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15 September 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Shrinking (the press corps’ mission)

Synopsis: The psychiatrizers were out in full force in the wake of Ken Starr’s Big Report.

Report Portrays Risk-Taker With Keen Survival Instinct
Todd Purdum, The New York Times,9/14/98

Sorry, folks--the analysts were busily researching upcoming stories, when Ken Starr’s Big Report was released Friday morning, and we couldn’t pull them off their assignments to keep an eye on the press corps’ reactions. But we did want to give you at least some idea of the depth of the hoo-hah that was flying around town, so we decided to profile this Todd Purdum piece, which provoked howls here at HOWLER World Headquarters.

Purdum’s report is the silliest response to the Starr Report that we saw all weekend long, and so it appeared right where you’d expect it to be--on page one of the New York Times. Spinning absurd conclusions out of gauzy whole cloth; relentless in its silly psychiatrizing; Purdum’s piece helps define a celebrity press corps losing sight of its legitimate functions.

Purdum eagerly leaps from the gate, impressing us with his Big Major Insights. The fact that Clinton was (allegedly) able “to recite [Lewinsky’s] telephone numbers from memory” is a sign of the president’s great “mental facility.” (Who else but a guy with amazing mental powers was ever able to memorize phone numbers!) The fact that he gave Lewinsky “Leaves of Grass” is an example of his “seductive charm.” Yep, when you’re writin’ a big story for that celebrity lynch mob, every little detail means Somethin’ Real Big--and Purdum never doubts that he’s every bit equal to deciphering “the many faces of Bill Clinton.”

The sad thing about this whole mess is, Purdum seems to know what he’s doing! Here he is, early on in his piece:

PURDUM: More than perhaps any other sitting President in history, Bill Clinton has already been psychoanalyzed, fictionalized, and vivisected in a score of serious books and best-selling novels that chronicled his outsized talents and his outsized flaws. When even a President’s underwear preferences are known, what else can be left to tell? A lot, and very little, as it turns out.

To the psychiatrizers, the fictionalizers, and the paid vivisectors, then, Purdum offers his own outsized talents. His work may not tell us all that much about the guy whom he pretends to limn. But it tells us a lot about the celebrity press corps, and its love for yammering endlessly on about things it can’t know to be true.

Insight is Purdum’s middle name. Clinton (allegedly) tells Lewinsky over the phone: “If I’d known what kind of a person you were, I wouldn’t have gotten involved with you.” To the all-knowing oracle of West 43rd Street, this is an example of “Bill Clinton’s darker side.” (Purdum neither explains nor attempts to justify this remarkably inapparent conclusion.) Clinton samples three different entrees at a White House luncheon; this shows that “Clinton has always been a man who wants all things, all the time.” One would think that the inanity of judgments like these would be evident to anyone who doesn’t spend his day watching soap operas. Nevertheless, the desire to render a Big, Big Story takes Purdum where simple sense wouldn’t go.

For example, Purdum offers this bit of analysis midway through his piece:

PURDUM: It has been Mr. Clinton’s nearly unvarying pattern to make missteps not when he is under fire, but when he is overconfident.

It’s the kind of Big Insight we eagerly seek from those who have Taken In The Big Picture. But those who aren’t blinded by Purdum’s Big Theory might be puzzled by his worthless examples:

PURDUM: It has been Mr. Clinton’s nearly unvarying pattern to make missteps not when he is under fire, but when he is overconfident. He followed up his 1993 victories on the budget and the North American Free Trade Agreement with his disastrous overreach on health care restructuring in 1994. He began his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky not in the depths of his despair after the 1994 midterm elections but at the beginning of his comeback, in the Government shutdown in November 1995 when he was finally beginning to put the Republicans on the defensive.

There are so many howlers lodged in Purdum’s second example that one hardly knows where to begin. In the first place, Purdum has no idea what sorts of things Clinton mayhave been doing after the 1994 midterms; it may be that he was engaging in reckless conduct then too, and Purdum simply doesn’t know about it. It’s absurdly risky to be basing big conclusions on private behavior, which is generally not known. Second, if Clinton really was “overconfident” in November 1995, he is even stranger emotionally than we have now come to see. What kind of a person gets “overconfident” at “the beginning” of a long, drawn-out comeback? There was no reason on earth for Clinton to be “overconfident” at the time he took up with Monica Lewinsky--the silly claim just gives Purdum the chance to pretend that he’s telling Big Stories. And by the way, Clinton’s 1993 budget passed by just one vote, and he was widely criticized in his party over the NAFTA matter; and his standing at the end of 1993 was hardly one to make a president stand tall. (The Los Angeles Times and the American Spectator, for example, had just published their “Troopergate” articles.) He had been preparing all year to offer health care legislation, and there is no evidence that he decided to do so because of NAFTA; indeed, the decision had been made long before that. These two examples that Purdum gives--are these the stuff of “nearly unvarying patterns?” Only because Purdum’s rules of reason are so absurdly loose that almost any example of imperfect judgment by Clinton could be shoehorned into the scribe’s desired tale. (Anyone for counter-examples? Clinton’s alleged encounter with Paula Jones occurred just after he announced for president in 1991. How “overconfident” could he have been feeling then?)

How silly does Purdum’s reasoning get? Just read this example of a “trivial but telling” detail. We assume there’s no need to make comment:

PURDUM: Aides also agree that no topic has consumed Mr. Clinton more than his own eventual legacy in office, and he has studied biographers of his predecessors with care. So it was perhaps no coincidence that, Ms. Lewinsky said, Mr. Clinton first sought to break off their relationship on the one day reserved by the Federal Government to honor great presidents: President’s Day, Feb. 19, 1996.

The connection reported was “perhaps no coincidence.” This now becomes the silly new standard for what gets reported on page one of the Times. But then, the word “perhaps” plays an outsized role for Purdum. For example, Clinton was allegedly most affectionate with Lewinsky after she’d threatened to reveal their relationship. Purdum tells us that, for various reasons, the timing is “perhaps significant.

There is one thing about Clinton that no one doubts: in starting his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton’s behavior was remarkably reckless. It hardly takes any deep deep insight to figure out something like that.

But psychiatrizers and fictionalizers have to pretend that they’ve limned some Bigger Story. And that leads us to stories filled with vacuous leaps, like the ones Purdum makes in his tale.

But analysts are supposed to report what they know, and to be deeply suspicious of everything else. Purdum instead tells us everything he thinks--and dresses it up to make it look like deep knowledge. As he said: it tells us “a lot” (about the Washington press corps), and sadly “little” (about President Clinton).

Postscript: The word “perhaps” plays a big role in Purdum’s tale. The word “allegedly” appears not at all. Purdum constantly cites details from the Starr Report as if they were established facts. Does the Starr Report accurately paraphrase Lewinsky? Is Lewinsky accurate in her various small recollections? Is it possible that lewinsky has made some of this up? Like us here at THE DAILY HOWLER, Purdum has no way of knowing. It doesn’t stop him from taking those details and--not even quite knowing if the details are true--telling us with assurance what the details must mean. Work like this is the death of reason.

Read on: How bad did the psychiatrizing actually get? See “Smile-a-while,” September 15.