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Clinton's Finger-Wagging Moment

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006 6:16 AM

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said that he was stunned when Bill Clinton accused him of a "conservative hit job" after he challenged the former president on his record in fighting terrorism.

"I thought it was a fair, balanced and not especially inflammatory question," Wallace said yesterday in recounting his "Fox News Sunday" sit-down with Clinton. "I even said, 'I know hindsight is 20/20.' But he went off. And once he went off, there was no bringing him back. He wanted to talk about it in detail. He wanted to conjure up right-wingers and conservative hit jobs and a theory involving Rupert Murdoch that I still don't understand."

Fox had agreed in advance that half the interview would be about Clinton's Global Initiative forum and half about other subjects. Wallace began with a couple of questions about the initiative before citing the 1993 U.S. military withdrawal from Somalia and several bombings connected to al-Qaeda in asking, "Why didn't you do more, connect the dots and put them out of business?"

In an impassioned, finger-wagging answer, Clinton told Wallace, a former ABC News correspondent: "You did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. . . . You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because Rupert Murdoch is supporting my work on climate change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you'd spend half the time talking about . . . what we did out there to raise $7 billion-plus over three days from 215 different commitments. And you don't care."

Murdoch, the billionaire conservative who owns Fox, has recently mended fences with the Clinton family, even attending a fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Fox, which employs a number of high-profile conservative hosts, maintains that its reporting is straightforward but is viewed by many liberals and other critics as leaning to the right. Clinton's appearance was his first on "Fox News Sunday" in the program's 10-year history.

"We're fully aware of Fox News' and Chris Wallace's agenda, and President Clinton came in prepared to respond to any attack on his record," said Jay Carson, his spokesman. "When Wallace questioned his record on terrorism, he responded forcefully, as any Democrat would or should."

In the interview, in which Clinton also accused Wallace of having a "little smirk" on his face, the host said he had planned to spend half the allotted 15 minutes on the Global Initiative and that "I didn't think this was going to set you off on such a tear."

"It set me off on such a tear because you didn't formulate it in an honest way and you people ask me questions you don't ask the other side," Clinton said.

"Sir, that is not true," Wallace replied.

Asked about Clinton's complaint, a Fox spokeswoman pointed to Wallace's interview two weeks ago with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Wallace pressed her about the lack of prewar ties between Osama bin Laden and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but he did not ask about U.S. efforts against bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Carson noted that the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole was officially linked to al-Qaeda after Bush took office.

"I don't think I was fanning the flames here," Wallace said. "It was all generated from within him."

Clinton has on occasion scolded other interviewers, most notably in a 2004 sitdown with ABC's Peter Jennings, who drew this response after alluding to Clinton's personal misconduct: "You don't want to go here, Peter. . . . Not after what you people did and the way you, your network, what you did with Kenneth Starr. The way your people repeated every, little sleazy thing he leaked."

Wallace said the surprise is not that he asked Clinton about terrorism but that no other television interviewer did during a round of appearances last week. Clinton, Wallace said, remained "upset" and "angry" after the interview.

The 'Jewish' Question

How did having Jewish relatives turn into a gotcha question?

Virginia Sen. George Allen was clearly irritated last week when a WUSA-TV reporter, seemingly out of nowhere, asked at a televised debate whether his mother was Jewish. Allen dismissed the question as "irrelevant," but said a day later he had discovered that his grandfather was Jewish, and the following day that his mother had recently told him that she was raised Jewish as well.

Call it the oy vey factor: Was this yet another attempt by the media to catch a politician covering up some secret personal detail? Or was it the southerner in cowboy boots who invited scrutiny of his background by keeping the information under wraps?

It remains unclear why Channel 9's Peggy Fox posed the question to Allen during his debate with Democratic challenger James Webb. Was this a matter of pressing importance to the voters of Virginia?

Fox, who is described on WUSA's Web site as "a Fairfax County native who married her West Springfield High School sweetheart," declined to be interviewed. In an e-mail, she says: "I would love to talk to you to tell you why I asked the question. But I am not the story. Senator Allen is. I will tell you I asked the question because I wanted to find out if he was hiding a heritage he really should be proud of (like most Americans are) because he felt acknowledging his roots could cost him votes.

