Joe Klein rewrites his role in the 1990s

The then Newsweek reporter claims he defended Clinton in the Lewinsky and Whitewater matters, finding the scandals insignificant. The opposite was true.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II)

In labelling Bill Clinton a “messy spouse on the campaign trail,” here’s what Time‘s Joe Klein claimed today about his own personal role in the Whitewater and Lewinsky “scandals”:

Now, yes, [Bill Clinton] has a lot to be resentful about–the Republican berserkers, with a strong assist from the press, tried to derail democracy during his Administration, perhaps the most disgraceful performances by a political party–and by my colleagues–that I’ve ever witnessed. (For those who were not born yet, I defended Clinton through Whitewater and Lewinsky, although I was occasionally critical–as were more than a few members of the White House staff–of the First Lady’s reluctance to be more forthcoming on Whitewater and of the Big Guy’s prevarication on Lewinsky. Still, I didn’t think these, or the other scandalettes, were very serious).

Klein infamously made false claims about his role in the pre-Iraq war debate, explicitly claiming (once the war was widely recognized as a disaster) that he opposed it even though he went on “Meet the Press” a month before it began and advocated the invasion. Has he done that again here? Let’s let his own words speak for themselves.

In the May 9, 1994 issue of Newsweek, Klein wrote a lengthy article entitled “The Politics of Promiscuity,” in which he became one of the first establishment journalists to insist expressly that Bill Clinton’s sex life and the suspicions over Whitewater were of public relevance and should be investigated and exposed (via LEXIS):

But it seems increasingly, and sadly, apparent that the character flaw Bill Clinton’s enemies have fixed upon — promiscuity — is a defining characteristic of his public life as well. It may well be that this is one case where private behavior does give an indication of how a politician will perform in the arena. It may be that Clinton’s alleged (and it must be emphasized: unproven) behavior toward women is not irrelevant when his behavior toward Haitians, Bosnians-and Americans — is considered, and therefore should be a fit subject for greater scrutiny. . . .



But a clear pattern has emerged — of delay, of obfuscation, of lawyering the truth. The litany of offenses is as familiar as it is depressing. It begins with marijuana. Not the famous “I didn’t inhale,” which may well have been an awkward bit of candor. Far more distressing was Clinton’s craven, cynical previous position: that he had “never broken. a state law.” This preternatural cuteness was repeated during the draft controversy, when Clinton never quite admitted to having received an induction letter until confronted with the evidence; and, of course, in response to accusations of philandering, when the Clintons — and Mrs. Clinton clearly is complicit in all of this — pre-emptively admitted that their marriage had not been “perfect.” It has been the hallmark of their Whitewater temporizing as well, most notably on the question of Mrs. Clinton’s commodities trading — which is probably the redolent embarrassment at the heart of the matter, and which still could be subject to further revision, even after the First Lady’s impressive, but not quite definitive, recent press conference. With the Clintons, the story always is subject to further revision. The misstatements are always incremental. . . .

Does this sort of behavior also infect the president’s public life, his formulation of policy? Clearly, it does. Has it made him any less effective? Not yet, perhaps. It might destroy this administration insidiously, over time — especially overseas, as foreign leaders learn to mistrust Clinton; and domestically, by feeding the public cynicism about the nature of politics and politicians.

Klein’s 1994 article analyzing Clinton’s sexual “promiscuity” was cited repeatedly over the next 6 years by the establishment press as an excuse for investigating and writing about Clinton’s sex life, as Joan Walsh, writing in Salon, explained in a preface to an April 8, 2002, lengthy interview she conducted with Klein:

As the Paula Jones story gained journalistic steam in 1994, a disgusted Klein wrote a memorable Newsweek column, “The Politics of Promiscuity,” which was widely quoted because it gave a justification for delving into the president’s seamy personal life: Clinton’s lack of personal discipline slid over into his sloppy policymaking, Klein argued, and the nation was suffering as a result.

As but one very representative example, here was The Weekly Standard‘s Matthew Rees, on December 30, 1998, justifying the relevance of Clinton’s adultery (via LEXIS):

But if one was trying to understand the indecisiveness that’s become a hallmark of [Clinton's] presidency, clues would come from what journalist Joe Klein presciently labelled “the politics of promiscuity” in May 1994.

Klein observed at the time that “the character flaw Bill Clinton’s enemies have fixed upon — promiscuity — is a defining characteristic of his public life as well. This may well be one case where private behaviour does give an indication of how a politician will perform in the arena.” Klein added that Clinton’s “rhetorical promiscuity” — very much on display in the Lewinsky proceedings — has led him to believe “he can seduce, and abandon, at will and without consequence.”

Indeed, while people can argue over whether past extramarital liaisons by a presumptive House Speaker should be publicized — I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t — people deserve to know if a world leader such as Bill Clinton is so personally reckless he can become sexually involved with a 21-year-old White House intern.

