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The president’s print and broadcast pursuers continue to grind it out amidst the current lull in the Lewinsky story, but to be honest, it’s just sitting there. Nobody I know is reading or watching with any gusto. I have friends in town from a place where the Beltway is found only on a pair of pants, and they had one question after a few days of reading the Washington Post: “What is it with you people?”
Even though “the presidency is at stake” and “an issue of national moment is at hand,” my Clinton-hating wifewho was treated for carpal-remote syndrome back in Augustflips past the Post’s scandalfest to catch the celebrity fluff in Style. It should just be getting good for the armchair presidential scholar: High crimes have been alleged, perjury seems manifest, and the creaky but reliable articles of impeachment have been renewed.
But a city that first responded to the notion of a Clinton barbecue by all but offering to buy the charcoal seems to have lost its appetite. In that respect, Washington is just catching up with the rest of the country. Even the best pornography lacks staying power after the money shot has come and gone. The coming impeachment story is a hell of a comedown from the giddy heights of the president’s nonconfession and nonapology, Starr’s Scud-like report, and Lewinsky’s oral admissions. Those who have enough distance to detect patterns don’t even experience the middle part of a Clinton scandal, the part that involves doubt and suspense about his viability.
Pity the poor schmucks who are still cranking it out as if we caredthey can’t let the lack of an audience get in the way of a good story. The Post’s Peter Baker has carried his share of the slime buckets the scandal has produced, and his arms are getting pretty damn tired.
“It’s like covering a disaster, but it’s as if the hurricane keeps hitting the town over and over and over again. It is unrelenting and never-ending,” says Baker, who has many more twists and turns to follow before he gets to type 30 on this story.
His competitor over at the New York Times, James Bennet, says that the story punishes him the most during those odd times when the eye of the hurricane hovers over Washington. “There have been many exciting and intense episodes, but the problem is that it always settles back into this chronic, incremental, leaden saga. And that’s a problem, because it is a very competitive story and you can’t afford to let your guard down.”
And when will he let his guard down?
“I’ve given up trying to predict what will happen….I try not to think about covering it for another year, but I can’t imagine being the president. We have to write about it; he has to live it.”
So do regular folks, but that doesn’t mean they will religiously turn in for the moral jihad of Hardball. People will show up O.J.-like when the verdict is in, but don’t look for a lot of attentiveness in the meantime. While the public may not know when it will all end, it knows how it will all end: with a crippled president, a maimed Republican majority, and the people’s business sitting in a huge neglected heap.
Alexis Simendinger of the weekly National Journal doesn’t have to worry about getting an 11 p.m. phone call from a crazed editor because Baker or Bennet has something she doesn’t, but she says this story won’t end because it keeps starting over. “We’ve had a lot of beginnings. We had a beginning back in January, a new beginning back in August, and another beginning when the Starr report came out. There is no calendar that says when this is going to end, but because it is historical and serious, it makes you try to be up, up, up, all the time.”
Simendinger says not all the fatigue stems from the tactical battle of covering a massive scandal: “I think part of their exhaustion with Clinton just comes from covering him for six years. It happens to beat reporters all the time, even at the White House.”
The public feels their pain every day, and Simendinger acknowledges as much: “I hear a lot from family and friends who say that they feel like they have gotten to the end of the novel and wonder why there are six more chapters tacked on.”
Getting a D on the First Draft of History The Post came out of the gate quickly and cleanly on the Lewinsky story, but as the tempo drops and the stakes rise, history and import hang much more near in the Times. Francis X. Clines is writing beautifully about why, and how much, it matters. Meanwhile, the Post’s David Maraniss and Bob WoodwardClinton’s biographer and a man with a presidential pelt on his wall, respectivelyare sending their thoughts out into the ether of Talkland in between attenuated appearances in print. “I think the great paper of Watergate has not done a great job of putting this story in context,” says one Post writer. He believes the only serious attempt at framing the story outside the daily ticktock came on the Op-Ed page. In that piece, former Virginia Republican Rep. M. Caldwell Butler suggested that the whiners who long for the bipartisan days of Watergate are forgetting that Democratic House Judiciary Chairman Pete Rodino showed a tolerance for the opposition that brought to mind Chairman Mao. It was a rare burst of context from a paper that should be rife with it.
“It’s a shame,” says the source. “We have missed out on many chances to tell our readers how this story compares and contrasts with Watergate, and we are sitting on top of a vast repository of talent and information. There are all sorts of comparisons to be made. We should show a time line of the polling data on Nixon. I think it would demonstrate that he wasn’t in trouble until the very end. But our readers still think [his resignation] was a foregone conclusion from the start, which it wasn’t.”
