Glenn Greenwald recently had a sterling post examining Joe Klein's attempts to distance himself from his anti-Clinton commentary during Impeachment Year 1998. In his Time blog, Klein claimed that I thought Bill Clinton was a very good President and ex-President" and went on describe the events of 1998 this way: "the Republican berserkers, with a strong assist from the press, tried to derail democracy during his Administration, perhaps the most disgraceful performances by a political party--and by my colleagues--that I've ever witnessed. (For those who were not born yet, I defended Clinton through Whitewater and Lewinsky, although I was occasionally critical--as were more than a few members of the White House staff--of the First Lady's reluctance to be more forthcoming on Whitewater and of the Big Guy's prevarication on Lewinsky. Still, I didn't think these, or the other scandalettes, were very serious.)" As Greenwald points out, Klein's 1994 Newsweek article, "The Politics of Promiscuity", was one of the first attempts by a mainstream reporter to officially declare Clinton's private life fair game for journalists and bloviators, on the grounds that this "character flaw" may have been "a defining characteristic of his public life as well." He proceeded to make the self-serving, strained argument that Clinton's skirt-chasing was "not irrelevant when his behavior toward Haitians, Bosnians-and Americans -- is considered, and therefore should be a fit subject for greater scrutiny."
Greenwald also dug up some of Klein's 1998 TV chats with Tim Russert, where he defended this "very good president" in his time of trouble by repeating the usual mantras of the time about what his inability to resist a pretty face said about him ("You gotta figure that there's something desperately wrong with this guy.") and how it would affect his legacy. ("He will be remembered in the most embarrassing tawdry sort of way.") The fact that Klein would suggest that he experienced the bump in career recognition that he enjoyed in the second half of the 1990s by defending the Clintons is misrepresentative not just of his actual behavior but of the political-celebrity culture of that time. As Greenwald points out, "In the 1990s, there simply were virtually no media stars insisting that the Lewinsky and Whitewater matters were being blown out of proportion. The ones who thought that and said that didn't get invited on television and didn't become media stars. They became media stars only by going on with Chris Matthews and Tim Russert and endlessly dissecting every last sex leak about cigars, grand juries, Ken Starr manuevers and Clinton's penile spots." And the people who, in 1998, booked Klein onto those shows knew what to expect from him: two years earlier, he had redefined himself through the publication of the anti-Clinton novel Primary Colors. The revelation, months after that book had been hailed as a brilliant work of satire, that Klein was its anonymous author did wonders for his profile, though it remains an open secret if the book would have been so gratefully received and excessively garlanded if it had appeared on bookstore shelves with the bland declaration "by Joe Klein" on its cover. Soon after, he was taken on by The New Yorker as its Washington correspondent, filling a vacancy that had been held in the early years of the Clinton presidency by Sidney Blumenthal. Nobody disputes the fact that Blumenthal lost that job because his editor felt that he was too easy on Clinton and wasn't spending enough time on the phony scandals that Klein now thinks his colleagues were "disgraceful" for having wallowed in. Oddly enough, The New Yorker seemed to find Klein's coverage of Clinton and the "scandalettes" entirely to its satisfaction.
Klein's account of what he was really doing in the nineties is interesting for the way it ties in with the American media's apparent lack of interest in observing the tenth anniversary of Impeachment Year 1998, in contrast to the enthusiasm with which they've always jumped on every opportunity to remember Watergate. Of course, in the media's telling, that was the story of how a free, inquisitive press brought down a bad man. (Those who know the real nuts and bolts of the Watergate story are aware that it's also the story of how the national media, as a whole, ignored that story and scorned the one newspaper that fought to keep it alive, in the process abetting the landslide election of a certifiable enemy of the people as leader of the free world.) The Clinton impeachment circus will not enjoy the same kind of annual resurrection in the media anymore than the Iran-Contra hearings will, because it's the story of how the media let itself get used by slimy partisan operators and sleaze merchants. That's how most of the country saw it at the time, too, but it's sure not how the journalist celebrities such as Russert and Klein saw it, or themselves.
