Joe Conason's Journal

Polls showing Bush's dwindling support are a step ahead of the pundits. Plus: The Times' latest Whitewater outrage.

Published January 27, 2003 6:04PM (EST)

Spun and undone
Magazine deadlines are often cruel to political reporters -- but rarely does the cover story in the New York Times Magazine become utterly obsolete before it reaches the homes of readers. That was the unfortunate fate of Bill Keller's opus comparing George W. Bush with Ronald Reagan, including full Teflon armor against the vagaries of public opinion. Put together the sentence fragments of his lead and the idea is clear. No matter what blunders and scandals have lately afflicted his administration, George W. Bush is invulnerable. "Bush's approval ratings held firm and high. Nothing stuck. Any more than a year of corporate scandals, some involving White House friends, had stuck. Any more than the recurring reminders of Al Qaeda's unimpeded reach -- in Bali, in Kenya -- had stuck."

"Bush's seeming invincibility to bad news may be exasperating to Democrats, but it was no surprise to Michael Deaver, the shrewd public relations man who played Karl Rove to an earlier president, Ronald Reagan ..." etc.

With all that and much more awaiting delivery the next morning, Keller must have felt a surge of nausea when he picked up the paper Friday to find front-page tidings that Bush's public approval has plummeted to pre-9/11 range in the latest CBS/New York Times Poll: "Nearly 50 percent of the public expressed disapproval of how Mr. Bush was handling the economy, while 41 percent expressed disapproval of his management of foreign policy, which has been the foundation of his extraordinarily high levels of support since Sept. 11. Those disapproval figures are the highest they have been since Mr. Bush took office.

"Half of all respondents said Mr. Bush did not share their priorities for the country, an increase of 14 points from when the question was asked a year ago. That is a question pollsters watch closely to measure potential vulnerabilities of a candidate.

"Bush's challenge in persuading the public of the need for war was underlined in recent polls. More than half -- 53 percent -- responding to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said the president has not yet explained clearly what is at stake to justify war ...

"In the United States, the public has grown increasingly skeptical about Bush's handling of the economy, with 44 percent approving of his economic stewardship and 49 percent disapproving in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll."

"Only 35 percent in that poll said they expect Bush's $674 billion, 10-year stimulus plan -- most of that committed to tax cuts -- will be very effective or 'fairly effective' at helping the economy, adding to Bush's challenge on Tuesday night."

The woman who couldn't read
Whenever Whitewater and similar journalistic embarrassments from the Clinton era come up, as they occasionally do, the New York Times has a strange tendency to morph into the Washington Times. There is no other explanation for the paper's atrocious treatment of Susan McDougal's new memoir, "The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk," in the Sunday book review. It was assigned to a reviewer with no apparent interest in McDougal or her story, except as an excuse to trot out banal theories about Southern "girlchildren."

Fascinating as those ideas may be to some readers, they don't excuse Beverly Lowry's astounding failure to absorb the most basic facts of Whitewater and the McDougal cases, as laid out in the book she pretends to have read. (For the adventurous, a very thorough and suitably angry review of the Lowry review has been posted at Media Whores Online.)

"In the end, of course, Starr came up with pretty much of nothing," Lowry writes knowingly, "beyond a felony conviction for McDougal on charges of obstruction of justice and criminal contempt." No, those were the charges on which Starr's prosecutors failed to convict McDougal. If Lowry ever does crack the book she allegedly reviewed, the simple facts are on Page 367. "The judge announced to the courtroom that the jury had hung on the two counts of criminal contempt. As for the count of obstruction of justice, the jury had reached a verdict: not guilty." (On Page 196 she recalls being convicted of four fraud counts in 1996 that had nothing to do with the Whitewater project.)

"The future president was governor and the McDougals owned a bank and a savings and loan and were buying and selling land and, like a lot of other people they knew, making money hand over fist." The Clintons lost $43,000 in Whitewater, an investment they made before Bill Clinton became governor and before Jim McDougal became a banker. Had Lowry read as far as Page 50, she would have learned at least that much.

"Unquestionably, the Clintons took part in Whitewater and irrefutably they and the McDougals trampled on some rights and bent some rules along the way." Whose rights did they trample? What rules did they bend? Lowry doesn't say. "But they were on a roll, life was good, Arkansas sheltered them, and nobody thought life would ever go any other way." This is just idiotic blather. From what did Arkansas shelter them? After exhaustive investigations by the Office of Independent Counsel, the Resolution Trust Corporation and two congressional committees, not a single accusation against the Clintons in Whitewater could be upheld. But Lowry is content to repeat the same old vague, unsubstantiated charges.

"You will also recall another charge, of the embezzlement of $150,000, brought by the orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta, and his wife, Nancy, for whom McDougal worked as personal secretary and companion for three and a half years. The bizarreness and unlikelihood of this only added to our national confusion, as we tried to figure out whether or not we could trust a word she said. Or didn't say." The account of the Mehta case is quite dramatic, and so is the conclusion (on Page 344) that Lowry must have skipped: not guilty on each of 12 counts. The jurors held an extraordinary press conference afterward to denounce the prosecution, with the foreman noting that not one juror had ever voted for a guilty verdict on a single count.

"You may want, also, to know whether this reader believes that Susan McDougal is telling the truth here, and I'll have to say that, despite the Southern gush, for the most part and on the main points if not in all the details, I do." That would be an interesting admission, if Lowry knew what she was talking about -- because McDougal repeatedly emphasizes that Kenneth Starr and his minions tried to induce her to lie about the Clintons for the sake of his partisan prosecution.

"Were we dumb? Deceitful? Flaky? Who knew?" Lowry asks about herself and her fellow Southern belles. Although her dizzy flights of creative writing have little to do with McDougal's book, those questions are painfully relevant to Lowry's review. The Times book editors can't be expected to fact-check every writer, I suppose, but this is truly ridiculous. They owe Susan McDougal an unreserved apology.
[9:47 a.m. PST, Jan. 27, 2003]

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