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25 August 1999

Our current howler (part II): Not good with names

Synopsis: What’s wrong with exploring public figures’ private lives? Gennifer Flowers showed where it all leads.

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

Commentary by Gennifer Flowers, Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 8/18/99

Should the press corps ask about things like drugs? Especially in the case of Governor Bush, you can make a case that the answer is yes. In a recent Fox Opinion Dynamics poll, 69% of respondents said they would want to know about cocaine use by a hopeful. Since use of cocaine is in fact a felony, and since many feel the president should be a role model, it's hard to say these people have no right to have the question asked.

It's also true that Governor Bush has so far run a "biography campaign," stressing parts of his personal history that distinguish him from President Clinton. It's odd to think that a candidate can recite the parts of his personal story that help his campaign, but no one can ask about anything else.

Most significantly, scribes have written about Bush's Texas drug policies, claiming that Bush signed a law in 1997 that allows first-time cocaine users to be sent to prison. If Bush engaged in cocaine use when young, many people may feel he has engaged in hypocrisy if he has promoted punishment-oriented policies. On balance, we think it's better to judge Bush's policies on their merits. But others may seek a broader judgment.

Why then would we continue to argue against judging hopefuls by personal conduct? Here's why: we've lived through the Clinton era. The pursuit of Bill Clinton provides an object lesson in the dangers of this kind of journalism. When our political discourse turns on alleged personal conduct, horrible things can begin to occur. For example, you can end up spending long evenings on cable, listening to Gennifer Flowers.

On August 2, Flowers turned up on the inventive show Hardball to discuss Talk magazine's Hillary profile. By the time her half-hour visit was through, she had accused President Clinton of involvement in murder, and she had insisted that someone from Clinton's White House staff calls around to get her show biz gigs cancelled. Host Chris Matthews challenged her, at least three times, to provide evidence supporting her murder allegations. For an idea of how well the conversation went overall, here's how things went when Matthews asked who had called to get her show biz gigs cancelled:

MATTHEWS: Who made that call?

FLOWERS: And I want to make one other point, Chris—

MATTHEWS: Bruce Lindsey? Who made the call?

FLOWERS: I want to make—

MATTHEWS: I have no idea. Who was it? Somebody close to the president?

FLOWERS: Yes, it was.


FLOWERS: I want to make a point about the Clinton body count.


Moments later, the brainstorming continued:

MATTHEWS: Well, who, I have no idea who called from the president's office? Who called from the president's office? I can list all the people who worked for him—Podesta, I can list George Stephanopoulos, I can list everybody who works in the White House. Name a name. I have no idea who it was. You say somebody called from Bill Clinton-land to kill your gigs out in Vegas. Who called on the president's behalf?

FLOWERS: Yes, they certainly did.


FLOWERS: They certainly did. You know, I don't have that name in front of me. But I'd be happy to call your producer back and give him the name.

MATTHEWS: I'd love to get the name.

The "who's-on-first" quality of these exchanges also suffused the murder discussions. Despite her repeated assertions that Clinton was involved in murders, she was able to cite no evidence of same, and claimed not to know that Jerry Falwell had repudiated his role in the "Clinton Chronicles" tapes. Matthews explicitly said on the air that he dissociated himself from Flowers' comments.

By any rational standard, the performance was an embarrassment and a disaster. And because it was, Flowers soon turned up on Hannity & Colmes, booked for the entire hour. Far from tiptoeing around Flowers' murder accusations, she was quickly invited to rehearse them again. And the fun continued on the puzzling case of those cancelled nightclub bookings:

COLMES: Let's talk about you making charges that the Clintons or people acting on their behalf have made calls to stop you from getting jobs. Who?

FLOWERS: Well, it started a long time ago—

COLMES: But tell me who.

FLOWERS: It actually started with the book deal, when I was being approached by some major houses for some major money, by the way. They received phone calls suggesting that they not do business with me.

COLMES: Who made the calls?

FLOWERS: Sometimes I know who the calls are from and sometimes they don't say.

Sean said it was time for a break. After the break, two more minutes of grilling ensued, with the colloquy ending like this:

COLMES: But I wonder, can you trace that [phone call] back to someone that we know, people on the White House, they're well-known people. Who would be behind them?

FLOWERS: Well, I think there are a number of people that can be.

COLMES: Can you name one?

FLOWERS: Well, I would suppose that, uh, you know, his operatives. People that are close to him.

At that point even long-suffering Colmes gave up and pursued other topics.

But the Washington press corps wasn't prepared to give up on Gennifer Flowers. It was in this same Hannity & Colmes session that Flowers said that Clinton had used marijuana back in the 70s; she also said he told her he could get cocaine if she wanted it, and that he sometimes used so much coke that it actually made his head itch. And, despite the buffoonism of Flowers' twin cable appearances—despite the buffoonism of Flowers' entire seven-year run on the stage—major journalists quickly repeated the claim on network news shows. But then again, the celebrity press corps had kept Flowers around through seven long years of nonsense and lying—right from the time when her Star articles appeared, filled with howling errors (see links below). Flowers is the Rosetta Stone of Clinton scandal coverage—the single figure who best displays the press corps' preference for story over fact. Her latest performance—in which she accused the Clintons of murders without specific evidence, and engaged in groaning buffoonism on the nightclub gig question—was just the latest demonstration of a basic new reality. This press corps will ignore normal standards of evidence and credibility to keep thrilling stories alive.

Is there someone waiting to make major bucks selling stories about doing coke with George Bush? Obviously, we have no way of knowing. But the press corps has shown us something through Gennifer Flowers: once we let them rummage through private lives, they are willing to throw away standards of evidence in pursuit of exciting stories. Flowers' buffoonery on these shows was ignored by those who repeated her charges. It helped explain our basic judgment: given the abysmal judgment of the celebrity press corps, we were all better off when the rules of the game made them stick to reporting public conduct.


Visit our incomparable archives: Our archives can't begin to do justice to the absurdity of the seven-year Flowers story. Her original articles were full of embarrassing errors, and her resume was littered with absurd, made-up claims. All this was reported in Newsweek by Jonathan Alter the first week she appeared on the stage. Beyond that, the L. A. Times reported that her Clinton tapes were doctored, with naughty words being overdubbed on them; and she has persistently engaged in slapstick performances of the type we recount above. Gene Lyons has repeatedly pointed out that she has never named a specific date when she was alone somewhere with Clinton; what journalist can't quickly limn that? But when Clinton testified to one sexual encounter (not intercourse) with her, CelebCorps fell all over itself, repeatedly asserting that we "now know that Flowers was telling the truth." No single episode makes it more clear: in matters involving personal conduct, this press corps is willing to behave in ways that completely contradict our textbook conceptions of how a press corps functions.

It's depressing to describe our impoverished efforts to limn the Flowers coverage. See THE DAILY HOWLER 4/12/98; 8/19/98; 10/28/98; 10/29/98.