Sunday, 14 March 2010

ALL THE FAT THAT'S NEWS TO PRINT: The New York Times, Clinton, and Starr

Amidst the Cassandra cries about the impending heat-death of the newspaper industry, it is always instructive to see the New York Times argue persuasively against its own utility. In the process of moving house a couple of weeks ago I relaxed for a few moments with a copy of the once-esteemed International Herald-Tribune, now the Times' Paris edition, and read a review by Richard L. Berke from the Times of Ken Gormley's The Death Of American Virtue: Clinton vs Starr. You can link to the review as it appeared in the NYT here.

Berke was the paper's 'national political correspondent' from 1993 to 2002 (he's now one of the thousands of assistant managing editors), hence at the centre of the paper's coverage of the Clinton impeachment. So it's instructive that the paper's book review chose him to review a book about a story the paper got wrong right from the start.

Predictably, he begins by ridiculing the whole business, the classic Rush Limbaugh 'get over it' dismissal. He then, quite rightly, appears to dismiss the whole thing as an overblown triviality, pointing out accurately that it 'all arose' from the question of whether Clinton had exposed himself to Paula Jones when he was governor of Arkansas. 'In today's world of suicide bombers and a ravaged economy,' he intones portentiously, as if the 90s did not have terrorist or economic crises, 'it all seems not merely frivolous but ludicrous.' So far so good, though when he speaks of 'so many' being preoccupied with Monica Lewinsky, by implication he is excluding himself and his paper. It would be nice if they hadn't behaved in exactly that way at the time, and it would be better if he could remember his own point for at least another couple of paragraphs. Sadly, he can't, or won't.

Praising the book for its detachment, calling it hefty but chiding it for ignoring the 'motivations' of its two central characters (both of whom Gormley interviewed) and for not concentrating more on the 'political theatre', Berke, and the Times, want to have it both ways. Especially when he agrees with Gormley's allowing that both Clinton and Starr might have acted from 'honourable' intentions. Berke thinks Starr was simply the wrong choice to prosecute because he had 'never run a major criminal investigation'. This the honourable Starr finds his conduct justified because Judge Susan Wright 'considered' finding Clinton in contempt during his Senate impeachment trial. Berke concludes that it was outrage at Clinton's actions that caused 'people' (but not him or the Times) to 'overreact'.

This ignores reality to an astounding degree. Why should Starr's credentials in major criminal trials be an issue if, as Berke pretended to acknowledge, this case was concerned with an accusation of indecent exposure? Was it not obvious, when Robert Fiske was canned as the independent prosecutor, that Starr was chosen to replace him, not for his legal skill but for his plitical willingness to do whatever it took to 'get'' the Clintons? In such circumstances can we really accept that 'both sides' engaged in 'possible misconduct'? One side was trying to topple the government on the basis of the President's sex life. The other was trying to run the country (and recall the 'wagging the dog' reactions to Clinton's attempts at offing Osama next time you invoke terrorism as a real issue!).

Berke then editorialises on whether the impeachment changed how 'we' look at politicians. By calling it the 'Clinton-Starr entanglement' he moves the goalposts once again, back to a political two-hander, theatre of the absurd whose audience thinks it's getting Arthur Miller. And, as he did in his basic analysis of the case, Berke again homes right in on the crucial truth of the matter, then proceeds to ignore it.

'In reality the case belongs to the continuum that began with the toppling of Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court', he writes, and he is absolutely right. But rather than follow the logical implcations of that idea for both the motivations and the conduct of Starr's office, Berke quotes Henry Hyde, the Republican leader of the impeachment team in the House, with a straight face, saying the good thing about the Clinton trial was it led to George Bush's election as president.

First off, remember that Hyde was literally Mr Hyde to Clinton's Doctor Jekyll. Clinton was pursued for losing money in Whitewater? Hyde was the only director of a failed Illinois savings and loan to escape federal prosecution in the Keating days. Clinton was a philanderer? When Hyde's own afairs were uncovered, he dismissed then as 'youthful indiscretions', even though he had been older then that Clinton was during the impeachment. It raises a few questions about whether Berke might have considered American Virtue a more than somewhat ironic title?

And secondly, recall that Bush was not 'elected' president, but appointed by a Supreme Court whose political agenda made Bork look like Louis Brandeis. Bork is the Horst Wessell of the neo-cons and their Thousand Year Rich, and revenging themselves on those who refused to inflict him on America via the Supreme Court has been the motivating factor for the right ever since. And they have been very successful in using the courts and the media in a two-pronged attack, which flaunts 'character' as the bullfighter's cape to distract voters, while courts packed with right-wing judges turn back the clock on workers, the poor, and those with consciences.

In Gormley's book, Starr apparently says he regrets investigating Monica Lewinsky at all, and now sadly asks himself 'why did all this happen...this is all so unnecessary'. Richard L. Berke's reaction to this is not to ask, what could Starr have done to avoid making it happen, or even how could Clinton have avoided it. Instead, he decides 'few will disagree' with Starr. That's pretty much what he said in the 90s too, and thus the ouroboros that is the Times comes back and bites itself in its self-regarding ass.

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