A man-bites-dog story

National | Even liberal newspapers and journalists are taking on the Clinton scandal story. No kidding!

Issue: "Clinton: Capitol crimes?," Sept. 26, 1998

in Washington - For many conservatives and Christians in Washington, the world seems to have turned upside down in the wake of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report to Congress containing evidence of possibly impeachable offenses by President Clinton. On the one hand, newspapers across the country-including USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Philadelphia Inquirer-have called on Mr. Clinton to resign. On the other hand, numerous polls show that around 60 percent of Americans don't think he should resign or be impeached. In other words, the voting public, which gave Mr. Clinton mere electoral pluralities in both 1992 and 1996, seems apathetic, but Washington reporters-89 percent of whom voted for Mr. Clinton in 1992, according to a poll by the Freedom Forum-are for the first time doing a full-court press against the president. Press scorn for Mr. Clinton was evident even during his Aug. 17 not-quite-contrite speech as about two dozen elite journalists huddled around a television set-in the White House briefing room, oddly enough-to watch the admission of a "not appropriate" relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. One reporter cracked, "Clinton's likely to look over at the camera lady and say, 'Nice legs, honey.'" Another joked, "He's saying, 'I'm bad, I'm bad-but I'm still sexy.'" A third cynically observed, "He's building up the water in his eyes." Then when Mr. Clinton told the nation that the entire matter was between his family and "our God," some in the room laughed out loud at the religious reference. The scene, as described by The New Republic, did not bode well for the president. In the days following, a torrent of press criticism of Mr. Clinton swept the nation. "President Clinton has failed that simple test [of trustworthiness] abjectly, not merely with undignified private behavior in a revered place, but with his cavalier response to public concern," editorialized The New York Times. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Clinton's "seven months late" speech had "no credibility." David Broder, the dean of the capital's liberal media establishment, even suggested resignation in his Washington Post column: "In every important way he diminished the stature and reduced the authority of the presidency. He may hold on, but when he said of the investigation of his activities, 'This has gone on too long,' his words could equally well have applied to his own tenure." The Washington Post and other liberal publications had been "locked in a race to be second" to report on past Clinton scandals, as conservative press-watchers Larry J. Sabato and S. Robert Lichter wryly noted in their 1994 book, When Should the Watchdogs Bark? (A reporter at one of the news weeklies actually told them: "I don't really want to be the first to do one of these stories.") Liberal journalist Mickey Kaus wrote in 1994 that the press corps was protecting and nurturing a liberal policy agenda: "Clinton is the best president we've had in a long time. That is the unspoken reason the sex charges haven't received as much play as you might expect." According to Mr. Kaus, "Reporters are patriots, too; it's their dirty little secret.... Few journalists want to see the president crippled now that he is making some progress in cracking large, intractable domestic problems." So how did the press go from out-to-lunch to outraged, seemingly overnight? One theory-call it the Romans 2:15 thesis-is that the press is just disgusted by Mr. Clinton's behavior. However much they have contributed to defining presidential deviancy down over the past six years, the law of God is still written on the hearts of reporters. Confronted with defiance in the face of obvious wrongdoing, and with a steady stream of sickening details of the affair dominating office talk around Washington, they've simply had enough, this theory holds. The sheer tawdriness of Mr. Clinton's behavior does seem to bother some liberals in the press. Joe Klein of The New Yorker writes that "for all the forewarning, for all the private assumptions, the reality of the Lewinsky affair was astonishing in its selfishness, crudeness, and banality. It happened in the White House. With an intern. It involved acts-the president has now as much as admitted-more exploitative than romantic." But aren't liberals supposed to be live-and-let-live, free-love types? Maybe so, but not all liberals are created equal, according to William Powers, who covers the press for the National Journal. He argues that the Washington press corps includes a "tribe" reminiscent of the old New Deal coalition-a coalition that included Roman Catholics who favored big government but had no sympathy for moral relativism. Mr. Powers, himself a politically liberal Roman Catholic, notes that with "the notable exception of abortion, the [Roman] Catholic Church is politically quite liberal, to the left of Clinton on such issues as welfare reform