New York Feminists Stand By Their Bill, Not By Broaddrick
Needless to say, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a hit.
Even before midday on Wednesday, March 3, when the incredible beatifying First Lady was due to dazzle the sisters who lunch at the Women’s Leadership Forum, a component of the Democratic National Committee, she had earned her adulation. After all, the media were salivating. The money was flowing: Seating at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan had been sold out for weeks, to the tune of 900 women contributing more than half a million dollars in increments of $150 to $10,000. And best of all, Juanita Broaddrick was a definite no-show. Only days had passed since the Arkansas matron had darkly gifted Dateline NBC with her ragged memory, or conjuring, of then-Attorney General Bill Clinton visiting her, violating her and then advising her to ice her injuries, but already, it seemed, the Democratic coast was clear of her.
“Other reporters are only asking about the Senate,” said Laura Ross, New York chair of the Women’s Leadership Forum, when asked whether the Broaddrick episode, and the extreme circumspection with which the President, or rather his lawyer David Kendall, had met it, had served at all to dampen the luncheon, or any of the draft-Hillary buzz that pervaded its approach. “The buzz is whether she’s running,” said Ms. Ross. Queried as to how a fair-minded feminist, with natural inclinations toward both the innocence of the accused and the credibility of the accuser, should react to this disquieting development, State Democratic Party chairman Judith Hope said: “I don’t think we should react at all. It’s just too old and too stale and too questionable, and can never be proven or disproven.”
Too true. But while the nation can never clarify the story, the story has already done its part to clarify the nation. According to a Fox News poll taken on Feb. 26, 54 percent of the American people believe the President to be guilty of Ms. Broaddrick’s explosive charge–the same 54 percent, perhaps, who desired to let the matter lie. Thus, even allowing for significant shortcomings in such numbers, it was clear that a very considerable proportion of the American people believe that the Chief Executive who signed the Violence Against Women Act committed a serious act of violence against a woman, but do not believe that anything much can, or should, be done about it. Somehow the image of a man famously married to, elected by, and solicitous of, powerful women had slowly transformed from that of a playboy to that of a predator, to nothing like fatal effect.
“There is a surreal quality to it,” mused Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation , about life on the left–or any place, really, except deep in the heart of the right–as the country registered a veritably Novocain quality of numb in the freshly unmasked face of Jane Doe No. 5. “We have a President who is accused of being a rapist, and yet people go about their business.”
And that, of course, includes feminist people, many of whom seem to be going about their business as if a Presidential rape charge were the flick of an ash. Who among New York feminists might be moved to speak out about this? Good question. Writers? Gloria Steinem, whose much-remarked Op-Ed last March in The New York Times , lauded, among other things, Mr. Clinton’s way of taking No for an answer, had not a nanosecond to comment on the Broaddrick matter, not even through her assistant. Author Naomi Wolf declined to comment due to the connection of her husband David Shipley to the Clinton Administration.
Members of Congress? “If Ms. Broaddrick’s story is true, I wish that she had come forward 21 years ago,” Representative Louise Slaughter of Rochester, one of those who literally stormed the Senate on behalf of Anita Hill in 1991, stated via a three-sentence press release. “But since she did not … we can now do little more than wonder.” Likewise, “The charges are very serious,” Representative Nita Lowey of Westchester said through a spokesman. “But the White House has denied them. It is likely that we will never know the truth.” As for Representative Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan, “It’s hard to know what should happen now,” she said, “since the accusation is based on something that allegedly happened so long ago.” (Hey, anybody instinctively, deep down, believe the President? Just kidding.)
Leading female fund-raisers? “I really don’t have a comment for you,” said Friend of Bill Susan Patricoff, a host of the March 3 luncheon. “I wouldn’t presume to speak on that. No comment.” Ditto for Patricia Duff.
Of course, feminists are entitled to have, respectively, busy schedules, conflicts of interest, misgivings as to old and problematic charges taking wing at the tail end of a scandal-scarred year, and instincts against enraging the White House. But all that said, it seems only fair to ask: Isn’t it weird that such a depth of caution should mingle with such a dearth of curiosity, among such a number of women about a charge of such gravity?
And weirder still that the only Democrats in Congress who have called, even faintly, for Mr. Clinton to answer the charges more fully seem to be men? (Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, on Fox News to Tony Snow: “How could anybody discount this And I think the President should speak to it.”)
