Howell Agonistes

Chatterbox has always hated the orotund style of Howell Raines’ editorials, which routinely attempt to hide simpleminded logic behind lapidary prose and promiscuous contempt. Such elegant smugness! Such magnificent indifference to nuance! The Times’ editorials are without question more readable than they were in the pre-Raines era, when they were cautious and boring. They are also more irresponsible and annoying, in the style of Robert Bartley’s Wall Street Journal editorial page (which Raines seems to regard as his stylistic–though of course not his ideological–model).

Given this predisposition, Chatterbox tore into the Times’ impeachment editorial with gusto yesterday morning. Chatterbox knew that the Times editorial page has a pathological hatred of Bill Clinton far exceeding anything Chatterbox could ever muster. Chatterbox also knew that the Times editorial page had decided (or perhaps, had been told by its liberal publisher to decide) not to favor impeachment. It was an interesting challenge for Raines: two colliding beliefs that had to be explained and reconciled in the page’s Homeric house style. Would the arguments be calibrated? Mightn’t the writer be forced to acknowledge humility or doubt?

Of course not. The editorial wars with itself sentence by sentence, alternating weirdly between militant assertion that Bill Clinton is as bad as Richard Nixon and equally militant assertion that any legislator who seeks to remove Clinton from office is raping the Constitution. Bill Clinton has demonstrated “abject failure to lead by example and to speak truthfully to the American people” and has abandoned “his constitutional duty to defend and uphold the law.” But if the Republicans do anything about it, “the debate about whether this was a political coup will continue for decades and could become a bigger threat to civil stability than Mr. Clinton’s mendacity.” Clinton’s is “the most disappointing White House tenure since that of Richard Nixon.” (Note the ludicrous suggestion that the New York Times ever had high hopes for Richard Nixon’s presidency.) But the House Republicans who seek his ejection are “GOP strongarmers.” (This is paired with an equally ludicrous suggestion that Newt Gingrich, “had he continued to function as Speaker, would have exerted statesmanlike leadership. As a scholar of history, Mr. Gingrich heading the House would have recognized that the case developed by Representative Henry Hyde and the Judiciary Committee was not impeachable.” Let the retrospective Newt deification begin!)

The editorial is sprinkled with finely wrought gems of idiocy. American democracy “should not be sacrificed over Bill Clinton’s inability to resist looking at thong underwear.” Is Raines suggesting that it’s shameful to look at thong underwear? Or is the Times suggesting that Clinton is being crucified for looking at thong underwear? Either way, it misses the point that Clinton did a lot more than look.

The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors,” we are instructed, refers only to “offenses against the state that threaten the nation’s security or the stability of its civic order and to major personal crimes such as murder.” Funny, Chatterbox was under the impression there was some disagreement about that among legal scholars. But the Times editorial page is free from doubt. Even when it is of two minds, both of them are absolutely made up.

Perhaps Chatterbox is a little hypersensitive about this high dudgeon because, well, this is a little embarrassing, but he’s feeling a bit uncertain about what should happen to Clinton. He’s really annoyed at the guy and thinks he ought to have resigned last summer. He’s so mad about Clinton’s brazen refusal to admit that he lied under oath that he’s tempted to say “impeach the bastard.” But he knows that would really screw up the country. And he also knows that Clinton’s crimes aren’t as bad as Nixon’s (not that that should necessarily be the standard). In other words, he’s kind of muddled, probably won’t call for Clinton’s impeachment, but isn’t about to declaim from on high that those who do will burn in hell. Clearly, Chatterbox wouldn’t last an hour on the Times’ editorial staff. (At any rate that is now a theory that is unlikely to be tested.)

–Timothy Noah