A famous man once said, “The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.” Such repetitive looniness is what makes characters like Elmer Fudd, Wile E. Coyote and Yosemite Sam so funny as they scramble around the cartoon landscape, stumbling quite predictably into the diabolical snares they’ve set for their elusive prey. It is also an apt metaphor for the state of political journalism today, more than a week after Hillary Talked.
When the First Lady discussed the condition of her marriage with Talk magazine writer Lucinda Franks, she certainly took a risk. That risk was doubled when she answered Ms. Franks’ inquiries about the President’s troubled boyhood. She ought to have known better than to expect fairness, let alone sympathy or understanding, from the posse of angry talking heads who dominate political discussion these days.
Instead, the reactions of the commentariat ran the usual short gamut from drooling prurience to outraged righteousness. Oooh, an aide to the First Lady told Ms. Franks that the Clintons show “physical passion” for each other! How icky! (Only morons on television and in newspapers are permitted to indulge in tasteless remarks ad nauseam about his “addiction,” her appearance, their sex lives or presumed lack thereof.) How humiliating that she make excuses for her husband’s philandering! (She didn’t, of course, as I finally realized when I obtained my own copy of Talk the other day.)
How terrible that she blamed his mother and grandmother! (She didn’t do that, either, but merely tried to describe the turmoil of his early childhood in response to a leading question.)
The First Lady’s two-sentence gaffe meant curtains for her yet-unopened Senate campaign, or so we were hopefully assured by those in the know. It was when she heard those confident predictions of her demise that Mrs. Clinton probably realized everything would be O.K.
Within a few days, pollster John Zogby found himself staring in disbelief at numbers that showed the White House carpetbagger climbing back into a statistical dead heat with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He must have hesitated a moment before calling his employers at the New York Post with those results. “I’ve given up on trying to figure out what the American people buy these days,” sighed Chris Matthews, host of the CNBC show Hardball .
Actually, the public response to the Talk turmoil isn’t so hard to figure out. It tracks with perfect consistency the popular reaction to the President’s grand jury testimony, the release of the Starr report, and the House impeachment vote. Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Matthews can’t “figure out” what’s going on because he is-as they say about the Clintons-“in denial.”
What he cannot acknowledge is that to whatever degree people distrust the President and First Lady, they seem to trust the Clintons’ critics in the media even less.
This is a sensible attitude based on weary experience. The beginning of August, after all, marked the fifth anniversary of the appointment of Kenneth W. Starr as independent counsel. Leading commentators have told readers and audiences with droning regularity that one or both of the Clintons (or their associates) would be indicted for felonies arising out of Whitewater, the Travel Office affair, the F.B.I. files fiasco or some other supposed atrocity. They weren’t.
Americans may be fascinated by the Clintons’ marriage, but they seem to be disgusted by the media’s callous treatment of them, their family and their privacy.
An instructive example, in the midst of the Talk uproar, was the heavy promotion afforded to a book author repeating tired gossip about an affair between Mrs. Clinton and Vince Foster, her law partner who killed himself six years ago. This writer-who specializes in recycling scurrilous material about people too famous or too dead to defend their reputations in court-relied upon a former Arkansas state trooper named L.D. Brown to confirm the alleged affair. What his book doesn’t mention is that Mr. Brown also claims that Mr. Clinton was involved with the Central Intelligence Agency in cocaine trafficking between Arkansas and Latin America, and that Mr. Clinton personally approved an assassination that Mr. Brown was ordered to carry out in Mexico.
Most people have no way of knowing such damning details, but they clearly sense bias and have learned to discount much of what is said about the Clintons. The commentators whose behavior has discredited the entire news industry seem entirely unself-conscious and unconcerned about the gap between their prejudices and the views of news consumers. It’s all very bad for business.
Public confidence in the media is unlikely to be restored by ABC’s Cokie Roberts, if she really believes what she told The Washington Post . “At this point, it doesn’t much matter whether [Mrs. Clinton] said it or not, because it’s become part of the culture,” she said, referring to the Talk controversy. “I was at the beauty parlor yesterday, and this was all anyone was talking about.”