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October 10, 1996

Brit scribe accuses U.S. press of vindictiveness, political incest

Martin Walker, the urbane and ubiquitous British journalist, spoke to a Frick Fine Arts auditorium audience Oct. 7 about adultery, conspiracy, illegal drug use and incest.

Walker writes about politics, so those subjects were bound to come up. But he apologized for raising a really offensive topic — journalistic ethics, which Walker regretfully called an oxymoron.

Quoting Samuel Johnson's famous line about women preachers, Walker said that a journalist who dares to talk about ethics is like a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." Walker is U.S. bureau chief of The Guardian, and regularly appears on CNN, the BBC and National Public Radio. His latest book, "The President We Deserve," is a biography of Bill Clinton, whom Walker knew when the two were students at Oxford University.

Which brings us to Walker's sensational claim (which he first made publicly in 1992, actually) that he was in the room when the future president did not inhale.

"The reason he didn't inhale was because we didn't have any marijuana at Oxford," Walker said. "We had hashish, which was crumbled into a tobacco cigarette. And Clinton is strongly allergic to tobacco. So allergic, that I've seen him stumble out of a pub in Oxford rather than face the tobacco smoke. He didn't inhale because he couldn't, although I'm afraid it wasn't for want of trying." Clinton also attended Oxford events at which hash brownies were consumed, according to Walker. But luckily for Clinton, Walker said, no reporter has ever asked him on the record: Mr. President, did you ever ingest? Beyond the Oxford revelation and his often self-deprecating wit, Walker bore a serious message about news media irresponsibility. He accused the U.S. journalistic establishment of hubris, vindictiveness and rampant political incest, among other sins.

Traditionally, the relationship between reporters and politicians was marked by antagonism, or at least skepticism, Walker noted. But today's White House staffer is tomorrow's media pundit, and vice versa, he said. The New York Times's William Safire ("probably the most influential U.S. political columnist today," Walker said) is a former Nixon administration speechwriter. When Mario Cuomo lost the New York governorship, he began hosting his own radio talk show. And then there's former Clinton administration press secretary Dee Dee Myers. "She leaves the White House and goes onto a TV talk show where her fellow hostess is Mary Matalin, who was the campaign strategist for George Bush in the 1992 campaign, who herself marries James Carville, who was the campaign strategist for Bill Clinton in 1992. This is not simply incest, this is orgiastic!" Walker exclaimed.

"We [journalists] are no longer looking at government from a distance and from a stance of independence," Walker maintained. "We are conniving to get inside, to build up that extra little chapter of our resume that will allow us to claim ever-greater speaking fees." (As guest lecturer at the School of Information Science's 18th Dean's Forum on the Ethics of Information, Walker received the forum's standard fee of $500 plus travel expenses.) Walker said that writing his own biography of President Clinton has made him acutely aware of a growing trend among political writers toward cheap psychoanalysis and "a cult of revelation." The news media have come to equate the "character issue" exclusively with a politician's sex life, Walker said. By today's standards, Franklin Roosevelt never would have reached the White House, Walker said. Eisen-hower, Kennedy and Johnson likewise would have been hounded by the media about adulterous love affairs, he claimed.

"Was John Kennedy a bad president because he was a wayward husband? Were Lyndon Johnson's Great Society achievements somehow marred by the fact that he was a boor with the opposite sex? I don't think so. And if this is to be our character test, let's look at the man who passes it. The president who was faithful to his wife, straight-laced, Puritan even. The man who would walk on the beach in black lace-up shoes. Any test that is passed by Richard Nixon and failed by Franklin Roosevelt is a pretty wretched test to hold your presidents up to." According to Walker, the real character test for Bill Clinton came in 1992 when the Democratic candidate remained composed, dignified and focused on his campaign throughout the media frenzy over his alleged draft-dodging and adultery with Gennifer Flowers. "I saw Bill Clinton taking hits day after day, submerged in frothing masses of cameramen and reporters," Walker recalled. Walker denied that he and most of his fellow reporters favored Clinton during the 1992 campaign. "If you read the Whitewater coverage, it becomes quite difficult to think that there was any kind of pro-Clinton bias in 1992" — although Walker said he believes some journalists, feeling guilty over their initial attacks on Clinton, became less hostile.

Walker applauded what he called "the very healthy phenomenon" of a growing conservative press, led by the Washington Times and the American Spectator. But he deplored right-wing "dirty tricksters" such as Floyd Brown, head of the conservative organization Citizens United, who is best remembered for masterminding the Republicans' racist Willie Horton ads in 1988.

In a lengthy article in the October issue of Atlantic Monthly, Walker accuses Brown of being a central figure in "Whitewater Scandals, Inc.," which Walker defines as a conspiracy by radical conservatives to whip up controversy over phony issues.

According to Walker, another conspirator is publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, whose Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, virtually alone among U.S. newspapers, continues to publish stories speculating that Clinton aide Vince Foster was the victim of a murder conspiracy — even though Foster's widow, his physician, and three Congressional inquiries all have concluded that Foster killed himself.

Walker called on his audience — "as our readers, as our consumers, as our customers and, yes, as our masters" — to demand more of journalists. "If I can leave you with one thought, it is this: Journalism is too damned important to be left to us journalists." — Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 4

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