Politics & Policy

Smokey Joe Conason

Think this is cruel? Joe's worse.

I swear: E. J. Dionne’s books are really good. Seriously, they are interesting, fair, sometimes even brilliant, and not particularly knee-jerk. In person, he’s thoughtful and honest. So why his columns so often read like they were dictated by a volunteer envelope-stuffer at the DNC I have no idea.

Sometimes I wonder if he secretly thought the Gore administration was going to crown him America’s intellectual Pope and the Florida mess just drove him over the deep end. Other times I wonder if he’s sand-poundingly angry that Bill Clinton’s policies were deeply informed by his book, Why Americans Hate Politics, but Clinton’s personality was deeply informed by the Porkys film series.

Who knows?

Here’s another mystery: Joe Conason. Now here’s a guy who actually has some impressive-sounding reportorial credentials. I can’t recall what they are but I remember him talking about them (and talking about them and talking about them) and I remember thinking they were more impressive than I thought they would be. Regardless, pretty much nobody ever heard of him until Bill Clinton came along (of course, the same thing can and is said about me).

Conason made a name for himself defending Bill Clinton by attacking the people who attacked Bill Clinton. No matter what Bill Clinton did or said it didn’t matter because the other guys were worse. Conason always claims he’s doing real reporting, just-the-facts variety. That’s fine, and I’m sure it’s true. But it seems the only facts he ever comes back with are the ones best suited to help Bill Clinton. He’s like Yosemite Sam as a castaway in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Stuck on an island with nothing to eat but coconuts, Sam makes coconut alfredo, coconut à l’orange, coconut fricassee, coconut hash, etc. The only difference is that Yosemite Sam eventually gets fed up and yells “I hate coconuts!” But Conason’s appetite for creating Clinton-defending concoctions is inexhaustible.

Why Joe is like this I don’t know. He does seem like a generally grumpy, sit-in-the-dark and throw-whiskey-bottles-at-late-night-reruns-of-Hardball kind of guy. And it’s got to be a lonely business always, always, always being so, so right.

Sometimes I suspect he’s just pissed that a like-minded Clinton journalist-apologist thought of signing a contract with Lucifer before he did. Joe gets left behind while Sid Blumenthal gets to brag to the world that he introduced Bill Clinton to Tony Blair (as if they would never have met without Sid’s help).

Again, who knows?

What I do know is that Clinton eventually has to slither away. And when he does I will be delighted. But this pardon mess does seem like one last round of the old fights and it seems to me that while there’s been an awful lot of talk about what will happen to the Clinton haters after Clinton, few people have given much thought to what will happen to the Clinton defenders.

What got me thinking about this is that just this week, actually just yesterday, we saw two classic examples of the two different schools of Clinton apologia from none other than Dionne and Conason. So let’s take a look before these two schools vanish into obsolescence like Japanese Ninja academies after the arrival of Commodore Perry.

The Fellow Travelers

Dionne represents the Honest Differences school of Clinton defenders. Other members of this cadre might include George Stephanopoulos, David Gergen, Joe Klein, and various writers for The New Republic and The American Prospect. These are the people who like New Democrat Bill, governing Bill. They can be infuriating but almost never venal. They are the good-government liberals, they like the incremental change and wonkish moderation of Bill Clinton (who, by the way, was incremental because he had to be). Saturday Night Bill drives them nuts because he keeps smudging their ideas with his greasy, grubby hands.

If they could click their collective heels together three times they’d love to replay the last eight years all over again with a different actor playing the role of Bill. This love the message, not the messenger mentality often leads to bursts of liberal outrage that always get short-circuited by a kind of schizophrenia.

For example, yesterday, in a veering column which seemed to assert everything and its opposite, Dionne valiantly made the case for Bill Clinton’s politics but not his personality. “The goal,” of the current pardon brouhaha, wrote Dionne, “is to discredit not just Clinton’s moral legacy (wasn’t that done long ago?) but also his policy legacy, which is about more than Clinton himself. The hope is to bury the successes of the Clinton years beneath a pile of bad pardons and turn his years in office into a totally unusable past.”

