The question mark

It's a symbol of doubts about this president that won't go away

Issue: "Postmodern politics," Sept. 12, 1998

It was lunchtime on Thursday, Aug. 20, and we were close to finishing up that week's issue of WORLD. It had been a big news week, what with President Clinton's testimony before the grand jury on Monday afternoon, his brief televised address to the nation that evening, and his family's departure for Martha's Vineyard the next morning. Each week's issue of WORLD tends to be assembled "back to front." The back-of-the-book pages are completed on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then the last-minute news pages (especially pages 9-13) are written, photos chosen, and final layout completed on Thursday morning. By 3 p.m., final review and proofreading must be completed so that the last electronic files can be dispatched over a high-speed data line to our printer in Cincinnati. The presses start rolling that evening so that your magazine can be mailed Friday morning. I tell you that detail so you can appreciate the context of the decisions we had to make that Thursday. Weekly publishing only rarely leads to the dramatic "Stop the presses!" of daily newspapering. But just as we were closing out that issue, details began arriving over the wire about the president's decision to stage a counter-attack against sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. Should we include an item about those developments? Yes, managing editor Nick Eicher decided, we should. We still had a couple of hours, and we could squeeze it in. Mindy Belz, who covers international stories for WORLD, gathered details and crafted seven paragraphs to summarize both the military action and the early questions of some legislators about the motivation for the action. Then the hard question: What should the headline say? I wondered a bit when half an hour later I saw the proof for that page. The staff had chosen bold words asking whether the president might be "Changing the subject?" with his action. The nuances of such a headline are strong; did the facts of the case-particularly within the constraints of a rapidly closing deadline-justify our implications? In this fast-paced age, other media can bring you the "facts" faster than we can. But what do those facts mean? What is their significance? So to decide on the spur of the moment whether a military action should be taken simply at face value, on the one hand, or if ulterior motives might be suggested, on the other, is a tough journalistic challenge. At 1:30 p.m. that Thursday afternoon, we discussed those issues. And we decided to go ahead and raise the questions-recognizing full well that events in the following hours and days might prove us wrong. Indeed, in one sense, that's what seemed to happen. In our story, we quoted prominent leaders who questioned Mr. Clinton's motives. Yet within 24 hours such people had tended to back off their initial skepticism. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a Republican, seemed to provide unassailable backing for his boss, the commander in chief, when he insisted that such high-visibility military action could never have occurred without total unanimity within the administration. No, he protested just a little too much, the motives had all been pure. All of which proves only one thing: That's the nature of being compromised. Being compromised is not about what you can ultimately explain away. It is about what you can't explain. Such is the terrible cost to America right now of the behavior of its top man. The president's situation increases the questions our enemies-within and without-will ask with increasing boldness about what they might be able to get away with. It raises the doubts of our allies. It heightens the skepticism of investors in markets and in business both here and around the world. It amplifies the doubts of loyal citizens. The president demeaned himself, for sure. But just as certainly, he demeaned us all. For his behavior forced us to put question marks not just after what he does, but also after so much of what we do ourselves.

  • Joe Tolbert, who had served on the Board of Directors of God's World Publications Inc. even longer than I have been here, died on Aug. 24 after having suffered a devastating stroke two weeks earlier. Joe, who lived near Asheville in Flat Rock, N.C., was a retired engineer who had spent most of his career with General Electric. In that role, he was genuinely inventive-with a number of patents to his credit. That same creativity was always evident in his volunteer roles, both as an elder in his church, a director of the local hospital, and his work with us in giving birth 12 years ago to WORLD magazine. Joe was quietly stimulating, uncomfortable with the status quo, and always ready to encourage a new perspective on the problem at hand. Approaching his 71st birthday when he died, he is survived by his wife Rosemary and three sons.
  • WORLD subscribers in the Pacific Northwest may be interested in joining the Board of Directors and some members of our staff at a special dinner to be held near Kalispell, Mont., on Friday, Oct. 9. Once a year, our directors gather for their work in an area deliberately distant from our home office, hoping in the process to meet a number of our readers. If you have an interest in the dinner and the evening's program to follow, write me at Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802, or call Trina Gould at our office at (828) 232-5413. Reservations will be required.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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