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6 November 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: What’s not to about Ken?

Synopsis: Sally Quinn didn’t seem to get the point when she was asked about Ken Starr on C-SPAN.

Commentary by Sally Quinn
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 11/6/98

Who are we trying to kid with this series, “The press corps accusers?” You’re just as sick of reading these pieces as we are sick of writing them! But before we shut the series down, we wanted to look in again on Sally Quinn, defending the honor of the Washington elites in her appearance this morning on C-SPAN.

Quinn’s Monday article, which we discussed 11/4, had stirred up a lot of attention on C-SPAN, so Quinn was invited to field reactions from the great unwashed. It took almost an hour to get the right question, but when it came, well...we quote it in full (almost):

CALLER: Miss Quinn, I’d like to maybe explain to you why people are so upset outside the beltway [about Quinn’s article]. Most people feel very strongly the president should not have been asked the question to begin with. They’re very upset with the court system that drags in this kind of thing against a highly elected public official. If he was a senator, if he was one of our mayors, we’d be just as upset, and Washington doesn’t seem to understand the people don’t think this should have ever--Ken Starr gets a lot of blame because we feel that there’s a collusion out here, that this was very irrelevant to the position of the president to begin with...But you have to understand this is our president, our country. We care a lot more about that than all this inside gossipy stuff. [Our emphasis]

The caller voiced some of the concerns that we’ve had with the Monica matter. Like the caller, we’re concerned with the questions Clinton was asked under oath; to us, it’s absurd to think that learning about a consensual relationship with Lewinsky would help us decide whether Clinton had exposed himself to Paula Jones. And yes, we’re concerned with the role of Ken Starr, a long-time GOP activist, and a man who wanted to be on the Supreme Court--the last man on earth who should ever have been assigned to investigate President Clinton.

But then, you may recall why Quinn and her crowd aren’t all that concerned about Starr. Again, we quote Quinn’s astounding explanation, from her Monday article:

QUINN: Ken Starr is not seen by many Washington insiders as an out-of-control prudish crusader. Starr is a Washington insider, too. He has lived and worked here for years. He has a reputation as a fair and honest judge. He has many friends in both parties. Their wives are friendly with one another and their children go to the same schools. He is seen as someone who is operating under a legal statute, with a mandate from a three-judge panel...

And the fact that the head of that panel is a political ally of Jesse Helms is another matter that strikes us as obviously troubling, though the thought doesn’t seem to have entered Quinn’s head. Hey--maybe some of Judge Sentelle’s kids have been seen at the right schools too!

Reread Quinn’s article. Her subjects voice no skepticism at all about those who investigate Clinton. According to Quinn, insiders give a pass to Starr because Starr’s wife is a friend of their wives. It would be hard to imagine a more cavalier attitude than the one that Quinn describes in this piece. Is her explanation of Washington’s outlook on point? If so, it is a damning portrait of an insider elite, one that is perfectly comfortable with the work of their kind, as long as the children of those under fire can be shown to be in tough AP courses.

Has Quinn ever given any thought at all to the concerns the caller expresses? Judging by her answer today, she can’t even process the caller’s questions. Here is Quinn’s response, to a caller concerned with the courts and with Ken Starr:

QUINN: Well, you know your point is exactly the point that is made in this article, that the people here care about the government and care about doing good things and being idealistic and making this a better country and a better government, and most of these people, who did vote for Clinton, and have supported Clinton, were particularly discouraged because they felt that it would be better for the country if he hadn’t done what he did with Monica Lewinsky because that had distracted him and the country for eight or nine months...

But of course that wasn’t the caller’s point at all. The caller was concerned with a court system that was asking inappropriate questions. She was concerned with inappropriate “collusion” involving Kenneth Starr. Quinn continued with her answer, never addressing these issues:

QUINN: ...for eight or nine months. And I think what people felt very strongly about was that, given the Gennifer Flowers situation, given the Paula Jones situation, that he knew what was going to happen if he got involved with a woman and got caught. He knew what would happen, which was eight, nine months of just complete chaos and obsession with this situation, he understood that those would be the consequences...

And we heartily agree--given the history of his presidency, Clinton’s conduct with Lewinsky was reckless. But that isn’t what the caller asked, and Quinn displays the common inability of the Washington press corps to be skeptical about anyone but Clinton.

Should a sitting president have been testifying under oath about sex? Quinn doesn’t seem to have a view. Is there “collusion” here involving Ken Starr? That doesn’t worry her either. After all, his kids all go to excellent schools, and his wife is friends with Sally’s friends. Could it really be possible, what Sally Quinn says--that this is all just a part of how verdicts are reached, inside this celebrity press corps?

Topics yet unexplored: Two topics we’ll return to in future weeks:

  1. The Kenneth Starr nomination. Ken Starr was easily the last person on earth who should have been named as Bill Clinton’s IC. But, when Starr was appointed in 1994 (under shaky circumstances), the press corps barely let out a peep.

  2. Defining deviancy up. Clinton’s testimony about Gennifer Flowers turned on a wide-ranging definition of “sexual relations.” But when the testimony was released in March, the major papers didn’t publish the definition, and then deleted Clinton’s reference to it from their accounts of what he had said. And then in August--as if to complete the hat trick--both Time and The New Republic published baldly inaccurate versions of the definition. Total incompetence in presenting major testimony? It’s all just a part of what we do love to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps.”