Fanning the wrong flames

Posted: Jun 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a United States senator carefully fanning the media firestorm over her $8 million memoir to kindle a possible presidential candidacy, could hardly have less in common with Marzieh Babakhani, an Iranian refugee who died in Paris this week after setting herself ablaze to protest France's massive crackdown on an Iranian opposition group headquartered in France. But then I came across that most remarkable bit about Mrs. Clinton's best-selling memoir, Living History (Simon & Schuster, 2003). It made me realize that there is a point of comparison in the respective media coverage of these two persons that makes a small but significant point about our ailing political culture.

Truth be told, this most remarkable bit about Hillary doesn't actually fall between her book's covers; it is instead a Clinton comment -- or, rather, a Clinton no-comment -- on a question about the book that came her way from the very middle of the mainstream media, The Washington Post. After asking Mrs. Clinton to discuss some of the high-rev political commentary in some of the high-rev political parts of the memoir, the Post dutifully relayed to its readers that the New York senator "declined to be interviewed about the political content of her book."

She declined to be interviewed about the political content of the book, did she? Columnists Jonah Goldberg and Andrew Sullivan have already picked up on this colossal crust -- the former ascribing Madame's declining "to be interviewed, etc.," to a cynical strategy calculated to maintain poll-boosting victim status. Now that I've caught on, I think this little story is well worth highlighting all over again. What we've got here is a U.S. Senator who writes a book to launch a probable presidential candidacy while claiming the near-divine right of first ladies (and criminal suspects) to remain silent. As Mr. Goldberg put it on National Review Online, "She denies that she's merely a wife, and yet when it comes time to market herself she refuses to be anything else." Not that those snarling pit bulls of the media would ever, ever let Hillary Clinton get away with running on a platform of, say, having "wanted to wring his neck." Or would they? Judging by the tenor of Mrs. Clinton's infomercials -- I mean interviews -- the answer is a tail-wagging yes.

All of which somehow turned my thoughts to the wretched Marzieh Babakhani, the heretofore anonymous woman "of about 40," said Reuters, who, in a gruesome act of fanaticism, exchanged her life for the tiniest, briefest blaze of headlines on the plight of the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People's Mujahedeen, an Iranian exile group dedicated to overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Iran. As The New York Times noted, the French crackdown effectively ended the group's activities in France, "while the timing of the operation" -- which coincided with the recent eruption of Iranian student protest against the regime -- "seemed to send conciliatory signals" to Iran's mullah-dictators.

This, I would fervently hope, is the last thing the United States wants to do, particularly after having offered encouragement to the student protesters (who are not, by the way, affiliated with the People's Muhajedeen). Still, it is also the case that since 1997, our government, joined last year by the European Union, has deemed this particular exile group a terrorist organization. Worth noting, however, is the fact that Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, for one, contests this terrorist label, explaining in a column last month that the group has "really forsworn" the barbaric tactics it once used against Americans, confining military action for the past 15 years to "specific regime targets."

Indeed, Mr. Pipes has recommended that Secretary of State Colin Powell remove the group from the list of terrorist organizations.

In other words, there is plenty of room for debate and analysis -- political content -- regarding this compelling new angle on the war against Islamist terrorism and the regimes that support it. Which, of course, reminds me again of the media firestorm around Mrs. Clinton, elected official and probable presidential hopeful, that burns on devoid of political substance. This disturbing spectacle says more about the media, of course, than it does about Mrs. Clinton. It should make us reflect both on the lengths some people allow themselves to go to make a political statement -- and the lengths some are allowed to go to avoid it.