American Politics Journal


Pulitzer prize winning columnist Maureen Dowd, captured in a candid moment

Maureen Dowd's FauxGate
A little crafty wording, et voila! Another phony scandal!
Angry string of e-mails to her critics yields a bonanza of blowback and Pulitzer-scale hypocrisy

by Tamara Baker

Feb. 16, 2002 -- SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA (APJP) -- Little did I know this week that I'd be tangling with Maureen Dowd over her role in aiding and abetting the propagation of a particularly vile anti-Clinton Fauxgate.

Sit down, put your feet up, and get comfy: this is a long tale to tell.

For you new American Politics Journal readers who have come to the website because of this story, a "Fauxgate" is a phony scandal, usually hatched deep in the bowels of the RNC or in the offices of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, or on the website of Matt Drudge, intended to smear Democrats in general and usually a Clinton or a Gore in particular.

For instance: "Love Canal", "Love Story", "Gore says he invented the Internet", "Clinton staffers trashed the White House", et cetera, et cetera.

Now, these Fauxgates get punctured over and over and over again, but the RNC, and their compliant friends in the media, keep shamelessly reviving them.

The current case in point: GiftGate, or the ongoing effort, in spite of a stunning lack of pertinent evidence, to paint the Clintons as hanging onto mountains of gifts to which they weren't entitled.

Now, as I mentioned earlier this week, the thing that gave GiftGate its staying power, despite the utter lack of evidence that the Clintons actually did anything wrong, was, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's public editor Mike King said, Maureen Dowd's clever use of the English language to insinuate that the Clintons had a bridal registry at an upscale Nebraska gift shop.

Reading Dowd's Christmas Eve 2000 column, the casual reader would be forgiven if he or se came away with the impression that Bill and Hillary Clinton not only had a bridal registry, but sneakily used it to acquire various oh-so-expensive goodies (which Dowd lovingly ticks off in her column, though she is oh-so-careful not to actually say flat-out that the Clintons actually received any of the items she lists) before a looming Senate deadline prevented such gift-grubbing (actually, I and at least one other reader, Maia Cowan of FailureIsImpossible.com, thought that Ms. Dowd was actually going off into Cloud Cuckoo Satire Land -- though she has told both of us this week, via e-mail, that she was not -- but I digress...).

And as it turns out, several columnists writing last year said that Maureen Dowd said that Hillary had a bridal registry at Borsheim's. Here are the pertinent sections from three of them for your reading pleasure:

In the first column, a masterpiece of slime immediately below, Moonie Times lackey Wes Pruden quotes at length from Dowd's original New York Times column in a piece for Jewish World Review:

Hillary's first dilemma of 2001 is that, having lived on a public dole all her adult life, she has none of the household traps -- dishes, bed linens, pots, pans, bathroom plungers, brooms, mops, dust rags -- that are the due of a virgin bride, or at least a bride rarely touched by human hands. The New York Times reports that Hillary did not register as a bride those many years ago when she married Bill, then a professor of law at the University of Arkansas. The bourgeois customs of Fayetteville, Ark., such as wedding gifts, were far beneath an enlightened and gifted young Wellesley socialist. But that was then and this is now, and socialism is so second millennium.But Hillary's on a bridal register at last.

This one is in Nebraska, of all places, and Borsheim's Fine Jewelry & Gifts of Omaha is a store with reliably expensive goods.

In the second, Margaret Carlson piles on, adding details about "Furnituregate":

On the heels of reparations for his wife's bridal registry, first reported by the New York Times's Maureen Dowd, comes the news that some of the furniture the Clintons carted off belonged to the White House. The chief usher warned them not to take $28,000 worth of furniture. Last week Clinton became the first President in history to have to return tables and chairs to the White House.

And, of course, we found out later that the Clintons were entitled to the furniture, anyway.

In the third, Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Mike King sets the record straight: gifts were bought, but the thing that gave this Fauxgate the sleazy wings it needed to get media play, the "bridal registry" angle, is false, false, false. Period.

It's hard to kill a good story. Especially when the story is the talk of the Washington press corps.