"The question had been asked before and not answered. To me, it doesn't matter what religion someone is, but not being genuine does. The voters have a right to know if the candidates are who they say they are."

In an e-mail response to viewers, Fox also says: "I regret the way I worded the question and the way Senator Allen turned the spotlight onto the question itself without addressing the bigger political issue which could be relevant to the campaign."

But what is the "bigger" issue? When Allen threw the question back at her, demanding to know why it was relevant, she replied, "Honesty." Was Fox essentially accusing the candidate of lying?

In a way, the Allen campaign opened the door to Fox's question by not providing answers to the Jewish newspaper the Forward, which reported late last month that Allen's mother, Henrietta, a French Tunisian, was "likely" Jewish by birth. A week earlier, the senator's staff told Time's Mike Allen that they were not familiar with any Jewish background. The reporter says he suggested that they ask Allen if his mother has Jewish roots, "and the response was that he didn't think she does."

The senator's mother got dragged into public discussion because of speculation that Allen had picked up the word "macaca" from her. As the civilized world knows by now, Allen has apologized for using the word -- a racial slur in some cultures -- to describe an Indian American volunteer for Webb's campaign.

The press may well have overplayed the macaca gaffe -- there was no comparable frenzy over Webb saying three decades ago that the U.S. Naval Academy was "a horny woman's dream" -- but it was a self-inflicted wound that was captured on video and downloaded thousands of times on YouTube.com.

The Post last week quoted Allen's mother as saying she didn't tell her son she was Jewish until he asked about the "rumor" late last month. Why the senator didn't inquire earlier, since he's talked about his grandfather having been imprisoned by the Nazis, is an interesting question.

While politicians understandably resent journalists turning into genealogical detectives, they are rarely shy when it comes to scoring ethnic points. Allen has spoken on the campaign trail about having his "grandfather's bloodlines," namely "French Italian" and "one-sixteenth Spanish." Nor are they above trading on family connections or showcasing their spouses and children. Allen, of course, is the son of the famed football coach whose name he bears.

The list of prominent public figures who acknowledge their Jewish ancestry only after seeking or attaining public office -- John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Madeleine Albright -- is growing longer. Some appear to have made the cold calculation that it would not be a political asset.

And this goes beyond questions of Jewish heritage. When the Massachusetts senator, gearing up to run for president in 2003, said he had never claimed to be Irish, the Boston Globe reported that he had claimed Irish ancestry in a St. Patrick's Day message nearly two decades earlier.

Peggy Fox insists she is not the story. But journalists who appear on television and ask questions at televised debates -- particularly personal questions -- often become part of the story. By leaving out part of his biography for years, Allen gave her a big, fat opening. But for all the media furor, most Virginia voters probably care more about the Iraq war and the economy than the details of the senator's family tree.

Liberal Media?

The "mainstream media presents itself as unbiased, when in fact there are built into it many biases, and they are overwhelmingly to the left."

The man who made that comment is not some rabid right-wing critic but Thomas Edsall, a Washington Post political reporter for a quarter-century who recently accepted an early retirement offer.

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Edsall said he is pro-choice on abortion and does not think he has ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate. He said he believes that reporters vote Democratic by somewhere between 15 to 1 and 25 to 1.

Edsall, who now writes for the New Republic and has just finished a book called "Building Red America," also said that journalists have an inherent "suspicion" of the military, and he agreed "to a certain degree" with the argument that Fox News and conservative radio became popular because many people, in Hewitt's words, "got sick and tired of being spoon-fed liberal dross" by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

In an interview, Edsall says the main problem is "an inability to empathize with the way many people in red states think and feel" but that it is "possible" for journalists to set aside their views and report fairly.

Or 'Right-wing'?

Back to Clinton's Fox interview: Lots of reaction online, starting with Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse , who says Clinton "wants to be the mellow, above-the-fray ex-president, but he really can't control the presentation. And now that he's shown how raw and angry he is about the criticisms, it's not going to get any easier. Actually, I don't mind seeing him angry. He should be angry about this. I'd like to think that when he was in office he had this kind of edge and was not good-natured and relaxed. Of course, he's [ticked] at his critics, and it's fine for him to be the kind of guy who gets [ticked]. That doesn't mean his critics aren't right about a lot of things, but there's nothing really wrong with him getting angry like this. I assume a good part of it is that he's angry at himself for the opportunities he can now see he missed."

