Still smiting Slick Willie

The New York Times continues its decade of Clinton bashing by trashing his memoirs. And it still won't fess up on Whitewater.

Published June 22, 2004 7:41PM (EDT)

Appearing on CNN over the weekend, CBS's Dan Rather, who recently scored an exclusive interview with Bill Clinton, was asked if the former president understood that by publishing his memoirs he was giving his political opponents "a second whack" at him. A better follow-up question today would be, did Clinton think the New York Times would be out front leading the whacks? On Sunday the Times, which for more than a decade has harbored a hostility toward the Clintons unmatched by any other mainstream media outlet, published a scathing critique that included a dubious accusation regarding the paper's favorite faux Clinton scandal, Whitewater.

The rare Page One review, by Michiko Kakutani, the Times' longtime staff book critic, starts out by attacking "My Life" as "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull." Without having read the book (it was embargoed until Tuesday), it's impossible to evaluate this criticism, but certainly Clinton's well-known capacity for long-windedness, and reports that he delivered his vast manuscript very late to his editors, lend some credence to it. But other aspects of Kakutani's critique are more problematic, in a way that will be all too familiar to readers of the Times' Clinton coverage. For example, she expresses annoyance that Clinton "spends a lot of time" countering the partisan accusers who spent eight years trying to drive him from office -- a naive criticism that seems based on an ultimately political judgment. Although Kakutani seems pleased that "Mr. Clinton takes more responsibility in these pages for his affair with Ms. Lewinsky, his lies about that affair and the damage those actions inflicted on his family and his presidency than he has in the past," she later belittles such passages as nothing more than "psychobabble mea culpas," all part of a "12-step confessional."

There's little indication that the Times review, or any other notices coming this week, will dent the historic sales Clinton's book is expected to enjoy. (Preorders alone suggest "My Life" will be the bestselling political memoir of all time.) What the review does succeed in doing, however, is shed light on the Times' ongoing and peculiar institutional antagonism toward the most popular, two-term Democratic president of the last half-century.

That resentment took root long before Clinton faced impeachment charges. Early on in his presidency, the Times' editorial page, then overseen by Howell Raines, actually published an unsigned column mocking Clinton's decision to vacation on Martha's Vineyard, complete with condescending references -- "Lake of the Ozarks" and "Li'l Abner" -- to Clinton's modest upbringing. Around that time Clinton invited the Times' publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., to the White House for a lunch, where he asked about the paper's critical coverage, pointing out the Times had endorsed Clinton for president. According to the account in "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times," Sulzberger suggested it was a "tough love" policy. "I've seen the tough," Clinton replied. "Where's the love?"

And that was before Whitewater, the miragelike nonscandal the Times played a central role in creating. Most of the paper's reporting on Whitewater has long since been called into question. Yet unlike more recent public bouts of accountability at the Times, where editors have spelled out for readers embarrassing journalistic failures -- such as the rampant fabrications of cub reporter Jayson Blair, or the hyping of Iraq's alleged stockpile of WMD during the run-up to war -- the Times has not only failed to cop to its Whitewater woes, but continues to build a protective wall higher and higher around them.

So perhaps it isn't surprising that Kakutani, without citing any proof, toes the Times' house line and accuses Clinton of telling "lies about ... real estate," a clear reference to the Whitewater scandal. Yet even Ken Starr's office of independent counsel, and his successor Robert Ray, along with the Republican-run Resolution Trust Co., came to the conclusion that the Clintons never "lied" about Whitewater. Instead, they put nearly $200,000 at risk in the Arkansas vacationland venture and lost $43,000 in the end.

Kakutani could not be reached for comment about the "lies" she alleges Clinton told. In an e-mail response to Salon, executive editor Bill Keller points out that "the official investigations concluded that there was insufficient evidence to accuse the Clintons of a crime. Deceit is not a crime. I think it's well within a critic's right to hold that the Clintons were not entirely forthcoming. The Ray report, for example, said they were prone to statements that were 'factually inaccurate.'"

But Gene Lyons, author of the 1996 book "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater," which dissected the Times' prominent role in Whitewater, says, "Bill Keller should know not every factually inaccurate statement is a lie." If that were the definition of "lies," he says, then the Times' Whitewater coverage has been littered with them. "Nobody wants the Times to run an 8,000-word word correction on Whitewater at this point. But a little humility on the topic would be in order, I think."

Over the years, Kakutani has defended the Times' role in the Whitewater story. In 1996, while reviewing James Stewart's "Blood Sport," which unsuccessfully tried to advance the Whitewater saga, Kakutani chastised Stewart for simply piggybacking on Timesman Jeff Gerth's "meticulous efforts" in covering the story. Those "meticulous efforts" have not stood the test of time, with most of his published allegations in the Times having evaporated.

Four years later, writing about Jeffrey Toobin's definitive legal account of the impeachment controversy, "A Vast Conspiracy," Kakutani labeled as a "dubious assertion" the author's suggestion that the Whitewater investigation existed "only because of the efforts of Clinton's right-wing political enemies." That's a dead-on factual claim that perhaps even some of Ken Starr's investigators would now concede to.

Kakutani also belittles Clinton for his lack of candor, but fails to inform readers that "My Life" reportedly contains strong criticism of the New York Times, and specifically its Whitewater coverage. As David Brock's Web site Media Matters for America notes, Kakutani did the same thing in her unflattering review of Sen. Hillary Clinton's 2003 memoir "Living History," failing to inform Times readers that the book contained accusations that the Times practiced dishonest journalism.

"I think she should have included that," Lyons says. "That's the reviewer's duty, to pass along information and let readers know. If this review was deemed to be so newsworthy [as to run on Page 1], then it should contain elementary fairness."

Asked about the omission, Keller responded, "I can't imagine where this question leads that isn't patently absurd."

Like most, Lyons hasn't yet read "My Life." He says after watching Clinton for years he wouldn't be surprised if the book were at times unfocused and long-winded. But in contrast to the Times' harsh treatment, early indications suggest the book will receive mixed reviews. Both Newsweek and Time got their hands on copies last week. Newsweek reports that "every facet of Clinton's complex, nuanced and sometimes maddening personality is on display. He is by turns introspective and willfully obtuse, expansive and curt. One moment, he forces the reader on a joyless march through an arid policy debate. The next, he offers up a raw, confessional moment that almost makes the book seem worth the $35 price of admission."

Time magazine calls the book's account of Clinton's presidency "haphazard," and writer Joe Klein has likened it to a "diary dump." But the magazine concludes there "are occasional nuggets of brilliant political analysis."

Perhaps more telling, Time states, "The case [Clinton] builds against Starr in 'My Life' is a lawyer's case, careful and powerful. In retrospect, it is clear that there was no substance to the Whitewater allegations. And it also seems clear that the press was way too credulous about Starr's allegations and didn't pay nearly enough attention to his methods."

Leading that credulous charge was the New York Times. It seems the paper is still in denial.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Bill Clinton Memoirs The New York Times