“As in this entire scandal, we have witnessed the total breakdown of the feminist establishment,” said Katie Roiphe, the 30-year-old author who is making quite a career out of kicking the stuffing out of the feminist establishment, such as it is. “The same people who were hysterical about Bob Packwood and hysterical about Anita Hill have completely changed their mind about this.” This, of course, is the theme that many an anti-, non- and neo-feminist has been gleefully sounding since Monica Lewinsky was a gleam in MSNBC’s eye: that, in its self-enslavement to the woman-scamming President and his (white-collar) woman-championing Administration, institutionalized feminism is doing nothing so much as finishing off its long, wheezing transition from political movement to partisan mouthpiece.
In part, that is a valid point, but one that is by now so obvious and so worn with repetition as to waste the words of those who make it. Yes, yes, feminists who once pilloried their Republican foes for being pigs are now excusing their Democratic friend, despite his increasingly appearing to be a far more troubling brand of brute. All this means is that, for now, the left seems to have abandoned the practice of recruiting women as poster-children in the personal waging of political wars, and the right seems to have taken it up. Big deal. It’s only when one considers the feminist positions that are not hypocritical, but at least attempting rationality and proportion and sense, that one gets a glimpse of what our President has done to our politics.
“My feeling always is, justice should be done, assuming it can take its course,” said Ms . magazine founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who, having called last summer for the President’s resignation on the opinion that the Lewinsky matter constituted sexual harassment, can hardly be counted a Clinton cultist. “In this case it can’t, because of the statute of limitations, so I wish it would just go away; it just gives the right wing grist for its endless mill.” Now, as right-wingers would retort–well, do keep retorting–neither Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas nor Senator Robert Packwood was ever accused of rape, and neither was spared a public crucifixion because theirs were not matters for the court. But the Thomas-Hill, he-said, she-said occurred in the context of a process in motion–his Supreme Court confirmation–which protest, fairly or unfairly, was being marshaled to derail. Fresh in his survival of the ultimate political death threat, Mr. Clinton can be no more derailed than levitated.
“Forget Teflon,” said Ms. vanden Heuvel. “He’s the iridium President. He’s like someone from another planet.”
And if that resilience is due, in part, to the complicity of his constituencies, it is also due to the clumsiness, vitriol and, post-impeachment, unshyness of his adversaries. And, as for so many other groups, this is actually a shame for women: The President is so fortunate in his political enemies that he need not do very much to keep his political friends. Remember how Mr. Clinton survived and thrived in the dark days of 1994? He made himself look good by making members of Congress look bad. By vilifying them rhetorically and pre-empting them thematically, he reamed them politically–and this without remarkable achievement on behalf of women, or anybody else.
The President, too, managed to turn the tables on the media, whose proclivity for half-truths had the effect of dulling the blade of the whole truth about Bill Clinton as ultimately revealed. So, in the short term, the Republican-led Congress and the press may have tormented Mr. Clinton, but in the end they served him very well.
Then, too, there is the pesky matter of proof. Mr. Packwood may have been no more of a sexual predator than Mr. Clinton, but he was definitely more of a diarist. For feminists to take Ms. Broaddrick at her word would not just be shrill, it would be irresponsible (as irresponsible, some might think, as prematurely donning an “I Believe Anita Hill” button).
“I’m torn between the two poles of my total feminist commitment to any woman who’s been sexually assaulted [and the feeling that] I may have gotten on a bandwagon to indict someone who may be innocent,” said author Susan Faludi. “Short of stoning him, what is it that people want to do?”
Not much, it appears. Not much at all.
Rift Inside The Times Puts Broaddrick’s Cry of Rape Right Where the White House Wanted It–on Page A16
The New York Times didn’t know how to handle Juanita Broaddrick’s inconvenient charge that Bill Clinton raped her 21 years ago. So the story of the allegation that ran in its Feb. 24 edition lurched all over the place. It was The Times performing journalism by committee–and it was a botched operation.
A rape charge against a President would seem to be very big front-page news anywhere, even at The Times . But in the strange universe of 229 West 43rd Street, Ms. Broaddrick’s corroborated charge against a congenital liar was only good for page A-16. Figure out that paradox and you will understand The Times .
Publication of the story came after weeks of internal meetings, formal and informal, and debates among editors. Ms. Broaddrick’s rape charge caused sharp disagreement at The Times , sources at the paper said, and the sore feelings brought on by the story have not yet gone away.