If that provokes charges of sexual McCarthyism, I happily plead guilty. And yet amid all the recent moaning about “the politics of personal destruction,” no elected official cites the one surefire way to end the embarrassing personal disclosures: Stop committing adultery. This antiquated idea is sure to be derided, but after a year of observing Bill Clinton, it hardly seems an unreasonable request.

Most illustrative of all, Klein, on September 19, 1998, appeared for a full one-hour interview with Tim Russert on the latter’s CNBC show — and those two “news” media stars devoted themselves for the full hour almost exclusively to self-righteous condemnations of Clinton over the Lewinsky scandal. Here are several exchanges those two had (via LEXIS):

RUSSERT: In the end, it’s about sex.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. In the end, it’s not–well, not so much about sex. I–let me take that back. It’s about judgment. It’s about maturity. You gotta figure that there’s something desperately wrong with this guy. I mean, I don’t know whether it’s a removable offense. I think that for us to kind of speculate on what should happen is part of the problem. But you’ve got to say that anybody who would do this, knowing–knowing as he knew that there was this prosecutor up against him and knowing that the media–the s–the state of the game as–the state it played in the media is what it was, that–that he would do this, there’s something desperately wrong with someone like that.

RUSSERT: And all in the middle of the Paula Jones case.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. . . .

While Klein at one point suggested that the media had developed an obsession with the Lewinsky matter which was harming its reputation, both Klein and Russert spent the hour pumping it for all it was worth, with commentary such as this:

RUSSERT: Will he get out of this? Will he survive?

Mr. KLEIN: I don’t know.

RUSSERT: Yeah.

Mr. KLEIN: I don’t know. I–on a–in–you know, in practical, pragmatic political terms, I don’t know. On the larger scale, on the way he’s remembered, on who he stands as a–how he stands as a human being, he’s not gonna get out of this. He’s–he’s paying the price now.

RUSSERT: This is it.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah.

RUSSERT: How will he be remembered?

Mr. KLEIN: He will be remembered in the most embarrassing tawdry sort of way.

The complete degradation of our political discourse really achieved full expression back in the 1990s. Even now, when one goes back and reads television transcripts and columns from that decade, it is difficult to avoid a sense of real revulsion — the hours and hours and hours spent by people like Russert and Klein breathlessly obsessing on Bill Clinton’s sex life and the most mundane of “scandals,” all at the expense of anything meaningful.

And the same exact people responsible for the media’s complete abdication regarding the Bush administration were responsible then, too, employing the same vapid though filthy tactics. I am sure that Klein can find instances where he questioned whether the Lewinsky scandal had spun out of control beyond its real importance, but the notion that he was some sort of iconoclast attempting to impede the media’s feeding frenzy is patently false. He, and virtually every other media star of the time, was right in the thick of it, milking it for all it was worth. And Klein himself wrote the seminal piece all the way back in 1994, pioneering the theoretical justification for the media’s sleazy fishing expeditions.

Klein’s desire to disassociate himself from it all (like his desire to disguise himself as a war opponent) may be understandable, but the fact that he obviously feels comfortable achieving that goal through outright, demonstrable falsehoods — knowing full well that it will have no repercussions — is a fairly compelling sign of what is and is not required to remain a member of good standing in our establishment press corps. Why would people like this ever be bothered in the slightest when our highest political officials lie to defend themselves and conceal their own wrongdoing?

UPDATE: Just to underscore a point — as is true any time individual journalists are discussed here, Joe Klein himself is not the point. The conduct of media stars is worth discussing only when it is illustrative, as it is here.

In the 1990s, there simply were virtually no media stars insisting that the Lewinsky and Whitewater matters were being blown out of proportion. The ones who thought that and said that didn’t get invited on television and didn’t become media stars. They became media stars only by going on with Chris Matthews and Tim Russert and endlessly dissecting every last sex leak about cigars, grand juries, Ken Starr manuevers and Clinton’s penile spots. The only real way to have resisted the feeding frenzy is to do what Keith Olbermann did — essentially quit due to a refusal to wallow in the Lewinsky filth. Olbermann was courageous enough to do that when virtually no other media stars — certainly not Joe Klein — did so.

The establishment press works as a group-think wolf pack. Now, the only ones who are invited on with Chris Matthews and Tim Russert are the ones who chirp endlessly about every conventional horse race wisdom of the moment or the latest gossipy item from the travelling press corps. Reporters who do actual journalism — like this or this — never get anywhere near the television, and the ones who meaningfully criticize media coverage get fired (like this).

Joe Klein was all over TV sets and became a media star in the 1990s precisely because he was an eager participant in all the sleazy, decadent coverage. Watching him pretend now that he was some sort of conscientious resister to it all is just too much to leave alone — not because Klein matters, but because the media dynamic he’s falsely describing does.

UPDATE II: Greg Sargent documents another instance of Olbermann’s displaying an exceedingly rare journalistic virtue.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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