His Terrible, Swift Sword | The Nation


His Terrible, Swift Sword

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You're familiar, of course, with the Wall Street Journal. A friend of sweatshop labor, evangelical zealotry and as few options for poor people as can be got away with, the Journal does not like Bill Clinton. In fact, the Wall Street Journal has spent six years writing about Bill Clinton as if he were a cross between Eugene Debs and Charles Manson.

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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

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

"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 you're familiar, needless to say, with the New York Times. The Times is a liberal newspaper, enemy of all the above and friend to, if not, these days, all manifestations of, the downtrodden, at least the uninsured, the family-planning reliant and seekers of liberty everywhere. It endorsed Bill Clinton twice and has supported, for good and ill, the lion's share of the incumbent's initiatives.

So if I asked you which newspaper's editorial column produced a sentence like "Until it was measured by Kenneth Starr, no citizen--indeed, perhaps no member of his own family--could have grasped the completeness of President Clinton's mendacity or the magnitude of his recklessness" (September 12), you'd lean toward the Journal. No, it's not that poor modifier, dangling out there in un-Times-ian fashion; I mean, this is pretty tough stuff for an establishment sheet--"mendacity" and "President" right there in the same sentence, a juxtaposition that probably never appeared in that newspaper during Ronald Reagan's entire tenure. The clincher, then; it had to be the Journal. Friends, meet Howell Raines.

We can say with confidence that Clinton has more severe critics than the Times's editorial-page editor; unlike some hard-shelled members of the God Caucus, Raines has never tried to suggest, for example, that Vince Foster was murdered (although the adored William Safire, who, it should be noted, has now spent the better part of three years being wrong about virtually everything, has devoted his Times acreage to playing with that notion in a column or two). And as readers of this magazine know, Clinton cannot automatically count on allies on the left in the matter of the Brentwood Pasionaria. Fair enough; there are good reasons people on the left should refuse to hold the man in high esteem. But for a straight-up-the-middle, mainstream liberal newspaperman, Raines has been savage: fulminating full throttle from January straight through to September; in the weeks since, opposed to impeachment but still in high finger-wag, arguing for a censure resolution that would give the lie under oath the life and recognition it deserves, the chance "to be written into the history of his Administration" (December 11) so that future generations would always remember how Clinton dishonored the office and house the American people so (c'mon, you can guess the mandatory verb that belongs here) revere.

How savage? Some numbers: Through Sunday, December 13, the day after the House Judiciary Committee voted the fourth and final article of impeachment, Raines--presumably he did not write every one of the editorials, but he wrote most of them and runs the page--has devoted some fifty-five editorials to the Lewinsky matter. Only two have been devoted in the main to questioning Starr's investigative techniques--admittedly, several others have reproved him in a sentence or two or three, while mostly blasting away at Clinton, which is what the other fifty-three have done. Some headlines: "Betrayal and Embarrassment" (August 19); "Shame at the White House" (September 12); "Immobilizing Lies" (December 9). Raines, who may be the paper's next executive editor, has done all this without any apparent interference from the Sulzberger family. On virtually every point of law on which the Administration and the independent counsel quarreled--the White House's attempts to claim executive privilege, for example, or to argue that Secret Service agents not be compelled to testify--the Times has urged the courts to accept the briefs of the independent counsel, the lone exception being Starr's subpoena of White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, which the paper opposed, really, for Fourth Estate reasons (that is to say, it didn't cotton to the prospect of a government official being made to reveal conversations with reporters, some of whom were surely with the Times itself). But apart from the Blumenthal matter, at every crucial turn and pivot, the Times's editorial page has marched in lockstep with the prosecutor and his cheering section.

Why is this worth remarking on? First, because, as pages go, it's a pretty important one. One cannot quite say that as the Times editorial page goes, so goes the nation. The Times's ability to influence events directly pretty much stops at the Hudson shore--on local development projects, from a boondoggly West Side highway proposal in the eighties to the paper's own Times Square, a good word from the Times can be dispositive. On national matters, the page serves as more of an ideological baedeker, instructing the country's elite as to what constitutes responsible liberal opinion. That may not amount to direct influence, but it has been of tremendous use to the right in this matter; I've lost count of the number of conservatives I've heard drop the phrase "but even the New York Times says" into a pro-impeachment tirade.

It's not so much the unadulterated spleen that jumps off the page. Of course there is plenty of that, like this example, on the occasion of Starr's referral: "A President who had hoped to be remembered for the grandeur of his social legislation will instead be remembered for the tawdriness of his tastes and conduct and for the disrespect with which he treated a dwelling that is a revered"--see?--"symbol of Presidential dignity" (September 12). Or this, after Clinton ordered airstrikes on Sudan and Afghanistan (and, oops, Pakistan): Seeing Clinton's "private life has been as jarring to adult eyes as getting a glimpse of the mess in an adolescent's room" (August 23). (Incidentally, any common citizen could see that the airstrikes were called with obvious political intent, and if Clinton has done anything in the past four or five months worth decrying, it's those; the Times spoke approvingly of them, and in leaping to Clinton's defense it logically undercut the gravamen of its own argument that Bill's louche ways had produced a President incapable of rallying a national consensus at moments of crisis--but that's another story. At press time, a new crisis in Iraq was unfolding.)

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