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23 November 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Shapiro gets it right!

Synopsis: The press corps yawned when Whitewater died. But Walter Shapiro got it right.

Hearing is notable for what isn’t heard
Walter Shapiro, USA Today, 11/20/98

Few Surprises In Starr
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 11/23/98


Here’s the way Howard Kurtz put it this morning, looking back on Ken Starr’s House appearance. Kurtz was discussing Starr’s noble announcement that he would not pursue Clinton on three major matters:

KURTZ: Starr also shaped the story line. By not mentioning until the hearing that he had cleared Clinton on Whitewater, Travelgate, and Filegate, he made sure there would be no front-page headlines on three scandals that have absorbed the media for six years. Instead, the exoneration was reduced to just another subplot.

Kurtz here seems to impugn Starr’s motives, and given the IC’s great reverence for the law--a feeling which Starr himself modestly noted--we cannot believe that political considerations could have entered the great jurist’s mind.

But it was truly remarkable to see Starr’s exonerations of Clinton go down the memory hole last week. As Kurtz notes, Whitewater has been the defining story of the Clinton years--the story that framed the air of scandal (and pseudo-scandal) that has surrounded the Clinton White House. And right up to the morning of Starr’s appearance, so-called Filegate and Travelgate were still being pumped as the principal areas where Clinton might fall. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/19/98, for our report on Safire’s Folly, or as we prefer to call it, using technical language, “William Safiregate.”

So you’d think that Starr’s statement ruling out referrals would have been seen as a major story. You’d have expected some headlines informing readers of the news, and a few well-placed summaries of the issues.

But, because this celebrity press corps just those accusers, it hates exonerations. Nothing kills the thrill of the chase as quickly as something like that. And so, to the extent that the press corps did report Starr’s Retreat, it was often done in a way to embellish Starr’s spin (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/98). On Saturday, the New York Times even stressed (page one) that, just because Clinton won’t be referred, that didn’t mean that he had actually been cleared. Hey, for that matter, maybe he’s robbed a few banks--has anyone ever “cleared” him on that?

But here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, the excited analysts did call our attention to one scribe who stood out from the rest. It was Walter Shapiro, of USA Today, in his column last Friday morning. Unlike those in the Bloodlust Brood, Shapiro somehow saw that the exonerations were, in fact, a major news story. He reported the events as the press corps would do if it hadn’t given its heart to Big Scandal’s warm embrace.

Shapiro started out by scoring the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee:

SHAPIRO: No Democrat had the courage to cut through legal verbiage and say, “Yes, Bill Clinton lied under oath. Yes, by most definitions except those of his lawyers, Bill Clinton perjured himself...”

Shapiro seems to be mistaken here--Charles Schumer clearly stated he thought Clinton had lied to the grand jury--but Shapiro was prepared to call a spade a spade regarding the president’s conduct.

But unlike his colleagues in that celebrity lynch mob that’s been roaming through Washington the past several years, Shapiro also was able to see that the exonerations were a major event:

SHAPIRO: In fairness, White House loyalists were entitled to revel in their vindication when Starr conceded that he had no more arrows in his inquisitorial quiver...Fantasies [concerning Filegate, Travelgate, and Whitewater] died a cruel death Thursday when Starr backhandedly confessed that there was no evidence of Clinton’s culpability in any of these long-festering scandals.

Shapiro went on to discuss the exonerations in substantial detail. He criticized Starr for not informing Congress sooner that there’s “no there there” in these matters. He opined that Whitewater had always been “a dry hole” because “Clinton, for all his other failings, has never been motivated by avarice.” He criticized Starr for the precedents set by his “Whitewater witch hunt.” He even managed to avoid repeating Starr’s disingenuous spin--about how he really could have referred Clinton if he’d wanted to, wink wink, but, being a man who reveres the law, drew back in an excess of caution. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/98, for a rogue’s gallery of those in the celebrity corps who embellished Starr’s devious twaddle.)

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t necessarily agree with every jot and tittle of Shapiro’s report. But alone among the celebrity press, Shapiro saw that Starr’s exonerations comprised a major story. Only Shapiro managed to see that the end of a six-year pursuit is big news. Only Shapiro gave the story the weight that it so plainly should have received.

After all, you’d think a press corps that so famously loves the truth would be brought up short by Starr’s announcement. You might think they’d even take a searching look back and wonder how these tales got as far as they did.

You could even imagine they might go back and examine the original Whitewater reporting. Even ask if the corps had been used by the rogues who kept pushing these worn-out, torrid tales.

But you don’t have to hold your breath on that, based on their treatment of Bill’s Bill of Health. This press corps lives for accusation. In all the excitement of the new spin from Starr, in all the thrill of the turbulent hearing, with excited voices filling the air, only ol’ Walt got it right.

Visit our incomparable archives:

Enjoy every episode in our “x gets it right!” series:

E.T. and Coop get it right! (8/25/98)
Capital Style gets it right! (9/30/98)
The Hill gets it right! (10/9/98)

And even:

Leno gets it right! (11/10/98)