Politics & Policy

Trash Talk

Even if Clintonites didn't trash the place, that doesn't change much in my book.

At this point I can’t keep it straight. The former residents of the White House may or may not have trashed their offices to stick it to the incoming Bush administration. The White House communications types may or may not have fed a true or false story for either good or bad motives. They may or may not have backed off that story, also for good or bad motives. And they may now be coming up with “evidence” to clear their good names or to cover their dershowitzes.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, good for you. If you want to know what I’m talking about you can either wait thirty seconds until the feeling passes or you can click here for the Washington Post story. And if you still don’t care, my Star Trek opus is still on the site.

Now, because this threatens to become the metaphysically trivial equivalent of the Hiss-Chambers dispute, forever dividing liberals and conservatives, I for one would like to apologize on behalf of everybody on my side of the argument, whether they’d like me to or not.

While the rest of this column will be drenched with sarcasm, I do want to offer my sincere apologies here and now to the totally innocent Clinton and Gore staffers who were painted with an overly broad brush. I am sure there are some decent, honest, and, again, completely blameless individuals who had nothing to do with any White House trashing, even if there was a lot of vandalism.

That said, I’d like to offer something of an explanation — sort of like pleading guilty with extenuating circumstances.

It was totally believable.

You see, the Clinton White House was not known to be above such things. It was not known to be a real button-down operation. A lot of very smart kids chewing gum and eating pizza at their desks was the image served up to America in 1992. And while quite a few grownups traipsed through the White House over the years — John Podesta, Leon Panetta, and Lloyd Bentsen come to mind — even when the Clinton staff was at its most impressive, no one ever thought of it as a by-the-numbers enterprise. Big boxes of really important files kept appearing and disappearing. For example, much like O. J. Simpson in his pursuit of the “real killers,” Hillary Clinton is still trying to figure out how those old billing records showed up in the White House residence.

Now, of course, I know everyone was in the dark about the fact that President Clinton was playing President and the Intern with Monica Lewinksy. But beyond that it was still the kind of office where it would seem reasonable for an intern to be shuffling in and out of the leader of the Free World’s office with a pizza box.

And as for the pettiness and vindictiveness, well, I guess we were wrong that an administration that could press false criminal charges against a lifetime White House employee could also be capable of pulling the “W” keys off the keyboards. An administration where Sidney Blumenthal is a moral North Star is incapable of something like that.

But, I should stop myself. I promised to do my level best to stop writing about the Clinton administration — and have more or less kept my word for these last few months — because there’s no point to it. So, let’s just say that if they ever make a movie of the White House operation they won’t be looking for John Gielgud-types to play staff members.

But I would like to add one small point. I think the level of outrage by some liberal pundits says a lot. Joshua Marshall (scroll down to the June 03, 2001, 03:57 AM  entry), the Washington editor of the American Prospect has made the vandalism story the My Lai Massacre to his Seymour Hersch. He’s been denouncing the “slandering” and “smearing” of White House employees by the Bush administration with great zeal for quite a while now.

He’s not alone. Marie Cocco, a writer for Newsday (my fellow guest last weekend on CNN’s Reliable Sources), wrote a column dripping with outrage toward the Bush White House. “In this administration of dignity, the dignified thing to do might be to apologize to those whose reputations were smeared,” Cocco sneers. “But real men have no regrets.”

Now, if I cared more I could investigate. But I don’t, so I will simply guess that Ms. Cocco and Mr. Marshall — as well as the other usual suspects on the chat shows — have dedicated far more space and emotion to the allegedly false accusation that a few staffers got out-of-hand with their pranks than they ever did to Billy Dale, whose life was destroyed by the Clinton White House and who never got an apology.

I’d also bet they never saw much wrong with the institutionalized search-and-destroy operation the Clinton White House had up and going since the very first “bimbo eruption.” And, I sincerely doubt they clamored for an apology from the White House for siccing private investigators on their opponents or for simply calling them racist, corrupt, perverted, liars, and sex fiends.

But again, I don’t want to go through all of that again. Suffice it to say, I believe that if your yardstick for political malfeasance is the degree to which an administration falsely accuses people of one thing or another, you’d better not have kept your mouth shut on the topic for the last eight years if you want to make any headway with me.

Still, none of this answers why this story has got such legs. What I think does help answer that question is the fact that so many liberal reporters and pundits personally know Clinton staffers who’ve been whining about being falsely accused. These former staffers are accustomed to criticism of Bill Clinton, but when the heat comes down on them a bit, it turns out their skins are pretty thin.

But that’s only part of it. People seem to forget the vandalism story broke amidst the pardon scandals (and there was more than one) and the flap over the fact that Bill Clinton threw himself three farewell parties on George Bush’s inauguration day — because, well, Bill’s that kind of guy. So even though the Bush White House backed off the trashing story within 72 hours, there are people out there who want to make it a bigger deal than it was in an effort to make all of those other stories a bit less embarrassing. It’s a time-tested debate technique; if your adversaries offer five examples, pick the weakest one and tear it apart. It will seem like you’ve refuted the other guy’s argument entirely. In fact, it feels remarkably similar to Clinton spin generally. Disprove something trivial to deny something true and substantial.

Indeed, Marshall, Cocco, et al. don’t seem particularly angry with the press for blowing the story out of proportion. Their aim is at a political target, not the culpable one.

Anyway, if the Clintonites didn’t trash the place, the White House should apologize. Whether they did or not, though, doesn’t change a lot in my book. They still worked for the guy, and proudly.


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