His Terrible, Swift Sword
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.
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.)