Pundit Central

Clinton Newt-ered?

Clinton Newt-ered?

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Newt Gingrich’s public riffs on the president’s moral shortcomings are Issue 1. Chatter about the indictment of Webster Hubbell and the release of his taped prison phone calls captures Issue 2. And Thursday’s White House press conference–memorable for the answers Clinton didn’t give–is Issue 3.

International news, such as the Senate vote to expand NATO, and the European Union’s further move toward a common currency, makes nary a ripple.

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Gingrich’s departure from his freshly cultivated nicey-nicey image is largely unexpected and brings snickers from consistency mavens: “Was that the new old Gingrich or the old new new Gingrich?” asks Al Hunt (CNN’s Capital Gang). Eleanor Clift (The McLaughlin Group) is not surprised at all: By playing the attack dog, Gingrich is simply “reverting to form.”

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Why such an aggressive strategy? It’s the only way to make people realize that this isn’t about sex, it’s about the rule of law (Paul Gigot, PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer). The Republican right-wingers–Clinton-haters, moralists, religious people–want “red meat” (Juan Williams, Fox News Sunday; joined by Pat Buchanan and Jay Carney, The McLaughlin Group; and Hunt). Personal attacks are advance work for Starr’s report, a preliminary strike against Clinton’s sky-high approval ratings (Hunt; Tony Blankley, NBC’s Meet the Press). Newt is simply more comfortable being mean–at heart he’s a “bomb thrower” (Clift; joined by Robert Novak, Capital Gang; and Morton Kondracke, The McLaughlin Group).

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Of course, notes Mark Shields (NewsHour), there’s much risk in playing the villain. Explicitly personal attacks on the president provide exactly the “background music, the wallpaper” that Clinton would want as a backdrop. Gingrich’s attacks, which came off as terribly partisan, mitigate damage to the president’s popularity caused by some of this week’s more embarrassing developments. George Stephanopoulos (This Week) joins the chorus noting that the president is blessed to have such inept enemies as Gingrich (last week’s target was Dan Burton).

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Burton–who was publicly flayed last Sunday for calling Clinton a “scumbag”–is flayed again, this time for releasing tapes of phone calls between Webster Hubbell, then incarcerated, and his wife. It may be legal, admits Mara Liasson (Fox News Sunday), but it’s a rotten thing to do. Burton was also stupid to so tendentiously edit the tapes he released (Fred Barnes, Meet the Press). He did not include sections in which Hubbell cleared Hillary Clinton, once his law partner, of any wrongdoing in the matter that initially landed Hubbell in the stir.

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Gigot thinks the tax fraud proceedings against Hubbell are legitimate and ordinary, while everyone else regards the indictments as trumped-up mini-crimes meant to squeeze Hubbell into giving Starr what he wants–cooperation. Maybe Starr doesn’t want the truth at all, ponders Williams; maybe he’ll just squeeze Hubbell until Hubbell fabricates something that hurts Clinton. But Hubbell won’t break easily. Brit Hume (Fox News Sunday) compares Hubbell’s understanding of loyalty to the Mob’s concept of omertà .

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The presidential press conference, in which Clinton refused to answer scores of questions about Flytrap, was important to the commentariat for one chief reason. Clinton finally said with words what he’s been saying with actions for several months–he has no intention of further clarifying his relationship with Monica Lewinsky or anyone else. This won’t work, says Stephanopoulos, speaking politically: “You can [avoid questions] in one press conference. You cannot do it for two and a half years.” Speaking ethically, says Williams, this is “disturbing.” The president shouldn’t hide from the voters behind fancy-pants lawyers.

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Opinion was varied about the merits of Clinton’s performance. He’s usually tiptop at fielding tough questions, agrees everyone. Most saw this week’s conference as another rhetorical masterpiece in his career of gems, but a few pundits thought the president looked angry and nervous.

A Nice Head-Shrinking Never Hurt Anyone: Based on the presidential press conference this week, Gigot senses that Clinton may be having difficulty separating myth and reality. Clinton, continues Gigot, has come to regard himself as a latter-day Jean Valjean, a decent man hounded by inexplicably cruel enemies. Sam Donaldson (This Week) thinks it odd that, at the same press conference, Clinton refused even to affirm that the president is above the law. Maybe he just “couldn’t bring himself to do that,” says Donaldson.

Bruce Gottlieb

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