Even if it is a story that has no basis in fact, it could live forever. So it is with Bill and Hillary's gift registry. My guess is that years from now after some future president leaves office, reporters will dig into their electronic archives and repeat the story about how the Clintons got their friends to send them goodies for their new homes and offices from a registry they set up "like newlyweds" before they exited the White House.

You no doubt have heard it. Many of the professional political talkers on the weekend shows have been jabbering about it.

Problem is, the story is fiction. It didn't happen.

How did Mike King know that it didn't happen?

Because Salon's Eric Boehlert, one of the best journalists in the field, showed in February of last year that the whole premise of GiftGate is totally bogus:

During the nearly month-long controversy surrounding the gifts Bill and Hillary Clinton accepted last year, the political press has established three details as fact and repeated them endlessly.

First, anxious to fill their new private homes, the Clintons received $190,000 worth of gifts in the last year. Second, Hillary pursued this by registering like a bride for gift at Borsheim's Fine Jewelry & Gifts. Third, they moved fast, because once Hillary was sworn in as New York's new senator, she would be barred from accepting gifts worth more than $50.

[...]

Problem is, none of them are true. The gifts in question were received over an eight-year period, not one. Hillary was never registered at Borsheim's. And the Senate gift ban would not have forbidden Sen. Clinton from receiving all the generous items. None of that, though, has gotten in the way of the press telling a story it likes.

Got that? But wait, Boehlert isn't finished -- not by a long shot:

On President Clinton's final day in office, in accordance with federal law the couple disclosed that for the year 2000 they had accepted $190,027 worth of gifts, including sweaters, lamps, golf clubs, china and glass sculptures. That's an extraordinary amount, nearly double what the Clintons had received during their first seven years in the White House, combined. (For some context, during their four years in the White House, the least amount of gifts George and Barbara Bush accepted in any given year was $21,000; the most the Clintons accepted during their first four years was $16,000.)

An important clue for 2000's lofty price tag, though, was included right on the Clintons' official Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, which was distributed to the press: "This list includes gifts received over the last eight years, but which were not accepted by the Clintons until last year." (As gifts accumulate at the White House, first families can wait until their final year before officially accepting them or not.)

As Boehlert writes, the major media, at the time he wrote his article, didn't want to admit that the gifts in question were collected over the entire eight-year tenure of the Clintons in the White House: for instance, noted glass sculptor Dale Chihuly gave the Clintons a personal gift worth $22,000 -- but in 1993, not in 1999 or 2000, as the press (including, according to Boehlert, Maureen Dowd) was stating. But at the time of Eric Boehlert's February 9, 2001 Salon article, Boehlert said that he was unable to find a single mention of this fact.

But let's get to what both Mike King and Eric Boehlert agree is what gave this Fauxgate its "oomph" -- the "bridal registry".

Here's Eric Boehlert again, from away back in February of 2001:

The Times' Dowd also played a starring role in creating the story that Hillary had registered for expensive goodbye gifts at Borsheim's. Dancing around the facts, she never came out and wrote that Hillary was registered, but that friends were treating her "like a bride" with gifts from the store. Borsheim's CEO, not to mention Hillary's spokesperson, immediately denied she was registered with the store or that anyone had set up a registry for her.

It didn't matter. The press loved the limousine-liberal angle, and if Dowd wouldn't say that Hillary was registered, others would. NBC's [Andrea] Mitchell: "Mrs. Clinton registered her choices last November, just like a new bride."

Syndicated columnist Mona Charen: "Hillary likes to shop at Borsheim's Fine Jewelry & Gifts in Omaha, and according to Dowd, her china and silver patterns are on the registry list there for those who wish to help out the new homeowner."

New York Daily News: "Clinton had registered her choices for gifts in November, just like a bride."

New York Post columnist Dick Morris: "Apparently, it was not enough for them to establish a bridal-like registry to solicit almost $200,000 worth of china, silver and furniture for their Chappaqua and D.C. mansions."

Keep in mind: The two parties involved, Hillary Clinton and Borsheim's, long ago denied the existence of a registry and to date no reporter has been able to come up with any other proof that one exists, yet the fact is simply retold over and over. Why?

The press likes the story.

