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10 December 1999

Our current howler: Passage of plenty

Synopsis: Gene Lyons read a passage from Gail Sheehy’s book. For us, it recalled other problems.

Hillary bio could use a fact-checker
Gene Lyons, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 12/8/99

Commentary by Gail Sheehy
CNN, 9/12/98

Hillary’s Choice
Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair, 2/99

The Book on George W.
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 12/10/99

Maybe it was the perfect way to end the week—a week in which Cokie Roberts bungled the Bush tax plan; Brian Williams drowned in margin of error; and the Washington Times deftly changed its Gore quote, chagrined that it had the quote right. CelebCorps had been at its dysfunctional worst all week long. And now Gene Lyons was discussing the analysts' favorite, Hillary Clinton's new biographer, Gail Sheehy:

LYONS: Comes now pop-psych guru Gail Sheehy with "Hillary's Choice," yet another book about the Clinton marriage. Your humble obedient servant is thanked on the "acknowledgements" page and even given a promotion. (Sheehy calls me a "senior columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette," whatever that means. Also a "well-known Arkansas novelist" despite my never having published a single line of fiction.)

Them's fightin' words here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, where our analysts simply love author Sheehy. They admire her for her breeding and taste; they'll gaze at her interviews by the hour. So they were really peeved with Uncle Gene over a few of the things he said in his column. "Picture Glenn Close in the first hour of 'Fatal Attraction,' but without the humility," the ex-novelist quipped. Words like that about their lissome amorata just don't play with the gang around here.

But we forced them to read the entire Lyons piece, and the color ran out of their faces. Lyons had been challenged: How many factual errors could he find in just one part of Sheehy's book—a three-paragraph passage where she lays out facts about the Whitewater matter. Lyons ticked off eleven basic errors, all explained in his column. Again, this check-list of howlers was compiled from three paragraphs of Sheehy's much-ballyhooed book.

The analysts were chastened, but we weren't surprised, because of past work we've reviewed from the author. As readers may recall, we caught Sheehy on CNN in September 1998, at the height of pre-impeachment excitement (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/15/98). At that time, Sheehy expounded for poor Gene Randall, explaining why Clinton had taken up with Lewinsky. The factual problems that day were striking. Here's Sheehy, helping poor Gene along:

SHEEHY (1998): I do think also there's the question of age. I think that's a big factor here. Remember, Bill Clinton turned fifty the summer Monica Lewinsky flipped her thong at him. And for a man who's recently turned fifty, who went through a crippling experience with his knee, whose eyes are going, whose hearing isn't so good, to have a beautiful young woman lift her jacket and show her thong underwear...

We think that you remember. Except Lewinsky didn't flip her thong during a summer; she did it in November 1995. And what age had Clinton turned that August? He had just turned 49! And when did Clinton hurt his knee? Sixteen months later, at Greg Norman's house. Everyone else in the world knew about it. It was sitting right there in the Starr Report, released some weeks before:

THE STARR REPORT: According to Ms. Lewinsky, she had what proved to be her final sexual encounter with the President on Saturday, March 29, 1997...He came in on crutches, the result of a knee injury in Florida two weeks earlier.

And please note—that was the final sexual encounter. Clinton broke off the sexual conduct two weeks after he banged up his knee.

Sheehy's explanation for Clinton's conduct would have been silly even with the facts right. Unfortunately, Sheehy hadn't gotten that close; she was still working her way up to "silly" (we adapt from the Tonight show's Brett Leake). But we thought Sheehy's ignorance of basic facts reached a new peak a few months later. Sheehy penned a lengthy piece in the 2/99 Vanity Fair—a preview of her current book—and in the course of that article, Sheehy seemed to say that Clinton's affair began after his 1996 re-election.

The passage began with the author complaining about our sadly impoverished public discourse:

SHEEHY (1999): In all the armchair analyses of "How could he?" I have never heard mentioned the three major personal marker events in Clinton's life that took place during the two years he carried on his romance with Monica. The two most adoring women in his life both "abandoned" him in ways he could not prevent.

Note: Sheehy refers to three "marker events" that took place during the affair. What were these marker events? She first lists the death of Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley. But Mrs. Kelley died in January 1994, almost two years before the affair. Sheehy next lists Chelsea Clinton's departure for Stanford, which occurred two years after the affair got started. The third event? Back to that ol' banged-up knee, although Sheehy has apparently managed to read Ken Starr's report by this time:

SHEEHY (1999): While the affair continued, the third marker event occurred. Clinton stumbled down a flight of stairs at golf pro Greg Norman's house, and, overnight, he was hobbled like an old man...Bill's final liaison with Monica was on March 29, a little over two weeks after his fall. Monica had to service her crippled lover while he was still using crutches.

But Sheehy had promised to list three events answering the question "How could he?" This third event, an accident, occurred sixteen months after he began the affair.

How can work this bad get into print? Who could have read this at Vanity Fair? And who could possibly have read this next passage, which plainly seems to suggest that the affair began after the 1996 election? Sorry, we must quote at some length from, yes, three consecutive paragraphs:

SHEEHY (1999): With Chelsea's departure, the Clintons would lose their most elemental personal bond, their one emotional oasis. Hillary, too, felt the void...In October '97, shortly after Chelsea started at Stanford, Hillary told a Miami banquet audience, "I'm looking for ways to divert myself from the empty nest. And I'll take just about any invitation to dinner that I can get."

On the day the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky began, the second day of the shutdown of the government by the Republicans over the budget, a snow-day atmosphere prevailed around the White House. That's when the sexy intern found her chance to snare the attention of the president of the United States. And that's not easy to do...

A prisoner of the White House, Clinton is deprived of the kind of spontaneous human contact that is his oxygen—the up-close, informal contact with people he had learned to love [from his grandmother]. Clinton's life had been Work Work Work for how many years? And what had it cost him? He had tried to subdue his lusty instinct since his re-election in '96, but by now, didn't he deserve something to help him take the pressure off? A former staffer of Clinton, who saw him in workaholic mode by day and for long periods during crises or campaigning, surmises, "When he turns to sexual predation, he's rewarding himself: I've been a good boy, worked my ass off—I deserve a little hootchie here."

By any normal reading, this implies that the affair began after the 1996 election. It seems to suggest that the affair began in the fall/winter of 1997-98. (Sheehy says the affair began during the shutdown, but never puts a date on that.) In fact, careful reading suggests that Sheehy may have known when the affair really did begin; she describes it at one point as a two-year affair, and a whole page later she says that the "final liaison" occurred in March 1997. But if Sheehy did know when the affair began, this was writing so bad as to defy comprehension. And the fact remains—only one of Sheehy's three "marker events" actually happened during the affair. That one, an accident, came right at the end. This is Sheehy's idea of explanation.

Calchas, who read the flight of birds, could have explained things better than this. Sheehy's work, as presented, is simply the work of a crackpot. It is astounding—and insulting—that work this bad could ever have gone into print. But then, go on-line for Lyons' column; review what Cokie Robert said; reread Brian Williams on margin of error; marvel as the Times trades in good quote for bad. In describing the work of the celebrity press corps, we are more frequently using the term "dysfunction." Why? Because whatever is happening with this crew defies any simpler description.


Look who's talking: Riding front and center on the latest bandwagon, Gail Collins gets on George Bush today because he just don't reed enuf books. Look who's talking! Maybe Lyons can send Collins Fools for Scandal. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/27/99.