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22 November 1998

Our current howler: The IC’s willing exaggerators

Synopsis: When Whitewater finally came to an end, the press corps just furthered Starr’s spin.

Starr may have changed perceptions of him
Tom Squitieri, USA Today, 11/20/98

Starr Wouldn’t Go With Lone Witness for Whitewater Referral
Marilyn W. Thompson, The Washington Post, 11/20/98

The first Whitewater allegations against President Clinton appeared in the New York Times on March 8, 1992. Eventually, Whitewater became the defining political story of the 1990s--a story synonymous with the air of scandal surrounding the Clinton presidency.

So you’d almost think it would have been big news when Ken Starr announced, at the House hearings last week, that the Whitewater probe was essentially over--that no Whitewater charges would ever be lodged against President Clinton, and that he was free and clear of culpability in “Filegate” and “Travelgate” also.

But life in this celebrity press corps means never just saying the accused won’t be charged. In the hands of this celebrity press corps, Starr’s statement that Clinton would not be charged became an occasion for innuendo and spin. An already self-serving presentation by Starr was ratcheted up by eager scribes. The corps would show us all again how much it just those accusers.

Starr’s spin

Remarkably, it’s been hard to find the text of Starr’s statement about Whitewater in the major newspapers. For example, the New York Times and the Washington Post both aired numerous excerpts from Starr’s testimony to the House. But neither paper thought the end of Whitewater was significant enough to merit printing Starr’s remarks on that subject. Why didn’t the IC charge Clinton on Whitewater? For the record, here’s what Starr said:

STARR: In late 1997, we in our office considered whether this evidence [about Whitewater] that I’ve just described justified a referral to Congress. We drafted a report. But we concluded it would be inconsistent with the statutory standard because of the difficulty of establishing the truth with a sufficient degree of confidence. [Our emphasis]

But the statute to which Starr refers does not require the OIC to “establish the truth” of a given situation. It instructs the OIC to inform the Congress if there is “substantial and credible information that may constitute grounds for an impeachment” [our emphasis]. The truth is, Starr’s decision not to make a referral meant that he lacked credible information that an offence may have occurred. Everything else in Ken Starr’s statement is a simple example of spin.

And spin Starr did in his quoted statement, though few in the press corps took note. Plainly, Starr suggests his office was fairly confident that Clinton had committed an offence. Starr pictures himself holding back from making a charge, through an admirable, magnanimous excess of caution. But the implication--that Starr knew a “truth” that he just couldn’t prove--is there for all to see.

Starr here engages in a standard, inappropriate, type of statement, in which a prosecutor chooses to smear a defendant he has decided he will not charge. Although Clinton will not be referred for these matters, Starr suggests he has engaged in wrong-doing. There is no reason whatever why Starr should be saying that his office drew up a referral which he then did not send. The purpose of this recitation is plain: it creates an image of Clinton being charged, although no charges will ever be made.

But again: under the statute, if Starr had credible evidence that Clinton even might have offended, he was required by duty to report it to Congress. And competent journalists should have noted that fact in reviewing Starr’s comments for readers.

But that would be a competent corps--one not in love with accusation and pursuit. By contrast, this celebrity press corps picked up Starr’s spin, and embellished it, sometimes greatly.

Enter Squitieri

Into the fray stepped Tom Squitieri, reporting for USA Today. Here is Squitieri’s remarkable account of why Starr did not refer Clinton on Whitewater:

SQUITIERI [two paragraphs]: One thing Starr made clear...Clinton is not in the immediate crosshairs for any other impeachment referrals to the House.

On the Whitewater land deal and related matters, Starr said his staff considered sending an impeachment referral against Clinton to Congress in late 1997, but decided that the evidence against the president was not airtight. [Our emphasis]

Remarkable. Squitieri’s readers are told that Starr didn’t file a Whitewater referral because the evidence “was not airtight.” Nothing Starr said came close to suggesting that the “evidence” against Clinton was anywhere near this strong, but Squitieri makes the image of Clinton’s guilt even stronger than Starr does. In Squitieri’s account, Clinton escaped referral only because the evidence was less than “airtight.”

Sadly enough, Squitieri was not alone in his loaded paraphrase of Starr. Listen to the way Marilyn Thompson began her Post story about Starr’s decision not to refer:

THOMPSON [first paragraph]: Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr said yesterday that his office had strong reason to believe President Clinton lied under oath in testimony stemming from the Whitewater land deal but decided late last year not to file an impeachment report relying exclusively on the truthfulness of Clinton’s former business partner James McDougal.

Starr nowhere said he had “strong reason to believe” that Clinton had lied under oath in the matter. If he had, of course, he’d have been required by statute to report the facts to the House. But Thompson, like Squitieri, just those accusers. She can’t resist the urge to ratchet up Starr’s already suggestive remarks.

But Thompson’s account is wonderfully comic in a way that Squitieri’s was not. In her one-sentence paragraph, Thompson has Starr saying he had “strong” evidence against Clinton; in the same breath, she says his account would have been entirely based on the word of Jim McDougal. Just how silly is this account? Extremely silly. And Thompson ought to know it.

Mr. Starr’s airtight evidence

Did Starr really consider filing a Whitewater referral in late 1997? The press corps has taken his statement at face value, faithfully repeating (and embellishing) his claim.

But it’s hard to believe that any competent prosecutor would have based a referral on the word of Jim McDougal. McDougal was a mentally ill, convicted felon with a documented medical history of memory loss. Until he was convicted of crimes and faced 83 years in prison, he had sworn under oath that Governor Clinton had not engaged in the conduct at question.

It would be a travesty to file even a criminal indictment based on the word of so unreliable an accuser. The idea of impeaching a president on this kind of “evidence” is laughable on its face.

But the celebrity press corps, in love with accusers, has uniformly taken Starr’s account at face value, and has not shown even the slightest inclination to note its apparent absurdity. Nor has the corps felt the slightest need to present an honest assessment of McDougal. Listen to the account of Airtight Jim that was given in the Post by Thompson:

THOMPSON: But McDougal’s credibility was questionable. He was a manic-depressive, with an eccentric personality and frequent changes of heart in his long relationship with the Clintons... [Our emphasis]

Note the creative euphemisms. McDougal did not suffer from changes of heart; he famously suffered from changes of story! “Eccentric personality,” meanwhile, is Thompson’s way of describing admitted perjury. McDougal had sworn under oath that Clinton was not guilty, then reversed himself as part of a deal. But Thompson doesn’t tell her readers that. It’s the way the corps pretties up an accuser whose credibility is, in fact, almost nil.

Did Ken Starr consider a referral based on Jim McDougal’s accusation? One can only hope Starr is being disingenuous. The notion of such a referral is plainly absurd. One can only hope that Ken Starr would know it.

But deep inside this celebrity press corps, Jim McDougal’s word is good evidence indeed. In fact, McDougal’s word makes such a great case, you almost could call it “airtight.” Never mind the fact that he’s reversed his sworn story--we’ll airbrush out nagging details like that. Writers like Squitieri and Thompson come eagerly forward, to burnish innuendo. To spin.

Read on today: The New York Times almost got it right. See Read on, 11/22/98.

Read on tomorrow: Walter Shapiro did get it right. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/23/98.