At the expense of giving an antagonist the
benefit of the doubt, Joseph Lelyveld couldn't have
known when he wrote his dismissive review of Sidney Blumenthal's book "The Clinton Wars,"
what a bad week it would be for condescending New York Times editors. Lelyveld retired as
executive editor in 2001. According to the Time's front page apologia for the transgressions of
plagiarist and fabulator Jayson Blair, he'd written a memo in 2000 warning that too many factual
blunders were creeping into the newspaper.
It's tempting to say Lelyveld woke up at
least 10 years too late. Except judging by his patronizing
attitude toward Blumenthal in the New York Review of Books, he's still snoozing. Since one of
the "The Clinton Wars'" major themes is how The Times and the national press madly pursued
one absurd Clinton "psuedoscandal" after another until they finally caught the Big Creep with
his pants down, sleepwalking was a professional necessity.
Caveat: Blumenthal is a personal friend;
I'm a minor character in his book, which makes
considerable use of Joe Conason's and my book "The Hunting of the President."
Although comical and sad, Jayson Blair's
inventions did little real harm. Many journalists secretly
love the ritual purging of hoaxers like him, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke, the Washington Post
reporter who made-up a in imaginary child heroin addict. It lets them display their dedication to
what The Times expose calls "the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth."
Ah, simple truth. Crediting "The Hunting
of the President," Blumenthal describes several
absurdities in Times reporter Jeff Gerth's initial reporting of the Whitewater psuedoscandal,
including his portrayal of Arkansas securities commissioner Beverly Bassett Schaffer as
suspiciously forgetful about Jim McDougal's doomed Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan.
The story clearly implied that Schaffer, a Clinton appointee, had malingered while Clinton's
business partner played financial games.
"In fact," Blumenthal writes "before [Gerth's]
article appeared, she had given him a twenty page
memo spelling out in detail what had actually happened--she had requested federal regulators to
close the S & L--an account Gerth ignored." She'd urged the Feds in writing to shut Madison
Guaranty down fourteen months before they acted. If Lelyveld ever knew that, he's not saying.
"Not many people will want to dive into the details
of the Whitewater case again," writes Lelyveld.
"But since I had a measure of responsibility for the appearance of the first story on the subject,
I can't avoid quarreling with the depiction of the reporter that became standard in the Clinton
camp and that is faithfully repeated by Blumenthal. Far from being a gullible tool of Clinton-haters
with a casual relation to facts, Jeff Gerth is an estimable and painstaking investigative reporter
who knows how to read legal papers and financial reports."
Interesting, then, as Blumenthal also shows,
that the facts and conclusions in the 1995 Pillsbury
Report--including every single document and cancelled check The Times had demanded to see
--basically got ignored as Gerth and the press pack went whooping down false trails laid by
Kenneth Starr's leak-o-matic prosecutors. Lelyveld is still kvetching about the Clinton's refusal
to put the documents into Gerth's hands after he'd demonstrated his selectivity toward that
elusive willow-the-wisp "simple truth."
Sophisticated reporters like Gerth know
better than to make things up. But like Clinton, they
also know what to leave out. In a "Clintonian" statement, apparent fidelity to literal fact masks
an intention to mislead. To wit, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
(But I did let her...)" Well, we all know what he let her do.
Just so, Whitewater, which became the most elaborate shaggy-dog story in recent American
history--weakening the White House and empowering Starr's partisan witch hunt--precisely
because few "disturbing questions" about the Clintons' ill-fated real estate venture ever made
sense. Exculpatory facts were routinely concealed. An editor with a fraction of Lelyveld's
self-esteem should have known.
Alas, he still hasn't mastered the basics,
falsely asserting that Jim McDougal "was at the helm
of the biggest savings and loan association in the state when it became insolvent." In reality,
Madison Guaranty was one of Arkansas's smaller S & L failures, roughly 1/15 the size of
First Federal's $950 million cave-in. Nor was McDougal in charge. He'd been removed two
and a half years before Madison's closure, partly at Bassett Schaffer's insistence.
Elsewhere, Lelyveld portrays Blumenthal
as an equivocating "courtier" for failing to acknowledge
aspects of the Lewinsky scandal hurtful to Clinton. In Salon.com, Conason quotes directly from
"The Clinton Wars" to show that every item Lelyveld says Blumenthal ignored, Blumenthal dealt with,
often pungently, including a tough passage in which he told both Clintons that the president's
reckless actions "had given ammunition to his enemies and endangered everything he believed in."
Among the most formidable of those enemies was The New York Times.
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