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His Terrible, Swift Sword | The Nation

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His Terrible, Swift Sword

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But beyond the rhetoric, what's been even more astonishing is the moralistic position the editorials have staked out: Clinton is not only a humiliating failure as a leader, and even as a human being; he has destroyed Americans' faith not only in him, which nearly goes without saying (except that...it doesn't, since the paper says it almost daily now), but in the institutions of their government; he must not be allowed to wiggle out of the range of the rule of law's mighty sword; and yes, that prosecutor fellow may have gone overboard here or there--Starr has a "tin ear," has displayed "clumsiness" (both February 25), has "seemed...a klutz" (July 29)--but his sins are as nothing compared with those of the Philanderer in Chief.

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Michael Tomasky
Michael Tomasky is the author, most recently, of Hillary's Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign (...

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Should we put government in the hands of a party determined to subvert it, or a party—however flawed—that believes it still has a role to play in securing the common good?

Quick, pinch me--am I still living in the same country? Reading and
watching the same media? This "Bob Woodward" fellow who co-wrote a tough
piece in the May 18 Washington Post demonstrating that the
now-famous August 6 presidential daily briefing, contrary to
Administration officials' claims about its contents, actually carried
the heading "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."--is this the same
Bob Woodward who co-wrote the Post's infamous "Ten Days in
September" series earlier this year, the ur-document of George W. Bush's
Churchillization? And this "Michael Isikoff," sharing a byline on the
eye-opening May 27 Newsweek cover story that shreds the
Administration's "we did everything we could" line of defense--is this
the Isikoff who four years ago defined national security in terms of
dress stains and cigar probes? One begins to suspect that unbeknownst to
all of us, the terrorists have indeed struck--the Washington, DC, water
supply.

An overstatement, to be sure. But it does seem to be the case that
wherever this potentially incendiary story leads, from fog of
unprovables to hot smoking gun, one change has already taken place
because of it that is well worth marking. For the first time since
September 11--or, arguably, since ever--the press corps appears ready to
expend more effort poking holes in the vaunted Bush Administration spin
operation than admiringly limning it. More to the point, Is a new
skepticism stirring around such heretofore Teflonized officials as
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? Before her May 16
damage-control press conference, Rice was probably the Administration's
leading untouchable. After it ("I don't think anybody could have
predicted these people would...use an airplane as a missile," a
statement left bleeding on the floor after a pile of evidence came
forward showing plenty of people were predicting precisely that), her
status has taken a major hit. So, as Professor Harold Hill might put it,
certain wooorrrrdds are creeping into the media vocabulary--words
like "serious credibility gap," in the Newsweek piece.

It's been a long time coming. If anything "un-American" happened after
September 11, it was the triumph of the notion--propounded by the
Bushies, reinforced by the major media and far too readily accepted by
cowardly Democrats--that "patriotism" somehow equals "support the Bush
Administration." CBS's Dan Rather said it recently in an interview with
the BBC: "Patriotism became so strong in the United States after 11
September that it prevented US journalists from asking the toughest of
the tough questions about the war against terrorism," adding, "I do not
except myself from this criticism." The genuflection sometimes reached
levels that we might call comic, except that there's nothing comic about
a "free" press choosing to ape state-owned media, throwing rose petals
at the feet of officials from the most unilateral and secretive
Administration in modern American history ("sixty-nine years old, and
you're America's stud," Meet the Press's Tim Russert once said to
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).

One is not quite ready to say, on the evidence of several days' worth of
stories, that this sorry era is over just yet. The New York Times
and the Washington Post both ran editorials on May 17 that were
something short of being full-throated calls for investigation; from the
right-wing papers, the predictable yelping about how it's really
Clinton's fault.

All this will probably continue, but at least now it appears that it
will be offset by some post-post-9/11 aggression. It will be interesting
to watch what leads the media now follow and how far they follow them.
For example, some reports--originating with the BBC but picked up in a
few minor US outlets--indicate that US intelligence agents were told to
back off the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals soon after Bush
became President. Reporters might also look into the way the
Administration declined to continue a process of tightening overseas and
offshore banking regulations begun by the Clinton Administration in an
effort to track down narcotics traffickers and terrorists. The Bush
people acted partly at the behest of Texas Senator Phil Gramm, which
means partly at the behest of Enron--and which may have ended up helping
terrorists.

"Connecting the dots" has become the operative cliché about
whether intelligence officials should have been able to put together the
various pre-9/11 clues they received. Now, maybe the media will start
connecting some dots of their own.