Now, according to the House GOP's report, eleven gifts, total, from Borsheim's, are detailed in its 54 pages. So gifts were bought there, but nothing to show the existence of the implied gift-Hoovering "registry" designed to appropriate the wealth of Croesus. The report is available at the House Government Reform Committee's website -- but be forewarned: they used the most crappy, byte-sucking form of PDFing they could -- we're talking over seven flipping megabytes for something that should only take up a meg -- so don't be surprised if your machine crashes at least twice when you try to download it.

Eleven gifts. That's not much of a "registry" -- if such actually existed. Heck, I habitually buy toy tractors for my hubby at Fleet Farm: does that mean I have him on a Fleet Farm "registry"? I got more than that from my REAL bridal registry in 1989!

The funny thing is that, as Boehlert mentions, both Hillary Clinton and Susan Jacques, Borsheim's CEO, have said repeatedly that there was no "registry".

Also, from what I could read of the constantly-crashing PDF file of the House report, there's nothing in it to show that a "registry" ever existed. (I called Borsheim's myself and was referred to Erin Limas, its Chief Financial Officer. I asked her if she could tell APJ's readers about this whole "registry" business. Her response is as follows: "We respect the privacy of all of our clients, Mrs. Clinton included. Any questions about the gifts need to be referred to Mrs. Clinton.")

Now, why, dear reader, would all those columnists and journalists use the word "registry"?

Becuase Maureen Dowd used the word "registry" in her own column, and in such a clever manner that it's not surprising that items by Margaret Carlson, Wes Pruden, Andrea Mitchell and many others (including those in the New York Post this week) would use the word themselves in reference to the items purchased for the Clintons.

Here's a few snippets to show you what I'm talking about (and as an extra added bonus, you get to see Dowd insinuate that this was all done to evade a "pesky Senate gift ban" -- which, as Boehlert has shown in the passages I've already quoted from his February 2001 Salon column, was utter nonsense):

She's the most famous face in the Senate. She just got $8 million for her story. She has a huge house in Chappaqua and is shopping for another huge house in D.C. Her husband is set to make a fortune writing his own memoir and pocketing six figures a pop to do what he loves to do: talk.

And yet, something is missing.

A $2,340 Spode soup tureen, with stand, for starters. Some of the first lady's wealthy friends and contributors have been fretting that Hillary has never had a chance to accumulate the sort of elegant appurtenances that they have, that the poor girl is starting her grand new life with nothing.

So they decided it would be nice to treat her like a bride "building a nest from scratch" and send her housewarming presents from one of her favorite stores, Borsheim's Fine Jewelry and Gifts, the Omaha emporium and subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, owned by Hillary admirer and donor Warren Buffett.

Attention Hillary shoppers! Only nine more days before that pesky Senate gift ban goes into effect!

[...]

Lissa Muscatine, Mrs. Clinton's spokeswoman, says that the first lady's silver and china patterns can be found at Borsheim's. Hillary shopped there when she was in Omaha last March to raise campaign money, with Mr. Buffett's help.

I clicked onto Borsheim's bridal registry on the Web to sample the merchandise. What would Mrs. Clinton like? Just some basics to get her started. Place settings for 40, including oyster forks and marmalade spoons?

I could quote more, but I don't want to violate fair-use laws, and besides, this disgustingly catty smear-job is making me sick to my stomach.

A friend who has practical understanding of communications and media put it best in an e-mail to the APJ editors and me:

...she DID use the word "registry", and worse (as others have noted) this smear was carefully constructed. Dowd never said that Hillary had a bridal registry -- she simply created false context so that everyone would THINK she had said that Hillary had a bridal registry. This is an advanced propaganda technique....A smear machine needs one prominent celebrity voice to publish something that is misleading though perhaps technically true. Then others can "misunderstand" what was said. When they are caught at this game, the propagandist can say, "I never said what you are accusing me of saying" The rest can say that they were simply repeating what they thought Dowd was saying.

Dowd's vagueness is not accidental, but an essential part of the smear game. Jeff Gerth used exactly the same approach on Whitewater.

So there you have it -- the illusion of a bridal registry scandal, with the seeds laid by Dowd and nursed into a full-grown FauxGate by more-than-willing press hacks.

