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5 October 1998

Our current howler: Jest a-pickin’ and a-choosin’

Synopsis: Seems like William Safire picks and chooses the material he likes when he tells us all about Kathleen Willey.

The ‘Process’ Begins
William Safire, The New York Times, 10/5/98

Aides Tried to Stem Brewing Scandal Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt, The Washington Post, 10/3/98

Tapes Make Tripp’s Role Clearer George Lardner Jr. and Jeff Leen, The Washington Post, 10/3/98

We’ve been having a lot of fun with Bill Safire lately, and this morning he pleased us, here at HOWLER World Headquarters, with his pensées on last Friday’s big dump. Safire starts off with an overview statement, in which he promises “seven questions over-looked in the torrent of testimony.” But, based on the very first item on his list, William Safire’s been doin’ some big overlookin’ of materials this week all by himself!

Here’s the first question that Safire poses--the prime item among his Big Seven:

SAFIRE: 1. Why, amid all the supplementary boxes of referrals to Congress by Independent Counsel [sic], is there not one word about the harassment and intimidation of Kathleen Willey?

But, through what supplements has Safire been siftin’? We’ve stressed before that we have no way of knowing what may have occurred between Clinton and Willey. We’ve said before that, since we weren’t hanging around in the Oval that day, we’re not able to say just what occurred (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/1/98).

But unless the Washington Post has been making stuff up, there was a whole lot of material about Kathleen Willey in last Friday’s big document dump. According to several stories in Saturday’s Post, the new materials included Linda Tripp’s testimony about the Kathleen Willey matter--materials suggesting that Willey’s Sixty Minutes story may not have been an accurate account.

Let’s start with the Post’s Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt, in their page one review of the new materials:

BAKER AND SCHMIDT: Other documents released yesterday shed new light on Tripp’s interactions with Kathleen E. Willey...Tripp said Willey sought out presidential attention and told her in the spring of 1993 that she was “flirting with the president” and that he appeared interested.

We can’t swear that Tripp’s account is true, but it’s certainly new material about Willey. Read on:

BAKER AND SCHMIDT: “Willey described several ways that she would pursue the president,” Tripp told the FBI, sometimes by arranging to appear at social functions where she knew Clinton would be and wearing “a particular black dress” and high heels.

We note that, if true, this would be an account that didn’t find its way into Willey’s Sixty Minutes account. But Baker and Schmidt weren’t the only sharp sleuths who noticed Tripp’s striking statements about Willey. Lardner and Leen also noticed the material--material that Safire tells us, two days later, jes’ plain flat-out warn’t there:

LARDNER AND LEEN: While working in the White House, Tripp got to know volunteer Kathleen E. Willey, who told her in the spring of 1993 that she was flirting with the president. In fact, like Lewinsky would later, Willey began to call Tripp regularly, and show her drafts of notes to the president.

The fellers went on from there:

LARDNER AND LEEN: When asked about the Willey incident by Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff in 1997, Tripp said it was not sexual harassment but “a matter between consenting adults who were both in bad marriages.”

There were even portions of Tripp’s testimony published word-for-word by the Post. Here is Tripp’s account of what Willey told her right after Willey’s alleged encounter with Clinton:

Q: Tell the grand jury what happened.
A: We went down to West Executive Boulevard...and I smoked and she told me what happened.
Q: Why don’t you describe for the grand jury her demeanor at the time.
A: It’s very hard to characterize what someone else’s demeanor means. I can just tell you that she was very excited, very flustered, she smiled from ear to ear the entire time. She seemed almost shocked, but happy shocked.

Can we share the part that we enjoy in this exchange? Kathleen Willey gets sexy with President Clinton, and it’s Linda Tripp who then lights up a smoke!

Anyway, we thought it was curious, what Safire said, when there was obviously a good deal of material concerning Kathleen Willey in last Friday’s document release. Maybe what Safire meant to say was this: there “isn’t one word about...Kathleen Willey” that Bill Safire happens to like!

Because this selective presentation of evidence by Safire has really begun to get a little silly. You’ll recall all the evidence Safire gathered last week to show us that Willey had been truthful (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/1/98). She was over forty years of age; she came forward reluctantly; and most important, she was a United States citizen! It was overwhelming! But even then, Safire forgot to mention that, when Kathleen Willey was coming forward reluctantly, she also had an agent reluctantly going around, trying to get a good book deal.

Now new evidence comes forward from the independent counsel, suggesting the possibility that Willey may have massaged her account. And Safire tells us, at the top of his column, that the new evidence jest warn’t there a’tall! “Not one word,” was the way Safire phrased it.

Don’t get us wrong: everyone loves a good simple story in which President Clinton is guilty of sexual assault. No one is more annoyed than we at THE HOWLER, when a bunch of new evidence comes along and starts to muck up a pleasing account.

But one closing question, if we could: does anyone edit William Safire’s work? And if so: why does his editor permit the ace sleuth to publish howlers that groan out like this?

From the archives: We discussed Safire-on-Willey just last week. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/1/98.

Postscript: We state again what we have stated before; we have no idea what may have happened between Clinton and Willey. But we do believe that journalists must present all the facts--even the inconvenient facts they jes’ plain don’t like.