The Times ran the story on the same day Dateline NBC finally went with its half-hour segment on Ms. Broaddrick’s charge, and days after The Washington Post ran its take on the matter in a front-page story and The Wall Street Journal published Dorothy Rabinowitz’s interview with Ms. Broaddrick in its editorial pages.
The story on page A-16 was cast partly as an explanation of why The Times had not investigated the matter earlier and partly as a defense of why The Times was going into the sordid mess at all. It did not include the word “rape.” And it gave Times managing editor Bill Keller more words of direct quote (106; “Congress isn’t going to impeach him again. And frankly, we’ve all got a bit of scandal fatigue”) than it gave Ms. Broaddrick (61 words; “I was so totally surprised, totally shocked”).
“There was a very difficult debate,” said Times national editor Dean Baquet, who worked on the piece. “Over on the one hand, how do you handle a story that is really difficult to prove, and you could question whether, because of that, you shouldn’t report it; but on the other hand, it involves a very serious allegation against the President of the United States, and you have to sort of weigh what to tell our readers and what not to tell our readers. I think in this case, what we did was, we decided we needed to try to explain it to our readers.”
Dave Smith, another editor who worked on the story, said there was nothing too unusual about the newsroom discussions leading up to the publication of this one. “It was very low-key, Socratic,” he said. “We had a couple of meetings with some very good dialogue, very open, and, like just about any other time you’re dealing with a difficult situation, you try to come to some sort of synthesis. I’ve been through this a thousand times at The Times .”
In editorial meetings, at least one editor argued that The Times should remain silent on the issue, reasoning that Times readers would understand and appreciate The Times ‘ silence. Others argued that the story was right for page 1.
In the end, the Times team compromised, running its story deep inside the front section, on the bottom half of a page, with a flat headline and no photo or illustration; they might as well have slapped a “don’t read this article” sticker on the page. To those who opposed the story, its placement on A-16 was a clear sign that the newspaper of record had real doubts about the story. To others, the placement was just fine, especially since the A-16 story was promoted under the heading “An Allegation Resurfaces,” in the small table-of-contents box on page 1.
“You’re basically saying this is in the top 10 stories of the day in The New York Times ,” said Mr. Smith, the newspaper’s media editor. “That’s a signal that you hold it with some degree of gravity. I hardly think that was burying it.”
The reporters who shared the byline were Felicity Barringer, a media writer, and David Firestone, a national correspondent based in Atlanta who interviewed Ms. Broaddrick.
Taking part in editorial meetings, along with Mr. Smith, Mr. Baquet and Mr. Keller, were Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes and deputy Washington editor Jill Abramson, via speakerphone. Associate managing editor Martin Baron, the night editor in New York, also put in his two cents.
Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld was on vacation while all of this was going down. A few people involved with putting the story together said he had little or no involvement. “He really went on vacation to get away,” said one Times veteran. “He was getting away after a year of this stuff [covering Clinton scandals], and he delegated to Keller. He completely trusts Keller. They’re very close.”
When he returned from his vacation, Times sources said, Mr. Lelyveld had a nice suntan–and a low opinion of the big A-16 story that had run in his absence.
It is true that New York Times people are mild and conventional. They love the middle course. For every Jeff Gerth, who led the charge on Whitewater in the pre-Monica days, there are dozens upon dozens of Times men and Times women who are content to be mild-mannered ciphers.
And so, accordingly, the range of opinion in the discussions on the topic of Juanita Broaddrick and what to do with her rape allegation was not really all that wide. It went from those who argued that The Times should not publish her allegation in any form, to those who believed that The Times should run with her allegation– in the proper context .
There were no hawks who argued that the rape charge stood on its own as an unadorned front-page news story, Times editors said.
In fact, before the Times team of reporters and editors got to what Ms. Broaddrick had to say, they had already likened her allegation to “toxic waste.”
In the second paragraph, even before providing any details of her account, the writers charted the beginnings of the Broaddrick story from its days as a “rumor” that “persisted in the shadowlands of the Internet”; and they went on to note that Ms. Broaddrick herself gave a “sworn denial” and “reversed herself last spring.” Next, The Times implied that Ms. Broaddrick was a publicity seeker (“… during the impeachment process, she decided to make the assault charges public in an interview with NBC News”) who was perhaps a little too eager for her media close-up (“… she chafed because the interview was not broadcast”).
Bam, bam, bam. In just two quick opening paragraphs, The Times skillfully sketched Ms. Broaddrick as a publicity-seeking liar who was peddling a poisonous rumor.
