Pundit Central

Starred and Feathered

Starred and Feathered

Having only one new sexcapade development to chew on–the New York Times story about first secretary Betty Currie’s testimony to the grand jury–the commentariat turns its searchlight away from Silent Bill Clinton and onto Kenneth Starr.

Bob Schieffer (CBS’s Face the Nation) pronounces the White House’s savaging of Starr “an all-out attack.” Clinton supporters Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Rahm Emanuel complain of Starr’s “slash-and-burn tactics” (Rangel, Face the Nation) and his “innuendo, rumor, lies, and leaks” (Emanuel, PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer). Clinton aide Paul Begala is asked seven times by the persistent Tim Russert (NBC’s Meet the Press) why the president has yet to give a full account of his dealings with Monica Lewinsky. Seven times a cheerful Begala refuses to answer, chattering on about the need to “investigate the investigators” and fuming unconvincingly about “leaks and lies” (see Emanuel, above).

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., visits Fox News Sunday for “one reason”–to defend Starr’s “integrity.” He reveals that White House “attack dogs” have, in the past, pre-emptively leaked damaging stories in hopes of framing the opposition. Kate O’Beirne (CNN’s Capital Gang) reprises this point, alleging that Friday’s leak to the Times about Currie’s testimony could just as easily have come from the White House as the Starr chamber.

On Starr’s handling of the investigation, the commentariat is evenly divided. “Storm-trooper tactics,” says Al Hunt (Capital Gang); “Overstepped the bounds,” complains Morton Kondracke (The McLaughlin Group). Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift (McLaughlin Group) sees a supreme perversity–Starr is the one suborning perjury, she charges. Meanwhile Robert Novak (Capital Gang) maintains that Starr can’t be the source of the leaks because if the independent prosecutor wanted to leak something, he’d leak it to Robert Novak. Novak mournfully reports that the phone never rings. Brit Hume (Fox News Sunday) defends Starr as a mousy professor who “plays by the book.”

Refusing to dance to the administration’s music, Cokie Roberts (ABC’s This WeekWith Sam and Cokie) puts it all in perspective: “Are the leaks the question, or are the facts the question?” Nina Totenberg (Inside Washington) notes that the presidential love gifts Currie is reported to have repossessed and then given to Starr are the first “concrete” pieces of evidence. “Devastating,” says pithy Kondracke. Hunt stresses that the repo woman’s testimony is the first inside revelation of a cover-up. Still, notes Paul Gigot (NewsHour), the strategy of silence and smearing Starr has been “effective.” He points out that these sorts of tactics worked pretty well for Spiro Agnew, too, until the facts eventually “did it.”

No one much cares to discuss morality during this third week of Tailgate, though William Bennett (This Week) and Tony Blankley (CNN’s Late Edition) grump about America’s blasé attitude toward extramarital fellatio in the Oval Office. Clinton-hater Charles Krauthammer (Inside Washington), for one, doesn’t care if it’s “on the Oval Office carpet,” though witness tampering and perjury concern him greatly.

The press also takes a mild drubbing from within: A mad “rush to judgment” is how Mark Shields (NewsHour) describes the last few weeks, though co-panelist Gigot demurs, “no one on this show used the I-word.”

Issue 2, Iraq, receives almost the same attention as Tailgate, though there was far less disagreement. It is “always possible to make matters worse,” warns a lugubrious George Will (This Week). Many pundits caution the administration to look before a leap. We need to think out our “endgame” before we begin any military initiative, argue David Gergen and Pat Buchanan (both on McLaughlin Group). Gigot also talks of the importance, at this early stage, of articulating “the goal of bombing.” Gergen wonders whether Americans have the stomach for war; people aren’t ready for “mutilated children and bombed-out hospitals,” he predicts. Shields agrees that the country is in favor of an attack but “unprepared to go to war.”

The only true hawk is closely-trimmed conservative Bill Kristol (This Week), who advocates a ground invasion. Most pundits side with bushy-headed George Stephanopoulos (This Week), arguing that only air strikes would be politically palatable. Isolationist Buchanan refloats an old John McLaughlin position: We shouldn’t be too worried about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s hands. Kondracke screams back that he’s “used them before, he’ll use them again.” Buchanan replies that nuclear weapons will keep Saddam at bay. Buchanan even uses the word “deterrence,” though he doesn’t use “Mutually Assured Destruction,” “Bakelite,” or “hula hoop.”

A distressed Novak gets off the best line on Issue 3, the budget: The “Republican Party was put on this earth by God to cut taxes … and they’re not doing it!” Hunt notes that if you “understand American politics,” you’ll realize that Clinton’s budget proposal will rise and fall with the Great Big Intern Scandal.

Ours May Have a Trouser Problem, But Yours Is a Drunk: No one knew quite what to do with Yeltsin’s thrice-repeated warning that an American attack on Baghdad would bring on World War III. Yeltsin’s a drunk, concluded Evan Thomas and Jack Germond (both on Inside Washington). “Inebriated bluster,” agreed Buchanan, “of a country that is no longer great.” Clift, on the other hand, cannot believe that Yeltsin was in the bag all three times he gave these warnings.

Somebody’s Not Telling the Truth: On This Week, Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste rips Starr’s leaky office, noting that Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski, the two chief Watergate special prosecutors that Ben-Veniste worked with, never leaked a thing. Ben-Veniste makes no reference to Robert Novak’s scoop on Capital Gang last week that Cox leaked information to Novak in background briefings 25 years ago. Maybe these two should have lunch sometime.

Bruce Gottlieb