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Jewish World Review / Nov. 18, 1998 /22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759


Mugger Who could have imagined!?

HERE’S SOMETHING TO PONDER: What if, one year ago, the following question were put to a national referendum: Should a sitting president of the United States, who has been accused of perjury, charged with obstruction of justice, who has settled a sexual harassment suit for $850,000, been known to have orchestrated a surveillance operation against political enemies, been suspected of arranging hush money for potential witnesses and squandered eight months of his administration huddling with lawyers rather than attending to affairs of state be subject to an exhaustive impeachment inquiry in Congress?

The answer, of course, would be a resounding "yes," for in this country it’s a sacred tenet of our democracy that no man, even the president, is above the law.

But these are strange times. Bill Clinton, the luckiest politician of this century, and one of the most crooked, has successfully bamboozled not only the public, but much of the legal establishment, media and historians as well. Clinton, who lied to the country in his Paula Jones deposition back in January when asked about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and then on Aug. 17 finally admitted, sort of, his misdeeds, has convinced most of his constituents that he’s the victim of a zealous independent counsel, a prude who’s on a sexual witch hunt. Clinton and his flunkies have successfully portrayed Kenneth Starr as the mastermind of a jihad against the presidency, a modern-day Joseph McCarthy who’s intent on engineering a bloodless coup d’etat. As a result, Clinton, emboldened by the midterm elections and the spineless Republican leadership, is now poised to avoid all culpability for crimes that would put an ordinary citizen behind bars.

The demonization of Starr is baffling. In a political culture that is driven by daily polls, thanks largely to Clinton and his guru-in-exile Dick Morris, Starr, a prosecutor, is thought of as a politician, even though he was never elected to office and was appointed by the current administration. The media is outrageously complicit in the denigration of this good man: Because journalists feel guilty about pursuing Oralgate so vigorously this year, they’ve now turned on Starr and portrayed him as a prurient villain, a "pornographer" who’s wasted $45 million on a fruitless quest through Clinton’s myriad scandals. Because Starr has a low public approval rating, they feel justified in saying the GOP-controlled Congress has gone overboard in its halfhearted impeachment inquiry of the President; after all, "it’s just about sex."

And the Republicans, who were shaken by the election results, and are no less hypocritical than their Democratic opponents, have now gone squishy on the subject of impeachment.

New York senator-elect Chuck Schumer, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said on the floor of Congress last month that "[I]t is clear that the President lied when he testified before the grand jury [and] the President has to be held to a higher standard and must be held accountable." One wonders, after Clinton and his wife stumped so hard for Schumer’s successful campaign against Al D’Amato, if the Democrat will repeat that sentiment when hearings begin again this Thursday.

Many of the nation’s most respected publications and journalists have reduced Starr to an evil caricature in a bizarre effort, whether overt or accidental, to burnish Clinton’s legacy. Let’s ignore, for the time being, the true worms in this repellent spectacle; people like Salon’s Joe Conason, The New York Times’ Frank Rich, Time’s Margaret Carlson and Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. In the past several months, it’s been The New Yorker that’s sacrificed its "Talk of the Town" section, as well as much of its political reporting, to Clinton apologists who are better suited to fringe online and leftist alternative weeklies.

Jeffrey Toobin, in a Nov. 16 "Comment" valentine to the President that reads like a Bennington creative writing exercise, takes top honors this week for obeisance to the White House. He begins: "Mistah Impeachment, he dead. Last Tuesday’s election inflicted a gun shot... Now the only suspense is whether the matter will get as far as the House floor before a deal is struck to end it. Henry Hyde, the Judiciary Committee chairman, hastily redrew his schedule after the returns came in. Even so, the Washington creature called 'the impeachment process' will stagger on, zombie-like, awhile longer. That is crazy, because the result is preordained. But, in our sclerotic, lawyer-plagued investigative culture, Washington is crawling with these process zombies. Kenneth Starr’s grand jurors, arms outstretched, lurching toward the millennium... Mr. Hyde’s panel of Mr. Hydes, quaffing pornographic potions. Run!"

Again, it’s pornography, not perjury, that fuels the partisan journalist. Never mind that if a conservative had been accused of Clinton’s crimes, perhaps William Rehnquist or Clarence Thomas -- not to mention all the CEOs and middle-level managers who’ve already been fired for similar indiscretions -- Toobin would be leading the charge for a continuation of the impeachment process, saying, "Justice must be served."

