Last week, as thousands gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol to listen to R.E.M. and demonstrate for Tibetan freedom, Daniel Wattenberg, a clever writer of conservative bent, approached me backstage, bearing a mischievous smile. "You'd be a good person to ask this question," he said, as the sun baked the crowd. "Isn't it ironic that, thirty years after the 1960s, the top issue of the Gen-Xers is bashing a communist regime?" It was plain to see where Wattenberg, who pens a syndicated column with his father, neocon Ben, was heading. The ultimate triumph of the conservatives. They had finally won the hearts and minds of the young 'uns. In 1968, the kids were left; today, the kids are all right.
Not so fast there, Wattenberg the Younger. There's plenty of irony--if that's what it is--to go around. But first, it's doubtful that if you poll twenty-somethings they'll tell you that pushing China out of Tibet is the issue most on their minds. Generally, surveys show that the obvious issues rate highest with young adults: education, the environment, and the economy. And there is the matter of calling China communist. That's a label worn thin. The cronyistic, money-grubbing, repressive regime in Beijing had much in common with the cronyistic, money-grubbing repressive regime in Jakarta. The pierced and tattooed Tibetistas are not against China because it pretends to be a communist state; they oppose its brutal policies in the same way the long-hairs of old opposed Saigon's repression of monks and others in the rageful days of Vietnam. Where were the conservatives, who profess to care so much about religious rights, back then?
Wattenberg does have an observation, not a point: left-leaning rockers--who probably also endorse abortion rights, marijuana decriminalization and gay rights and who gag at the sight of Newt Gingrich--are indeed lining up to pressure a state that calls itself communist. But it also is fun to watch the conservative crowd, which used to care not a whit about human rights abuses committed by thuggish-but-anti-commie U.S. allies in El Salvador, South Vietnam, Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines, Indonesia, Argentina, South Africa, Angola, Chile, and elsewhere, now grabbing for the human-rights banner. If you feel compelled to judge which side has been truer to the human-rights cause, realize that Amnesty International has always drawn more support from the left-of-center than the right-of-center.
Wattenberg's attempt to claim an end-of-history victory does show how China bedevils political linesmen. Due to China, the Republicans have been fighting among themselves, with the business community moaning that the China-thrashers of the party are getting in the way of transnational profits. The party leadership, though, was squarely behind most favored nation status for China. A similar split exists within the Democrats. At the rally Senators Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold and Representative Nancy Pelosi, all liberals, spoke fiercely against the Clinton China policy. In both parties, there is a division between the corporatists and the populists. The former are sympathetic to the major funders of both parties who drool over free trade and a global economy; the latter, to be perhaps a bit simplistic, are driven more by ideology--a passion for human rights or labor rights, say, or a passion for thumping religion-hating communists or ending abortions. (The Republican picture is complicated by the desire of Republicans to drum up a Clinton scandal that sticks. If China-baiting works, even though it may alienate the GOP's corporate pals, so be it.)
In this anything-goes post-Cold War time, the populist wings of each party can find common cause, and an odd consensus results. Consequently, hippie-musician David Crosby hobnobbed with right-wing Representative Dana Rohrbacher at the Tibet rally. On the stage, a glowing Richard Gere remarked, "I never thought I'd say this, but I have a lot of Republican friends." Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey best known for his absolutist positions opposing abortions, was applauded by a crowd of young adults who I assumed would feel quite comfortable at a Voters for Choice event.
China also divides. At the rally, artists who have been keen on Clinton turned against him. In 1993, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. was a shining and happy participant in the inaugural celebration. In 1996, he appeared at a campaign rally for Clinton. Last week, he spoke bitterly when he and other artists who had played at the two-day pro-Tibet benefit concert were not granted a meeting with Clinton. "We didn't want to have a big hug and a photo op," Stipe said to me. When I asked if he still counted himself a Clinton fan, he thought for a moment and replied, "Haltingly." Good response; no wonder he writes songs.
Clinton's trip to China and the reactions it provoked illuminated the new fault lines in American politics. The populist ideas-before-trade wings of each party may not fully jibe with each other. (The message at the rally and benefit concert was not to freeze-out China--as some of the harsher right-wing critics have called for--but to promote forceful engagement that demands the Chinese meet and negotiate with the Dalai Lama.) And this new dynamic does not fit into the traditional Democratic-Republican boxes. As Clinton visits the supposedly "new" China, the political tectonic plates are slowly shifting at home.
Black and Brill
If you're sick of reading about Steven Brill, his story on Monicagate in Brill's Content, Kenneth Starr, and press coverage of the press coverage of the whole affair, scroll now. But my spies at NY Press tell me that several colleagues are waxing in this issue on this tempest-in-the-media. So I thought I could not, in good conscience, leave you to their mercy (or lack thereof).