Managing editor Bill Keller’s most resonant quote in The Times ‘ A-16 article–”And frankly,” he said, “we’ve all got a bit of scandal fatigue”–did not sit well with some of his colleagues. By suggesting that The Times ignored a story based on weariness with the topic is antithetical to what reporting is all about, after all. It’s tantamount to a police reporter getting beat because of crime fatigue, or a City Hall reporter missing a story because of Rudy fatigue. (Mr. Keller was on a European vacation and did not return calls seeking comment.)
The “scandal fatigue” quote, while rankling some people at The Times , belies a bedrock assumption at the newspaper–that the scandals that have dogged the President should be over. A newspaper loaded with high-achieving princes and princesses of the Eastern establishment, rather than with the rogues who often land the memorable stories, The Times wants Bill Clinton to be something he is not.
The New York Times wants to pretend he’s a regular meritocratic guy who won the highest office in the land not because he is possibly a criminal who has run roughshod over other people, but because he is in the Presidential-legend mold: charming, hard-working, a little unknowable–and, O.K, he’s sexy. And if he must be corrupt, The Times worldview would prefer that he be corrupt in the way that politicians are traditionally corrupt–as a white-collar criminal. The Times refuses to consider that he might really be closer to the guys who are wearing orange jumpsuits in state penitentiaries than to a naughty Casanova.
In assembling the A-16 story, Ms. Barringer fielded dispatches from Mr. Firestone and other Times reporters. She was the first one to take a crack at placing the material on Ms. Broaddrick in the context of a larger media story; when her turn was up, Mr. Baquet and Mr. Smith went at it, followed by the copy editors.
“There are always a lot of ways to tell a story,” Ms. Barringer said. “This one posed a set of dilemmas that were extremely knotty.” Asked if the story treated Ms. Broaddrick badly, Ms. Barringer said, “I don’t think it was loaded. I do think there’s a kind of Talmudic quality to figuring out how things are placed and what weight they’re given.”
David Firestone interviewed Ms. Broaddrick on Feb. 22. He used to be the Times City Hall bureau chief. His writing always had style and some wit just under the surface. He once wrote a funny piece on Mayor Giuliani’s habit of boasting about himself and New York City. Now Mr. Firestone mans the Atlanta bureau. On the phone, he sounded like some weary character out of a Graham Greene novel, stuck in some distant outpost. He said he flew from Atlanta to Tulsa, Okla., near Ms. Broaddrick’s ranch in Van Buren, Ark., to get the story.
“I went to her home hoping to knock on her door,” Mr. Firestone said, “but she lives on a big 40-acre ranch surrounded by an electric gate at the end of a long driveway. I called her the night before and she told me not to come, but I went, anyway, hoping that just going there would convince her to talk to me. When I got to her house, I called her on the cell phone and she said she still wouldn’t talk to me and we made a few other attempts on the phone from Tulsa, and she finally agreed to talk on the phone.”
The interview lasted “an hour or two,” Mr. Firestone said, with a few quick follow-up calls. “It was just a classic piece of reporting,” he said. “Write down exactly what she says in as much detail as possible, try and pin her down on exactly what happened leading up to it, what happened afterward, get the names of witnesses that she talked to, call the witnesses, write down what they say, and turn it in. You know, that’s just what reporting is all about … This was a story that simply required a very straightforward retelling of her story.”
The correspondent was asked if he knew The Times would take his reporting and shove it in the context of a large, interpretive media story.
“That was strictly the editors,” Mr. Firestone said. “They basically took what I gave them, a long, 3,000-word memo, and they decided what they wanted to do with it. That’s how The Times works. When you’re in the field, it’s a little hard to know exactly what they’re thinking up there.”