Now, here we are, over a year later, and the GiftGate Fauxgate is back.

Dan Burton's flunky, Congressman Ose from California, has put his name on a report that, though it can't find any actual wrongdoing, sure tries, just as Dowd did, to spin the facts in the ickiest light possible, Frankenstein-flashing them for what they hope will be a gullible public. This time, the undisclosed gifts -- those valued under $250.00 -- are the main raw material for this revived Fauxgate.

Bear in mind that the total amount of these undisclosed gifts -- and remember, by law, they don't have to be disclosed, since they're each under $250.00 in value -- is around $75,000 spread over eight years.

Meanwhile, Ken Lay shelled out much more than that just to give his buddy George W. Bush a really fancy coronation party last year, shortly after the whole anti-Clinton "Giftgate" got started.

I'll guarantee you, boys and girls: the GOP House committee spent more than $75,000 on this yearlong project. Heck, they probably blew off 75 grand in coffee and doughnuts alone.

And here's the money question concerning The New York Times' darling of the right: if Dowd really knew that there was no "bridal registry" per se at Borsheim's, but just a few gifts purchased there, why didn't she tell the rest of the media -- Andrea Mitchell, Mona Charen, Margaret Carlson, Wes Pruden, et cetera -- to stop saying that there was one?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had the honor, at least, to correct itself; nobody else, as far as I could find, ever did.


ADDENDUM

Date: Wed, 15 Feb 2002
From: Maureen Dowd
To: Mike S

i didn't criticize a former first lady i criticized a first lady 
my columns were the december before last.what she did was wrong

Date: Wed, 15 Feb 2002
From: Mike S
To: Maureen Dowd

Ms. Dowd, I'd rather pay taxes to furnish the Clinton's home in Chappaqua than pay takes to pay the salaries of any of Bush's corrupt lackeys. The Clintons deserve a nice home. On the other hand, Paul O'Neill deserves to live in a homeless shelter with all the people whom his policies forced into poverty.

If the White House is public property, then why does an unelected moron get to live in it while the elected President of the United States, Al Gore, is forced to live in a normal house? Why do shallow idiots like Barbara Walters make obnoxious disparaging remarks intended to discredit Gore while Bush abolishes women's freedom of choice, bit by bit? Why would any woman think it's acceptable for a man to tell them what rights they should or should not have? When did this become socially acceptable in America... discrimination? Why this complacency, Ms. Dowd? Gore and the Clintons are the only hope for a truly free and safe America, yet the media persecutes them as if doing so would not carry greater consequences for society as a whole.

Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2002
From: Mike Hersh
To: APJ
Re: Maureen Dowd...Plagiarist?

A telling post at Undelete.com...

August 18, 2000
This is a special Catt' s Claws for 08-18-2000

Maureen Dowd said in a recent New York Times column, speaking of Bill & Hillary & Al & Tipper:

"This quartet represents the most extraordinary collection of festering resentments and seething jealousies and co-dependent plotting that has ever darkened the White House -- with the possible exception of when Richard Nixon dined alone."

An unsigned Arkansan on an mail discussion group to which I belong wrote:

"Somehow I knew this was a paraphrase of something I had heard before. Well, I found it... Here is the original, spoken by JFK:

"At a dinner for Nobel Prize recipients, John F. Kennedy said that his guests were

" 'the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.' "

One must wonder in how many other columns Ms. Dowd has used plagiarized material. Dowd holds herself to low or no standards, but blasts others for nothing. Here Dowd essentially claims a one year statute of limitations on her lies and errors, while taking a shot at APJ as an ostensibly dishonest "partisan website":

 

Subject: Re: Al Gore Speaks Out Again. A Man of Intelligence.
Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2002 07:40:44 -0500
From: dowd
To: Mary MacElveen

i wrote about that more than a YEAR ago. are you reading the paper, or just partisan websites?

 

Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2002
From: Maia Cowan
To: The Editors, Mike Hersh, Tamara
Re: Spinning the explicit to divert from her lies

Here's the [link for the] column, published December 24, 2000 (Christmas Eve - what appropriate timing!)

http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/24/opinion/24DOWD.html

So Dowd didn't explicitly say that Hillary was "registered" or that there was a "registry."