The balance of Toobin’s "Let’s Move On" piece is both silly and condescending. He writes: "Impeachment used to be a once-in-a-century exception to politics as usual. Yet until the voters intervened impeachment was being treated as if it were the budget or the highway bill --- just another item on the legislative calendar." Now, according to Toobin’s odd logic, if a 19th-century president aside from Andrew Johnson -- say William McKinley, charged with bribery -- had been impeached, it would be perfectly fine for a second 20th-century impeachment inquiry. There are no quotas for such serious tests of the Constitution, as Toobin at one time presumably knew.

He concludes: "[T]he impeachment of Clinton was always far more popular among political and journalistic insiders than among the people... Madison’s idea was that the constitutional machinery would enable the elites to restrain the passions of the mob. This time, though, it was the elites that needed restraining. And it was the mob that restrained them." How absurd. The "mob," with their pockets full in a surprising continuation of a flush economy -- it’s bound to falter, but then this bear’s been saying that since ’97 -- didn’t give a hoot about impeachment, Ken Starr or Bill Clinton for that matter. It’s typical of the current "writerly" climate at The New Yorker that an essayist would be daft enough to think that his fellow citizens, the low number of those who voted, actually think about the Constitution. If the economy were in the toilet, Clinton would’ve been sent back home to Little Rock, Hollywood or the pokey a long time ago.

But still the venom against Starr persists. It’s really quite unfathomable when you consider the facts. Yes, he’s been at times overzealous in prosecuting his case; what human being wouldn’t be when faced with extraordinary efforts by the White House to throw a roadblock in front of his every move; to delay testimony from key administration officials and employ a "war room" of spinners to win the battle of public relations? It wasn’t out of line for Ronald Rotunda, a Starr lawyer, to tell the New York Post last Sunday: "If Richard Nixon had such loyal devotees, I guess he would have probably served all eight years. They always see conspiracies. These people must think ‘The X-Files’ is a documentary because they have these dramatic conspiracies that I don’t even understand." Rotunda continued with a well-deserved screed against Clinton "dirt devil" Sidney Blumenthal.

But in reality, Starr, who’s now lost his dream of a Supreme Court appointment, is simply a plodding prosecutor, not a politician, who’s trying to complete a difficult job. The notion that he revels in pornography is crazy; it wasn’t Starr who was playing games with cigars while foreign leaders were waiting to meet with the President.

This week’s edition of New York is especially laughable, adorned with the headline "Impeach the Media."

Editor Caroline Miller, who’s dumbed down the magazine so dramatically that it now resembles a local version of People, must be proud of herself that a publication, which a generation ago was thrilling and vital, is more like its lame provincial imitators across the country. To be fair, all the blame can’t be pinned on Miller; Ed Kosner, soon to be Sunday editor of the Daily News, and a longtime caretaker of New York, is every bit as complicit.

It gives me no satisfaction to note that Michael Tomasky, a talented political writer, and one of the few literate writers at New York, had a heavy hand in this week’s ridiculous issue. Tomasky’s lead sentence: "Who’s been injured in this car crash of a political year?" Mike, get a grip. It was an election, not a "car crash." His piece is called "Off With Their Talking Heads," and has a rash of polling numbers that purportedly prove that the great unwashed are fed up with the media. So what else is new? The same story could’ve been written 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

I refuse to believe that Tomasky undertook this assignment on his own volition: It’s just too dumb. He writes: "Do you trust us? Do you respect us? Do you...love us?" What’s that Sally Field horsesh--t about?

It’s said that the public is sick of hearing about Monica and Starr, and Clinton’s never-ending search for [that certain type of satisfaction]. Maybe so. But have the circulation numbers of the major newspapers fallen precipitously? Have tv viewers declared a moratorium on the nightly news or CNN?

Of course not. You can take all the polls you want—and it’s disheartening that the media is now emulating Clinton’s slap-happy reliance on such data—but if a new bimbo emerges or Hillary is caught in a tryst with a Secret Service guard, I don’t think Americans will say, "Enough is enough." They’ll lap it up, just like the media will.

