If you wanted to diagnose the nation's dysfunctional political press, few episodes are more symptomatic than the publication of competing biographies of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Headlined by The Washington Post, excerpted in The New York Times, their simultaneous appearance illustrates the Beltway buddy system at its incestuous worst.
"Unlike many harsh books about Clinton written by ideological enemies," The Post asserts, "the two new volumes come from long-established writers backed by major publishing houses and could be harder to dismiss. Bernstein won national fame with partner Bob Woodward at The Post for breaking open the Watergate scandal, while (Jeff) Gerth and (Don) Van Natta Jr. have spent years as investigative reporters for The New York Times."
By now, The Times' imprimatur awes nobody. Besides, Gerth doesn't work there anymore. He's rivaled only by Judith Miller (of Iraqi WMD fame) for concocting impenetrable conspiracies from the whispers of anonymous sources. Absent Gerth's infamous Mixmaster prose, there would have been no six-year Whitewater investigation and no bogus Chinese spy crisis during President Clinton's second term. Nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee needn't have done 278 days in solitary for imaginary crimes. Several news organizations, including the Times and Post, and the U.S. government combined to pay Lee $1.6 million.
Van Natta once wrote about Bill Clinton's penchant for awarding himself "mulligans," on the golf course. From his indignant tone, you'd have thought the president got caught cheating at the U.S. Open.
So it's no surprise "Her Way's" tone is almost comically negative. Evidently, Hillary was a calculating little witch even in the ninth grade. After the youth minister at her church took her to hear a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., "Hillary remained basically content to 'parrot' the conventional and decidedly conservative beliefs that were deeply held in Park Ridge," the Chicago suburb where she grew up.
Then in college she went about "selecting a persona" in a "determined and calculating way," that demonstrated "an almost scientific devotion to self-creation." News flash: Presidential candidates tend to be ambitious. Although they're coy about it, it's a good bet neither Gerth nor Van Natta has spent five minutes in the woman's company.
Anybody who can do a Google search can assess "Her Way's" basic fraudulence. Let's pass over the diabolical pact the Clintons supposedly made to succeed each other in a 16-year presidency. Historian Taylor Branch, who supposedly confided this dark secret, calls it "preposterous" and says the authors never interviewed him.
Gerth can't even summarize his own Whitewater reporting straightforwardly. Possibly constrained by Van Natta's ability to write comprehensible sentences, the book correctly observes that the Clintons' Whitewater investment was financed by bank loans. In his original 1992 scandal-mongering story, he'd limned it as a sweetheart deal: "the Clintons appear to have invested little money, so stood to lose little if the venture failed, but might have cashed in on their 50 percent interest if it had done well."
No, Jeff, they had to repay the bank, with interest, losing $43,000. It was of such absurdities — did a New York Times reporter really not grasp that investing borrowed money is riskier than investing cash? — that the Whitewater "scandal" consisted all along.
But let's get contemporary, shall we? Seeking to chastise Clinton's opportunism, the authors allege she never criticized President Bush's misuse of Congress's 2002 Iraq resolution until June 2006, cravenly positioning herself in front of a stampeding herd.
Skeptics at mediamatters.org did a little Google search. Oops! Here's Clinton on the Senate floor on Oct. 17, 2003: "There are those of us, such as myself, who voted to give the President authority. We disagree with the way he used that authority. … I have been first perplexed, then surprised, then amazed and even outraged and always frustrated by the implementation of the authority given the President by this Congress."
Say what you will about Sen. Clinton's stance on Iraq, and I could say plenty, that's been her oft-repeated position for years. Given their long experience with the Gerth method, it's astonishing The Times put the bogus allegation into print without checking. Have its editors learned nothing?
At least Carl Bernstein, whose ex-wife, screenwriter Nora Ephron, once described him as "capable of having sex with a venetian blind," admits never interviewing his subject. So here's his take on Hillary's career at Little Rock's Rose Law Firm. "The potential conflicts were obvious and almost unavoidable in a state in which a single law firm represented the enormously wealthy few ('the ArkoRomans,' in local parlance) and maintained close friend-and- family relationships with members of the political class."
I've lived 35 years in Little Rock, without hearing the phrase "ArkoRomans." But yeah, it's a small city. People do get to know one another. Most Arkansans like it that way. But a single law firm? Goodness, the attorneys run from pages 38 to 96 in the Yellow Pages.
I believe I'll pass.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.