Newsweek has been awarded the first exclusive post-presidential interview with Bill Clinton, and from the looks of it, the story should begin with the words, "Once upon a time."
Across the expanse of its nine pages, interviewer Jonathan Alter (a man used to cooing over the man he called "our rogue prince of prosperity") and the former chief manipulator concoct a fantasy world, where a brilliant presidency was ruined by a vast conspiracy of right-wing fanatics and a chain of phony scandals promoted by a press corps that pounded poor Clinton mercilessly.
For starters, Clinton sounds amused as he notes this first opportunity for a journalistic shoe-shining comes from Newsweek, which he calls "the house organ of Paula Jones." There's no correction from Alter. There should have been. Back in February 1994, when Jones announced her plans to sue, the magazine did nothing. When she filed suit in May, they launched several pages of nutty-and-slutty bombs on her. She was a "Dogpatch Madonna," noted for "drinking beer, dancing and other things that were forbidden at home," as well as her "flirtatious behavior." When Jones gave the magazine an interview a few weeks later, they decided not to publish anything from it. Some house organ.
Only reporter Stuart Taylor insisted Jones had a case, in an October 1996 article in American Lawyer magazine (which the national press ignored until Clinton was safely re-elected). As the Supreme Court took up her case, Newsweek put Jones on their cover, which must inspire Clinton's cracks.
After denouncing her as "some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks" in 1994, Newsweek's then-Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas did a little penance: "Arguably, the main reason more people don't take her story seriously is that the mainstream media have been skillfully spun by the White House and Clinton's lawyers."
In other words, Newsweek had been the house organ of Clinton, not Jones.
Speaking of Clinton-lawyer spin, Alter positively fawns over the end of the independent counsel probe into Clinton's Whitewater scandal. The news that the probe "turned up no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Clintons confirmed all over again his contempt for prosecutors and the press (which, typically, buried the exonerating story after hyping the charges for years.)"
How wrong can this be? Start with the legal issues. Whitewater rehashes often begin and end without noting that Ken Starr convicted 12 people, including a jury finding of multiple felonies by the Clintons' business partners, Jim and Susan McDougal. We may easily posit that if George W. Bush had a set of business partners found guilty of multiple felonies, the major media wouldn't somehow miss the trial and then forget the convictions ever after.
The Whitewater probe has never led to the liberal media "hyping the charges for years." There was one period of hype -- the first few months of 1994 -- and it was before Ken Starr. The Starr appointment gave Clintonites the impetus to scare reporters away from the story, and the politics of intimidation worked. They wouldn't want to aid a thinly veiled right-wing impeachment plot, would they?
Ray's final report was not front-page news in the national press -- except for The Washington Times, possibly the only national media outlet that could plausibly be attacked by Clinton lovers as a persistently aggressive force on the story. But Ray's "exoneration" had been signaled more than a year ago, and everything that followed his tacky inauguration-eve plea bargain with Clinton was anti-climactic. You could argue Clinton-friendly media outlets might conclude that the last thing the Clinton legacy needs now is a front-page reminder of those awful scandals.
Most of Alter's questions to Clinton sound like they were asked by a golf caddy rather than a reporter. On the Sept. 11 attacks, Alter felt Clinton's pain that he wasn't preening for the White House cameras as the towers collapsed. "Through historical fate, you missed the leadership challenge of your generation." On the Marc Rich pardon, Alter opened the door for Clinton to bash Ken Starr: "Do you think you were a little more open to the argument, from personal experience, that prosecutors are not infallible?"
But most annoying are Alter's old chestnuts. "Why do you think the right wing was so obsessed with you? ... Why do they still beat up on you when you're not in power any more?"
If Alter really knew conservatives, he'd know that most of them would rather forget the whole sprawling mess of the Clinton presidency, and don't need to "beat up" on poor Bill to make it through the day. But Clinton critics shouldn't stand idly by while Alter and other perpetual Bill-boosters try to wipe all the tarnish -- and the truth -- away from the Clinton legacy.