July 07, 2011

Clinton & the Media

An excerpt from 'Shadows of Hope: A Freethinker's Guide to Politics in the Time of Clinton" by Sam Smith. (Indiana University Press, 1994)

Sam Smith

The nature of politics has been affected by the decline of descriptive journalism in the wake of Watergate and by television's rise. Real reporters now prefer smoking guns -- stories that offer the potential of major victory or defeat, if not of resignation, impeachment or indictment. Stories that merely reveal character or style, or open a window on our political experience, are downplayed or relegated to gossip or "lifestyle" coverage, especially if there is any suggestion -- without formal proof -- that something is amiss. In short, a legalistic rather than a literary standard of coverage has evolved. Politics, once the great American novel, has been reduced to a case study.

Absent a smoking gun, editors often favor stories that explain import, perceive perceptions, and reveal meaning. Detailed chronicles of the daily joys, inanities and mishaps of politics have faded. News, for example, has literally started to disappear from the front pages of the Washington Post, replaced in no small part by the reflections of various writers about what the unreported news means to them or is supposed to mean to us. This approach, a futile and often boring attempt to justify the paper's existence in a world of television and USA Today, creates some oddities, such as the Post commissioning a presidential poll and then failing to reveal the results for nine full paragraphs, during which one has waded deep into a tedious trek through E.J. Dionne Jr.'s analysis of the facts we might learn if we only hang on long enough.

Further, a priggishness has infected a generation of self-consciously respectable journalists. This can be easily seen by comparing the exuberant reportage of HL Mencken or AJ Leibling with the stolid work of today's analysts. The former was intensely descriptive while the latter is written in an ritualistic and abstract style that sucks life from politics and which, by making it all seem so boring, may actually be a cause of electoral apathy. If democracy is no more exciting than David Broder would have us believe, why bother to vote? When, rarely, today's columnists do go after a politician with vigor, the target is almost always someone on the political edges like Jerry Brown or Pat Buchanan rather than an establishment figure such as Clinton and Bush.

Here, on the other hand, is an example from the 1920 presidential coverage of Mencken. It clearly violates just about canon of contemporary objective journalism yet, with the benefit of hindsight, hardly suggests that Mencken misled his readers about the choice before them:

No one but an idiot could argue seriously that either candidate is a first-rate man, or even a creditable specimen of second-rate man. Any State in the Union, at least above the Potomac, could produce a thousand men quite as good, and many States could produce a thousand a great deal better. Harding, intellectually, seems to be merely a benign blank -- a decent, harmless, laborious hollow-headed mediocrity. . . . Cox is quicker of wit, but a good deal less honest. He belongs to the cunning type; there is a touch of the shyster in him. His chicaneries in the matter of prohibition, both during the convention and since, show the kink in his mind. He is willing to do anything to cadge votes, and he includes in that anything the ready sacrifices of his good faith, of the national welfare, and of the hopes and confidence of those who honestly support him. Neither candidate reveals the slightest dignity of conviction. Neither cares a hoot for any discernible principle. Neither, in any intelligible sense, is a man of honor.

With the current more somber and "responsible" approach often comes a bowdlerized view of the candidates and the politics surrounding them. This doesn't mean that the coverage is better. The media, in its desire to avoid unsubstantiated political allegations, can easily find itself instead providing unsubstantiated exonerations. The most prominent example in the Clinton campaign involved Gennifer Flowers' claim to have had an affair with the governor. Flowers backed up her allegation with tape recorded conversations between the governor and herself. Most of the major media declined to run excerpts from the tapes, some using the argument that the tapes did not prove the existence of a sexual relationship. (Clinton himself gave substance to the recordings by apologizing to Mario Cuomo for pejorative remarks made on one about the New York governor).

While it was true that the tapes could be interpreted in a number of ways, they did suggest that Clinton and Flowers were covering up something and at the very least provided an enlightening view of the ethical calculus of the candidate.

Clinton was never pressed by reporters for the inner meaning of his comment that if "everyone hangs tough, they're just not gonna do anything. They can't. . . They can't run a story like that unless somebody says, 'Yeah, I did it.' " Certainly, when Richard Nixon had similar reflections on the Watergate tapes we thought it of more than passing interest. A year and a half later, Adam Nagourney of USA Today admitted to Vanity Fair, "Nobody pursued it. You could have taken those tapes and gone to town."