And that's just what the paper said. What it hasn't said is, if anything, more revealing. It has not, during this entire episode, written an editorial, for example, wondering whether sheet-sniffing expeditions of the sort that launched this story are the proper work of journalism in the first place (one sentence--one sentence!--on September 14 acknowledged "some public distress" at the graphic nature of the Starr referral). It has never bothered to stop and ask whether the nation even needed to know about any of this to begin with--indeed, the tone and line of argument of the editorials that touch on sex all accept as a given the fact that politicians must pass muster on the boudoir factor. A cross word for Lucianne Goldberg--who, as an old Nixon spy, one might imagine would not be a friend of the great liberal page--or Linda Tripp? No, and no. An analysis of what happened at the Ritz Carlton last January 16, when Monica was dissuaded from calling a lawyer, who had not yet filed Lewinsky's false affidavit--the implications of which are that if she had called him, she might never have submitted a false document to the court, and therefore never been a subject of threats about twenty-seven years in prison and all the rest? Or a consideration of whether Tripp communicated with Starr's office through intermediaries, including one man in Starr's own law firm, before the date they've both claimed as the first contact, which might mean that Starr began to pursue the Monica line of inquiry days before he got Janet Reno's permission? You guessed it.

These last two questions stand as useful examples of something important that's gone terribly haywire here. Say what we will about the old Times and its editorial policy--late to the dance in opposing Vietnam; devoted to all the usual imperatives of national security and the cold war; tremulous, even, about Watergate until the picture became clear enough that opposing the President was no longer so great a risk (different days, those). But one area in which the page has usually held fast to principle is due process. The paper, to my memory, has almost always had a good word for Supreme Court decisions that protected it; criticized efforts, like one the Republicans undertook during their Contract With America honeymoon to weaken the Fourth Amendment, to limit it; and taken civil liberties matters very seriously, in perhaps a somewhat beard-scratchingly earnest way, but hey, at least it cared about the Bill of Rights.

Now? Poof! The editorial page has resolutely refused to see the Lewinsky scandal in due process terms. Reasonable people can react to Clinton's deeds with varying degrees of repulsion, and obviously he is not exactly a blameless victim here. But he is the subject of a most unusual investigation, of the sort that many prosecutors will tell you (as two in New York have told me since this thing started) is flawed if not unethical if not illegal. "Those who argue," the Times wrote on September 24, "that Mr. Starr should never have inquired into Mr. Clinton's truthfulness about his sex life fail to consider his legal mandate. As an officer of the court, operating under Justice Department aegis and the supervision of three Federal judges, he would have been derelict if he had walked away from evidence of potential perjury." Ten-dollar dress for dime-store logic: Prosecutors always have discretion, and Starr could have used his to mull over the ramifications of his choice and decide that lying about sex in a civil-suit context was not grounds for impeachment. A different prosecutor would have thought long and hard about whether this constituted a "high crime"; would have played out scenarios and been able to foresee, for example, that pretending it was a high crime might lead to a Senate trial in which the representatives of the people of the United States spent weeks taking evidence on exactly who touched whom, and where and when and how.

Probably did, dirty man. And this is the sort of reasoning in support of which the Times has been harrumphing from its back-bench for nearly a year. Every decent liberal (in the classical sense) impulse that has tried for centuries to keep the state off people's backs--defenestrated. More incredible than any of its Clinton-Starr editorials, in fact, was the word the page handed down after Mike Espy's acquittal. You know the story: The former Agriculture Secretary accepted $35,000 in various gifts, independent counsel Donald Smaltz spent $17 million pinning his offenses down and a jury took all of two days to laugh the charges out of the courtroom. Smaltz infamously said, upon the jury's return, that he didn't mind the verdict so much because "the actual indictment of a public official may in fact be as great a deterrent as a conviction of that official." Let's see, Emmett Till's family received justice because two of the lynch mob were indicted for his murder, right? And get off that golf course, Juice--you were indicted, after all. Smaltz knows what a sophisticated and wise newspaper ought to understand as well--that mere indictment, with today's media and legal bills, can mean life in hell, can mean that the public will look at headlines and the perp-walk photograph and conclude that so-and-so's just another crook.

Smaltz might as well have come out and said, "Guilty until proven innocent." Yet when the Times editorialized on the Espy acquittal the day after Smaltz spoke those words, it didn't even mention them. One sentence noted that "the trial's outcome does call into question how well Mr. Smaltz conducted the investigation." But the editorial went on to point out that he did win "multiple convictions"; then, amazingly, it bellyached that "this case will probably be used by critics of the Independent Counsel Act to justify changes to the act to limit the time and cost of such investigations" (that's one thing they got right--this critic will, at least). But in the main, the editorial was critical of Espy. The acquittal, the opening sentence grudgingly concedes, was "not unexpected," but Espy "brought these troubles on himself when he apparently adopted the attitude that he could ignore the Federal gratuities law."

"Brought these troubles on himself" is a phrase that deserves a paragraph's worth of scrutiny, from a civil libertarian point of view. Surely Clinton, too, brought his troubles on himself; the Times has said as much. We needn't make our point here by being so melodramatic as to say that maybe Rodney King brought his troubles on himself by leading cops on a car chase, or that women who show a little leg and then get raped brought their troubles, etc. No, let's not overdo it; let's say simply that as a principle of both decent common sense and the law, a bad or even illegal action has never, ever justified either illegal reaction or excessive means on the part of the state to bring the miscreant down. One might have thought this notion, too, occupied its little corner of the liberal heart.

None of the above have been of much concern to Raines's editorial page. And so we ask: What has, and why? Here, we heed Howell's terrible, swift sword. Glory hallelujah.

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