Let's stipulate Brill might have made errors and was overblown (as was his hype-machine). But his opus was trenchantly useful in three regards. First, it chronicled the mainstream media mistakes that ensued in the media gold rush that followed Starr's discovery of a whole new vein of scandal. For instance, Newsweek didn't bother to note in its first dispatch on the story that its staff had heard a taped conversation in which Lewinsky confided to her then-friend Linda Tripp that she did not intend to tell Bill Clinton she was going to lie about her relationship with him. In the early days of the frenzy, Howard Fineman of the same magazine told a television audience that "we" have confirmed the President's voice was on Lewinsky's answering machine. (The public is still waiting on that confirmation.) A rumor about a semen-stained dress was spread through the echo chamber by established journalists. (No such dress has yet emerged.) Conservative writer Ann Coulter on CNBC claimed Lewinsky had serviced the president "along with four other interns." (What happened to that story?) Jackie Judd of ABC News reported that "several sources" told her that Clinton and Lewinsky had been caught in the White House during an intimate moment. Now, Judd says, "there might be a potential witness." (Talk about downsizing!) So Brill punched a lot of reporters in the snout, forcing them to confront the sloppiness that occurred as they frantically chased a ratings-grabber. Naturally, there's been an uproar against him.
Second, Brill showed that Clinton is indeed the victim of a right-wing conspiracy. It's just not that vast. Brill's tick-tock revealed how Tripp and Goldberg plotted to insert the Lewinsky business into the Paula Jones case and to make sure this was not simply a tale of a personal relationship between a married guy and a younger gal. This doesn't make Clinton an innocent man. But it does seem as if a (possibly) guilty man was framed. That this happened undermines the argument the Supreme Court propounded when it ruled 9-0 that the Jones civil case against Clinton should proceed. The justices said that such a case would not interfere greatly with the presidency. But when one is in the midst of a legal fight he or she is in a position of vulnerability. You have to sit for depositions, answer questions that might not be fully relevant, produce personal records. According to Brill's account, Goldberg and Tripp were puppet-masters who worked hard to entangle Clinton. He could well borrow a line from Washington Mayor Marion Barry: "The bitches set me up."
Third, there's the business of Starr's relationship to the press. Regardless of Starr's counter-attack, there was some agreed-upon truth. Starr concedes that he and his staff talked to reporters on background. But on CNN in February, Starr said, "I am under a legal obligation not to talk about facts going before the grand jury." That seemed to suggest he was not free to discuss any subject that might arise before the grand jury. Now he claims he can chat with reporters about anything as long as it does not reveal the inner workings of the grand jury. That's quite a different interpretation. A recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington noted that the rule in question prohibits prosecutors from disclosing "not only what has occurred [before a grand jury], but also what is likely to occur."
Legalities aside, Brill made a strong argument that Starr's office leaked and that it did so to provide context to reporters on the beat. And one person's context is another person's spin. Starr's 19-page reply to Brill raised a bunch of questions. If all his office was doing was discussing boring stuff like scheduling matters, as he suggested, why do so on background? Does he play favorites in the press? If so, what must reporters do to stay on his good side? In his letter to Brill, Starr quoted from a note sent to Starr's deputy by a Time reporter who was asking to establish an "off the record relationship" with Starr. To suck up to Starr, the reporter pointed out that the magazine had gone "pretty far to cast doubt on the charges of Starr leaks." And, the reporter added, "that was without your input." The assumption was obvious: imagine how we can help you if we were chums. What tripe. But see how the big boys (or girls) play kissy-poo with the prosecutor? Interestingly, Starr did not say how his office responded to this letter. Perhaps he dared not. Starr did add, "The fact is that this Office did not disclose any information to Time."
That is not what I am told. A senior person at the magazine informed me that a Time reporter had been given a leak from Starr's office about Vernon Jordan supposedly hosting parties in a Washington hotel for interns. The reporter tracked the lead down; it did not check out. But the reporter discovered that the same lead had been slipped to other reporters. A prosecutor leaking bad info that seems designed to embarrass or pressure a key witness--that's a helluva story. But how can Time report that without violating the confidentiality of a source and without pissing off Starr? It cannot. That's the dilemma. As Starr's own conduct is questioned, the best witnesses--the reporters who need him--are self-gagged.
Part of the problem here is the original sin of selecting Starr for this job. A fellow with that much baggage is going to have his motives and actions questioned more than the average independent counsel. He is more open to the charge he is unfairly massaging the press and using the media to wage war on the Clintons. Unfortunately, the behavior of the media allows such suspicions to fester.
And before you complain that the White House leaks too, realize that there are no ethical or legal rules that prevent targets of criminal investigations from talking to reporters in public or private. This is not a tit-for-tat situation. The President and his men are not any more honorable (hah!), but they do have more leeway. That's the beauty of the system: there are supposed to be checks on the powers of prosecutors.
