A Grave Situation Demanded Skepticism

Another week, another scandal, and yet again the sound of windbags deflating. But before we lay the Arlington National Cemetery exposé to rest, a journalistic autopsy seems an unpleasant but necessary task.

From the beginning, this story about burial plots being traded for political contributions demanded skepticism. Consider the source, or rather the lack of sources. The frenzy was set off by early release of an article from Insight , a monthly magazine published by The Washington Times . Both belong to the highly partisan media conglomerate financed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, which reflexively promotes ugly tales about the President and other Democrats.

In this instance, the accusations of Mr. Moon’s magazine about the Democratic marketing of Arlington were based wholly on indignant quotes from anonymous “officials,” who supposedly said things like the following: “Look at the roll call of men and women who lie buried. This does more than cheapen their sacrifice; it cheapens the honor of what it means to be granted rights to such hallowed ground.”

Not exactly proof of anything, but quite stirring, and perfectly articulated for misuse by right-wing radio talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh (who avoided military service during the Vietnam War because of boils on his posterior, or some such disability). With their usual blend of falsehood and fervor, Mr. Limbaugh and his drooling colleagues took to the airwaves, inciting a wave of angry calls, letters and telegrams to Capitol Hill from veterans.

Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, who runs the House’s Government Reform and Oversight Committee and whose hunger for publicity is as strong as his allergy to facts, immediately declared that he would begin a probe as soon as Congress returned to session. An Alabaman named Terry Everett, who chairs a subcommittee of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, went him one better, claiming to have found proof of “questionable” waivers for recent Arlington burials. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who chairs the same committee on the other side of the Capitol, quickly caught up with his own letter to the President, in the form of a press release.

On cue, the Republican National Committee issued a statement from its chairman. “This has to represent one of the most despicable schemes in recent history. It’s bad enough that Bill Clinton rented the Lincoln Bedroom, but to sell graves in Arlington Cemetery is shameless, even by Clintonian standards.”

No one ever rented the Lincoln Bedroom, of course, and within a day after the R.N.C. statement was released, it became clear that no one ever sold a grave at Arlington. The waivers were given to an ambassador who died in service and who had been wounded on a United States merchant marine ship during World War II, to a black World War II airman and to various other patriotic Americans who received the honor bestowed on them for good reasons.

The Republicans insisted on learning the name of a still living American who had been given an Arlington waiver in advance. Obviously, they presumed this would turn out to be some generous Hollywood pal of the President, preferably gay so as to further excite the likes of Mr. Limbaugh. How distressing for them that this favored individual was C. Everett Koop, who served as Surgeon General during both Reagan terms and who has never given a nickel to the Democrats.

As Mr. Specter admitted in hasty retreat: “There does not appear to be any evidence to support the original allegations.” After the truth came out, several commentators attempted to blame their acceptance of this hoax on … the White House. No one seemed terribly upset with Mr. Moon’s magazine for mounting a fraud, perhaps because that would raise the question of why mainstream journalists take handouts from right-wing “news” organs.

There was no such moment of self-doubt, no trace of irony. Instead, opinion makers as eminent as Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and Cokie Roberts of ABC News suggested that they believed the cemetery story because they know how unscrupulous Mr. Clinton can be.

When Sam Donaldson suggested “this might be an instructive case” for reporters, Ms. Roberts demonstrated his point. “The problem here, Sam, though it’s interesting, is that this Administration hasn’t gotten much credibility,” she replied.

The same conclusion was reached by Ms. Dowd, who candidly expresses the institutional prejudices of her newspaper. “What you need to know about Bill Clinton,” she wrote, “is that the charge was plausible.”

Actually, what readers really need to know is that before Ms. Dowd knew much about the Arlington story, she and many of their colleagues had more or less rendered judgment against the White House. Verdict first, facts later. That is how they suddenly became an enormous megaphone for Mr. Moon, and somehow they don’t even seem embarrassed.

A Grave Situation Demanded Skepticism