When Anthony Lewis took on the GOP -- and the New York Times

Absent from the obituaries is his noble defense of Bill Clinton during the impeachment witch-hunt of the 1990s

By Eric Boehlert

Published March 27, 2013 9:03PM (EDT)

Anthony Lewis
Anthony Lewis

This article originally appeared in Media Matters for America.

With the passing of legendary New York Times newsman Anthony Lewis this week, observers have noted that his lasting legacy will likely be his clarion insights and logical, lucid writing style that helped make the courts and the law more accessible for everyday news consumers. From his two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting, to his opinion column which he wrote for more than three decades, Lewis' imprint on the Times was vast.

What may be getting overlooked in the remembrances though, and what the Times itself neglected to mention in its otherwise thorough Lewis obituary, was the pivotal role Lewis played during the 1990s when he stood up to his own newspaper, as well as to an army of Republican partisans waging war against President Bill Clinton. Lewis wrote passionately about the mindless pursuit of the Whitewater story and the Clinton impeachment saga. As a legal scholar, Lewis was utterly appalled by the conduct of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his office of "thuggish deputies."

Today, pointing out the gaping holes in the Whitewater tale and the impeachment media circus might seem like common sense punditry. But at the time, and especially inside the Times, where a fever-swamp disdain for Clinton ran wild, Lewis' level-headed truth telling stood out.

"For a while there, he seemed the only sane and dispassionate person at the New York Times," author Gene Lyons told Media Matters this week. Lyons detailed the Times' journalism shortcomings in his 1996 book,Fools For Scandal: How The Media Invented Whitewater, and co-wrote with Joe Conason The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign To Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Lewis wasn't shy about listing Clinton's policy faults and failures. (He despised the "cruel" Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed in 1996.) But he refused to stand by while the law was so transparently used, and misused, as a political weapon, first in an attempt to destroy Clinton's presidency via the Whitewater investigations, and then in an attempt to drive Clinton from office with impeachment.

Additionally, Lewis served as an important counter-balance on the Op-Ed page to the Times' William Safire. Whereas his conservative colleague Safire got almost everything wrong for eight years about the Clinton scandals, Lewis, following the facts and common sense, got it right. (Safire didn't fare much better during the Bush years, hyping "the "undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks.")

A liberal who wasn't known as a partisan brawler, Lewis' gaze more often seemed fixed on matters that transcended the typical right/left warfare. Yet he remained a steward of justice and fair play and refused to remain silent when he saw the young Democratic president being hounded by his political opponents and by the Beltway press in a way the writer had never seen before.

Often alone among the true elites at the time, Lewis represented an important, respected voice that stood up to the Clinton Crazies. Yet no just to the partisans in the GOP and the fledgling right-wing media complex which was taking shape in the 1990s with Matt Drudge at the lead, but also the Clinton Crazies who populated theNew York Times; people like executive editor Howell Raines, Clinton-crazed columnist Maureen Dowd, and misguided Whitewater reporter Jeff Gerth.  (According to Fools for Scandal, CNN's John Camp once counted 19 factual errors or points of contention in just one of Gerth's Whitewater dispatches.)

They were among the reporters, editors and columnists who were genuinely obsessed, in a weirdly personal way, with bringing down the Democratic president, acting as conveyor belts for the GOP and its vast army of Clinton-hating minions who were eager to peddle trash under the guise of news. For years, the Times was more than happy to oblige and to set the Beltway's anti-Clinton tenor.

"The vituperative tone and persistent bias in the paper's coverage of both Bill and Hillary Clinton were appalling to Lewis, who didn't hesitate to voice an alternative view that not only his immediate colleagues but almost the entire national press corps openly disdained," Conason wrote this week.

Today, with Clinton riding high as a figure of national renown, it's sometime hard to recall the toxic relationship that existed between the Times and the most popular two-term Democratic president in half a century; the weird  institutional antagonism that emanated from the Times' old W. 43rd Street headquarters. It  was pervasive.

Early on in his presidency, the Times' editorial page, then overseen by Raines, published a contemptuous, unsigned piece mocking the Clintons' decision to vacation on Martha's Vineyard. The put-down column came complete with condescending references -- "Lake of the Ozarks" and "Li'l Abner" -- to Clinton's modest upbringing.

That personal disdain lingered for years. In 2004, the Times splashed its review of Clinton's My Life memoir on the front page and trashed it as "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull," while bemoaning the book's "psychobabble mea culpas." And yes, in the review the Times wasstill clinging to the debunked Whitewater claim that Clinton had been guilty of telling "lies" about "real estate." (The Resolution Trust Corporation and three separate independent counsels disagreed.)

It was the Times' dishonest Whitewater work, picked up and amplified by Republican partisans, that entangled the Clintons in an octopus-like investigation that stretched on for years, cost tens of millions of dollars, and even branched out into scrutinizing President Clinton's sex life.

Lewis remained deeply troubled by the dishonest journalism surrounding the Whitewater story. "A sense of proportion is what has been lacking in much of the Whitewater coverage, along with a sense of history," Lewis observed. "When it is all over, I think the press will regret its hysteria."

Lewis wrote that in 1994, years before the Beltway press and the Republican scandal machine quietly gave up on Whitewater and years before independent counsel Kenneth Starr used the conflict as his launch pad into the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

As time passed, Lewis considered the media's handling of the Whitewater story to be even more troubling. After "three years and innumerable investigations," Lewis wrote in a 1996 column, "Mr. Clinton has not been shown to have done anything wrong in Whitewater. One charge after another has evaporated." And yet, he observed, "some of the news reporting on Whitewater reads as if the reporters were committed to finding something wrong -- as if they had an investment in the story."

Lewis didn't mention the Times or its reporters by name in that piece, but he didn't have to. Everyone in Washington, D.C. who followed the story knew the Times had invested untold man-hours, and risked a considerable amount of its prestige, in breathlessly championing the Whitewater "scandal" long after common sense indicated the story had collapsed. By calling out reporters who acted as "if they had an investment in the story," Lewis was calling out his own newspaper.

That's not what his editors wanted to read at the time, but Lewis never wavered. And of  course he was vindicated by the facts, and by history.

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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