Did Not! Did Too! Wanna Bet?
By Howard Kurtz
"Here we have her blaming the mother-in-law, essentially, for her husband's philandering," says Tony Blankley on CNN.
"Hillary Clinton should stop playing Dr. Laura," says "Crossfire" co-host Bill Press.
Hold on! James Carville, the president's pit-bull spinmeister, says the first lady never said what the media are ridiculing her for saying. And Carville is wagering $100,000 that he's right.
He will put classified ads in Sunday's New York Daily News and Washington Post, offering the six-figure sum "to any reporter who can show me that Hillary Clinton linked the president's sexual misconduct with his childhood," Carville said yesterday. The offer came after he consulted with White House strategists and Clinton allies who are increasingly worried about calming the summer squall.
"The press corps are savages," Carville added. "This is the worst bull I've ever seen. People don't know that she never said it. . . . You can't misreport what she said." At worst, said Carville, the first lady "alluded to these two things."
Semantically speaking, Carville has a point. In the Talk magazine interview that triggered this week's uproar, Clinton was speaking about her husband's "sin of weakness" and how he "lied" to "protect" her. She also observed that the president "needs to be more responsible, more disciplined."
In the next paragraph, writer Lucinda Franks said she mentioned having read about Bill Clinton's chaotic childhood in his mother's autobiography. "That's only the half of it," the first lady said. "He was so young, barely four, when he was scarred by abuse that he can't even take it out and look at it. There was terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother. A psychologist once told me that for a boy being in the middle of a conflict between two women is the worst possible situation. There is always the desire to please each one."
That was it. The word "abuse," in that context, fueled a media frenzy. And many journalists aren't buying Carville's she-never-said-it argument.
"I read the article closely--she seems to say that," said ABC's Cokie Roberts, who pens a syndicated column with her husband. "The whole tone and tenor is 'poor baby. He had a rough time, it's remarkable he's turned out as well as he has, he has a weakness.' "
Chris Matthews, host of CNBC's "Hardball," said that "Mrs. Clinton is trying to be candid" and "grapple with something very difficult," but that "the White House big shots bigfooted her and said this psychological explanation is not going to work." He said the White House had gone "back into cover-up mode," a move that was "pushing this story into even higher levels of importance."
"I'm on Hillary's side," said Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" and usually a conservative critic of the Clintons. "I didn't see the article as an attempt to excuse his behavior. . . . She was explaining why she stood by her husband."
Why, then, did O'Reilly begin his Tuesday show by talking about "Hillary Clinton's assertion that her husband's upbringing is responsible for his irresponsible sexual behavior"? "That's just a tease," he said. "Basically, I was headlining what people were talking about."
Back on the Senate campaign trail in New York yesterday, Clinton said the article's message is that "everybody is responsible for their behavior," but declined to discuss the topic further. That did little to quiet the debate, with MSNBC's Linda Vester describing it as "a little post-revelation spin."
Franks said Tuesday on "Larry King Live" that she thinks "it's very clear that Hillary sees her husband's childhood as influencing his behavior." On Fox News Channel yesterday, though, Franks said people are misreading her piece and that the first lady "did not link his abuse to his infidelity."
"But she put it out there for people to chew on," countered anchor Paula Zahn.
Carville, for his part, says he will "name names" of journalists who misreported Clinton's comments and invite them to sue him for the 100 grand. But he may be too late.
"At this point," said Roberts, "it doesn't much matter whether she said it or not because it's become part of the culture. I was at the beauty parlor yesterday and this was all anyone was talking about."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company