It's also sort of interesting to speculate on why Klein would risk making himself look ridiculous by rewriting his role in the whole mess when none of his colleagues would object to everyone just forgetting it ever happened, and here, I think, may be the key to the mindset of the contemporary media corps that nobody ever talks about, probably because some things are just too pathetic to want to deal with. We all talk about how the media plays favorites and palms off stuff they've been told by self-interested parties as scoops, as if they were the product of actual journalistic labor and how cravenly they maintain their pack mentality. But how do they decide which stupid position they're going to take on something? I think that, as often as they seem to be trying to influence their audience, they actually think that they're reflecting their audience's views as well. People like Russert and Klein make a big show of having distaste for the Beltway that's the only place they can function, and of idealizing "the common American" with his dirty fingernails and vast arid stretches of plain good sense. I think that, in some terrible marriage of self-hatred and condescension, they try to convince themselves that the peculiar fantasies they come up with and turn into common wisdom--George W. Bush is the kinda fella you could have a beer with, Al Gore is a hoity-toity serial lying ol' smarty-pants, the nation at the end of the nineties suffered from "Clinton fatigue", John McCain is Charles Lindbergh without the anti-Semitism--they're projecting their own prejudices and knee-jerk reactions onto their audiences, telling themselves that this isn't the feeling among their fellow millionaires but what the people believe, and this fuels their fervor when they take to the airwaves to speak for those without a soapbox. That's why they seem so self-righteous so much of the time; they think they're channeling Tom Joad.
In some ways, Impeachment Year 1998 was the logical culmination of this attitude, and the inevitable train wreck. Given the media's history of sweeping sexual indiscretions under the rug, I don't think that the media would have jumped on it so hard if they hadn't convinced themselves that this was what "the people" really wanted to hear. Sure, polls kept showing that most Americans didn't think it was any of their business, but the media must have reasoned that this was like the woman whose mouth says no, no, but there's yes, yes in her eyes. The possibility that one might actually want to be overpowered by Rudolph Valentino, but that Chris Matthews was another story, was not considered. Nobody remembers this now, but there were a few hilarious weeks at the start of the coverage when the media, trying to serve the public the way it was imagined the public wanted to be served, yet also wanting to maintain some of its own dignity, adopted a faintly sorrowful tone in discussing the matter. People like Cokie Roberts and George Stephanopoulos would get together on Sunday morning and say something like, alas, if we were a more sophisticated country like they have in old Europe say, we could all laugh this off, but, for good or bad, the simple truth is that the God-fearing average American will not rest until our groper-in-chief is driven, trailing tar and feathers, back to Tobacco Road from whence he came. Surprisingly, when it turned out that the average God-fearing American was a lot more sophisticated and adaptable than Cokie had picked up during her last speaking tour, the pundits did not rejoice at the news but took to gnashing their teeth and wringing their hands over the news that we weren't setting the upright moral example (think of R. G. Armstrong in a Sam Peckinpah movie) they thought they could count on us to deliver. It was a terrible blow to all of them, and a disillusioning moment to be sure. I remember tuning in to some of those shows and thinking that it wouldn't be a surprise if Cokie or George were to start reciting dialogue from The Importance of Being Earnest: "Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?"
A couple of years later, you could see them looking almost as shocked when Bush failed to get the lower orders to provide him with a proper landslide victory. One reason that both the media and the Republicans seemed so well versed in the importance of winning the electoral vote, as opposed to the popular vote, was that there was concern in both parties that sneaky Al Gore might somehow win the electoral vote, though there was of course no chance that he might ever win something that had the word "popular" in it. If he had won the electoral and not the popular vote that night, those pundits and lawyers would of course have been prepared to make arguments precisely the opposite of the ones they wound up making--all in defense of what they knew in their bones to be the true will of "the people", never mine what these unpredictable troublemakers called the voters might try to pull. More recently, I suspect that the pundits who danced on Hillary Clinton's grave after Barack Obama's early primary victory were merely trying to delight the folks at home by speaking what they knew we all believe in our hearts. Subsequent reports that all that mean-spirited cackling may have had something to do with drumming up support for Clinton must have their heads spinning. In the meantime, Joe Klein's fantasy that he was swimming against the currents in 1998 may, on one level, just show that the little bedbug wants to be seen as having always been where the action was, but it's also heartening for showing that he now knows that having kissed Ken Starr's ring in 1998 is not now seen as an example of having spoken truth to power. It's a small thing, to be sure, but any instance of one of these characters actually figuring out, even ten years too late, what the whole elephant looked like is a miracle on the level of a coma victim rising from his bed and going out to win big on American Gladiators.
[x-posted at The Phil Nugent Experience]