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29 August 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Stephanopolous burning

Synopsis: We hadn’t watched Chris Matthews lately. Guess what? Things have just gotten worse.

Greetings no one forgets
Chris Matthews, The Washington Times, 8/29/98

The Betrayal
George Stephanopolous, Newsweek, 8/31/98

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 8/21/98


Regular readers of THE HOWLER will well remember the halcyon days of last April and May, when the analysts almost daily would come halloing in with new reports of depredations on Hardball. We rarely knew whether to laugh or cry over the pandering conduct of ring-master Chris Matthews, the two-fisted former-journalist-turned-TV-tabloid-talker, who was making his inventive program theplace to go to watch a celebrity press corps pretty much run amuck.

Well, we gave the analysts a solid month off, as we began to hit the warm summer months, and by the time they returned from their various retreats, we could see a real problem was brewing. Liberated for a month from the nightly chore of watching the talker’s creative show, the analysts all grumbled and complained, on return, when we’d post them for Hardballassignments! What had once seemed amusing now seemed merely grim, and the analysts insisted they deserved better treatment; what could we still have to prove, they’d complain, about what transpires on the fanciful program? And so, our Hardballcoverage has noticeably dwindled, as our readers must surely have noticed of late--a reflection of the things today’s editor must do if he wants to retain expert help.

But today the talker caught our eye with this article in the Washington Times op-ed section. We thought it gave an excellent example of the liberties that talkers will now take with the truth--the liberties they’ll take when they’re all lathered up in the effort to prove Clinton’s A Liar. As readers know, nothing tickles us at THE HOWLER more than talkers-who-lie-to-prove-Clinton’s-a-liar; nothing so warms our ironist’s heart, or so sends our sardonic soul soaring. And, though absolutely nothing of consequence ever will turn on the liberties that are taken in today’s Matthews piece, we thought we’d review it because its errors are so mundane--because it shows how completely routine is the practice, in this press corps, of fibbing-to-bring-down-the-fibber.

Chris is concerned at the start of his piece about the feelings of poor George Stephanopolous:

MATTHEWS: George Stephanopolous says he’s still burning from the first time Bill Clinton got him to lie. It was back in 1992 when the then-Arkansas governor was being grilled about his Vietnam draft record.

It’s no wonder that George is so upset. Billwas getting grilled; six year later, he’sburning! It’s so typical of what happens to those noble aides who try to help This Crazy Guy Clinton. And, on Matthews’ end, it’s all just a part of the two-fisted prose we used to associate with a guy like Mike Barnicle.

Anyway: Matthews quotes from Stephanopolous’ current Newsweek piece in which Stephanopolous whines, laments, weeps and cries about how Bill Clinton lied about boffing Monica. You know--instead of running out to the networks and detailing his trysts, the way most sitting presidents enjoy doing? We agree with George that it was reckless and stupid for Clinton to engage in this nitwit affair; but we’re baffled that George, like so many other pundits, seems to have no idea why he’d cover it up. But that’s a question we’ll explore later on. (Also, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/98.) Back for now to the work of the talker.

Reviewing George’s Newsweek piece, Matthews recounts Stephanopolous’ discomfort, back in the 1992 campaign, when he was first shown Clinton’s 1968 draft notice. Stephanopolous had been repeating the candidate’s claim that he’d never received an actual draft order; and George says in Newsweek that it was the worst day of the entire campaign when the draft notice actually surfaced.

Clinton told George that he’d forgotten about the notice, when Stephanopolous asked Clinton why he’d denied its existence. And here’s how Matthews tells his readers what Stephanopolous thought about that:

MATTHEWS: What bothered Mr. Stephanopolous was that Mr. Clinton could so calmly lie, so cold-bloodedly get his people to lie for him.

All of which makes for a pretty good story, if you’re the type of person who enjoys playing Hardball. The problem is, it isn’t the story George Stephanopolous tells in his piece! It’s a pleasing fabrication by a two-fisted talker, the kind that has recently bought “journalists” a whole lot-o’-mess. Here’s what George Stephanopolous actually says, in the Newsweek article Matthews claims to be describing:

STEPHANOPOLOUS: “I forgot about it,” Clinton said...It was a hard story to swallow, and even if it was accurate, reporters would rightly accuse us of dissembling because we hadn’t revealed its existence before...Unable to face the world, I stayed in bed that morning...By afternoon, I was back on the front lines. Clinton had told me his story, and I had made a choice to believe himand defend him. Whatever doubts I had were overwhelmed by his word,my own ambition and my belief in our common work. (Our emphasis throughout)

Stephanopolous says nothing that even dimly resembles the talker’s two-fisted account. He quite plainly does notsay that he drew the conclusion that Clinton had been lying about the draft notice. While he says he had doubts about Clinton’s story at first, even then he believed that it mighthave been accurate; and by the next afternoon, he has made a decision to believe the boss, and gets back out on the trail. And, for the record: nowherein the Newsweek piece does he ever conclude that Clinton lied about the draft order. He goes on to discuss Clinton’s recent behavior, and never returns to the past.

The idea that Stephanopolous, back in 1992, had perceived his boss as a “cold-blooded liar;” the notion that a troubled Stephanopolous concluded that Clinton had lied to his staff--nothing resembling this appears in the article that Matthews pretends to be describing. The Matthews account is a ginned-up misstatement of what Stephanopolous actually said.

But then, fabrication is pretty much what you get when you tune in to watch the TV-tabloid-talker. A recent, sad episode on his inventive show Hardballneatly illustrates that inescapable, sorry fact.

