Clinton, Crying Foul -- or Craftily Playing the Game?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

In case anyone doubted that Bill Clinton still harbors considerable resentment toward the press, it bubbled to the surface last week.

He was, quite understandably, promoting his wife's candidacy. His chief mission, therefore, was to rough up Barack Obama. But his decision to rip news organizations for not reporting on what he sees as inconsistencies in Obama's record on Iraq raises an intriguing question.

Have the media failed to adequately scrutinize the Illinois senator's stance on Iraq? Or was the former president simply trying to prod the press into carrying the campaign's water on an argument that Hillary Clinton herself has not raised?

"It is wrong," Bill Clinton said Monday in New Hampshire, "that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, enumerating the years -- and never got asked one time, not once, 'Well, how could you say that, when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution; you said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war . . . and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since?' . . .

"Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

Obama has long contrasted his 2002 opposition to the war, when he was an Illinois legislator, with Clinton's Senate vote to authorize the war. Hillary Clinton aides want the press to highlight Obama's history on the issue because they fear their candidate will be branded as negative if she does so.

Bill Clinton was referring to a July 2004 New York Times piece that said Obama "declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time. 'But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports,' Mr. Obama said. 'What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made.' '' So "I don't know" was just a caveat.

The next day, the Chicago Tribune quoted Obama as saying: "There's not much of a difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage."

But the media haven't totally ignored this. On "Meet the Press" in November, Tim Russert asked Obama to explain both quotes. Obama replied that during the 2004 convention, "it probably was the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party's nominees' decisions when it came to Iraq." A month earlier, CNN's Candy Crowley asked Obama about the 2004 comments. In March 2007, The Washington Post covered the issue when Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, raised it at a forum.

Beyond that, a front-page Post story last September said Obama "tempered his rhetoric and his opposition once he arrived in the Capitol, rejecting timetables for withdrawal and backing war funding bills." A front-page Times piece early last year said that "the level of his criticism lowered" after Obama came to Washington.

Other media mentions have been spotty, however, fueling the argument that journalists aren't taking the same magnifying glass to his record that they apply to just about everything Clinton does.

"Given that Senator Obama has put forward his 2002 position, we would have expected the media to look into the comment he made in 2004 that his views on Iraq were about the same as George Bush's," Penn says. "We think it's up to the media to look at everybody's record. Because that didn't seem to happen, we're now in a phase where we're talking about our record and his."

But Obama spokesman Bill Burton dismisses the notion that his boss has wavered on Iraq. "They're taking a small slice of his words to make an inaccurate point. He has always said that the case was not made," Burton says.

The former president missed the mark when he invoked "the Obama thing calling Hillary the senator from Punjab. . . . Or what about the Obama handout that was covered up, the press never reported on, implying that I was a crook. Scathing criticism over my financial reports." (He couldn't resist adding that former special prosecutor Ken Starr "indicted innocent people to find out that I wouldn't take a nickel.")

There was no coverup. In June, the Clinton camp obtained -- and gave the Times -- an attack memo that Obama's team had been circulating to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis. It referred to Clinton's political designation as "D-Punjab" (citing the couple's personal and financial ties to India) and suggested conflicts in Bill Clinton's relationship with California multimillionaire Ron Burkle. The Times reported the memo's contents as part of a Page 1 story that also said the Clintons had sold millions of dollars in stocks from their blind trust to avoid potential conflicts, and noted the former president's investments with Burkle.

Dozens of news organizations reported on the "Punjab" memo. But Obama defused it by admitting his staff had made a "dumb mistake."

Bill Clinton, who first got steamed at the press over the 1992 stories on Gennifer Flowers and Whitewater, undoubtedly believes that his wife isn't getting a fair shake. But he's also pretty good at working the refs.

Timesman Resurfaces

Nearly five years after he was forced to resign as the top editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines is taking on a new role: media critic.

He will write a monthly column for Portfolio, the new Conde Nast magazine. And his perspective is that of a battle-scarred veteran: "I've got more arrows in me than Custer's horse," he says.

From his home in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, Raines, 64, sounds a bit mellowed: "It's been refreshing and a bit daunting to try to think about writing something that hasn't been said 30 times. I don't have any thunderbolts to throw at my former profession." He plans to focus on campaign coverage.

Raines was ousted from the Times in 2003 during a backlash against his handling of the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal and his domineering management style. In a scathing Atlantic Monthly article the following year, he infuriated ex-colleagues by accusing the paper of a "culture of complaint," "clock-punching atmosphere," "indifference to competition" and "sloppy work . . . accepted as adequate."

Now, says Raines, who is absorbed in writing a Civil War novel, "I don't want to be seen as fighting old battles." While it would "feel artificial" to avoid critiquing the Times in his new column, "five years pretty well healed a lot of loose ends that might be dangling from my experience."

Collateral Damage

Carole Leigh Hutton, who has been talking about blowing up the newsroom at the San Jose Mercury News, may have pushed too hard. She is out as executive editor after just seven months on the job, with a replacement immediately named, after promoting a radical redesign that would have cut the paper, now four or five sections, to three while also shrinking the scope of the coverage.

Staying Put

Paul Begala says he's never had a conversation about joining Hillary Clinton's campaign -- despite reports to the contrary on Fox News.

The CNN commentator was swamped with calls last week after Fox's Major Garrett quoted sources as saying the Clinton camp planned to bring in Begala and James Carville as top advisers. Begala says that while he has donated to Clinton's campaign, he has not offered even informal advice or, as Garrett reported, joined a conference call.

"Whoever told you I am joining Hillary's campaign fed you some bum info," Begala wrote in an e-mail to Garrett. "It's just not true. Or as I say to my boys, N.H.D. Not. Happening. Dude." Garrett replied that he would "take it under advisement" and added Begala's denial to his reports.

"He has better sources about what I'm going to do than me?" asks Begala, who recounted the exchange on the Huffington Post.

Garrett says his sources insist the story is on target. "Just because someone denies what you're reporting doesn't mean you're in fact wrong," he says. "I have a record in this town, when I'm wrong, of admitting I'm wrong instantly. . . . I feel extremely good about my sources."

Says Begala: "I don't accuse him of making it up. I accuse him of not checking with me."

Carville, also a CNN analyst, says he "never had a conversation with anyone" about joining the campaign and was never called by Fox. He calls himself a "friend of the family" and says he did write a strategy memo for Clinton.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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