Joe Conason's Journal

The former top editor at the New York Times proves fact-impaired -- suggesting why his paper pursued presidential pseudo-scandals for so long.

Published May 12, 2003 6:54PM (EDT)

Corrections for Mr. Lelyveld
Thanks to Joseph Lelyveld's long, sloppy, rather mean-spirited review of Sidney Blumenthal's "The Clinton Wars" in the current New York Review of Books, the Whitewater mystery is finally resolved, at least in part. That mystery was never much about Whitewater itself -- a mundane, money-losing land deal. What always defied understanding was why the editors of the New York Times tolerated their paper's persistent hyping of the phony "scandal."

The answer, as Lelyveld reveals inadvertently, was a remarkable degree of carelessness at the very top. Although he has defended the paper's coverage publicly for several years -- and continues to do so as if he knows what he's talking about -- the former Times executive editor clearly never mastered the basic facts.

When preparing reporter Jeff Gerth's first Whitewater story on March 8, 1992, he writes, "Gerth and his editors" -- that includes Lelyveld --"had to decide whether they knew enough to publish what they had. The decision seemed obvious and, at the time, routine. The story said that the Clintons had a half-interest in a real-estate development company in the Ozarks and that the other half was owned by an old friend who was at the helm of the biggest savings and loan association in the state when it became insolvent."

The biggest savings and loan association in which state? Not the state of Arkansas, by a factor of 10 or 15 times (as Atrios pointed out the other day). If he possessed even a scant familiarity with Whitewater's history, Lelyveld would know that Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan lost a total of $65 million -- and was thus among the state's smallest S&L failures. Maybe Lelyveld should have glanced at "The Hunting of the President," which explains on Page 37 that the two largest failed thrifts in Arkansas were First Federal and Savers Savings, with $950 million and $650 million in losses, respectively.

It is kinder to assume that Lelyveld's misleading synopsis of Whitewater is simply uninformed rather than deceptive. But that isn't always easy, as when he insinuates that Whitewater dragged on until 1999 or so because of the Clintons' stubborn refusal to produce financial records. In fact, the Clintons were decisively cleared of any wrongdoing no later than 1995 by the Resolution Trust Corporation's exhaustive and independent investigation, which produced a multivolume report with appendices that Lelyveld should now be required to read in full. The first couple cooperated fully with the RTC investigators, providing lengthy interviews and thousands of pages of documentation.

My old friend Blumenthal reviews all this history, noting that the Times managed to bury and virtually ignore the RTC's ringing exoneration of the paper's presidential prey.

While trying to sound knowledgeable, Lelyveld also lets loose a couple of silly bloopers -- the funniest being his inclusion of the late R.J. Rushdoony in a list of anti-Clinton schemers. I suspect that if Lelyveld's life depended on it, he couldn't correctly identify Rushdoony, who played no part in the Clinton wars. In his eagerness to sketch an acid portrait of Blumenthal, however, his other errors are more serious. Consider the following.

Lelyveld: "Blumenthal doesn't make explicit that the President's acknowledgment on television that he had 'misled people' was the only apology Blumenthal would ever get. So much for the inside view."

"The Clinton Wars" (describing the day the House voted impeachment), on Page 552: "Clinton grabbed my arm and asked me to come into the Oval Office ... He was sorry about what everybody had been through because of the scandal. He was apologetic that he had given ammunition to our enemies. He was sorry about Lewinsky and the whole thing, but no apologies would be enough."

Lelyveld: "[Blumenthal] also doesn't find room to mention that Morris took a poll that told Clinton he might not survive early disclosure [of his dalliance with Lewinsky]."

"The Clinton Wars," Page 343: "Much, much later, after the release of the Starr Report, I learned almost everything [Clinton] had told me was true. Almost. He had spoken with Morris, who had run a poll. (When I saw the poll reproduced in the Starr Report it struck me as mostly worthless as a political document, because all the key questions had the word 'crimes' attached to them, ensuring negative responses. The statistics indicating the public's inclinations to forgive incidents that were just sex, Morris misinterpreted.)"

Lelyveld: "[Blumenthal] remembers that Joe Lieberman was 'the son of a New Haven liquor store owner' but somehow neglects to mention his Senate speech denouncing Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky matter as 'disgraceful' and 'immoral.'"

"The Clinton Wars," Page 478: "Senator Joseph Lieberman had given a speech denouncing Clinton's behavior as 'immoral' and went up to the edge of calling for him to quit."

Lelyveld could easily have consulted the book's index to check those damning assertions before committing them to print. His casual attitude about significant facts -- and his unshakable certainty about his own false assumptions -- both suggest why the nation's most important newspaper so credulously promoted pseudo-scandals during the Clinton years.
[11:56 a.m. PDT, May 12, 2003]

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