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Caveat lector

7 December 1998

A Daily Howler ongoing probe: Bob Novak--ever the showman

Synopsis: Bob Novak pretended to show what was wrong with Clinton’s 81 vexing answers.

81 Bad Answers
Robert Novak, The Washington Post, 12/7/98

We want to state it again: we’re inclined to believe that the president lied, in his Jones deposition and his grand jury gabfest, and we’re prepared to be shown that his 81 answers were also disingenuous or false. But here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, we evaluate the press corps, not the president; and when the press corps goes into Class A Pundit Rage, we actually expect them to make the case that they, in lockstep, are stating.

If they’re going to swear that Clinton’s answers were vile, we expect them to give us well-reasoned examples. And so we hoped Bob Novak’s piece would somehow improve on the CelebCorps’ pathetic prolegomena.

Novak starts with the same old slams against Vile’s slippery answers:

NOVAK: [L]awyer-like evasion...telling the truth might be preferable...Clinton’s word-parsing worst...Clinton’s arrogant dismissive tone...filled with evasions and claimed memory loss...

And yes, it’s the law now, the guild made him say it:

NOVAK: Even some Democrats were affronted by his inability to give a simple reply to the opening question asking him to affirm or deny that he is the nation’s “chief law-enforcement officer.”

Again, Clinton’s answer to this question was two sentences long--too complex for another befuddled pundit. And as we saw David Broder do in his earlier treatment, Novak cleans up the committee’s language; their attitude-drenched question asked Clinton to “admit” to this crime, not to “affirm” it.

But, having bowed to the Gods of Rage that demand retribution for the crime of this answer, Novak actually explores new ground, critiquing Vile’s Answer 20. This will be the only example that Novak gives to justify his Big Ton of Rage. All the characterizations we list above must sink or swim on this one parsing. We’ll go ahead and reprint the whole passage in which Bob tears the veil off the vile:

NOVAK: A more substantive evasion was the answer to Question 20, asking whether he gave “false and misleading” testimony under oath when he stated in his Jones deposition that he did not know if Lewinsky had been subpoenaed. In response, Clinton said his answer of “no” to a question of whether he had talked to aide Bruce Lindsey about what to do about the Lewinsky subpoena “reflected my understanding that Ms. Lewinsky had been subpoenaed.” So, therefore, Clinton said, his answer was not “false and misleading.”

This is Novak’s total discussion of Clinton’s Answer 20. We are supposed to see from what he writes how false and misleading it is. But Novak’s treatment of the answer is so fleeting and spare we have no way to make a judgment. There is no way at all that a reader can decide if Clinton’s answer is false or misleads.

Did Clinton state at some point in his Jones deposition that he didn’t know Mo had been subpoenaed? Novak doesn’t tell us. Is Clinton evading the committee’s real question? From Novak’s sketchy treatment, we have no way to say. The committee’s typically inept Question 20 doesn’t quote the testimony they call misleading, and Novak doesn’t improve on their vagueness. Reading Novak’s work, there is no way at all that a reader can judge whether Clinton’s answer is false or misleads.

Here again the press corps performs like the tribunes in a Soviet show trial. Novak pretends to make a demonstration of guilt, while doing no such thing. Yet, on this pretense of “proof” he is willing to hang a well-worn welter of impeachment complaints. Lynch mobs routinely pretend to show proof. So with Irate Novak here.

We don’t doubt that the president may have lied, but here at DAILY HOWLER World Quarters, we cling to an outmoded notion. We still believe that those who accuse have the obvious burden of proving their case. In our mind, the show-trial behavior of the mainstream press is every bit as disturbing as the allegations against Clinton. The only difference? The corps is too lazy to make a case against Vile. But they do, on face, condemn themselves, with their dishonest, disgraceful, slick posing.

Just asking: Again, the blustering committee fails to specify, in Question 20, what testimony they are critiquing. Just asking: any chance that a bit of “lawyerly parsing” would have helped us all out in this case?

Visit our incomparable archives: We have previously discussed press corps critique of these 81 answers in THE DAILY HOWLER of 11/30 and 12/3-12/7.