22 September 1999
Our current howler (part III): Whats their motivation?
Synopsis: Coverage of FALN clemency has showcased another New Rule--todays pundit should focus on motive.
Commentary by Chris Matthews, Christopher Anderson
Hardball, CNBC, 9/13/99
Commentary by Susan Molinari
Hardball, CNBC, 9/9/99
Clemency for Clintons
William Safire, The New York Times, 9/13/99
Commentary by Mary Matalin
Crossfire, CNN, 9/10/99
Commentary by Morton Kondracke
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 9/21/99
Here at THE HOWLER, we have a rule of thumb. To observe our
press corps in the wild, we always try to play a little Hardball.
And sure enough, there was a tabloid talker with a helpful guest,
having some fun with the clemency flap. The pair were discussingCome
on, what else?questions of the president's motive. Here
is the interview's first exchange, following a taped clip of Hillary:
MATTHEWS: I have to say that people have told me that Hillary
Clinton, when she campaigns, doesn't introduce herself. That's
been explained as an arrogant sort of statement about her. It
could beI'm just guessingshe's not comfortable saying, "Hi,
I'm Hillary Clinton."
CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON: Yeah, I think "Rodham" still
sticks in her mind, you know. It took her so long to jettison
the "Rodham" from her name.
Hey, this was just good, solid stuff! Anderson continued directly:
ANDERSON: There's some other things about the body language
you'll notice and I've noticed quite a lot. When she's making
these statements, she's constantly shaking her head. You know,
not as if she's affirming what she's saying, but in a way she's
negating what she's saying.
There's absolutely nothing these Carnacs can't decipher if
you're prepared to accept nonsense like that. And sure enough,
in no time at all, Andersonthe Clintons' clip-snipping biographerachieved
his pre-ordained demonstratum. Why had Clinton granted
clemency? To help his wife's senate campaign:
ANDERSON: But obviously she's been the person behindshe's
the great strategist, from the git-go she has been that...Obviously
when the president ignores 3000 requestswell, with the exception
of three3000 requests for clemency, to address this specific
issue that could have had, they thought, benefit for Hillary Rodham
Clinton's senate campaign in New York, you know this wasn't a
mistake and it was something they obviously consulted one
It was all sowell, so obvious! Anderson threw himself
up on destiny's shores with the motive for Clinton's behavior.
Did Clinton grant clemency to help Hill's campaign? To steal
a phrase, that's an "obvious" possibility. Indeed, it's
a possibility that has been reported as fact by the press corps
again and again. Anyone who's watched the ongoing discussion has
seen it said a thousand times. Susan Molinari, reciting flawlessly,
just knew that the Clintons had plotted:
MOLINARI: She and her husband "discuss everything""just
over coffee the other day, we talked about day care"but
then something that has such profound implications on her senate
race was something that was just, I guess he forgot to mention
it? Nobody's buying it.
Bill Safire certainly wasn't:
SAFIRE: "I did not discuss it with her," insists
the President who discusses every political angle with her. Try
that for credibility: he supposedly panders to an ethnic group
his wife needs without even a hint from her...And Hillary will stick
by his story that they never discussed it at all.
Hardball's Svengali had the sound-bite down too:
ANDERSON: But when you said before about whether they work
in tandem: as recently as a month ago, Hilary said we talk constantly.
We talk in the kitchen. We talk in the solarium. We talk in the
bedroom. We work in tandem. Those were her words, and if that's
what she said then, she can't ask us to believe now that they
didn't know what was going onthat they weren't working in tandem
over the clemency deal.
See how obvious the whole thing is? In Zeus' great halls, the
gods hang their heads at the work of the hapless mortals.
Because anyone who has ever given the matter any thought knows
motive is hard to determine. It's possible to imagine a range
of motives for any action you might discuss. Here, for example,
was Mary Matalin, the voice from the right on Crossfire:
MATALIN: I actually believe he didn't tell her. I believe it's
some bauble for past misdeeds. He's going to hand her this big
reward, OK, and it just blows up in both of their faces. You know,
the new rumor around town is that he's trying to sabotage her
We love it when they actually say "rumor!"
But do you see how much fun it can get to be, when they turn themselves
loose about motive? Just last night, Morton Kondracke was still
considering that last suggestionsorry, folks, "rumor"earlier
voiced by Matalin:
KONDRACKE: Who knows what operated in Bill Clinton's head?
In fact, he may have been doing this unconsciously to damage his
wife. I'm not entirely convinced that he likes this idea that
she's going to be the political star of the family and, it may
be unconscious, but what is this all about?...Why does he do this
with the effect of, which is to damage his wife?
Brit Hume was humming the theme song to "Twilight Zone"
as Kondracke spelled out his intriguing critique. See how much
fun the scribes can have, when they get themselves going on motive?
But the discussions about the clemency offer have simply wallowed
in talk about motiveto the repeated exclusion of basic discussion
of elementary issues of fact. What were the crimes these prisoners
committed? How did their sentences compare to others so convicted?
Basic matters that would help us judge Clinton's action have gone
unreported to this day. In normal life, one doesn't start worrying
about issues of motive until one ascertains that an action doesn't
make normal sense. Did Clinton's decision make such sense? The
press corps, endlessly chirping on motive, hasn't described the
basic facts of this matter to this very day.
Tomorrow: New Rule #2: Focus on motive! Incredibly,
we haven't seen basic facts reported, right to this very day.
Smile-a-while: We couldn't help chuckling when a tabloid
talker said this to the well-scripted Anderson:
MATTHEWS: Now she's saying that she never had a conversation
with him about the Puerto Rican terrorists...Of course, it's very
easy for them to square their stories. They can just get on the
phone and talk.
But has any program ever featured more "squared stories"
than the relentlessly pre-scripted Hardball? Reread, for
example, this interview's opening exchange, which we have quoted
above. Would a talker have asked his odd leading question without
knowing that his guest had a pleasing reply? Two minutes later,
a talker complained that the Clintons were squaring their
Later in the interview, Anderson was asked a question where
he wasn't quite sure what his answer should be. He hemmed and
hawed, until he got clues. We'll report in a "Smile-a-while"