Jeffrey Toobin, whose book AVast Conspiracy has been a subject of continuing interest in this space, has backed out of a scheduled Wednesday appearance on Rivera Live at which he would have confronted Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter he slimes in his book. Since the show’s host, Geraldo Rivera, is an ardent Clinton defender, it would have presumably been a favorable venue for Toobin, who describes the president as the victim of a cabal of greedy opportunists in the Flytrap scandal. Not favorable enough, I guess.
When I called Toobin last month to ask him why he was decrying “tawdry voyeurism” while dumping sex documents on the Web, I expected him to be hypocritical about it. (“Guilty as charged,” he later admitted to Ted Koppel.) What I didn’t expect was the general position he took regarding reporting about the private lives of public figures. “I believe the ‘character’ issue is a completely bogus journalistic concept designed to put a bow tie on” a vulgar interest in sex, Toobin told me. He added that a politician’s sex life “tells you absolutely nothing about their performance” in office.
Note that he didn’t say, “I thought Clinton’s privacy interest outweighed any interest in asking him those questions,” or “I thought what Clinton did was bad but not that bad,” or “it wasn’t enough to impeach him.” He said Clinton’s sexual misbehavior was a “completely bogus” issue and “absolutely” irrelevant.
Toobin’s extreme position, of course, requires us to think that JFK’s reckless trysting with Judith Campbell Exner told us nothing about his presidency. It also defies much of our learning about human psychology (be it Darwinian or Freudian), grounded as it is in the recognition that sex and the pursuit of sex is an important part of an individual’s personality that profoundly affects all of that individual’s behavior. It ignores the obvious point (made by Isikoff in his book) that “private misbehavior on Clinton’s scale required routine repetitive, and reflexive lies to conceal itself” and that “lying, engaged in often enough, can have a corrosive effect.” It says it’s fine for future historians to get tenure and win prizes for unearthing the psychosexual roots of presidential folly, but terrible if voters find out about them in real time, when something could be done. It finds inexplicable the current behavior of the electorate, which is in the process of conducting an entire presidential election centered on what Toobin calls the “completely bogus” character issue.
But never mind that. You knew that. The point I want to make is that Toobin’s position is so extreme and untenable that he doesn’t believe it himself, not when he’s assessing Clinton in his own book. On Page 49 of Vast Conspiracy, for example, Toobin sets out to explain a key turning point in Flytrap–Clinton’s failure to settle the Paula Jones case, a course of action that would (at the least) have saved the president from wasting much of his second term:
[T]he president … said he didn’t want to settle, but not because he was eager for a fight. He didn’t want to settle, Clinton told [his attorney Robert] Bennett and others, because he couldn’t do that to Hillary. A settlement would suggest that Clinton was admitting to Jones’s charges, and the president said he could not put his wife through that kind of humiliation. This reluctance to settle had dramatic–and catastrophic–implications for the Clinton presidency, and it was rooted in the complex dynamics of the relationship between husband and wife. [Emphasis added.]
Hmmm. This passage doesn’t exactly make Clinton’s sex life sound “absolutely” irrelevant to his public decisions. Quite the opposite. And if this “dramatic” and “catastrophic” course of action was “rooted in the complex dynamics of the relationship between husband and wife,” isn’t it possible that other decisions–say Clinton’s refusal to humiliate his wife by abandoning her ambitious health-care proposal during his first term–were also rooted in those complex dynamics, which in turn were perhaps made more complex by Clinton’s practice of carrying on affairs behind his wife’s back? Certainly that thought isn’t “completely bogus.” Once you’ve accepted the “complex dynamics of the relationship between husband and wife” as the ultimate cause of a presidential action, it would seem you’ve opened the door pretty wide for all sorts of journalistic inquiries far more intrusive than any Michael Isikoff or Jackie Judd or William Rempel undertook–at least for a president whose wife played such an important public and (her aides now tell us) private role in governing.
Nice bow tie!
Update: Toobin now says he will delete one false accusation against Isikoff from his book, reports Lloyd Grove. … Toobin attempted to dissemble about backing out of Geraldo (“It’s not like I was actually scheduled”) when asked by Jeannette Walls. But she nailed him, by calling Geraldo’s producer (“He was booked and he called to confirm”). See Walls’ thorough coverage here. … And you thought only kausfiles cared!