Brill was asking the right questions, and he served up enough answers to force a mess of reporters to squirm. Alas, the charges and countercharges have turned this whole affair into a soap opera of a soap opera. And lies are everywhere. NBC's Claire Shipman attributed a flimsy report about an intimate Lewinsky-Clinton encounter to "sources in Ken Starr's office." Starr says his office does not leak. Somebody is lying. Brill says Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt told him Clinton is a "liar." Schmidt denies that. Somebody is lying. It may be an overly quaint notion, but the media should seek to sort out lies from truths, remain skeptical of official accounts (especially those leaked), and strive not to become the battleground on which prosecutors and politicians conduct their games. The Brill piece proved this notion is far from reality.
Yet it had an impact. On Thursday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer reported in secret affidavits FBI agents said that Starr had wanted Lewinsky to wear a wire, although Starr's carefully-worded letter to Brill appeared to deny that. Blitzer attributed the news to two sources from different anti-Starr camps. It was a more-detailed than usual description of anonymous sources. Brill has accomplished that much.
Ready, (Mis)Aim, Fire
Conservatives in Washington are as organized as leaf-cutting ants. They keep building outfits to press the cause. Grover Norquist, a Gingrich pal who orchestrated the push for the anti-union Proposition 226 in California that failed earlier this month, launched the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates. (Don't know where he finds the time. Norquist also is lobbyist for foreign interests and is leading the campaign to name roads, mountains, schools and whatever after Ronald Reagan.) The group, though, is such a falsely-named front group that the leading pro-environment Republican in the House, Rep. Sherwood Bohlert of upstate New York, would not join it. Meanwhile, Brent Bozell, an archconservative media critic, has cooked up the Conservative Communications Center. The problem is, Bozell says, "conservatives haven't done a good job projecting themselves to the media." What's he watching? There's George Will, Laura Ingraham, Bob Novak, John "That's Doctor To You" McLaughlin (on two different shows!), William Kristol, Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke, Pat Buchanan, Bay Buchanan, Brit Hume, Tony Snow, Kate O'Beirne. And on radio: Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Reagan, and dozens more.
Bozell publishes a cranky, monthly newsletter that attempts to show the media overflows with leftsymps. It chronicles what it considers to be outrageous quotes in the "liberal media." (In this month's list, the newsletter includes a prudent remark from Nightline's Chris Bury: "It is not certain any classified missile technology was transferred to China. And no one has produced any proof that President Clinton changed policy because of campaign contributions." What's outrageous about that?) The lead article assaults the press for being harsh on Charlton Heston, the guns-for-all National Rifle Association's newly-elected pointman. Bozell and aides are peeved that CBS correspondent Jim Stewart reported that Heston's rise in the NRA "comes at a time when the actor's own politics is under fire. Last December, Heston stunned some of his old friends with a speech filled with bitterness for some minorities." In challenging this report, the newsletter commits a non-sequitur: "In fact, an anti-Heston Web page set up by the anti-NRA liberals at the Violence Policy Center had highlighted the quote, not "old friends." Time for a reading comprehension class. The speech could have shocked Heston's buds and been posted by the Violence Policy Center.
The speech was a humdinger. In wailing about the ongoing "cultural warfare being waged against traditional American freedom of beliefs and ideas," Heston declared, "There may not be a Gestapo officer on every street corner yet, but the influence on our culture [of the anti-religion self-styled cultural elite] is just as pervasive." For Heston, it's time for a history class. He attacked "gun-glutted movies" (hmmmmm) and claimed that "God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasion, middle class, Protestant, or--even worse--evangelical Christian" men are not allowed a place in the nation's social discourse. (Plenty of white Christian men on the list two paragraphs above.) Heston asked, "Why is 'Hispanic pride or 'black pride' a good thing, while 'white pride' conjures up shaved heads and white hoods?" (Guess he'll be joining the NAAWP any day now.) And though he dredged up the oldest chestnut in the bin--some of my "dear friends" are gay--he warned homosexuals to keep it private and said, "I find my blood pressure rising when Clinton's cultural shock troops"--man, he's stuck on the Nazi metaphor--"participate in homosexual-rights fund-raisers but boycott gun-rights fund-raisers." (For the whole speech, check out http://www.vpc.org/nrainfo/speech.html.) I'd bet there are a few Heston friends who were "stunned" by these remarks. But to report this, in Bozell's fevered mind which spots liberal bias everywhere, was an act of ideology not of journalism. He promises that his new media center will be "evenhanded and fair" and "not a conservative spin machine." I am sure Heston will see it that way.
Says It All?
"Apathy among voters a good omen for GOP." -- Headline in The Washington Times, June 16, 1998
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