When the New York Times reported on March 13 that the Office of Independent Counsel would soon issue a final report clearing the Clintons and their associates of any criminal wrongdoing in the so-called "Filegate" affair, I turned to William Safire's column on the paper's Op-ed page. At last, I thought, the former Nixon speechwriter who had so irresponsibly promoted this phony scandal since 1996 would feel a twinge of conscience and admit the errors of his ways. At long last he would "eat crow" -- a humble dish he had promised to consume 18 months ago if proved wrong about Filegate, Whitewater and Travelgate.
I remembered how Safire had speculated, during the tumultuous week after the Starr Report was issued in September 1998, that "indictments or criminal information" concerning the FBI files, the Travel Office and Whitewater would soon emanate from the Office of Independent Counsel. I pulled out an old clip from a few days later, when he had reiterated his demand for action: "We must have more from the Independent Counsel about other crimes: Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate abuses of power."
As early as January 1997 he had assured his readers that "[s]oon the independent counsel will present evidence of wrongdoing on Whitewater, Travelgate and the rape of privacy in the FBI's files," and that "stunning indictments" would imminently ensue. (That was just before Kenneth Starr tried to quit his job and flee to Pepperdine University.)
Then in July 1998, the columnist had confidently predicted once more that a comprehensive report on all of Starr's investigations would be forthcoming "sooner rather than later" and would be "more far-reaching that most imagine."
In one of his September 1998 essays, Safire conceded the distant possibility that the independent counsel might be obliged to "exonerate Hillary, [presidential aide] Bruce Lindsey, [former White House personnel security chief] Craig Livingstone, et. al," -- the first few names on a long list of Clinton friends, associates and employees Safire has accused of assorted crimes. Such an unlikely outcome, he blustered, "would force calumniators like me to eat crow." (As the Times word maven undoubtedly knows, a calumniator is someone who utters calumnies, meaning false and malicious statements.)
Actually, the truth about those unfinished investigations lingering in the files of the independent counsel's office emerged only weeks after the publication of Safire's crow-eating pledge. In November 1998, when Starr testified before the House Judiciary Committee, he conceded that his prosecutors had found no "substantial and credible" evidence of criminality with regard to the three incessantly hyped "scandals."
Fifteen months have passed since that reluctant Starr admission, and Safire hasn't even picked up his fork yet. In fact, by the time of Starr's House testimony, some of the columnist's accusations of criminality against his administration antagonists were more than five years old. Evidently he prefers his crow quite cold.
But as of March 2000, the Times sage still has no space for apologies, and no appetite for a big bite of black feathers. Instead, he took only the briefest notice of his own newspaper's story about the Filegate exoneration on March 13 -- and then rushed onward to predict that three more forthcoming reports from the counsel's office will "detail tawdry corner-cutting and egregious evasiveness, but not prosecutable crime."
Rather portentously, he warns readers once more that "Hillary Clinton, I presume, will face far greater problems with Travelgate than with Filegate," while her husband just might be indicted someday next January for lying about Monica Lewinsky. Given his record, Safire is probably wrong about all that, too. But while we're on the topic of "corner-cutting" and "evasiveness," isn't it long past time that Safire answered publicly for his own journalistic misconduct?
The making of bonehead forecasts is normal practice for pundits of all persuasions, so much so that nobody thinks to hold them accountable. It is a different matter altogether, however, when a columnist on the most influential opinion page in the country repeatedly predicts that people he doesn't like will be indicted and convicted of serious crimes, thereby essentially convicting them in print.
Again and again over the past several years, Safire has charged the Clintons and their associates with such offenses as fraud, conspiracy, perjury, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Using the jargon of Watergate to emphasize their culpability, he has written about the so-called Clinton scandals as if even the most minimal professional scruples and cautions did not apply to him -- let alone the standards of fairness that are held sacred at the newspaper of record and in all reputable news organizations.
On many occasions since 1993, Safire has asserted in blunt, unqualified language that the Clintons benefited from "graft, plain and simple" in the Whitewater case, which he termed a "corruptly subsidized investment" that perpetrated a "ripoff of the taxpayers." Yet as the copious but little-reported study conducted by the law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro definitively established in 1996, there were no improper advances by Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan to the Whitewater group, and all of the company's outstanding loans were repaid. The Clintons lost money on their Whitewater investment and were never shown to have done anything illegal or improper. The project's failure didn't cost taxpayers a single penny.
In 1996 (and again in 1998), Safire fingered Lindsey as a criminal, defaming him as the "coverup coordinator" and the president's "notorious consigliere." His column gleefully noted that Lindsey was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in Starr's 1996 trial of two Arkansas bankers who had contributed to Clinton. But Safire never mentioned the outcome of that trial, in which the two men were acquitted.
During the Lewinsky affair, Safire twice pointed to Lindsey as the putative author of the famous "Talking Points" document, the supposed "smoking gun" in what his column termed a "corrupt pattern of witness-tampering." In fact, that document was produced by Lewinsky herself as a memorandum of an earlier conversation she had with Linda Tripp. The notorious Lindsey was wholly innocent, but he has never received an apology from Safire.
Similarly in 1998, the columnist accused Sidney Blumenthal of a nonexistent crime, referring to the presidential assistant in another Watergate quip as "Colson Revisited," and suggesting strongly that the presidential assistant would be indicted by Starr for a "defamation conspiracy" to obstruct justice. Six months later when court papers were unsealed, the Associated Press reported that Blumenthal had never been a target of the independent counsel -- yet another exoneration that the columnist neglected to mention.
Yet by far the most consistently battered target of Safire's misfires has been Hillary Clinton. Making headlines with a 1996 column branding the first lady a "congenital liar," he confidently predicted that her lost-and-found Rose Law Firm billing records would prove "her involvement in a fraudulent land deal" called Castle Grande. On several occasions, apparently misled by his own sources, the columnist has blathered about her imminent indictment; and once, Safire even advised the president to hire separate legal counsel for his own protection.
Four years and tens of millions of dollars later, the first lady remains unindicted except in the minds of Safire and right-wing conspiracy nuts. According to the 1996 Pillsbury report, those billing records confirmed Mrs. Clinton's earlier testimony about her legal work in voluminous detail. By now it is hard not to wonder whether Safire -- who haughtily condemns "White House incompetence" -- ever bothered to read that federal report, which dismissed theories tying her to Castle Grande wrongdoing as "strained at best." Or whether he is aware that in testimony at Susan McDougal's contempt trial last year, deputy independent counsel W. Hickman Ewing admitted that despite his own Herculean efforts, no evidence pertinent to an indictment of the first lady was ever presented to any grand jury.
Back in the Reagan era, the target of another independent counsel once asked where he could go to get his reputation back. It's a question that the scandal-crazed media too often disregards. But a newspaper as uniquely powerful as the New York Times carries unique responsibilities. When one of its most prominent writers recklessly damages the reputations of people who turn out to be innocent of the offenses he has alleged, a reckoning is in order.
No matter how long Safire waits to eat it, that cold dish of crow won't taste good -- but it would be good for him, the newspaper that gives him such pride of place as well as for American journalism.