Back when the Gary Hart story broke, a public relations man suggested how he would have handled the scandal: put up billboards featuring photos of FDR, Eisenhower, JFK and Hart. Underneath would be the single phrase: HART: IN A GREAT TRADITION.

In a similar vein, some reasonably made the argument that if Hillary had bought her husband's explanation that was good enough for them. Still the Flowers story, and the way Clinton handled it, went directly to concerns about the man other than adultery. There were times during the campaign when Clinton's versions of his past reminded one of the Raymond Chandler character: "smart, smooth and no good." Tracking a Clinton explanation, whether of past actions or present policy, could be like trying to dance on a floor covered with marbles. As Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette put it: "Bill Clinton is a presidential debate."

Further, in the Flowers case the media seemed to be having it both ways. The Washington Times pointed out, for example, that Clinton's alleged affair got far kinder treatment from the media than had similar stories involving others. The Flowers story quickly disappeared from the mainstream press. In contrast, said the Times, the 1980 story about Dan Quayle -- then just a congressman -- sharing a Florida cottage with Paula Parkinson and several other members of Congress was the topic of 11 stories in the New York Times and 16 in the Washington Post all in one week. During the same period, the major networks ran 13 stories.

When John Tower was nominated to be Secretary of Defense, the networks ran 32 stories concerning Towers' alleged sexual improprieties. The Washington Post ran a story by Bob Woodward that accused Tower of having "appeared to be drunk" during two visits to a Texas Air Force base and having fondled two women. The only source for this story was one former Air Force sergeant. And during the nine days before the Senate voted to confirm Clarence Thomas, the networks ran 99 stories -- the New York Times ran 63 and the Post 61 -- about Anita Hill's allegations, though they were unbacked by anything so substantial as a tape recording. In the politics of sex, politics counts at least as much as the sex.

If the media merely reported the public actions of politicians there would be a strong argument for avoiding a story like Flowers'. But that's not what happens. The Washington press, for example, consistently projects a halcyon, virtuous, and lovable image of our presidents at play, which then inevitably colors our reaction of them at work. The now mandatory White House tour, in which a network anchor fawns over the presidential couple, their pets, furnishings and knickknacks, is only the beginning.

A double standard develops. If the recipe for Barbara Bush's or Hillary Clinton's chocolate chip cookies is important, then at least equally true the tale of Gennifer Flowers. If it's okay for the children of a politician to be up on the nationally televised stage, why not the politician's mistress as well? Besides, the umbrage taken at the Flowers allegations must be considered in light of Hillary Rodham Clinton's swipe at George Bush's own friend named Jennifer and the Clinton team's post-election snooping into Bush personnel files. As it turned out, someone had been expecting them. The Jennifer Fitzgerald file was empty.

It may be that the media, deep down, does not believe that the American people are wise enough to be trusted with the truth that their leaders are often not what they would seem. In any event, the result is an expurgated version of politics which creates the very sort of lie from which the media claims to be protecting us.

Even beyond Flowers, the press was little interested in stories that scraped the presidential patina from the Clinton campaign. The major exception was the draft controversy.

Here Clinton discovered the outer boundaries of media tolerance. That this line should have been drawn between marital and national fidelity may reflect the self-protective instincts of those on the road covering a presidential campaign for months on end. In any case, the media pursued the draft story with considerable diligence, missing only a few ancillary matters such as who paid for Clinton's stay in an upscale Moscow hotel at a time when the Oxford student was supposed to be broke.

In the end, Clinton survived the story, but would suffer from this account as much as any that grew out of the campaign, leaving many with sour reactions over his manipulation of the draft system as well as its suggestion of underlying arrogance not unlike that of British scholar Heathcote William Gerard, who explained his absence from World War I by saying, "I am the civilization they are fighting to defend."

In other matters, Clinton fared far better. His precipitous mid-spring interest in fairness as he went after black and labor votes, for example, attracted little media interest. The Nation quoted Bob Borosage, a Jackson aide in 1988: "You have to be a political junkie to remember that Clinton now is not how he positioned himself for the last four years. The irony is that Clinton is now using a major theme of fairness against Tsongas when fairness was the word the [Democratic Leadership Council] was going to banish from the Democratic lexicon. The DLC said it was for growth and told people they had to stop talking about fairness. It's hilarious."