and health care." Many of Mr. Clinton's harshest critics within the elite liberal press are Roman Catholics, according to Mr. Powers: Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Michael Kelly and Mary McGrory of The Washington Post, Chris Matthews of CNBC and the San Francisco Examiner, Cokie Roberts of ABC and NPR, Tim Russert of NBC, and Mark Shields of The Washington Post, CNN, and PBS. In spite of their affinity for the Clinton agenda, such reporters may have a visceral distaste for his personal behavior. According to Mr. Powers, these Roman Catholics "are constantly having to examine their own behavior, balancing their desire for earthly pleasures and success against the church's moral values, and when they see someone blithely pursuing what he wants, and rarely holding himself accountable for his failings, it drives them nuts." Such old-fashioned, principled liberals are certainly a minority within the Washington press corps, but their criticism has been slowly gaining currency among their more modern, relativistic colleagues. Credit that to the cumulative weight of Mr. Clinton's repeated moral failings, says former White House correspondent Brit Hume. "There's a lot of history here," he told WORLD. "There's been a sense over time that there was always more to other scandal stories than we found out. Then when this hit, it transcended what went on behind closed doors. This carried the possibility of witnesses and evidence, and combined the running stories of Clinton with women and Clinton with the truth." When Mr. Clinton issued his stern denial, followed by a promise of more information, followed by silence, "reporters covering this story knew what was going on." His silence strongly suggested guilt. That guilt threatens to tarnish the image of liberalism, something held dear by liberal journalists of both the old and new schools. Mr. Powers quotes Michael Kelley of The Washington Post as saying, "With Clinton, people like me looked at him and said, 'He's given away all that high ground that all those generations of people have fought for-given it away for nothing except selfish reasons, so he could win another election.' I think that is a corruption of something that he didn't have a right to corrupt." The "corruption" of the presidency is especially clear to long-time White House correspondents, says media critic Brent Bozell: "People like Sam Donaldson have been in the thick of the grandeur and great power of past presidencies; now they're confronted with the actions and lies of this guy." That sense of tawdriness may explain what Dana Milbank of The New Republic calls "the personal anger among some reporters that mystifies White House aides." It isn't the lies themselves that bother liberal journalists so much, says Daniel Amundson, research director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "They're lied to all the time," he points out. Rather, the problem is the way Mr. Clinton reacted to getting caught: "It's one thing for politicians to lie, but once they catch a politician in a lie, they expect him to come forward and admit it. Instead, Clinton threw down a gauntlet." Mr. Amundson also argues that the Lewinsky affair "is not in the same ballpark as the president and Gennifer Flowers; this has many more unsettling elements," such as the difference in age between Miss Lewinsky and Mr. Clinton. The old liberal bias still rears its head, of course. Readers and viewers of the news regularly have seen the bizarre spectacle of polls tracking the approval rating of independent counsel Kenneth Starr-something never gauged for Lawrence Walsh, Archibald Cox, or other investigators of Republican presidents. NBC's Tom Brokaw recently referred to the prosecutor's "judicial zealotry" and mourned the end of "the simple satisfaction of looking to Washington and saying, 'there's someone I can believe and believe in.'" The most outrageous statement came from Keith Olbermann of MSNBC: "It finally dawned on me that the person Ken Starr has reminded me of facially all this time was Heinrich Himmler, including the glasses. If he now pursues the president of the United States, who, however flawed his apology was, came out and invoked God, family, his daughter, a political conspiracy, and everything but the kitchen sink, would not there be some sort of comparison to a persecutor as opposed to a prosecutor for Mr. Starr?" (Mr. Olbermann later was forced to apologize himself for the comparison to one of Hitler's top lieutenants.) Mr. Starr, of course, was not able to make his case to the public as long as his report was being prepared, so the pillorying in the press went unanswered. Criticism of Mr. Clinton receives quick response from all the president's men, but so far that criticism is continuing. As much as reporters may agree with the president's policies, and as much as they may have been captivated by his charm in the past, many neither trust nor like him anymore.

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Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is editor of WORLD Magazine.


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