This is an interesting assertion considering it is the New York Times editorial board that is clamoring for hearings and investigations. Presumably the Grey Lady liked the policies of the past eight years and wants to keep them usable. Indeed, it seems to me that Barney Frank and Bill Daley and that whole gang agree with Dionne on Bill Clinton’s policy legacy, but they also think the pardon thing is a big deal. So does Dionne. He spends half his column denouncing Clinton for betraying his party and his country. He just seems to think that everyone else is denouncing Clinton much too much — and that it’s the conservatives’ fault.

This is a fundamentally dishonest argument. Dionne, like The New Republic in its current editorial, creates a straw man out of conservatives and then says “there they go again.”

But, the conservatives are not driving this story. The out-of-control prosecutor in this case is a Clinton appointee. Dionne even concedes that the pardon-obsessed media isn’t hyping the story for right-wing reasons. Hell, even the Democratic impeachment obstructionists in Congress are outraged. Even Carville and Begala won’t defend Clinton, an eventuality I would have guessed possible only if the Big Creep had been caught circling a playground with a trunk full of Hershey bars.

As for the Republicans, well, sure, Burton’s having a hearing — but who can honestly argue that he shouldn’t? Every day there’s another revelation about money changing hands and shady people invoking the Fifth Amendment. Even if Burton is a rabid zealot, is it so preposterous that just this once the broken clock is telling the correct time? Is it possible that even if Dionne is exhausted with the story the media is still pushing it for honorable reasons?

Even Dionne has to make this concession. “If there’s news on the pardon front,” he writes, “it should be reported. If prosecutors and investigative journalists shed new light on the pardon madness, God bless them for their work.” So wait, why is E. J. writing this column in the first place?

Again, it’s a mystery. But I can forgive E. J. because he basically cares about real ideas and he’s just bummed that Bill Clinton has smeared his greasy hands all over a brand of politics he cares deeply about.

On the Other Hand

Smokey Joe’s a different story. While Dionne is an honest man obviously struggling to reconcile intellectual and moral loyalties with political ones, Smokey’s got no such angst. Conason simply employs the perniciously cynical and amoral argument that Clintonistas have mastered over the last eight years.

When your guy does something awful and indefensible, just scream as loud as you can that everybody does it. If your guy is a lecher, respond “they’re all lechers” and expose whomever you can. And what if the circumstances of what you expose are not analogous? Who cares? As long it muddies the waters and makes everybody look bad. From attacking Ken Starr to exposing Henry Hyde to making insinuations about George W Bush, this approach is what paid the light bills for Paul Begala and what made James Carville a hero in the Democratic party. And, it is what passes for Joe Conason’s reporting.

So here Bill Clinton pardons a billionaire fugitive for reasons so above board and honest that two of the people involved are pleading the Fifth, and he grants clemency to a coke dealer and a snake-oil salesman at least partly because his brother-in-law took hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jimmy Carter calls it “disgraceful.” Barney Frank calls it “contemptuous.” And what does Joe do? He writes: “The truth — as anyone who glances back into the history of the first Bush administration can quickly learn — is that Clinton hasn’t done anything that his predecessor didn’t do first and, in some cases, worse.”

Now, I confess, I have no idea what the best responses to many of Joe’s assertions are, though I’m sure there are plenty (see Mark Levin’s piece on the Weinberger pardon for one example.) But let’s assume — big assumption here — that everything Smokey Joe says is true, that President Bush (the elder) was far worse than Bill Clinton. That would excuse nothing Bill Clinton did. Everybody who lies, murders, cheats, and steals can run a long list of people whom they claim lied, murdered, cheated, and stole and got away with it. So what? It may be an interesting footnote, it’s certainly not exculpatory, and it’s really not an argument. It’s simply an attempt to change the subject.

Which is the real distinction between Dionne and Conason. They both strive to change the subject, but Dionne wants to divert attention to policy arguments and high-principled debates. Conason wants to point fingers and, if possible, stick thumbs in other people’s eyes. If he succeeded with his eye-for-an-eye approach he would leave the whole world blind to moral distinctions, because it is only in that world that Bill Clinton can do no wrong.

Dionne’s approach is well-intentioned folly while Conason’s is cruel-intentioned mischief. And I hope that with Clinton gone from public view — one day — we won’t have to listen to either kind of argument anymore.


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