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Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter on the Bill Clinton meltdown yesterday.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006
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HH: Joined now by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. Jonathan, good to have you back. How goes the great bio of FDR’s first 100 days?

JA: You know, it’s a best seller, so I’ve got no complaints, Hugh, and you deserve some of the credit, because when I was out there and went on your show, I sold thousands of copies. A lot of your listeners are real students of history, and they responded, and they read my book, and they told their friends. And so, everything has really been going great.

HH: Well, the Defining Moment is a fine bit of popular history, and I think there’s an endless market in America for popular history. I really do, if it’s well done, because we’re infinitely interested in where we came from.

JA: Yeah, and you know, people are sometimes looking for lessons for the present. But a lot of times, they just, whether they’re liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, they also just like a good, political story that’s fun. And you get to see how things were different in a lot of ways, and also the same in stories about people getting drunk and doing all kinds of nutty things, betraying each other. You know, FDR could be very manipulative, and so I had a lot of fun finding the less flattering stories, as well as the more heroic ones.

HH: Now Jonathan Alter, I want to talk about media with you, but since you’ve just written on FDR and his presidency at the beginning, and the life up to that, Bill Clinton gave a performance for the ages last night.

JA: (laughing) Yes, he did.

HH: What did you make of that, when you watched it for the first time, what was your reaction?

JA: Well, you know, it seemed familiar to me. He’s only lost his temper in public, as far as I can tell, once before, and that was in 1992. He was caught on videotape kind of cursing out Jesse Jackson. But those of us who have interviewed him over the years, we knew that he had this temper. And I actually asked him a question in 1999, and he went off on me the way he did with Chris Wallace. So…

HH: What was the question?

JA: I asked him if he was intending to seek psychiatric counseling for his very self-destructive sexual problems.

HH: What did he say?

JA: He said I can’t believe you asked me that question, Jon. I just can’t believe you’re asking him that question. And he like flipped out, the way we saw with Chris Wallace. So that’s just part of Clinton’s protean quality. I mean, I had just seen him deliver a brilliant speech on Friday at the conclusion of the Clinton Global Initiative, where he brings up his game. Every year, he brings up his game more. And he started out, actually, as not a very good speaker. Remember when he put everybody to sleep at the 1988 convention?

HH: Right.

JA: But he’s one of these guys who gets better as a public performer with time. But as we know, he’s a complicated guy, and he’s got this temper, and we saw it. And I don’t blame Chris Wallace at all. I mean, I’m going to say that in a few minutes on MSNBC. I think Chris Wallace’s question was perfectly legitimate, and we saw part of Clinton that’s not terribly attractive, even though on the merits, he had a pretty strong argument. I actually went and looked at the book just now, the Looming Tower that…

HH: Oh, yeah. It’s a fantastic book.

JA: Terrific book.

HH: I had him on for two hours last week.

JA: It’s a terrific book, and that’s the book that Chris was using to pose some of his questions to Clinton. And President Bush is hardly in that book at all, because it basically ends at 9/11.

HH: Yup.

JA: But he is in there a little bit, and it verifies what Clinton was saying, which is that they degraded, they downgraded terrorism when they came into office, because they wanted to do everything the opposite of Clinton. And actually, Condi Rice had never heard of al Qaeda, she wasn’t interested in terrorism, and they didn’t pay any attention to it until 9/11.

HH: You know what Lawrence Wright said on this program, Jonathan, on Friday, and it’s Bill Clinton’s best response. He said in the presidential debates, all of them, and the vice presidential debate of 2000, terrorism never came up.

JA: Exactly.

HH: And so, his best response is yeah, we were asleep. Everyone was asleep.

JA: That’s right.

HH: But I think the fact is, and I think this is what the Looming Tower, when you read it will prove out, they ought not to have been asleep, given what only they could have known and accumulated over eight years.

JA: Well, I actually…I mean, I had a different reaction to the book. I mean, my basic reaction, I think the liberals are wrong when they go into this whole thing about Crawford, and Bush was warned at Crawford. And I think the conservatives are wrong with this whole Path To 9/11 thing. That thing was so riddled with errors…

HH: Oh, it was not, Jonathan. It was fine.