As always in matters relating to Washington, it’s useful to apply the universal metaphor of life imitating high school: Clinton’s the BMOC, allowed to mess around on the side—while his steady gal looks aside—and tell a few fibs, as long he schmoozes the right cliques; Starr, the science nerd with thick Buddy Holly glasses, who always volunteers for extra credit and studies in the library after classes instead of playing football, is left to suffer the adolescent cruelties of the in-crowd.

Journalists like Richard Cohen, who currently is allowed to waste op-ed space for The Washington Post, want to be popular too. So after a little tut-tutting, calling Clinton a "skunk" on one occasion, Cohen climbs aboard the winning float, hoping to bask in the Prez’s adulation.

Cohen wrote with exaggerated fury, two days after the election, that even though Starr wasn’t on the ballot, he was the big loser. He said: "But it was he—his image, his actions, his ideology and the very bad company he keeps—who propelled me to the polls at an early hour and would have, had I lived in a different place in an earlier era, prompted me to vote several more times. Take that and that and that." Nyah-nyah, four-eyes! And who, exactly, is the "very bad company" that the independent counsel keeps? His wife of 28 years? His children?

"Your average painting contractor," if he was discovered to be culpable of all that Clinton has, would be in jail right now, with the Democratic administration’s approval. Let’s remember that Clinton is the equal rights president, the man who’s in favor of hate crimes legislation, prosecution for sexual harassment and every other Barbara Boxer-liberal idea that’s seeped into the fabric of our country.

Michael Kelly, editor of National Journal, who writes a weekly column for The Washington Post, is one journalist who has stuck to his convictions throughout the 10 months of Oralgate. Unlike the Times’ Maureen Dowd, who apparently has let her personal life trump her professional duties, Kelly remains resolute in his belief that Clinton is an admitted liar who must be removed from office. (Dowd continued her newly formed vendetta against Starr last Sunday: "After Ken Starr wrote up [Monica Lewinsky’s] story so voluminously and with bodice-ripping fervor...")

In a Nov. 11 column, Kelly lampooned the remarks of the brain-addled John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who protested that Clinton’s violations of the Constitution don’t meet the bar of impeachment because they were private in nature. Starr, says Conyers, had no right to invade Clinton’s personal life, even though he’s the president of the United States and was conducting an affair in the Oval Office.

Kelly writes: "The president, chief enforcer of the law, aggressively and repeatedly broke the law. He was sued, and he was ordered, by a judge, to answer questions posed by the plaintiff, in the interest of the plaintiff’s constitutional right to justice. He lied under oath, both in the lawsuit and before a federal grand jury, and he encouraged others to obstruct justice, conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of the plaintiff... And to let such a president skate is to establish the precedent most feared and despised by the Framers: One law for the rulers, another for the ruled."

Even The Washington Post’s David Broder, who defines the term "centrist" political pundit, is appalled at the current rush by the media and historians to sweep Clinton’s crimes under the rug. On Nov. 1, he took a well-deserved shot at Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the aging Kennedy sycophant who accused Starr of being "America’s No. 1 pornographer." Broder, in an uncharacteristic display of moxie, said that Schlesinger, although dignified, "wound up sounding at times like James Carville in cap and gown." Broder continued: "What the historians seemed notably reluctant to recognize was that the charges the Judiciary Committee will consider are not the sexual misconduct which Clinton has acknowledged but the accusations, which he vehemently denies, that he committed perjury in his deposition before a federal judge and his federal grand jury testimony, suborned perjury by others and obstructed justice."

Not all the students at Clinton High are willing to go along with the Prom King and Queen. In a blistering, and courageous, op-ed piece in the Washington Times last Nov. 10, Daniel J. Rabil, a major in the Marine Corps Reserve, risked the wrath of his superiors to speak out about his compromised commander-in-chief, an essay that’s all the more poignant this week when Clinton is playing footsie with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Rabil questions the President’s authority, saying: "[W]hat about the orders given by a known criminal? Should we trust in the integrity of directives given by a president who violates the same basic oath we take? Should we be asked to follow a morally defective leader with a demonstrated disregard for his troops? The answer is no, for implicit in the voluntary oath that all servicemen take is the promise that they will receive honorable civilian leadership. Bill Clinton has violated that covenant. It is therefore Congress’ duty to remove him from office... For a while, it was almost possible to laugh off Mr. Clinton’s hedonistic ‘college protester’ values. But now that we have clear evidence that he perjured himself and corrupted others to cover up his lies, Bill Clinton is no longer funny. He is dangerous. William J. Clinton, perhaps the most selfish man ever to disgrace our presidency, will not resign. I therefore risk my commission, as our generals will not, to urge this of Congress: Remove this stain from our White House. Banish him from further office. For God’s sake, do your duty."

