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15 December 1998

Our current howler: The case of the puzzled pundits

Synopsis: Three leading pundits were thoroughly puzzled when Vile Clinton wouldn’t say he had lied.

Commentary by Cokie Roberts
This Week, ABC, 12/13/98

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 12/14/98

Commentary by David Broder
Inside Politics, CNN, 12/14/98

Criminal charges expected when president leaves office
Jerry Seper, The Washington Times, 12/14/98

Those pundits! We couldn’t help chuckling here at HOWLER World Quarters as we watched one exchange on Sunday’s This Week. Richard Ben-Veniste had made this comment, about the suggestion that Clinton should admit perjury:

BEN-VENISTE: We’ve heard under oath witness after witness with great experience saying that no reasonable federal prosecutor would bring a perjury case, a dog of a case like this...

Moments later, Cokie Roberts popped up with a question:

ROBERTS: ...And if these prosecutors say nobody would bring a perjury case, then why doesn’t he say, “Fine. I did it. Nobody’s going to bring the case.”

The analysts smiled at Roberts’ response to Ben-Veniste’s remark. Ben-Veniste’s hadn’t said no one would bring a case; he had said no “reasonable federal prosecutor” would do so. And anyone who has followed this case at all would know what Roberts seemed not to have heard--that Ken Starr is the man the White House fears might decide to pursue an indictment.

We didn’t think much about Roberts’ question, until the following morning. And then, we encountered a TV tabloid talker, embroidering Cokie’s query:

MATTHEWS: A bunch of these snotty lawyers come in the room and they say, “Mr. President, if you do that [admit perjury] you’ll incriminate yourself and it will cost you all kinds of problems in court.” Two years from now. How about the next two years of his presidency? Isn’t that much more important, the next two years of his presidency, than the one in a millionth chance that some prosecutor would actually bring this case to court two years from now? I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I don’t think Al Gore’s attorney general is gonna bring this case. I don’t think George W. Bush’s attorney general will bring this case. Name a president who will come into office in the year 2001 and begin his presidency by prosecuting a former president. It isn’t gonna happen. I don’t know why the president’s lawyers don’t say, “You’re paying me 400 an hour. Let me tell you the truth. You’re not gonna get prosecuted. Tell the truth.”

Brian Lamb did his best:

LAMB: Although the Washington Times, on the first page today, with Jerry Seper writing the story, says: “Criminal charges expected when president leaves office.” [Headline of Seper story]

A talker wasn’t buyin’:

MATTHEWS: That’s the Washington Times! Let me see. What’s it based on?

LAMB: “Lawyers say.”

MATTHEWS: Yeah, lawyers! I don’t believe it in a million years. They’re not gonna prosecute this guy.

Somehow, Chris, like Cokie, seemed not to have heard it was Starr whom the White House feared.

And by early evening, by golly, even the dean, David Broder, had clambered up on the “Who-Knew” Train:

BRODER (to Clinton lawyer Greg Craig): As you will recall, last week you sent up five former United States prosecutors, including former governor Bill Weld of Massachusetts, who said unanimously that if they were looking at the record as prosecutors, they would never bring a perjury indictment against the president. Why is this threat then so real in your mind?

We’ll admit that Broder was just asking a question, but why in the world ask Craig that? Anyone who had followed this case in the slightest way would know who the White House was fearing. Yet here were three major press corps celebrity poobahs, all seeming not to know that Ken Starr was the threat. And Matthews, of course, had loudly asserted that no one would indict Target Clinton!

We can’t really say why Roberts and Broder wasted their time with such obvious questions, but a talker’s motives were all too clear in his silly and pandering rant. The pressure is on in this celebrity lynch mob for Vile Clinton, the quarry, to say that he lied; and a talker was pretending there was no good reason why Bill shouldn’t simply relent. We’ve seen how the pundits have claimed all along that Vile Clinton lies for no earthly reason. The talker’s spin gave the latest example: of how a celebrity lynch mob will feign total ignorance, as they run through town thrilled by the chase.

By the way, how obvious was it, who Clinton feared? How silly and phony was the talker’s feigned ignorance? Here are the first two paragraphs of the story Lamb cited, as the talker swore he couldn’t imagine a soul who would ever indict Silly Bill:

SEPER [two paragraphs]: President Clinton still faces criminal charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering when he leaves office, whatever the outcome of the impeachment effort in Congress.

Lawyers and others close to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation said prosecutors have not ruled out the possibility of new criminal indictments in the 4-year-old inquiry...

If you can read two paragraphs, on page one, you know who it is who might indict Clinton. So why in the world are prize plums of the press corps pretending that they just haven’t heard?

Visit our incomparable archives: In August, confronting feigned ignorance from pundits, we explained why Clinton can’t say that he lied. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/98, for our reply to Feigned Ignorance Past.