JA: Oh, come on.

HH: There were a couple of dynamic, dramatic moments.

JA: Hugh, there was a Washington Post comparison between the 9/11 Commission Report, and…

HH: But that’s a political document. Bill Clinton said so last night.

JA: It’s the closest we have to what happened.

HH: No, it’s…Bill Clinton said. It’s a political document.

JA: They claimed to have based their stupid movie on the 9/11 report, and it bore no resemblance to it. My basic point is that nobody is to blame, pre-9/11. Neither Clinton nor Bush. No, it was hard to…

HH: Oh, we can’t agree with that. Oh, he wants you to believe that.

HH: Jonathan, I do want to get the Edsall interview, but I do want to go back to Clinton for one second. In the Looming Tower, on pages 220-221, you will read the most devastating indictment of the Clinton administration. Sudan offered bin Laden to Clinton and his gang, and they would not take him. That is, to me, they didn’t understand what a threat he was by 1996. That is, to me, the one thing you just can’t get around.

JA: I’m looking at the page right now. Yeah, it says the Clinton administration still perceived bin Laden as a wealthy nuisance, not a mortal threat.

HH: Yeah.

JA: Well, you know, I agree. I think that’s damning, but I think it’s also extremely damning what Clinton said, which is that we have seven times as many troops in Iraq as we do in Afghanistan. And you know, it’s now five years, Hugh, and we don’t have the guy. And so it seems to me kind of off the point for conservatives in this country to go on this tear about Clinton. It’s sort of a distraction from the main point, which is that your guy hasn’t gotten him.

HH: Oh, our guy has smashed up al Qaeda, though, and our guy is doing everything he can…

JA: I don’t know. We just have fifteen intelligence agencies in a national intelligence estimate which is our most, our most accurate, most generally accepted intelligence document that we have in this country. And the NIE that came out over the weekend, that nobody has denied, says that terrorism has gotten worse as a result…

HH: Have you read the document, Jonathan?

JA: What?

HH: Have you read the document?

JA: Come on, Hugh.

HH: Of course you haven’t.

JA: Nobody…

HH: I don’t believe the New York Times.

JA: Nobody in government is disputing it, Hugh.

HH: Oh, they are, too. The White House is disputing it, John Cornyn did on this program last hour.

JA: Yeah, they are now. They’re trying to get…because they realize that politically, they have a problem. Nobody disputed it.

HH: It’s just because it’s more…okay. That brings us to the media. The reason…

JA: Why would you do this? You’ve got to be intellectually honest about this, Hugh.

HH: Let me read you Thomas Edsall and me from last week.

JA: You know that if the shoe’s on the other foot, you’d be all over this NIE nightmare.

HH: No, I wouldn’t. A) if the shoe was on the other foot, you wouldn’t find a responsible journalist in my side of the political spectrum who would release national security secrets, or at least partially quote axe grinding operatives who’ve been embarrassed too many times. But that brings me to Edsall. On Friday on this program, or Thursday on this program, I said look, Thomas. The reason talk radio exploded, followed by Fox News, followed by the center-right blogosphere, is that because folks like you have been the dominant voice in American media for a long time, and you’re a pretty thorough-going, Democratic-favoring agenda journalists for the left, and you’ve been the senior political reporter for the Washington Post for a very long time. And people don’t trust your news product. Not you personally, but the accumulation of yous, throughout the L.A. Times, the Post, the New York Times, and they got sick and tired of being spoon fed liberal dross, and they went to talk radio when an alternative product came along. Thomas Edsall says, to a certain degree, I agree with that. He goes on to admit that the left versus right, in America’s newsrooms, elite newsrooms like yours, is 15-25 on the left to one on the right. That’s why we don’t trust the New York Times, Jonathan. You guys are in the bag for the Democratic Party.