Finally, in the December Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens, taking the role of the brilliant juvenile delinquent who skips classes and slugs from a pint of Smirnoff under the bleachers at the pep rally and always gets the girl in the end, deftly skewers Clinton and his legion of fawning defenders. Hitchens points out that it’s not the sex that bothers him -- he wouldn’t care a whit even if it were a male intern Clinton was diddling -- but the President’s constant lying and ruining the lives of innocent people. He’s distraught that writers he "admires" like Gore Vidal, Joan Didion and William Styron have been flummoxed by Clinton and adopted the prevailing wisdom that his predicament is "just about sex."

He says that they "knit their brows needlessly at this point and speak darkly about American Puritanism, sexual McCarthyism and the right to privacy. You even hear that only a cad tells the truth about 'affairs.'

It’s as if Clinton had kept some pouting little mistress in the Virginia suburbs and pleasured her zealously on weekends with the adult complaisance of his worldly wife. A moment’s reflection is enough to make this comparison as remote as Pluto from the real facts of the case. Obviously, if such had been the president’s practice, he would be in no legal trouble now...

"Plainly put, a man who has often been accused of humping the help, or hitting on the help, was asked "under ordinary penalties of perjury, and also under a law he had initiated—if he was getting any action while on the White House payroll. He lied with the same clever-stupid facile ease that had extracted him from tight corners before. And thus, his problems have become ours... So it seems to me both idle and fatuous to go on moaning, as most of my journalistic colleagues in Washington love to moan, about the grimy details and the way that they are forced to dilute their own" no doubt very elevated—standards by covering them from dawn till dusk. (I know, I know, they’d rather be reassigned to write about the budget agreement and NAFTA.)"

Hitchens, simply put, sees through the layers of Clinton deceit and pays no attention to the manners of journalistic etiquette in Washington. I’ve never met the man, and he does appear rather disagreeable and pompous, but he has a sharper mind than 99 percent of the fools he’s required to call colleagues. Watch Hitchens one morning on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. He appears in a disheveled state, probably working on five hours sleep and in desperate need of a cigarette, butt-ugly tie askew and bleary-eyed. You’d think he’d be no match for the well-coifed and rested opponent he’s been set up with to discuss the news of the day. But as the Jonathan Alters and James Carneys of the world respectfully scan the newspapers and offer safe opinions, the "conventional wisdom" of the working press corps, winking at the host like certified Beltway insiders, Hitchens takes it all in and then eviscerates his fellow guest with clear, precise facts, delivered in astonishingly devastating prose. When Clinton ordered airstrikes against Sudan and Afghanistan just days after his disastrous Aug. 17 "apology" speech, it was Hitchens, almost alone among journalists, who rose up to denounce the President’s actions as a nefarious means of distraction.

He concludes his Vanity Fair essay with typical clarity: "So I think that the Lewinsky matter, with its Dick Morris and Vernon Jordan crossovers, is a minor metaphor for the political and financial corruption of Clintonism. I wish it had come out as a footnote to the larger campaign-finance inquiry, which still will hit Clinton like a truck if he manages to retain office. Meanwhile, this president has depraved the language, fooled around with the law, wasted great tranches of everybody’s time, betrayed all his friends and colleagues, and given fine old terms like ‘philandering’ a dirty name. That’s at least five strikes. So should he be out? Hell, no. He should stick around, until all his admirers have had the same amount of ‘face time’ with him as his old and disillusioned supporters already have. That could be a real political education."

JWR contributor "Mugger" is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


11/11/98: Send Dowd Down to the Minors
11/05/98: Feeding Gore to a shark named Bush
10/30/98: "Pope" Jann and his rappers speak ---it's time for fun again
10/28/98: Lowered expectations, but the GOP holds the cards
10/23/98: Speaking from Zabar’s: Michael Moore!
10/21/98: Bubba redux? His uptick won't last
10/16/98: Gore for President: The Bread Lines Are Starting to Form

©1998, Russ Smith