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Caveat lector

18 November 1998

The Howler review: The press corps enigma

Synopsis: It’s what we call “the press corps enigma.” Why would David Maraniss simply assume an accuser is telling the truth?

The Clinton Enigma
David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, 1998

Nope. Nothing of substance ever will turn on David Maraniss’ treatment of Roger Porter, in the anecdote when ends Chapter 17 of Maraniss’ The Clinton Enigma.

But, in his treatment of Porter, Maraniss shows something important about the ongoing conduct of the press corps. He shows us the press corps’ willingness to simply assume that accusers are telling the truth.

As such, the episode raises the puzzling question we now call “the press corps enigma.” Why would a writer like David Maraniss simply assume an accuser is truthful? How did the press corps come to believe it can assume who is telling the truth?

*          *           *           *           *

Toward the end of Chapter 17, Maraniss is completing his portrait of President Clinton as someone who “compulsively rationalizes” when faced with accusations (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/13/98). Maraniss tells an anecdote from the 1992 campaign, which we repeat in full (two paragraphs):

MARANISS: At times, Clinton emphasized the conspiracy theme with Hillary as a means of preparing her for more allegations coming his way. Near the end of The Agenda, Bob Woodward’s book on the first two years of Clinton’s first term, Hillary reflects on what she sees as the “politically motivated attacks aimed at undermining” her husband’s presidency. She remembers a telephone call that her husband told her about back in 1991, just when he was “pumping up” to run for president. The call was from someone in the Bush administration who had worked with Clinton on state policy issues, and as Hillary remembers her husband telling her the message, it went like this: “We’ve done a lot of looking at this race and your profile as a candidate is one, and one of a very few, that could cause us trouble. And we just want you to know if you get into this race, we will do everything we can to destroy you politically.”

Who made the call? Hillary declined to say at first, but eventually she and Clinton passed the word through an aide that it was Roger B. Porter, Bush’s domestic policy adviser. Porter, a mild-mannered policy wonk, said he had no such conversation with Clinton and was not aware of anyone else in the Clinton White House who knew Clinton well enough to say such a thing. In the only conversation he had with Clinton in 1991, Porter said, he told Clinton that he ought to switch to the Republican party if he wanted to become president.

Maraniss goes on to say that “Clinton’s telling of that tale to Hillary” helped “transform her personal trauma into a political cause” when attacks came from others later on. Accusations were “all received by her is the same signs that people were out to get them.”

Maraniss’ treatment of the episode is striking. After all, Maraniss has made it quite clear in this chapter that a good number of people were “out to get” the Clintons (see THE DAILY HOWLER 11/13/98). He offers no evidence in the chapter that Roger Porter is not part of this crowd.

What is so striking in this passage is Maraniss’ simple assumption that Roger Porter is being truthful--his unsupported assumption that Candidate Clinton was “telling a tale” to his wife.

Maraniss never presents any evidence at all that Clinton was fibbing to Hill. He never presents any evidence at all that Porter was telling the truth. He asserts that Porter didn’t make the call simply because Porter says he didn’t. He seems to say that Porter is truthful because Porter’s “a mild-mannered wonk.”

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing whether Bill Clinton was “telling a tale.” We have no way of knowing whether Porter did in fact make the alleged call. But we don’t think it’s clear that Porter is truthful just because he’s “mild-mannered” or wonkish. Maraniss “reflexively” accuses Clinton of lying on the basis of no evidence at all.

But it’s the kind of miserable work that’s become de rigeur, if you’re working inside this CelebCorps. And when you see a writer like Maraniss displaying these habits, it shows how far the bad habits have spread. As we told you back on November 9, the analysts yowled when we assigned them this book, because they’ve admired the author so much in the past. Why would Maraniss stoop to this level? It’s the question we call “the press corps enigma.” It puzzled us--and silenced the pouting analysts--as we finally put down this slim tale.