Double play

It's bad enough that the New York Times got Hillary Clinton's role in the Madison S&L case wrong back in 1996, but how do they explain doing it again, four years later?


Joe Conason
April 11, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

It's almost always a bad idea to complain about reviews of your own book, particularly when they appear in places like the New York Times and the Washington Post. You're bound to seem like a complainer to many readers, such as this lady I know from Long Island, who says, "Stay quiet. You should be so lucky that the big papers notice your book in the first place." Believe me, I'd take her advice, except in an instance of egregious unfairness and one or more gross errors in the offending review.

So, with apologies, Ma'am, this is one of those exceptions to your rule.

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It may have been inevitable that our book ("The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton" -- co-written with Gene Lyons) would be trashed by someone like Neil Lewis, a reporter in the Times Washington bureau. Given what our book reveals about the Times' coverage of Whitewater and other "Clinton scandals," we were in no position to expect any favors from the paper of record.

The same was true of the Washington Post, whose book editor actually assigned the book review to a writer from the American Spectator -- the conservative monthly that consorted with billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife in the Byzantine "get Clinton" scheme known as the "Arkansas Project" -- events we describe in all their comical detail.

I won't rebut those reviews point by point. But I must answer a false charge made against us by Lewis. Remarkably enough, in an attempt to discredit our reporting, Lewis repeats a seriously slanted version of history that the Times itself took pains to correct more than four years ago.

Claiming to prove that we are "sometimes brazen in [our] efforts to be generous" to the Clintons, Lewis offers a solitary example from the Senate Whitewater hearings which he says "should suffice." As he puts it:

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Hillary Clinton had been criticized for her ambiguous answers [to the Resolution Trust Corporation] about her work as a Little Rock lawyer for the savings and loan association run by the Clintons' partner in Whitewater. She had said that the [Madison Guaranty] account had been brought in by an associate, Richard Massey, who also did almost all of the work. Massey was called before the Senate Whitewater Committee ... amid press speculation that his testimony could be damaging. The authors write: "All such speculations were dashed when the first lady's soft-spoken, balding former partner Rick Massey appeared before the D'Amato committee ... Not only did Massey fail to contradict Hillary's testimony; any tighter fit between their recollections would have been suspect." This is an astonishingly misleading account. Massey did, in fact, contradict her on the most important points of her story, although he took great care to do it gently.

According to Lewis, Massey contradicted Clinton on two questions: who had brought in Madison Guaranty as a client, and who did most of the work on the S&L's account. These both turned out to be absolutely trivial matters. The exhaustive report on Whitewater and related matters prepared for the Treasury Department by the law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro and released in February 1996 concluded bluntly that "it makes little difference who was right. There is no hint of fraud or intentional misconduct in either version ..."

But inasmuch as Lewis thinks these issues are still important, let's examine them in greater detail.

On pages 206-208 of our book, we quote directly from the Senate transcript of Massey's testimony -- in which he described how he met an officer of Madison Guaranty in a night-time law school class, and eventually "pitched the business, asked for their work. They were a growing S&L. We liked working for companies like that, so I pitched the work."

Our book also quotes Massey's response to a question from Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., about who had handled the Rose Law Firm's work for Madison Guaranty. He was unequivocal in explaining to the senator that "these were primarily one-man jobs, and I did primarily all of the research, writing, drafting and so forth. Mrs. Clinton had a role in these matters. I view it as a supervisory role. In terms of who was in the trenches and doing the work, Senator, it was me."

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Our book clearly acknowledges that there were minor discrepancies between the recollections of Massey and Clinton, who were trying to remember details of conversations that had occurred 11 years earlier. Having leaked word that Massey's testimony would "ruin" Hillary Clinton, the Senate Republicans were humiliated by his calm refutation of their strained theories.

For their part, Times editors were apparently dissatisfied with their own paper's story on Massey's appearance at the Senate hearings, which ran Jan. 12, 1996. The next day, that story was the subject of an unusual "Editor's Note" on Page 2 of the Times. Carefully and gently, the note stated that "while including testimony by Mr. Massey that seemed to contradict Mrs. Clinton, the article should also have included testimony that seemed to support her." Having published a slanted dispatch, the Times honorably sought to rectify an unfair impression.

In reading our book, Lewis probably missed the paragraph on Page 208 in which we mention that editor's note, just as he may have overlooked the other basic facts in question here. In the spirit of brazen generosity, let's assume that he just made a few big mistakes. To dwell on another possibility -- that he intentionally misled Times readers -- wouldn't be generous at all.

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Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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