30 October 1998
Our current howler: Getting to yes-he-did
Synopsis: Margaret Talbot has found some creative new ways to prove you can trust those accusers.
School of scandal
Margaret Talbot, The New Republic, 10/12/98
Why Clinton Lied
George L. Priest, The Wall Street Journal, 9/14/98
Life in this celebrity press corps means always putting your faith in accusers. And sometimes, to help the process along, it means creating some notably curious arguments, to prove that accusers are truthful. In recent months, some journalists have proven that other accusers are truthful, because of what Clinton has admitted about Monica Lewinsky. Here at THE HOWLER, we cant help chuckling over some of the ways facile journalists have shown that accusers are pretty much always right.
In The New Republic, Margaret Talbot was slapping around hypocritical feminists for their reactions to the Lewinsky affair:
TALBOT: Time and again, prominent feminists have declined to condemn Clinton or have said explicitly that his pro-choice policies or his appointments of women to Cabinet positions matter far more than his regrettable tendency to drop trou and demand oral sex from women both willing and unwilling. Were trying to think of the big picture, think about whats best for women, Eleanor Smeal, the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, told Vanity Fairs Marjorie Williams in May. (Our emphasis)
Before we get to our main point, lets comment on Talbots slick treatment of Smeal. Smeals Vanity Fair quote comes with no context at all, so it is in no way clear, as Talbot implies, that Smeal was agreeing that Clinton tends to drop trou and demand oral sex from [unwilling] women. Many of the feminists quoted in Williams article explicitly said they couldnt yet judge the truth of the various allegations against Clinton. Clearly, Talbot is willing to proceed to judgment without knowing if accusations are true or false; but others shouldnt be branded as hypocrites if they are reluctant to follow.
But what about Talbots central assertion--her assertion that President Clinton has a regrettable tendency to drop trou and demand oral sex from women both willing and unwilling? When Talbots article appeared in late September, the president had acknowledged the basic facts of his conduct with Monica Lewinsky. But how did Talbot know that Clinton demands oral sex from unwilling partners also? Hang on, folks, the fun starts here. Talbot recounts why some feminist leaders have said they are not more troubled with Clinton:
TALBOT: On the plausible end is the observation that what Clinton did to Lewinsky (or rather, what he invited her to do to him) is not harassment for the simple reason that it was clearly consensual...
Talbots honesty problem continues. In her parenthetical self-correction, she makes clear that she understands that Clintons conduct with Lewinsky was mutually consensual. Why then does she pen her first construction, which she quickly amends? She does it, of course, to paint an ugly picture of Clinton, one which she then slickly corrects. This is the sort of thing we see, remember, from earnest people like Margaret Talbot, who are just so fed up, appalled, and disgusted with how slick and dishonest Clinton is!
Slippery image-mongering accomplished, Talbots presentation proceeds:
TALBOT: On the plausible end is the observation that what Clinton did to Lewinsky (or rather, what he invited her to do to him) is not harassment for the simple reason that it was clearly consensual...But that, of course, leaves out Paula Jones, whose account of what happened in the Excelsior Hotel now seems entirely believable given what we know of Clintons m.o. (Our emphasis)
Of course--given Clintons m.o.! In other words: because we now know that Clinton engaged in consensual sex, we know he exposed himself to Jones! What could be more obvious? And theres more from Talbots trendy catalog of groaning, egregious howlers:
TALBOT: ...And then theres Kathleen Willey, whose allegations of unwanted groping the White House has tried, with only limited success, to discredit.
Cant you see the unassailable logic here? Because the White House hasnt been able to prove the unprovable--that Clinton didnt grope Kathleen Willey--we get to throw her name in here also, and pretend we know what happened to her!
Here at THE HOWLER, we dont claim to know what may or may not have happened between Clinton and Willey. We dont claim to know what did or didnt happen between Clinton and Paula Jones. But we have read the Starr Reports detailed description of the interactions between Clinton and Lewinsky; and what Clinton did there is plainly not the same conduct that Willey and Jones have alleged. Lewinskys active solicitation of President Clinton is clearly spelled out in the Starr Report; to state the obvious, Starr makes no allegation of the assaultive behavior that Jones and Willey allege. Talbot wants to pretend to be able to say that Jones and Willey are telling the truth, so she invents silly stories about Clintons m.o. (slickly borrowing language used about criminals). Its the kind of slick, slippery proof that a writer will use--when a writer just those accusers.
Quick review: Ken Starr describes a young woman (Lewinsky) displaying her drawers for President Clinton. (Who is dropping trou here, by the way?) Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones describe Clinton engaging in conduct that essentially is sexual assault. Unless we say that men who engage in consensual sex are thereby presumed to be sexual predators, it would seem the behaviors are rather different. What m.o. does Talbot mean? But when youre living in this celebrity press corps, and trying to prove that accusers are truthful, it can all end up seemin the same. Consensual sex, sexual assault--what the heck, the patterns there somewhere! Indeed, George L. Priest, in the Wall Street Journal, improves upon even Talbots work:
PRIEST: Though it has not been emphasized, Ms. Jones and Monica Lewinskys experiences with Mr. Clinton are nearly exactly equivalent. In the Jones case, Mr. Clinton was sued for inviting a young government subordinate whom he hardly knew to meet him in a private room, where he encouraged her to perform oral sex on him, and asked her to keep quiet about it as she was leaving. The only real difference is that Ms. Lewinsky accepted the proposition; Ms. Jones refused. (Our emphasis)
Yep--exposing yourself to someone youve never met, accepting a clear advance from somebody else...its all exactly equivalent if youre determined to prove that accusers are tellin the truth.
Here at THE HOWLER, we say it again; we dont know if Jones and Willey are telling the truth. But Margaret Talbot doesnt have a clue either; she just doesnt want you to know it. And do you know why Talbot wont admit it--wont come out and tell you she just doesnt know? Margaret Talbot accusers! Cant you tell by the things that she says?
Next in our series: Its now clear Kathleen Willey may have been fibbing when she appeared on Sixty Minutes. But back in March, the press corps stampeded to insist she was telling the truth.