The Times team did an interesting little dance with Ms. Broaddrick throughout the A-16 article. First, they played up her desire to go public on NBC. Then they implied that her reluctance to come forward was problematic. After assuring the readers that her story (even if “toxic”) was relevant because “it hardened opinion against the President among some of the dozen or so Representatives who were led to materials on the case” (note the unseemly connotation of “led to”), The Times began to engage in its favorite pastime: explaining the Internet. When not hyping Internet I.P.O.’s on Wall Street, The Times seems to find the Internet distasteful. Lumping it in with cable TV, The Times reported that Ms. Broaddrick’s story followed a “shadowy, subterranean path”–an allusion, perhaps, to the cables buried under the ground that make cable and the Internet possible. Cable TV and the Internet often come off as literally dirty, in The Times ‘ view, while newspapers like The Times show up above ground, in the light. The writers of the A-16 story explained that “the national press is divided in ever-smaller slivers, with smaller outlets on the Internet and cable television sometimes overwhelming the slower and more sober judgments of mainstream news organizations.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 25, Mr. Keller contributed to the impression given by the A-16 article that The Times was getting pushed into stories by the cyber-rabble: “There’s a sense of being manipulated by this strange new dynamic that exists in the media,” he said, “where stories that are in the process of being reported somewhere get picked up by a Web site and by cable TV talk shows, and eventually they pick up centrifugal force and knock the story into the mainstream. And you feel a loss of control.”
That quote steamed his colleagues, according to Times sources.
“I don’t buy that our coverage of this story and other stories gets dictated by people like Matt Drudge,” said Mr. Baquet.
Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes agreed. “I think it is vital that The New York Times and every other newspaper decide what its standards are and stick to them,” he said, “regardless of what Matt Drudge or anyone else puts on the Internet.… We should never feel like we are being pushed into running something, or that our decisions are under the control of others’ judgments.”
Mr. Keller’s quote ignored the fact that some Web sites–even Matt Drudge’s Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com)–do more than report on what others are reporting. A recent investigative report posted on a Web site called Capitol Hill Blue (www.capitolhillblue.com), for example, says that there are other women who claim that Mr. Clinton would not take No for an answer. The story purports to include accounts of at least four women who, in interviews with Capitol Hill Blue reporters, said Mr. Clinton had forced himself on them.
One Times editor, speaking not for attribution, said The Times was aware of the report posted on Capitol Hill Blue , but would not say whether or not The Times had decided to do its own reporting on the alleged incidents.
On Feb. 26, The Times followed Bill Clinton in Arizona, where he visited the Arizona Diamondback training camp. Here’s how The Times began its story on a President who had been charged, credibly, with rape on NBC News two nights prior: “President Clinton may not have been gloating today, but he sure was celebrating.” The article briefly mentioned a “few dozen protesters” and quoted Clinton supporter Carolyn Killian, identified as a 31-year-old homemaker. Concerning Ms. Broaddrick, Ms. Killian told The Times , “She must be a liar, too.” Then reporter James Bennet quoted Debbie Van Sant, a 42-year-old pharmacist: “‘After all of this fiasco,’ she said, ‘I have a lot of respect for the man for standing up for what he believes in. It shows character in a person.’”
The next day, a Saturday, Howell Raines’ editorial page weighed in with a corrective: “… it would be nice to hear Mr. Clinton himself address the matter and provide his version of what transpired, if in fact the two did meet in a Little Rock hotel room in 1978.” The Times editorial also noted “a set of allegations stretching across two decades that depict him as a serial masher or worse.” (Did Mr. Raines get this from the Capitol Hill Blue Web site? He would not comment for this article.)
On Feb. 28, it was the Week in Review’s turn. There was one of those “thoughtful” articles by Francis X. Clines, headlined “The End Was a Mirage. The Scandal Lives On.” It came complete with a quote from official White House jester Al Franken, but the illustration said it all: It showed a wussy-looking guy in a bow tie and round-frame glasses, doing the dishes at the kitchen sink–this was The Times ‘ idea of an everyman, apparently–and the faces of the Clinton scandal women appeared in the steam and the bubbles; there, Ms. Broaddrick was depicted as an equal to Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky–another of Bill’s daffy dames.
The Times got used to the Clinton-Lewinsky story, and disgorged it as part of the impeachment saga. It was able to write off the saga as distasteful, disruptive and occasionally comic, at worst. But Ms. Broaddrick threw a monkey wrench into the whole operation. When the story became less like something out of Molière and more like sunbelt Sophocles or Robert Penn Warren, it was hello, A-16.
Mr. Baquet, the national editor, was asked if, 25 or 30 years from now, people might think not of Ms. Lewinsky when they think of Bill Clinton, but of Juanita Broaddrick. “Some would say history might not even notice this,” Mr. Baquet said. “Some would say it will be a footnote on page 427 on the age of Clinton, and there are some people who would say otherwise. But based on what we know, I don’t see how that would be the case. Monica Lewinsky’s case led to the impeachment of the President for only the second time in history. I can’t imagine that in a case in which everybody doesn’t know what happened, I can’t imagine that you could say those were equal stories.”