* * * * * * *

Dateline: Friday evening, August 21. It has now been some two-and-a-half days since the New York Times ran its silly story about how Clinton Was Wagging His Necktie At Monica. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/22/98.) Journalists have now had two full working days to absorb the plain fact that the absurd page-one story was basically fiction--that Clinton could not possibly have been “signaling to Monica” with his necktie on the day in question. Clinton had not appeared in public on August 6 until he made a TV appearance shortly past noon, and Monica had begun her grand jury gabfest at 8:30 that morning. As you’ll recall, USA Today explained the story on Thursday, 36 hours before Friday night’s Hardball:

USA TODAY: Starr’s prosecutors reportedly wanted to know whether Clinton had intended to send Lewinsky a message by wearing [the tie] two weeks ago, on the day she was summoned to testify before the grand jury...Because of Lewinsky’s early arrival at the courthouse that day, about 8:30 a.m., she could not have seen Clinton wearing the tie on television before she testified.

And unless Bill Clinton is an absolute moron, he could not imaginably have been wagging-the-tie on TV at 12:30, trying to get a Message To Monnie. Except for folks who just liked the story, the story was dead as a dog.

Hardballliked the story. Here’s Matthews, talking to body language savant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, keeping a great tale alive:

MATTHEWS: Jo-Ellan, it seems like there were three pieces of apparel that have made the news this week with regard to the president, first of all this soiled dress which will eventually yield evidence positive or negative of the president’s sexual involvement with Monica Lewinsky, secondly there’s the strange story that was in the New York Times the other day of the tie he wore, apparently a tie given to him by the young intern, to signal her in a positive way, one way or another, of solidarity I suppose, some sort of solidarity, and third there’s this beret which seems to be the funniest thing in the world because if you saw the movie Wag the Dog,the young teeny-bopper the president in that movie had an affair with and got himself into trouble with wore a beret and...

Well, we’ll spare you the blood-churning ruminations on Wag the Dog’sluscious teeny-bopper. (Her beret had not been “in the news” this week. But on Hardball,it’s a form of viagra.) But let’s take a look at what Matthews said about the discredited Clinton wag-the-tie fable. Thirty-six hours after the “responsible” press has stopped pretending this event could have possibly happened, it’s still an unquestioned, lip-smacking fact on CNBC’s creative show Hardball:

MATTHEWS (continuing): ...What do you make of these? I guess we could start with the tie. What you do make of a guy who sends signals to a friend in the moment of great crisis through, by sporting a flag?

No sign of doubt, on the creative show Hardball,that the discredited event actually happened. And, in skillful talking-head-fantasist fashion, Dimitrius first protects herself with a nod to the subjunctive; then launches into a flight of fancy about the meaning of what hasn’t occurred:

DIMITRIUS: Well, I think if that’s an accurate report, that this is not just an affair and I would tend to believe more Monica’s story that this was something that was much more of an emotional commitment between the two of them--

MATTHEWS: And they have an entre nousrelationship, in other words, something going on that’s still going on--

DIMITRIUS: Right. Absolutely. That it didn’t end there and simply because of Ken Starr’s persistence they’ve had to keep their distance but he’s making a very strong signal to her.

MATTHEWS: Fascinating. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, please come back. You’re watching Hardballon CNBC.

And you probably should go take a shower. This conversation starts with Dimitrius acknowledging that she doesn’t know if Matthews’ premise is true; and elsewhere, in the respectable press corps, the entertaining, silly premise has been dead for two days. But, despite that, she is willing to spin a thigh-rubbing account in which Two Young Lovers (“Absolutely!”) are being Kept Apart By Persistent Ken Starr; and a tabloid talker (“Fascinating!”) laps up her inane, sad performance.

We can’t stop marveling--Mike Barnicle gets canned over a feel-good cancer story; but a former journalist-turned-TV-tabloid-talker keeps churning out nonsense like this!

Anyway: late last night, we spoke to the analysts, after reviewing this miserable work, and we did have to scold them, gently but insistently, for their recent aversion to sitting through Hardball. We certainly understand why they hate it so much when we force them to watch the creative cable program. People of conscience will be offended every time, when talkers lie-to-prove-public-figures-are-liars. But then, they got into this business to perform public service, and to try to force talkers like this into line. In a world where other talkers are out on the street because they lifted a couple of silly, lame jokes, it’s their duty, we chided, to sit through the mess that a former journalist likes to call “playing hardball.”

Postscript--what George said: We do not suggest here that George Stephanopolous defends President Clinton in his piece. He quite plainly expresses distress over Clinton’s affair, and over Clinton’s misrepresentations. (Stephanopolous is quite careful throughout his piece, by the way, notto use the naughty word “lying.”) And, by the way, we happen to share Stephanopolous’ disgust over the recklessness of the president’s sexual conduct--though we’re dissatisfied with what we consider the simplistic way he critiques Clinton’s lying about it. (See DAILY HOWLERS to come.)

But the account Matthews gives of the ’92 campaign? It’s simply not present in the Stephanopolous piece. And the time has come to hold the celebrity press corps to the standards they demand of their targets. Matthews could have written an interesting column about what Stephanopolous actually did choose to say. He chose to write an easier, plainly false column, putting pleasing accusations into Stephanopolous’ mouth.

We ask again a simple question. If a guy like Mike Barnicle is out on the street, why does a tabloid talker get to keep doing this?