For months there had been a quiet buzz in both political and publishing circles surrounding "The Book" being written about Sen. Hillary Clinton. The scuttlebutt had it that New York Times best-selling author Edward Klein was in the final stages of a blockbuster expose of the former first lady, the likes of which could derail her 2008 presidential aspirations. "The Truth About Hillary" is now out, and it has lived up to its billing in the fireworks department. Except the controversy surrounds not Hillary Clinton but author Ed Klein, and the broadsides against him are coming primarily from conservatives, not the Left.
When Sean Hannity interviewed the author, he was clearly uncomfortable. Author Peggy Noonan has slammed the book. New York Post columnist John Podhoretz has blasted it. Talk show hosts Bill O'Reilly and Joe Scarborough have publicly declared they want nothing to do with it. From the rest of the media, particularly the broadcast networks and their morning talk shows, which routinely feature book interviews -- silence. Ed Klein is persona non grata.
What gives? The critics are denouncing what they see as salacious material. Tales of Hillary's purported lesbianism; allegations that all along she knew about her husband's trysts with Monica Lewinsky; questions about her questionable personal hygiene -- these are but some of the topics decried by Klein's detractors. More damning, perhaps, is the author's methodology. His charges are consistently based on reports from Anonymous Source. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz quotes Scarborough's read: "I just applied the Kitty Kelley test. If it was inappropriate to have Kitty Kelley on because of unsubstantiated charges, it would be inappropriate to have Ed Klein on."
Agree with Scarborough or not, his position is defensible and consistent. The same cannot be said for the so-called (and really, we must stop using this wholly inaccurate term) "mainstream" media. Their refusal to interview Klein is an exercise in hypocrisy. If they applied that Kitty Kelley test on themselves today, consistency would demand coverage for Klein's book on Hillary tomorrow.
In 1991, Kelley released "Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography" which featured, ironically, some of the very same charges with the same lack of substantiation. On April 7, 1991, The New York Times saw fit to print not a book review but an actual news story on the book -- on Page One, no less. Maureen Dowd, who wrote that piece, later defended her actions in the New Republic this way: "Of course, the book is tawdry. Of course the book is, in some spots, loosely sourced and over the top … Of course, there are mistakes in it … The point, however, is that Kelley's portrait is not essentially untrue."
Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter equivocated in much the same manner. "In a narrow sense, Kelley is an effective reporter." Later in his April 22, 1991, apologia he would add: "Despite her wretched excesses, Kelley has the core of the story right … However twisted, the bulk of Kelley's stories seem to at least be based on real events." Alter saw Kelley's book as a searing indictment of the Reagans. "If even a small fraction of the material amassed and borrowed here turns out to be true," he wrote back then, "Ronald Reagan and his wife had to be the most hypocritical people ever to live in the White House." Alter's Newsweek colleague Eleanor Clift was more unequivocal still. "If privacy ends where hypocrisy begins, Kitty Kelley's steamy expose of Nancy Reagan is a contribution to contemporary history."
Could not the very same things be said in defense of Klein? So where are Dowd, Alter and Clift now?
Kelley's attacks on Nancy Reagan merited attention as news stories on the broadcast networks as well -- and with the same ambivalence toward journalistic accuracy or evidence. On April 24, 1991, Bryant Gumbel took to CNN's "Larry King Live" to give Kelley his personal seal of approval: "I'm one of those people who generally has liked Kitty's writing in the past. I know all of the research she does. I'm aware of the fact that for all the things she's written that are controversial, she has yet to lose a lawsuit … Kitty is a very brave woman." "Is the stuff in the book true or just vindictive tales?" asked CBS reporter Mark Phillips in his April 8, 1991, "CBS Evening News" report on the Kelley book. "Who knows? Who cares?"
And that's the point. When there are juicy stories about the personal lives of conservatives -- a convicted drug dealer accuses Dan Quayle of doing drugs; Anita Hill accuses Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; George Bush 41 is accused of having an extramarital affair; Bush 43 is a coke head -- they merit immediate national news coverage. As to the authenticity of the charges, who knows? Who cares? But when the subject is Hillary, that cavalier attitude … disappears.