25 August 1999
Our current howler (part II): Not good with names
Synopsis: Whats 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
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 himPodesta, 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
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
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
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 appearancesdespite the buffoonism of Flowers' entire
seven-year run on the stagemajor 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 lyingright from the time when her Star articles
appeared, filled with howling errors (see links below). Flowers
is the Rosetta Stone of Clinton scandal coveragethe single figure
who best displays the press corps' preference for story over fact.
Her latest performancein which she accused the Clintons of murders
without specific evidence, and engaged in groaning buffoonism
on the nightclub gig questionwas 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;