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3 December 1998

Our current howler: Language games

Synopsis: Don Lambro said Clinton was disingenuous. He was also describing himself.

Playing word games
Donald Lambro, The Washington Times, 12/3/98

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/2/98

Most Conservatives See Clinton Ouster as Dream
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 12/3/98


Wow! Finally a straightforward, no-nonsense account of why Vile Clinton may be impeached:

MATTHEWS: Well, I will say something definitive about the president. This president is unbeatable when he’s down and he’s totally vincible when he’s up. And his arrogance of the last couple of weeks has shown itself in his 81 non-answers to the 81 questions. And if he does get impeached, it’s because of that arrogant manner in which he failed to answer these questions honestly.

Matthews was speaking on his inventive show Hardball, and he took the debate to a whole new level. Vile Clinton would be impeached for an “arrogant manner,” the latest high crime this celebrity lynch mob has humbly found a way to dream up.

Indeed, it wasn’t just the self-effacing Matthews who was upset by the president’s non-answers. Other bashful Washington denizens had come to the same general view. Today’s New York Times was full of accounts of Republicans enraged with the hair-splitting answers. Even the most-famously-shrinking violets of all were upset by presidential pettifoggery:

HENNEBERGER: G. Gordon Liddy, for example, says listeners to his radio show seem ready to give up [on impeachment] but got mad all over again after Mr. Clinton responded to questions posed by the Judiciary Committee in terms they saw as legalistic hair-splitting.

Whew! When a temperate crew like that gets steamed, you just know there’s real meat to the issue.

Our problem was, we heard a lot of complaining about the legalistic hair-splitting, but not too many examples. The president’s conduct just had everyone sputtering, and they couldn’t seem to spit details out. What exactly had been so bad about the answers the president gave? Everyone was quite understandably peeved, but no one was spelling things out.

Well, thank goodness Don Lambro came along this morning, and decided to cipher things out. He somehow got his pique under control, and limned what Vile Clinton had done. Future historians will be able to scan an outline of the worst evasions. The only problem is: in scoring the president for “playing word games,” Don seemed determined to go him one better!

Lambro began with the first of Vile’s “evasive, disingenuous, unrepentant answers:”

LAMBRO: Even a question to establish that he is the country’s “chief law enforcement officer” draws a needlessly argumentative response that “nothing in the Constitution specifically designates the president as such.” Yet Article II, Section 3 gives the president the authority to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” That responsibility, according to legal scholars, “puts the president at the head of law enforcement for the national government.”

A reader of Lambro would think that Vile Clinton had denied any role in federal law enforcement. Yet here is Clinton’s complete response--including the omitted second part of his answer, the part Lambro slickly left out:

CLINTON: The President is frequently referred to as the chief law enforcement officer, although nothing in the Constitution specifically designates the President as such. Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution states that “[t]he executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America,” and the law-enforcement function is a component of the executive power. [Our bold]

We hope we don’t need to spell it out; in the second part of Clinton’s response, he makes the very same point that is made by Don’s scholars. Yet Lambro’s readers aren’t told this fact! Why, you could almost call it “disingenuous.” Or you might want to go with “evasive.”

But Disingenuous Don wasn’t done. Here’s the second example he spoonfeeds his readers, this one concerning an oath:

LAMBRO (two paragraphs): Even when Mr. Clinton is asked to ascertain that he “took an oath in which you swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” before he testified in the Paula Jones case, he begins his answer, “While I do not recall the precise wording of the oath...”

Mr. Clinton is said to have a bear-trap memory, but has selective problems with it in this case. In the sworn testimony to the court and to the grand jury, he said “I do not recall” 227 times. Now, in his latest submission, he can’t even remember the solemn oath he took to tell the truth.

But the selectivity here seems to be Lambro’s. Here, again, is the full Clinton answer, including the part selected out:

CLINTON: While I do not recall the precise wording of that oath, as I previously stated in my grand jury testimony on Aug. 17, 1998, in taking the oath “I believed then that I had to answer the questions truthfully.”

The notion that Clinton is supposed to have word-for-word recall of a ten-month-old oath takes us past absurdity to simple clownishness. (In the very next answer, by the way, Clinton reproduces the exact oath he took before the grand jury, an oath that is part of a documentary record.) And at any rate, in the part of Vile’s answer that Lambro disappears, he states his responsibility to have told the truth in his Jones deposition (though Lambro’s readers have no way to know this). Reread Clinton’s full statement and tell us again: how is it that answers as unremarkable as this are supposed to show character defects?

In fact, as we have seen so many times in the past, Disingenuous Don does the very same things he indignantly ascribes to Vile Clinton. He records answers selectively to accuse Vile of selectivity; splits answers to accuse of hair-splitting. We are back to the spot we have visited before: in essence, Lambro lies to his readers to prove Clinton’s a liar. He spins to convict Vile Clinton of spin. Is it word games you want? Lambro’s got ’em.

Is it surprising that Clinton gave “legalistic” responses, in a legal forum exploring legal charges? We’re open to being shown there’s something wrong with his answers, but is this the best Lambro can do? What is really surprising to us here at THE HOWLER is not the nature of Clinton’s replies. What is amazing us is that there’s still an audience willing to be deceived by Donald Lambro--willing to be spun and lied to, every day, to “prove” that Vile Clinton tells lies.

Tomorrow: We look at other sad-sack attempts to tear the veil off those hair-splitting answers.