Tom Maguire of JustOneMinute: "Does debating this topic really benefit the Democratic Party just now? In his current melt-down Bill Clinton demands that we read Richard Clarke's book, which lays out the pro-Clinton case.

"Read Clarke's book? Please -- maybe we can ask President Kerry how the Richard Clarke attacks worked for the Dems in 2004."

Joe at Americablog : "Chris Wallace was out-smarted and out-witted, so Fox [has] been in anti-Clinton spin mode all weekend. Who knew Fox would provide the forum to finally blame Bush for his 9/11 failures?"

Power Line's Paul Mirengoff : "Bill Clinton is desperate to be remembered by history for something other than the Lewinsky affair, perjury, and impeachment. And he will be. It's becoming clear that the Clinton legacy will also include eight years of inaction, broken by rare instances of ineffectual action, towards the mounting threat posed by Osama bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists that culminated in 9/11.

"That this prospect horrifies Clinton is evident from the rough transcript of the former president's interview with Chris Wallace. Clinton has no defense for his feckless response to the mounting terrorist threat other than the honest and very limited defense that he just didn't imagine these guys could successfully attack us on large-scale at home. Clearly that defense won't do, so instead he lashes out at Wallace, Fox News, ABC, and the 'right-wing.' Somehow, I don't think history will be very impressed with this sort of flailing."

But it was great television.

The devil is making a number of appearances on the political scene lately. First it the name that Hugo Chavez used against Bush, and now, reports the L.A. Times , Hillary is the latest target:

"Nothing will motivate conservative evangelical Christians to vote Republican in the 2008 presidential election more than a Democratic nominee named Hillary Rodham Clinton -- not even a run by the devil himself.

"That was the sentiment expressed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the longtime evangelical icon and founder of the once-powerful Moral Majority, during private remarks Friday to church pastors and activists as part of the Values Voter Summit hosted this weekend by the country's leading Christian conservatives.

"A recording of Falwell's comments was obtained by The Times, and his remarks were confirmed by eyewitnesses. 'I certainly hope that Hillary is the candidate,' Falwell said, according to the recording. 'She has $300 million so far. But I hope she's the candidate. Because nothing will energize my [constituency] like Hillary Clinton.' Cheers and laughter filled the room as Falwell continued: 'If Lucifer ran, he wouldn't.'

"At that moment in the recording, Falwell's voice is drowned out by hoots of approval. But two in attendance, including a Falwell staff member, confirmed that Falwell said that even Lucifer, the fallen angel synonymous with Satan in Christian theology, would not mobilize his followers as much as the New York senator and former first lady would."

That's pretty hellish rhetoric for a guy who's hardly an angel.

The pundits and others are still poring over the Bush/McCain terror deal. Craig Crawford :

"The faux debate over torture between the White House and some Republican lawmakers serves both sides in their common goal to keep control of Congress. Not only does it sideline Democrats and allow the GOP to showcase independence from an unpopular president, but it also focuses national attention on the overall war against terror instead of the ever-worsening situation in Iraq.

"Things are so bad there that the military could not go along with an election-eve pretense of withdrawing troops, making the torture debate all the more useful to Republicans."

National Review's Byron York :

"Who won? Before the final deal came out, there had been speculation that the White House had 'blinked' in the much-hyped confrontation. By the end, though, representatives of both sides professed satisfaction. 'I think there is every reason for both sides to be happy,' the source says. 'This was a situation where both the Congress and the administration shared a common objective,' Hadley told reporters afterward. 'And what we did in a fairly creative way was come up with ways that we could all support to achieve that objective.'

"Is one or the other -- or both -- spinning? Perhaps a little, but it does appear that both sides did, in fact, get the main things they wanted. And that raises questions about whether the showdown was ever quite as fundamental as the hype suggested. The Republican 'dissenters' never wanted to cripple the CIA's interrogation program -- a program hated by many of the administration's critics on the left. Rather, they wanted to work out a way to make most of the program legal using existing American law, not the Geneva Convention. And in that, they appear to have succeeded."

No way is this debate over.

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