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Caveat lector

6 December 1998

A Howler summation: The wreck of the old 81

Synopsis: We finally saw why the celebrity press corps so hated those 81 answers.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Bill Sammon
Hardball, CNBC, 11/30/98

President’s Strategy
John M. Broder, The New York Times, 12/1/98

No, really--we just wanted to know what had the CelebCorps so vexed about those 81 answers. And we’d scanned the pundits’ printed plaints without figuring out what was driving them wild.

Complaining about Clinton’s reply to Answer 1 was just making the pundits look silly (and programmed). And though we have no doubt that Chief Executive Bill may have been feigning some memory loss, the celebs’ approach to that murky matter was making them look cavalier too. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/5/98 and preceding, for our critiques of the pundits’ great fury.)

Hmmm. The celebrity press corps was steaming mad, but they just couldn’t seem to explain their dyspepsia. And then, of course! We knew what we’d do! We’d go back to basics--return to first texts--and play a little old-fashioned Hardball. If Chris and the gang couldn’t riddle this out, there was then nothing more we could do.

And the gang had spent a good ten minutes lambasting Vile’s answers on the show Monday night. Right at the top of the two-fisted program, a former-journalist-turned-TV-tabloid-talker threw some heat under Vile Clinton’s chin:

MATTHEWS: [Clinton’s] latest tactics to evade telling the truth angered Republicans, even those looking to censure as an alternative to impeachment...The question now becomes, why compromise with a president mocking the process by refusing to come clean about the truth?

Whew! As usual, the Hardball host was shooting straight from the hip--taking no prisoners with his bare-knuckled approach. The analysts settled in for a no-nonsense look at what the Vile POTUS had actually done.

And yet, by the time the ten-minute segment was over, the analysts were still all at sea. Why, the gang had mouthed the Same Old Complaints, without ever getting down to examples! A tabloid talker said “stonewalling” twice, and the IWF’s Heather Higgins, showing some cleavage, said the replies were “in your face” (look who’s talking). We heard about “word manipulations” that were “evasive” and “vague.” Here, let the Washington Times’ Bill Sammon ’splain it:

MATTHEWS: Bill Sammon, what is the reaction of the Republicans on Capitol Hill, in the House of Representatives, to the president’s 81 answers to the 81 questions...

SAMMON: The reaction was one of frustration. The questions asked for one-word answers. Do you admit or deny, do you admit or deny, each and every time. An honest--well, I should say, their reaction was that an innocent man could have taken a single sheet of paper out and filled in one-word answers 81 times in a half an hour and be done with it. But he took three weeks and he gave these legalistic, hair-splitting answers...

Come on, folks! Did you really think you were going to get by without hearing “legalistic” and “hair-splitting?”

We were, we’ll admit, a little confused by Sammon’s representation. According to the coolly analytical scribe, an innocent man could have said “admit” or “deny” to every single question. But what if the innocent man couldn’t recall the matter about which he was being asked? And what if the House, in an innocent blunder, had asked questions built on factual errors? The one example the gang finally discussed was Clinton’s response to Question 76, in which Clinton was asked to “admit or deny” he had misled people with a certain statement to Roll Call. But the committee, either through error or guile, had quoted Clinton incorrectly in the question; Clinton corrected the error in his reply, then admitted the statement was misleading. Here is how a tabloid talker replied to wierd conduct like that:

MATTHEWS: Lee [Blalock], what’s the president up to? He continually goes back to these word manipulations.

Blalock and Matthews agreed the conduct was “idiotic.” It helped us see that, in a world where misquotation and spin have become ways of life, even correcting the factual record starts to look like a Vile Clinton Plot.

So there we were, searching hard for the secret. Why had this celebrity press corps taken Vile’s answers so hard? And then we thought we saw the secret, re-scanning Bill Sammon’s first statement:

SAMMON (continuing from above): But he took three weeks and he gave these legalistic, hair-splitting answers that doesn’t advance what the Republicans are trying to do which is get this thing behind them. They can’t get it behind them until they know whether the facts are stipulated or not. He refuses to stipulate these facts... [Our bold]

Do you get it? The Vile One simply will not confess! The thing that makes the CelebCorps so mad is Vile Clinton won’t just say what they tell him! To Sammon, any time he doesn’t admit, that somehow seems to mean he’s been “vague:”

SAMMON: He has to be vague on these questions because if he does admit them, that is tantamount to saying, “I committed a perjury.”

So you see? When the CelebCorps thinks or hopes he’s lying, but can’t really prove it, they say he’s being “vague” or “evasive.” Straightforward denials, which Vile made again and again, are now called “vague” and “evasive.”

And indeed, all throughout the Pundit Oeuvre, we find this equation informing the outrage: denial = evasion. John Broder grumbles that Clinton “concedes nothing” and “contested every accusation”--things the presumed guilty are now damned for doing. Listen to his insinuative take on Clinton’s refusal to admit:

BRODER: White House lawyers and the President’s lawyers said that Mr. Clinton was not being obstructionist. They said they firmly believe that whatever else Mr. Clinton may be guilty of--and they readily concede caddish behavior and misleading statements--he is not guilty of impeachable or indictable offenses.

So he who refuses to admit legal guilt is now accused of obstruction. Listen to Broder in the very next paragraph:

BRODER (continuing): They are far too sophisticated to admit to potentially impeachable offenses after having faced the same sorts of questions from Ms. Jones’ lawyers in January and Mr. Starr’s interrogators in August. So rather than devising new answers to old questions, they fell back on the old answers. [Our bold]

Amazing, isn’t it? Broder knows why Clinton gives the same old answers. It’s because his lawyers are so “sophisticated!” Those scamps! They know they shouldn’t say something is true, when they earlier said it was false! The reader is not invited to consider one possibility: that they may continue to give the same answers because they think the answers they’re giving are true. The possibility that targets are telling the truth? It’s rarely voiced by celebrity lynch mobs.

Please understand: we wouldn’t mind at all if celebrity writers would tell us why they think Clinton is lying. Given their miserable work in the past, there’s plenty of analysis to be done on these matters, for those who can still somehow care.

But it would help if the CelebCorps would put the rope down and act a bit more like real analysts. The fact is, the press corps has no way of knowing if Clinton recalls ever word Miss Mo said. And there’s nothing strange about a target being careful in the things that he says.

Clinton stuck to his story in his 81 Answers. In truth, there was nothing surprising in that. But the vacuous ranting the CelebCorps has done? The spinning, the feigned outrage, the doctored quotations? Well, in a world that needs a great public discourse, forgive us if we think we see an ongoing story in that.

Epilog: Do you doubt us when we say the celebs presume guilt? Join us next week as we limn David Broder’s remarks on Vice President Gore.