Why Clinton Was Better Off Lying

Salon’s Jake Tapper last week faulted Chatterbox and others for focusing on “juicy news hooks” in Bob Woodward’s new book, Shadow, while ignoring his grand thesis. Or rather, he paraphrased, with apparent approval, a complaint from Woodward along these lines. Chatterbox, however, thinks that paying attention to how well Bob Woodward spins political-science theories makes about as much sense as paying attention to how well Pablo Picasso plays the ukelele. Spinning political-science theories just isn’t what Woodward is good at, while digging up interesting information is something Woodward is better at than almost anyone else. So Chatterbox thinks it makes excellent sense for Woodward’s readers to judge him on his ability to come up with “juicy news hooks”–and to express disappointment when he fails to do so, or when his methods seem a little shaky.

The grand theses of Woodward’s books don’t get much attention because they are often banal and sometimes flat-out wrong. To some critics, Woodward’s weakness at sorting out what his reportage really means is fatal. Chatterbox takes a more benign view. The Agenda, Woodward’s first Clinton book, is a very good piece of journalism because it documents quite meticulously how the Clinton White House arrived at a winning economic strategy. The fact that Woodward’s snippets of analysis here and there suggest he took the opposite view–that he was documenting Clinton’s unforgivable and foolhardy sell-out of liberal economic policy–is entirely incidental to what really matters about The Agenda, which remains one of the best books about the Clinton administration that Chatterbox has ever read.

As Chatterbox previously noted (click here and here for earlier items), the pre-publication excerpts from Shadow suggested that Woodward’s juicy-tidbit quotient was a bit low this time out, a hypothesis borne out thus far as Chatterbox makes his way through the book. (Though Chatterbox was intrigued to learn that Gerald Ford maintains that James Schlesinger, the defense secretary whom he eventually fired, ignored Ford’s order, on the day Saigon fell, to send in additional aircraft to evacuate more South Vietnamese.) But let’s put such meretricious concerns aside and look at what Woodward is actually saying in this new book. Let’s look at his “grand thesis.”

Shadow’s theme is that Watergate made the public subject presidents to greater scrutiny, and that presidents, in resisting that scrutiny, have done themselves great harm. It is, in effect, a restatement of the Washington cliché that “the coverup is always worse than the crime.” But even in Watergate, which invented this notion, there’s reason to doubt that the coverup was worse than the crime. Yes, it’s true that Nixon ordered the coverup, and that was bad. We don’t know that he ordered the break-in, and in that sense Nixon’s role in the coverup was worse than his (entirely unproven) role in the original crime. But if we knew that Nixon had ordered the break-in–that the president of the United States had personally authorized a burglary that was carried out–wouldn’t that be what we remember about Watergate?

The coverup is worse than the crime when there is no crime. It’s Chatterbox’s best guess that this will prove to be the lesson of Hillary Clinton’s handling of Whitewater. When there is a crime, or a genuine scandal, it doesn’t strike Chatterbox as axiomatic that it’s in the perpetrator’s best interest to come clean–even if the truth is bound to come out. It’s in the journalist’s best interest, and in the public interest. But that isn’t the same thing as the president’s interest. Consider Flytrap. If Bill Clinton, when quizzed by Paula Jones’s attorneys, had admitted he’d gotten a blow job in the Oval Office from a White House intern while he was discussing Bosnia with a member of Congress, would that have made it easier for him? Of course not; it seems very likely that the public would very quickly have compelled congressional Democrats to call for Clinton’s immediate resignation. Instead, Clinton perjured himself. That was worse for the country. But it was better for Clinton. It allowed the story to trickle out slowly, often in ways that made the public more apt to blame the press than Clinton for what it was learning. It allowed the Republicans to overplay their hand in the subsequent impeachment drama. And it allowed time for congressional Democrats (who really would have preferred to see Clinton gone) to lose their nerve. Admittedly, in Flytrap, Clinton’s perjury–the cover up–was legally worse than the literal “crime,” which in this case doesn’t exist (it isn’t illegal to get a blow job from a White House intern). Morally the perjury was probably worse, too–though Chatterbox thinks that’s a much closer call. But any sensible consideration of Clinton’s interests must conclude that stonewalling and lying, even under oath, turned out to be a winning strategy that kept him in office. For Clinton, the coverup was much, much better than the crime.