JA: Well, I mean, so you’re suggesting that the…well, first of all, I don’t disagree with Tom, and I never have. I just try to draw a little bit of…and I think your depiction of the rise of conservative media is basically accurate. People wanted an alternative. They felt like they weren’t getting news that agreed with their political opinions enough, and they wanted an alternative, and that’s fine. And that’s what’s great about this country, is that we do have a free press, and people can get a lot of different sources of information. I think it’s a little bit more complicated, and just to go back to FDR for a minute, because I always think historical context helps. In FDR’s day, the reporters were so pro-FDR, they actually applauded after his first press conference. They were…it makes today looks like nothing, the extent to which the working reporters were in favor of the New Deal. The owners of the newspapers, however, and their editorial pages, were almost overwhelmingly against FDR, and the columnists, because they responded more to the editorial perspective of the ownership, also tilted conservative. And I’d say that’s pretty close to the position that we’ve had in the post-war period, too. In other words, I’m a columnist, right? So I look some at these editorial pages. You have a lot of conservative columnists out there, dominant ones, fewer liberal columnists. So you’ve had that as some balance. You have newspaper editorials…and I thought it was ridiculous that in Bill O’Reilly’s new book, he’s attacking papers like the Denver Post and several others as being these anti-Bush newspapers, when they endorsed Bush for president.

HH: Oh, but it’s irreportorial. That’s what Edsall admitted, which was so damning, is that the people who drive the news are the reporters, and the reporters are, by 15-25 to 1 leftists.

JA: Okay. All right. Now I’m not sure that ratio is wrong. I mean, I don’t think anybody has a good study of it, but…

HH: But it feels right.

JA: …it’s overwhelmingly, the question, though, the threshold question that you have to look at is how much does that affect their coverage? Now I think some. I think liberals who say well, that doesn’t affect their coverage at all are wrong. Obviously, people’s worldviews will affect their coverage to a certain extent. But you’ve got to recognize that there’s a difference between journalists, for whom getting the story comes first…look at their coverage of Clinton, the Clinton administration. It was pretty damn critical, all right? And people for whom journalism is an end for a political axe grinding. So like, I compare, say, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. For them…

HH: But it’s editorial.

JA: Right.

HH: The key is, when it’s…I don’t care what you write, because everyone knows you’re a columnist. But when the New York Times brings out the hat trick of national security-endangering stories that they did, and Bill Keller is a thorough-going lefty, then America begins to decide that you can’t trust the New York Times.

JA: That’s actually not true about Bill Keller. I mean, I would just direct you…you know, I think this is the kind of thing that’s said so casually, without any evidence.

HH: Oh, I’ve researched Bill Keller extremely well.

JA: Look at…it’s ridiculous, Hugh. You look at a piece he wrote…

HH: He wrote the New York Times magazine piece on nukes. I read that, too.

JA: Yeah, and on Paul Wolfowitz, he wrote a profile of Paul Wolfowitz that was the most complementary profile of Wolfowitz to appear in the major media.

HH: Then he needs to come out and answer questions, because he won’t, because he can’t, Jonathan, because he’s not like you. He won’t be transparent with even mildly hostile questions.

JA: Well, you know, I agree with you on that, because I actually called up Keller, because I broke a story that Bush had had Keller and Sulzberger into the Oval Office to talk to them before this NSA story ran, so a few months ago. I broke this story about that, and I called up Keller for comment, and he wouldn’t talk about it, and I said so I guess the era of transparency at the New York Times is over? He didn’t think that was too funny. I mean, I agree with you that I think that he could and should be more transparent. But to call him a leftist is just silly.

HH: Oh, no it’s not. I think it’s a completely accurate…

JA: There’s no evidence of it.

HH: …non-pejorative term.

JA: There’s simply no evidence of it.

HH: Oh, my goodness. You should see his interviews about the national security-endangering stories he’s run. Jonathan, always a pleasure. We’ll watch you on MSNBC shortly. If you haven’t read his book yet on FDR, you ought to. He’s just wrong on current events. He got the history right.

End of interview.

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