooching with Monica was disturbingly reckless--supremely self-destructive. And we’re disappointed that Clinton didn’t do a better job of addressing public concerns in his Great Big Monday Night Special Speech.

But the situation that produced this troubling moment has been a complex situation indeed--and leave it to the press corps to tell this strange story in the most simple-minded way they can think of! All through the press corps this week, we’ve read simple, satisfying accounts of Bill Clinton’s Strange Actions that address the surface of what has gone on, and ignore any layers beyond that. Sorry, folks--major politicians don’t talk about who they’ve been smooching, and if we’re going to have independent counsels and kangaroo courts interrogating sitting presidents under oath about sex, those presidents who have engaged in extra-marital affairs are going to lie about it every dang time. So it’s time to stop pretending we just flew in from Mars, and admit some simple facts about this whole stupid matter. Yes--it was disturbing behavior for President Clinton to engage in such reckless sexual conduct. But once the president had actually engaged in that conduct, there was no way on earth he was going to say so; and silly bird-chirping stories about Why Bill Didn’t Have To Lie are another sign of this press corps’ unending love for the most simple-minded tales it can conjure.

For example: many writers have wallowed, through the course of the week, in a silly story told by the Post editorial page--they’ve assured us that Clinton could have avoided all this misery If He’d Just Told The Truth At The Start:

THE POST: [The president] looked people straight in the eye--his own cabinet members, aides, fellow Democrats--and denied having done what he now acknowledges he did...The fight, which he could have avoided by simply saying yes instead of no--by telling the truth--lasted seven months, and did other forms of damage as well.

This makes for a pleasant morality tale, but it represents a complete flight from reality. All this mess could have been avoided, The Post coos, if Clinton had just told the truth at the start. But if he had just told the truth when the Tripp tapes first surfaced, there’s every reason to believe he wouldn’t be president today; at the time that Clinton denied “having sex with that woman,” major journalists were proclaiming he had one week left in office. To act as though it was just some sort of inexplicable pride that kept Clinton from telling the whole truth at the start is to distort the reality of this seven-month process in a way that just beggars description.

Yet major journalists, loving simple tales, have recited this groaner all week. We always turn to Maureen Dowd to find the week’s dumbest presentation:

DOWD: Rather than tell the truth about a cheesy office affair seven months ago, he dragged Washington and America into a stupid, phony war. It’s not a war about ideology or principles or privacy rights, although the Clintons like to cast it that way. It’s a war about how much Bill Clinton can get away with and still keep our affections. He’s constantly testing the limits of our love.

As Dowd tests the limits of patience. Dowd implies that it was “stupid” that we got dragged through the muck and the mire, when Big Bill could have ’fessed up around Super Bowl time; and her language conveys, through its trademark bored hauteur, the silliness of Clinton’s denials. (Everyone is silly in the world of Maureen Dowd except for, of course, Maureen Dowd.) But admitting this “cheesy affair” at the start of the year would have been politically destructive, as Dowd surely knows; and would have exposed Bill to charges from a hopped-up Torquemada once he’d been deposed by the Paula Jones lawyers. Dowd’s dismissive account of Clinton’s lying makes for a pleasant morality fable, but it nimbly avoids the most basic realities of the world in which we are all now residing.

The fact is, putting presidents under oath to talk about sex is a deliberate prescription for presidential lying, as any one of these writers might be able to discern if they weren’t so addicted to simple-minded, silly stories. If they were willing to admit how odd it is to force a president to discuss sex under oath, they might be able to take a larger view, one that got beyond the state of Big Bill’s Big Libido. As remarkable as Clinton’s bad judgment has been, so too has been the judgment of America’s courts, which did allow--as Clinton said in his speech; the press corps squealed--a shaky, plainly political trial to proceed into the president’s ante-chamber. Can anyonebelieve that knowing the truth about Monica would have settled the facts of the Paula Jones case? Why in the world was a sitting president asked to discuss this under oath to begin with? The oddness of our current state--in which we foolishly allow this inane judicial spying--goes breezing right by our celebrity press corps, which is busy constructing chirpy happy-talk fables about how Silly Bill Could Have Cleared This All Up.

But, as silly as the pundits have been this week in their discussions of What Bill Should Have Done Six Months Back, so too they’ve been cloying in their endless complaining about his limited statement to the public Monday night. They simply can’t believe that President Clinton didn’t Let The Whole Thing Just Hang Out Right There:

RICHARD COHEN: We learned in Clinton’s speech what we already knew. The man is a liar. He said he was “legally accurate” in the answers he provided Paula Jones’ lawyers in his deposition--weasel worlds from a man who had to know better.

But were they weasel words from a man who had to know better? Or were they weasel words from a man who had an addled prosecutor plainly eager to indict him for perjury? (Weasel words from a man with a lawyer!) The fact that Richard Cohen can’t think of any reason why Clinton may not want to ’fess up that he lied--well, it leaves us asking one of the basic questions we so often ask about our celebrity press corps: how do they manage to spend so much time figuring out so little about the world that they cover?

For the record, Cohen wasn’t the only top D.C. pundit who was baffled by Clinton’s drear sophistry:

MARY MC GRORY: He does not get it about confession...Clinton was clinging to split hairs, telling the country that his sworn denial of having sex with Monica was “legally accurate,” the kind of dodge not permitted in true confession.

But then, how many people make “true confessions” with prosecutors standing nearby, running tape? With this press corps, the most obviousfactors in Bill Clinton’s conduct are ignored as if they aren’t even present.

No, kids, Clinton’s oddness won’t be found in the fact of his lying; his oddness was in the original sexual conduct itself. Major politicians--sitting American presidents--don’t go around saying who they’ve been smooching. The fact that we are willing to allow intrusive tribunals to interrogate sitting presidents under oath about sex--all in the service of absurd legal “reasoning”--is the reason we ended up with potential presidential perjury. President Clinton’s strange conduct isn’t the only strange conduct we ought to consider in the wake of this affair.

But because the press corps loves those simple, silly stories--and because Clinton’s sexual conduct sits right on the surface--it’s pretty much all we’re reading this week, in the wake of Bill Clinton’s Big Speech. Silly stories about how He Didn’t Have To Lie; silly puzzlement over why He Didn’t Let It Hang Out--this is the kind of in-depth pondering the pundits have pumped out this week. A great public discourse? It dies on the vine, given the efforts of poo-bahs like these. But then, as we’ve told you so many times in the past, whenever we grimace over writing like this--it’s all just a part of what we do love to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps.”