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20 September 1999

Our current howler (part I): Let’s claim a deal

Synopsis: When Hardball’s gang discussed Waco and the FALN, they revealed a new concept of evidence.

Commentary by Pat Caddell, Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 9/9/99

The Waco hit on civil rights
Paul Craig Roberts, The Washington Times, 9/3/99

The Problem With Special Prosecutors
William Raspberry, The Washington Post, 9/10/99

A tabloid talker, inflamed by Waco, was barking out brio at his standard brisk pace. Janet Reno never investigates administration wrong-doing, he griped. Then a guest, Pat Caddell, offered this:

CADDELL: The reason for that is very simple. When she was going to be fired after the first term, basically the deal was made that she'd protect the president in the second term. It was no secret. The fact of the matter, let me just say this—

The program was only six minutes old, but it was the second time the excited Caddell had made his charge about Reno's corrupt deal. Earlier, the gloomy ex-pollster had made this remark, referring to campaign finance allegations:

CADDELL: [Janet Reno's] the one that's been covering this up. She covered up the China thing, involving questions of, very serious questions of treason that may have been involved. She's done nothing in this job except prove the fact that to keep this job in the second term she agreed she'd cover up for the president.

A talker let Caddell slide the first time. But the second time the charge was made, Hardball's host was ready for evidence. He made a traditional query:

MATTHEWS: How do you know this, Pat?

Yep. At least since 400 or 500 B.C., it's been a rule of thumb in the west. People who claim that something is true should be able to offer some evidence.

But two recent, high profile public discussions have put an interesting fact on display—evidence now plays a dwindling role in the work of the celebrity press corps. Major journalists feel free to lodge charges without attempting to prove them at all. And this impulse hasn't just shown itself in the Roller Derby-style discourse that is featured on Hardball. Over the past month, mainstream figures have lodged serious charges about the Waco disaster and the FALN clemency deal, without attempting to offer any evidence to demonstrate that their charges are true.

Take a look, for example, at Paul Craig Roberts, writing on the Waco disaster. Nine paragraphs into a syndicated column, he made the following charge:

ROBERTS (paragraph 9): Janet Reno is not the only person who lied about the events at Waco. The agents who conducted the raid lied. So did Charles Schumer, then a Democratic U.S. representative from New York, now a Democratic senator to the disgrace of that state.

By any normal standard, Roberts makes a serious set of charges. He starts with the charge that the attorney general "lied about the events at Waco." Eighty people died on the day at issue, and it is now clear that FBI officials, and Reno herself, misstated some facts about the FBI's conduct. The claim that the attorney general actually lied is a serious accusation indeed.

Roberts' charge against the attorney general comes in paragraph nine. But oddly, nowhere in his first eight paragraphs does he even try to show that Reno lied. He points out that Reno now acknowledges that pyrotechnic devices were used; he points out that Reno has complained about being misinformed by the FBI. But he nowhere shows—or attempts to show—that Reno lied about any of these matters. Not a word, at any point, addresses this charge. And no effort is made, at any point, to demonstrate that FBI agents or Schumer lied, either.

Roberts, of course, is an ideological writer, who can be relied on for this sort of drek. But William Raspberry, avuncular prize-winning columnist, opened a recent Washington Post column like this:

RASPBERRY (paragraph 2): The revelation that FBI agents lied about the use of incendiary tear gas cartridges in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian stronghold in Waco shows why something is needed to replace [the now-lapsed independent counsel legislation].

Raspberry alludes to a "revelation" that FBI agents "lied" about Waco. But, like Roberts, he makes no effort to explain when this was revealed, or to say which FBI agents he refers to.

By now you're probably pretty tired of our efforts to grope through work like this, and frankly, we're getting tired of the repetition involved in this also. But the coverage of the Waco disaster and the FALN deal were striking even to us. Endlessly, the press corps showed us how it will now make charges without reference to any sort of evidence at all—and how it prefers to wallow in matters of motive, often failing to describe basic facts.

So over the next few days, we'll look at these topics, working like an anthropologist describing a distant people's strange morés. But in the meantime, let's finish one task, involving Caddell's serious charge. How did Caddell show that Janet Reno had made a corrupt deal with President Clinton? It turned out Caddell really did have the goods. Here's his exchange with a talker:

MATTHEWS: How do you know this, Pat?
CADDELL: Well I mean it's pretty common knowledge he wanted to get rid of her and the price was, concern was, she wasn't loyal enough. And all of a sudden now she's turning to every possible way to protect the president.

What's his evidence? It was "pretty common knowledge!" Of course! Earlier, he'd said much the same thing, the first time he'd made his charge:

CADDELL: Everyone in Washington knows and it's common knowledge and we ought to say it publicly that she is one of the, probably the most incompetent attorney generals of this century.

How did he know that Reno was corrupt? He kept citing "common knowledge!" Caddell's second statement was good enough for his host, whose conversation moved swiftly to this:

MATTHEWS: Let's go to Peter King...What do you make of Charles Ruff, the president's counsel, a respected man, he won the fight to protect the president during the impeachment trial in the Senate. Did he write this memo, this is the big question, did he write a memo to the president advising the president to release these guys, and if so, did he do it to pay off perhaps a deal made during the impeachment trial with New York congressmen who cared about getting these guys released?

Maybe Ruff made a deal too! This was the first time we'd heard anyone even suggest this idea—that the president's clemency for the FALN members was part of an impeachment arrangement. But when you throw away the concept of evidence, almost everything that comes to mind could be true. That ubiquitous "perhaps" in the talker's rant shows us where our discourse is headed—if we're prepared tolerate the sort of work we've thrilled to in the past several weeks.

On Hardball, Reno and Ruff had both made a deal. And no one on Hardball ever offered any evidence. The program began to sketch the New Rules that now govern our laughable discourse.


Tomorrow: We frame New Rule #1: Don't bother with evidence. And, as we look at the FALN coverage, a second cool rule starts to form.