The commentariat abandon past weeks’ hawkish bluster to ask hard questions about Issue 1–Iraq. Their conclusion? None of the alternatives look too thumping. While few pundits endorse specific proposals, that doesn’t stop them from criticizing the White House: “People in search of a rationale,” George Will (ABC’s This Week With Sam and Cokie) calls them. “I’m not sure they know what comes after,” laments Martha Raddatz (PBS’s Washington Week in Review).
Congress, where “the idea of bombing Iraq has really fallen into trouble,” is equally confused, says Fred Barnes (The McLaughlin Group). Will explains the appeal of bombing: It provides “gratification without commitment.” Yet air attacks will not remove Saddam Hussein, the pundits agree, and greasing the maximum leader with smart bombs is a poppyhead’s dangerous “pipe dream” (Al Hunt, CNN’s Capital Gang). Many follow Sam Donaldson’s (This Week) lead in worrying about the morning after, when an unruffled Saddam emerges to mug for the cameras.
Leading the war caucus are Brit Hume and Catherine Crier (both on Fox News Sunday), who predict that when push comes to shove Congress will support the troops, and Tony Blankley (CNN’s Late Edition) and Bill Kristol (This Week), who sense public support for a drawn-out ground war.
But many commentators believe that renewed U.N. inspections will be enough to satisfy the public. The “make love, not war” sentiment is strong on TheMcLaughlin Group, as Eleanor Clift, Clarence Page, and John McLaughlin forecast a 60-percent chance that the United States will stand down from armed conflict. George Stephanopoulos (This Week) forecasts a “better than even” chance that the United States will give peace a chance. (Fifty-fifty predictions are popular with the pundits because they provide the necessary wiggle room in both directions.)
In the absence of any new revelations on the presidential sexcapade, the pundits demote it to Issue 2 and place it on automatic pilot. They’re looking forward to the next step in the process, when Ken Starr delivers to Congress. “Judgment day is getting closer and closer,” Pat Buchanan warns (McLaughlin Group). Buchanan and McLaughlin identify Clinton’s political victory in the week (Starr looked like a partisan bully) and his legal defeat (what Starr pulled from Monica’s mom is another nail in the coffin).
Robert Novak (NBC’s Meet the Press), Michael Duffy (Washington Week in Review), and Paul Gigot (PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer) dispute the distinction between the political and the legal. By making Starr look like an obsessed Ahab, Clinton and “First Spear Carrier” James Carville (Gigot) hope to taint the investigation and deter Congress from impeaching the president with the independent counsel’s wiggy evidence. According to this logic, a series of small anti-Starr political victories will add up to a whopper of a legal triumph.
Gigot reminds all that supposed ideologue Starr was once “every Democrat’s favorite Republican lawyer,” and that when the Dems wanted a fair-minded Republican to deal with the Packwood sex scandal, Starr was their first choice. Gigot and NewsHour co-panelist Tom Oliphant both agree that Clinton’s “smash-mouth politics” have hardened Starr, and made him a rougher, hungrier prosecutor. Novak (Meet the Press) suggests the Republicans will counter the anti-Starr tactics with “Chinese water torture,” weakening Clinton bit by bit while keeping him alive. The president won’t be impeached, predicts Novak, but he will be substantially weakened.
Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is Issue 3. Amazing, say the pundits: Babbitt has “the finest reputation [for ethical conduct] of anyone in public life” (Oliphant); is “the last [Cabinet member] one would imagine getting in trouble” (Doyle McManus, Washington Week in Review); and is “the most honest man in government” (an adoring Margaret Carlson, Capital Gang). The oft-ironic pundits do not note that being the most honest man in Washington is like being the best-complexioned boy in the dermatologist’s office. Novak (Capital Gang) is not so sure that Babbitt is really Mr. Clean and Mark Shields (Capital Gang) quips that if exonerated, Babbitt will be the first Arizona governor in 20 years who doesn’t end up in the stir. The pundits wonder aloud: Will the new independent counsel follow Reno’s instructions and keep his nose out of larger campaign-finance issues?
What’s in a Name? Producers at This Week catch Clinton and Gore mispronouncing Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher’s name at Satcher’s swearing-in ceremony. In introductory speeches Gore called him “Hatcher,” Clinton called him “Thatcher.” The segment notes that President Reagan was known to misidentify his own dog and also the country of Brazil in official settings. President Bush purposely mispronounced “Saddam Hussein” to annoy the Iraqi leader, while Iraqi newsreaders retaliated by mispronouncing Bush so that, in Arabic, it meant “nothing.”
Meanwhile, John McLaughlin stares directly at Fred “Beetle” Barnes, pauses, and calls him “Pat Buchanan.” Later, McLaughlin refers to Saddam’s Republican Guard as the “Red Guard.” Mark Shields looks directly at Robert Novak on Capital Gang and calls him “Al Hunt,” much to the amusement of the other panelists.
Legal Math: Last week, Capital Gangsters Shields and Hunt shouted down Novak for alleging that Starr’s legal team was composed of Justice Department lawyers. This week, Novak reveals his research to announce that of the 18 Starr deputy and associate counsels, nine are on loan from the Justice Department, four are former DOJ lawyers, and five have no DOJ affiliation. “You can line up to apologize to me after the show,” booms an effulgent Novak. Nemesis Hunt refutes the slack-jawed Novak, with the computation that 5 + 4 = 9 and therefore half of Starr’s deputies are not current DOJ employees.