His Terrible, Swift Sword

His Terrible, Swift Sword

You’re familiar, of course, with the Wall Street Journal.


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.)

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.

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.

Two themes have served as the Times‘s torchlight through these days of darkness: Clinton’s moral turpitude, and the sanctity of the rule of law. “After all, in times devoid of heroes, the law is what this Republic is meant to cling to” (February 1). (Huh? So in times rife with heroes…oh, never mind).

Let’s start with the rule of law, of which short shrift can be made. I’m all for the rule of law; who isn’t? But these arguments that the rule of law, no matter what, no matter where, must be vigorously and unvaryingly applied (on this point the Times sounds just like Henry Hyde) are specious. Know any criminal trial lawyers? Ask them how often judges and prosecutors decide to throw the book at someone who’s committed perjury in a civil case. Yes, yes; it’s happened, from time to time. The majority staff of the House Judiciary Committee even dredged up one woman who was prosecuted criminally for lying civilly about sex. Impressive legwork, but all it proves is that one citizen got a raw deal, not that another should. (By the by, if Lewinsky’s lawyer William Ginsburg had had the brains to stand up and say, “Go ahead, indict her, make our day,” we might have been spared all of this, because there’s not a jury in America that would have convicted her.) Does Raines really want citizens who lie about affairs under oath to be subject to criminal prosecution? I would not argue that, post-Starr, such prosecutions will start happening left, right and center, but I have no doubt that enterprising DAs here and there will use the tool against county commissioners and town managers who run afoul of the local power elite. Actually, since district attorneys have to run for re-election, maybe they won’t swing those kinds of threats around quite the way Starr does, but this, too, proves a point–the rule of law turns out to be a fungible concept indeed, and it’s not at all a bad thing that local prosecutors have to weigh public reaction before they bring such charges.

But Clinton, you say, is the President of the United States; there’s only one of those, and of him we must demand more. This, finally, is the principle that seems to animate Raines the most. The Times‘s editorials constitute one ceaseless jeremiad about the lack of leadership, heroism, moral behavior and respect for the office of the presidency and governmental institutions. The public opinion polls, to Raines, prove only that people have decided “to muddle through with a leader they do not believe rather than go through the trauma of resignation or removal,” which “may be a wise choice, but…is an ineffably saddening one,” since “Americans place such a high value on admiration of the President” (February 1). Clinton’s fitness to be President “has nothing to do with whether [he] ought to be indicted and everything to do with whether he can be admired” (March 8). A “narrow legal strategy will not help him restore Americans’ faith in his character” (May 1). Clinton’s “leadership stature has declined steadily for definable reasons” (June 16). And so forth.

First, the disingenuous aspect of this argument. From these judgments, Times editorials would often go on to note that Clinton’s characterological crisis had suffocated public confidence in him. On August 19, for example, two days after the President’s grand jury testimony and his mea-no-culpa, the paper explained that the President’s “cavalier response to public concern” explained the “tidal feeling of betrayal and embarrassment running across the country today.” Demonstrably, this was not true. Even at that base moment, every poll showed people wishing the matter to be dropped. Later, when the un-cross-examined testimony was aired on national–international, really–television, there was no hint from the editorial page that this might set a worrisome legal precedent; indeed, it said “the event has served a healthy civic purpose.” If any tidal wave was building in mid-August, it was the one that achieved its full force on Election Day, the one that told Starr and Newt Gingrich and Raines and Sam and Cokie and Sally Quinn to go stuff it.

Raines is entitled to his hope that the American people still revere their government as they did forty years ago, naïve though it may be. But no informed person with a critical intellect should be able to get away with pretending that the Gulf of Tonkin deceit and the Pentagon Papers case and Watergate and Iran/contra and posthumous JFK revelations haven’t already rendered that kind of reverence obsolete. (People’s sophistication about both politics and sex is at the center of why Raines and so many pundits can’t understand why we aren’t up in arms about Clinton’s behavior: A politician had extramarital sex? Then lied about it? We’re shocked, shocked.) One supposes it’s the job of papers like the Times and the Washington Post, where Meg Greenfield’s editorial page has been no less judgmental, to prop these institutions up and invest them with a downy, snow-white integrity. People know better.

Raines grew up in pre-sixties Alabama, where politics and morality were more clearly intertwined. Rosa Parks was a hero, Bull Connor was a villain; for a young man such as Raines, admirably striving to shake off the racial demons of his time and place, it was pretty clear-cut. People were judged, and properly so, according to the side of that lot on which they parked themselves. But that war’s been fought, and everyone can’t be Martin Luther King Jr., least of all Bill Clinton. (Although, now that I mention it, suppose Raines had been editing the Times‘s editorial page in 1967, and J. Edgar Hoover had invited him to read certain transcripts and view certain photographs, obtained perhaps unethically but providing undeniable evidence of moral weakness on the reverend doctor’s part? A troubling hypothetical, is it not? Perhaps too much can be made of rectitude after all.) Raines’s background is not unlike Clinton’s, speaking demographically and chronologically; it may be that his anger has something to do with their similarities and Raines’s belief in some other-than-scrutable Southern idea of honor that Clinton has offended.

That’s speculation. Examining what’s on the printed page is not. Lately, Raines has cooled a bit; In the days leading up to the House’s scheduled vote, the page counseled against impeachment. But it has already spent months constructing every impeachment-justifying argument the Republicans now use, thereby creating conditions that make its late recommendation difficult if not impossible to follow. And even while urging restraint on the part of Congress, the paper could not refrain from a swipe or two: Clinton has become “a prince of disorder” and his actions “cry out for condemnation” (December 16).

Raines would do well, once this is over, to give thought to the legacy he’s left–extinguishing many of the Times‘s nobler traditions while using the country’s most important newspaper as his personal soapbox. Next year’s review of the independent counsel law will be a useful starting place (for the record, I do not say abolish it; I say place time and money and evidentiary constraints on it), but like the hieroglyphs on Pharaoh’s obelisks, the arguments can’t be rewritten. History will come along to hand out verdicts on everyone in the chattering class, from Raines on down to the most slatternly Fox News Channel diatribist. Raines should hope history is less moralistic than he.

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