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Caveat lector

13 November 1998

The Howler review: Rationalizing compulsively

Synopsis: Clinton said it had been a “politically inspired lawsuit.” David Maraniss didn’t try to find out.

The Clinton Enigma
David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, 1998

In The Clinton Enigma, David Maraniss reviews Clinton’s August 17 speech line by line, and finds that the speech “reveals the president’s entire life.” And indeed, some portions of the book make the best effort we’ve seen to explain Clinton’s reckless adult behavior (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/10/98).

But as Maraniss works his way through the speech, there’s one place where he stops making any effort to evaluate what Clinton has said. That’s the part of the speech where Clinton shifts gears and strikes out at his accusers. In Enigma, it’s the part of the speech that heads Chapter 17; we repeat it here in full:

CLINTON (three paragraphs): The fact that these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit which has since been dismissed was a consideration too.

In addition, I had real and serious concerns about an independent counsel investigation that began with private business dealings twenty years ago--dealings, I might add, about which an independent federal agency found no evidence of any wrongdoing by me or my wife over two years ago.

The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and friends. Then into my private life. And now the investigation itself is under investigation. This has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.

In this passage, Clinton accuses Paula Jones of bringing a politically inspired suit; he implies that its dismissal reflects its lack of seriousness; and he implies that Kenneth Starr is working in bad faith. These, of course, are all serious charges. One would think Maraniss would want to know if they were true.

But Maraniss’ reaction to the charges is striking. He recounts the negative reaction of Clinton aides who had hoped he wouldn’t raise these issues in his speech, and he quotes Orrin Hatch calling Clinton “a jerk” for the comments. Maraniss then offers this reaction to this part of Clinton’s speech:

MARANISS: [I]t seemed to me the most predictable element in his speech. It was the almost inevitable result of a personality that explained and rationalized compulsively; that tended ever to the political strategy of attacking his attackers, believing that everything is political and politics is war...The need to rationalize was always there with Clinton, going back to his childhood, but the reflexive attacking of his attackers was something that he acquired during his political education.

Maraniss here uses the language of pathology to describe Clinton’s comments on Jones and Starr. His reaction is described as “compulsive,” the acting out of a “need to rationalize” that had been with Clinton since childhood. In an earlier chapter, Maraniss has already said that Clinton’s upbringing in an alcoholic home led him to a reflexive belief that he was unfairly accused. In this passage, he describes Clinton’s attack on Jones and Starr as a pathological matter, then goes on to describe incidents in Clinton’s political history in which he developed attack-based political strategies.

But what if, instead of “rationalizing compulsively,” Clinton is simply saying things that are true? What if the Jones suit really was politically inspired--perhaps based on a claim that’s invented? Nowhere in this chapter does Maraniss ever consider the possibility that Clinton may simply be right in his charges--that he may be making an accurate assessment of the actions that have been taken against him.

In this sense, Maraniss reflects the ideology of the celebrity press corps, in its unceasing love for accusers. The refusal to consider that accusers may be lying is by now an inviolate part of their code of conduct. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, “The press corps links graphic accusers,” 10/27-11/6). It is a classic reaction of the celebrity press to see accusations against accusers as a form of pathology. When accusers accuse Clinton, accusers are believed. When he accuses them, he’s Vile Clinton.

It is particularly surprising to see Maraniss act out this conceit because he understands, far better than his lesser peers, the shabby nature of many of the accusations that have been made over time against Clinton. Because Maraniss is better informed than the press corps as a whole (and more honest), he frequently notes the remarkable shortcomings of Clinton’s historical accusers. At one point, for example, he says this about some who have called Clinton a liar:

MARANISS: [M]any of those who are the most self-righteous in denouncing him for lying might be more malicious then he is, spreading wild rumors about him that they do not know to be true. Spreading a false rumor is somehow not considered as dishonest as lying.

And what kinds of “false rumors” does Maraniss have in mind? Let Maraniss tell you himself:

MARANISS: From [his] first congressional race in 1974, it became apparent that Clinton evoked a visceral hatred in some people, who would then say anything they could dredge up to disparage him. In that race, conservative preachers denounced him from their pulpits, calling him a homosexual or a libertine or both. They said that his campaign headquarters was a drug haven. Rumors spread that he was the “Boy in the Tree,'’ a longhaired protester photographed holding a banner in a tree during President Nixon’s 1969 appearance at an Arkansas razorbacks football game. Most of the allegations were false, the last one abysmally so--Clinton was at Oxford at the time of Nixon’s visit.

(You know, off at Oxford, where he was making mysterious trips to Moscow as an agent of the KGB? On C-SPAN, crackpot accusation remains a staple of the ongoing Clinton Critique.)

Maraniss’ reaction to this history is puzzling. He states that he has never been able “to explain the depths of this animosity toward Clinton.” (“[T]hough I know the history of it, my answers have never fully satisfied me.”) And he makes it clear, in his subsequent discussion, that he feels much of this historical venom is misdirected and unfair. He says this about Clinton as president:

MARANISS: On conservative talk shows, in videotapes sponsored by Jerry Falwell, in a newspaper funded by right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife...Clinton has been accused of every evil act imaginable: murdering Vince Foster, killing as many as a dozen people in Arkansas, conspiring with the CIA and drug runners. Where did the zealotry of Clinton’s enemies end and the truth begin?

Maraniss seems quite willing to describe the crackpot nature of many of Clinton’s accusers. But this is what he has to say about the Clintons’ reaction:

MARANISS: In any case, Clinton and his wife chose to interpret the intense dislike for them as purely political and largely conspiratorial.

Blamed for crimes they didn’t commit; asked to be scapegoat for an entire generation (page 92); Clinton and Clinton “chose to interpret” this in a negative manner! And how’s this for deadpan understatement:

MARANISS: Bill and Hillary Clinton have long felt that they engendered hatred in their adversaries that far exceeded the norm.

They “felt” this reaction “exceeded the norm?” What exactly were they supposed to “feel,” accused by the pious of murders?

And listen now to Maraniss’ full statement about those who called Clinton a murderer:

MARANISS: Clinton has been accused of every evil act imaginable: murdering Vince Foster, killing as many as a dozen people in Arkansas, conspiring with the CIA and drug runners. Where did the zealotry of Clinton’s enemies end and the truth begin? It is one of the many ironies of the Clinton tragedy that he was always his own worst enemy, while his enemies, by overreacting, were often, unwittingly, his strongest allies.

Maraniss’ statement is simply astounding. Somehow, a man who is falsely accused of murder by a nationally-known preacher turns out to be his own worst enemy! And those people, the ones who falsely accused him? Guess what, kids? They’re Clinton’s best friends! Of course! The cruelty and ugliness of this evil construction cannot be stated strongly enough--yet this bizarre argument is a common claim one hears from this vacuous press corps.

The notion that Clinton’s reaction to Jones and Starr is pathological is the great blemish on Maraniss’ book. Telling us he plans to reveal Clinton’s entire life, Maraniss never makes the slightest attempt to determine whether Clinton’s claims may simply be true. Is it pathology to lash out at a False Accuser? Is it “rationalizing” to protest a suit based on lies? Remember--Bill Clinton knows the truth about Jones, whatever it is. In the end, David Maraniss doesn’t.

But, when you live by the rules of this celebrity press corps, accusers are always truth-tellers. And the impulse to challenge a false accuser? It’s “compulsive,” “rationalizing,” “reflexive.” We don’t even try to figure out if what’s being said is false or true. When you’re living inside this celebrity press corps, false and true no longer much seem to matter.

In our concluding episode: A minor part of The Clinton Enigma reveals the CelebCorps’ entire world view.