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This Could All Be B.S.!

NYT gets spun; HRC tells a truth.


Posted Tuesday, July 13, 1999

        Many New York Times readers noticed the odd disclaimer tucked in the middle of a recent front-page story in which unnamed aides to President Clinton described him as "'livid'" over Vice President Gore's criticism of his behavior in the Flytrap scandal. "The motives for Mr. Clinton's aides and advisers to talk about the President's feelings toward Mr. Gore are not entirely clear," warned reporters John Broder and Don Van Natta, Jr. "They may be trying to help the Vice President establish distance from the President by portraying Mr. Clinton as angry. They may be trying to demonstrate their closeness to the President. Or they may simply be honestly reporting how Mr. Clinton and his inner circle have reacted to Mr. Gore's recent statements."

        At first glance, this disclaimer seems refreshingly honest and self-conscious; Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz praised the Times for it. At second glance, I'm not so sure. Isn't it the job of journalists to figure out whether what people are telling them is true or not-- to check out any seemingly shaky, or spinny, story by seeking corroboration, asking other sources, etc.? That's what it means to be a reporter, no? Anyone can take down the leak of the day from a staffer, stick in a boilerplate disclaimer paragraph that says, in effect, "This whole story could easily be complete b.s.," and slap it on the front page.

        The Times may be wary because it has been spun so badly in the past by the Clintons' White House. There was Broder's famous declaration in April, 1998 that, with the dismissal of Paula Jones' lawsuit, it was "politically inconceivable that Congress will consider impeachment." But my favorite was the analysis, by the otherwise estimable James Bennet, of what it meant that so many key White House aides were bailing out of their jobs a year ago this month. To the untutored, this mass exodus might have seemed a sign of trouble. But Bennet had a more sophisticated, ironic take. The aides, you see, couldn't bail while Clinton was in trouble, since then they'd look like they were bailing out because he was in trouble. So the fact that they were indeed bailing out was actually a good omen for Clinton. "It is a measure of how much turbulence has shaken the White House this year, " Bennet wrote,"that the departure of some of the President's most trusted lieutenants would seem a sign of growing stability." Within weeks, of course -- as Clinton changed his Monica story, issued his unapologetic apology, and sluiced toward impeachment --- it became clear that the crude, untutored view had been the correct one. Perhaps Bennet could have saved himself with another innovative disclaimer: "This reporter, trying to demonstrate his sophistication, may have either been spun, or spun himself, into ludicrousness."

        HRC at the Pat Farm: Hillaryphiles on the left, and Hillaryphobes on the right, have something in common: neither group believes the First Lady could possibly have endorsed her husband's signing of the radical 1996 GOP-designed welfare reform bill. On the Hillaryphobe side, The Wall Street Journals's Paul Gigot wrote skeptically about Mrs. Clinton "reinventing" herself as a "born again moderate" in her appearance at New York Senator Pat Moynihan's farm. Among other things, Hillary said that though she had some "strong concerns" about early Republican versions of the welfare bill, "eventually the bill was in a state that I felt should be signed." Gigot laughs at this --"T]he first lady now says she was for it all along" -- and describes Hillary, in what may become the standard GOP caricature, as a lefty rewriting her history to get elected.

        Gigot and the Republicans should rethink this line of attack, because the evidence is that Hillary really did favor her husband's signing of the welfare bill. I don't know this for sure, of course. But the people I've talked with in and out of the White House who know the most (and who are not, I think, "trying to demonstrate their closeness to the President") all say Hillary favored signing the bill and seemed comfortable with that decision. I also know that she met with at least one respected, moderately conservative supporter of the legislation, Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute, shortly before the decision was irrevocably made. Presumably Hillary wanted to reassure herself that the legislation was acceptable.

        This doesn't mean Hillary's decision wasn't influenced by the potentially disastrous political consequences of a Clinton welfare veto. Nothing concentrates the mind, etc. etc. But it does mean she wasn't rewriting her history last week. She made the same decision her husband made. ...

        If Republicans are going to paint Hillary as a dole-lover, they'd better generate some new welfare controversies. How's this one: if a single mother getting welfare checks flat-out refuses to show up for a workfare job, should she be allowed to nevertheless stay on the dole with only a slight reduction in benefits? Hillary's likely GOP opponent, N.Y. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, says "no." Hillary (probably) says "yes." What a bleeding heart! . . . But wait a minute -- New York's Republican Governor George Pataki says "yes" too. Oh well. ... Gigot's other examples of Hillary's soon-to-be-concealed left-wing history are especially pathetic: He charges she once "toasted Anita Hill and praised the French welfare state." Well, move over Jane Fonda! ...

        In general, on the question of whether Hillary is at bottom a) an inflexible left-lib ideologue or b) a power-seeker who will coldbloodedly sell out the left when necessary, I lean to b). Connie Bruck persuasively argued for that view in a long New Yorker profile of Hillary in 1994 -- a piece that provided a virtual roadmap to Hillary's subsequent sellout of the left in the welfare debate. . . . The continuing mystery, of course, is why Hillary's leftish supporters don't see this, and instead keep on following her blindly to the slaughter. No less than Gigot, they think Hillary must have chewed out her husband over the welfare decision. ("Did you kick his [deleted] for that?" the Village Voice's Wayne Barrett speculates hopefully.) They're spinning themselves.

        Warning: My motives for writing all of the above are unclear. ...

Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

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