National Affair It’s well known at the Post that Deputy National Editor Susan Glasser and Baker, the White House correspondent, have a romantic relationship. Another deputy national editor, Maralee Schwartz, was worried enough about the implications of a supervisor’s having a relationship with a reporter that she brought it to the attention of higher-ups, including Post Editor Len Downie. Mistake. “She was slapped around real good and told to mind her own business,” says a Post source. “She is a wonderful, highly regarded veteran who brought legitimate concerns to the leadership of this paper and she was promptly told that she was the problem. That’s a dumb way to run a paper.” Another source at the paper says that Glasser frequently edits Baker’s work. “I’m appalled that they are letting this go on. It’s a ridiculous decision to pretend like this does not present a conflict.” Schwartz did not return a phone call.
Calling the Local Roll Local coverage in Capital Hill rags defines tokenisma flimsy, puffy restaurant review here, an Eastern Market dispute there, and then it’s back to who’s pimping whom at the Capitol Grille. The primary business of papers like The Hill and Roll Call is to feed the congressional gossip mill, conjuring a community out of a honeycomb of self-serving interests. But their readers also happen to be the people who rule the city. Since they don’t so much as spill coffee on the Metro section of the Post, the marginal coverage in these two pubs can affect how the city is seen by its overseers. About a month ago, Roll Call’s longtime local columnist Duncan Spencer was sacked by new editor Lee Horwich, who didn’t think much of Spencer’s durable franchise. Spencer moved to the The Hill, and the paper opened up a whole new local page that he’s been filling out with solid dispatches from the host city. But over at the more widely read Roll Call, Spencer’s absence has left a big hole, which has thus far been filled with the painfully insider Climbers column and excruciating features about dog watchers and the feckless Guardian Angels. Roll Call Editor Horwich said the change “wasn’t based on my like or dislike of Duncan’s columns. It stemmed from a belief that our new section would better serve our readership.” Spencer is happy at his new post and doesn’t harbor warm feelings for his old shop. “I think it was a stupid mistake. The local story has become a more important story. The city is on the rebound, and I think that it made no sense to drop a column that had a readership. I was totally baffled and upset.”
Pulled Over The New Republic’s Jan. 19, 1998, cover illustration for a story on corruption in the Metropolitan Police Department featured a police officer flashing a toothy grin, a pointy nose, and a wad of $10 and $20 bills tucked behind badge number 17940. The magazine’s Oct. 19 edition contained the following Editor’s Note: “TNR did not intend to associate the police officer whose badge number was displayed on the cover with the article about the District of Columbia’s police department in that issue of the magazine.” There were a few dollar signs attached to that oblique correction. Turns out that the badge used as a model for the illustration belongs to a Chicago police officer, who sued TNR for libel. “That was his badge number, and therefore it made it seem like he was on the take,” explains editor Charles Lane. The magazine decided to settle the suit quietly, rather than fight it out in court and risk more unwanted publicity. “[The officer’s claim] does seem like a stretch to me.”
The following items may have escaped notice of the casual Post reader. At City Paper we’re happy to keep the old gimlet eye out so you can buzz through the morning paper confident that we’ll read them closelyso you don’t have to:
Burying the Larry Tucked deep inside Cheryl Thompson’s story about the D.C. Council investigations of police misconduct was the eye-popping fact that the department’s last chief, Larry Soulsby, took the Fifth when queried about departmental shenanigans on his watch. Must be saving the real story for another day.
Meeting Incompetents on Their Own Terms Valerie Strauss has pulled the Post’s District public school coverage out of the ditch and published a passel of really smart pieces. But in a recent story about the pack of hacks running for school board, she seemed to share her subjects’ penchant for bluster over facts. She wrote that 1974 was the first year the District had elected a school boardit was 1968and that 39 candidates were running this yearthe actual number is 25, according to the D.C. Board of Elections. And she also misspelled the name of City Paper’s Ken Cumminsbut hey, he’s butched a name or two over the years, too.
Just Between Us (Black) Girls “The girl, bless her, had a blackgirl butt, the ample, rounded, telltalepun intendedrear end possessed by enough sisters for the feature to tip off strangers who can’t see an inch of brown, black or pecan-colored skin.”Donna Britt, writing about the correlation between skin color and butt size on Oct. 9.
What Else Does He Need to Know? “If this is all the Redskins can beand we’ll have a good idea by sundown next SundayI don’t know why you wouldn’t relieve Turner of this burden sooner rather than later.”Michael Wilbon, writing last Monday after the Skins were defeated by the (until then) winless Philadelphia Eagles. He was reserving judgment until they play the undefeated Minnesota Vikings next Sunday.
Now They’re Really Piling It On In its Scoreboard section on Oct. 9, the Post listed the following numbers in the “points against” column, which tallies how many points a team has given up: Dallas82, Arizona114, N.Y. Giants111, Philadelphia137, Washington1,698. Washington scores less often than the president and gives it up more often than you-know-who, but the type gremlins apparently decided to rub it in.
A Sports Makeover “Like an oily skin cream that won’t wash off…” Blaine Harden and Ellen Nakashima, writing about the lingering effects of the Skins’ sixth loss in a row. It’s great to have some gender balance on the sports beat, but the gooey imagery of that metaphor just doesn’t wash, period.
Jason Cherkis, Dave McKenna, and Amanda Ripley contributed to this column.
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