She does, however, hammer the idea that Bill and Hillary are looking to get the most expensive items in the store, and that they're looking to get them from anybody they can persuade to spend the money.  This goes WAY beyond the reality of a few friends -- uh, friends DO have the right to buy present for people they like, still? -- deciding, without encouragement from the Clintons, indeed without the Clinton's knowing about it -- that it would be a Nice Thing to provide housewarming presents.

A salient point is that Dowd's column has been the launching point for numerous other people to make the "gift registry" claim, and Dowd has never attempted to kill those rumors. She's never said, "Hey, wait a minute, don't cite me as the source for something I didn't say!" She seems to have been perfectly content to let the story run out of control, and indeed to receive the credit for outcry against the Clintons. 

Just like Ari Fleischer never said, "Yes, there was $100,000 worth of damage done to the White House by outgoing Clinton staffers." 

The only thing more despicable than an outright liar is a sleazy weasel who wants both to reap the rewards from the lie and and to escape responsibility for it. 

 

Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2002
From: Mike Hersh
To: The Editors, Maia Cowan, Tamara
Re: Re: Spinning the explicit to divert from her claims

Good points. Dowd fell back to this point, trying to side step the fact she told me and others there was a registry for Hillary.

Dowd is also trying to pretend that she didn't substantiate Republican claims that Hillary herself established the registry. Dowd's story changes, depending on whether she's trying to support Republicans attacking the Clintons, or trying to cover her own ass.

Here, Dowd clearly implies Hillary set up a bridal registry:

Lissa Muscatine, Mrs. Clinton's spokeswoman, says that the first lady's silver and china patterns can be found at Borsheim's. Hillary shopped there when she was in Omaha last March to raise campaign money, with Mr. Buffett's help.

I clicked onto Borsheim's bridal registry on the Web to sample the merchandise. What would Mrs. Clinton like? Just some basics to get her started. Place settings for 40, including oyster forks and marmalade spoons?

 

Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2002
From: Maia Cowan
To: The Editors, Mike Hersh, Tamara
Re: Spinning the explicit to divert from her claims

The overwhelming majority of people who read that passage [directly above in Mike's e-mail] will reasonably assume that Dowd meant she called up a specific list for the Clintons, not that she poked around to see what was on offer in a general way.

 

Date: Sat, 16 Feb 2002
From: Haji Warf
To: Maureen Dowd
Re: Stop hurting your credibility

I don't think you quite fathom the depths to which you injure your reputation, allowing lies and innuendos rule the day. It is clear that there is a gross misrepresentation floating out there, misinterpreted from your insinuations about Hillary and a supposed bridal registry in your article, a jabbing that took place over a year ago. Yet, you let it float and fester as if you can hold your breath and not inhale the cheesey stink of it all. From my perspective, as well as that of many other 30-something professionals who account for a good chunk of current readership, find it utterly pathetic. Do something, we urge you in unison. One word from you would dispel the rumors, yet the stale air is filled with stuffy silence. I wonder what amount of truth will be sought on your pages in the decade or three to come. You quickly relegate yourself to the annuls of discredited mouthpieces, between the pages of Rush Limbaugh and John Fund.

Despite the ceaseless nipping that you and all others (showing their true color as "green") do at the heels of the Clintons, someone out there still likes them. I am sure that bothers you, and I can imagine what your chum-of-a-good-friends, Vince (or, is that, "Dick?") Morris (or, is that "Foster?") and Wes "Prudey-faced because he has such low readership and needs homeless paraplegics to sell his papers to get any kind of sympathy" Pruden, feel -- other than a proven guest for lies. Let me tell you further that Hillary has a mint named for her, "Hillary's Sweet Lemon," of which I have a patch. I let it run rampant in my yard, letting her roam free in my domain. And, boy, it smells so good! I will bet the moonflower was named after you, since it's pure white as the driven snow and tries to smell sweet, but opening only after the light of truth dissolves. Such a shame it's toxic.

The behavior you exhibit really bothers a lot of people, and you should try and understand why instead of plunging into denials. 


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