Only a few sharp-eyed reporters caught Clinton filching ideas from other campaigns. Gwen Ifill of the New York Times was one, noting Clinton's use of Kerry's cry for "fundamental change," Harkin's demand for increased use of ethanol and his "real Democrat" line, and the anti-corporate rhetoric of Jerry Brown. Later, Christopher Georges, an editor of the Washington Monthly, would point out in a Times op-ed that many of Clinton's ideas -- including 39 of the 49 specific proposals in his economic plan -- were virtually identical to programs advocated by Michael Dukakis in 1988. Included among the Dukakis clones were Clinton's apprenticeship program, worker retraining initiative and planned assault on tax cheaters.

Although the national press blanketed Arkansas early in the campaign, the effort proved only marginally informative. Thus the public heard about Clinton's success in attracting new business to the state but little about the wage differential that was far more appealing to industries than the governor's charm or skill. It heard about his economic development efforts, but little about how Clinton's development agency had favored friends of the governor. There was virtually nothing in the mainstream press about Mena, Arkansas, a Contra training and drug running center nor of Clinton's curious reluctance to investigate what was going on there. Only a handful of reporters took an interest in Worthen Bank although its $2 million line of credit kept Clinton alive in the early stages of the campaign.

Only fleeting attention was given the fact that Bill Clinton's wife had represented a client and co-investor before a regulatory agency of her husband's government. Or that federal and state agents, while wiretapping Clinton's half-brother Roger, heard him describe the governor's mansion as a favorite trysting place. Or that at the beginning of the campaign Clinton's personal security chief was being sued in a Contra-connected case in which a federal judge ruled that "an unlawful conspiracy may exist." This story required no digging; the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had reported it in January 1992. Yet the tale barely made it out of Arkansas, Alexander Cockburn's coverage in the Nation being a rare exception.

Similarly, the media quickly and uncritically accepted the opinion of the Clintons' attorney friend that there was nothing amiss with the candidate's investment in the Whitewater Development Corporation, a judgment that would be badly shaken by the end of Clinton's first year in office.

Some stories providing a useful view of the political and social culture in which Clinton operated would appear in one media outlet but be ignored by others. For example, Money magazine reported that Clinton annually received about $1.4 million in admissions tickets to the state-regulated Oaklawn racetrack to hand out to campaign contributors and others. Money couldn't find another major racing state that allowed such gifts and quoted an authority on government ethics as saying "It creates appearances of impropriety." Said the expert, "I'm stunned frankly at the amount. It's a staggering amount." The Clinton campaign's reaction to the story was that the passes, which have gone to the state's governors since the 1950s, are a "great nuisance," adding that "I guess the potential is there for a conflict of interest, but we never let it be a conflict."

Nor were such practices a fluke. According to Brooks Jackson of CNN, the commission that regulates Arkansas's only greyhound track -- the nation's largest -- held its regulatory meetings several times a year at the track's exclusive Kennel Club, with the Southland Greyhound Park paying for the commissioners' food and booze.

Once the media has bestowed gravitas upon a candidate it is reluctant to let contrary facts get in the way. Thus the media portrayal of Clinton quickly lost its Arkansas flavor. It was Clinton the Rhodes Scholar, Clinton the man of policies, who came to the fore and Bubba Bill began to fade.

As simple political narrative this was a disservice. If there was one thing that made Clinton stand out among his political contemporaries it was the complexity of his character, friendships and past. Without such full -- even if contradictory -- details, the portrait of Clinton was destined to be more myth and propaganda than reality.

As such it was left to the conservative Washington Times to tell the story of how a convicted Arkansas drug dealer got pardoned in the middle of the Washington inauguration, complete with allegations that Clinton had reneged not only on payments to the dealer's father (who had worked on Clinton's last state campaign) but on his promise to help market the father's recipe for sweet potato pie.

The alleged deal provoked considerable discussion in Arkansas, but the national media was otherwise engaged, installing with proper sobriety the next president of the United States. To any aficionado of southern politics, the story roots Clinton in a long and engaging if not entirely honorable tradition. One southerner, to whom I told the story, remarked, "I didn't believe you until you said the part about the sweet potato pie."

But this tradition is at odds with what national statesmen are supposed to be about and so was let pass by a media which, reported the Washington Journalism Review, was busy using the phrase "defining moment" 700 times over an 18-month period.