Norman Solomon’s Column
News of Bill Clinton’s lucrative book deal has created quite a buzz. There’s no telling how the former president’s memoirs will turn out. But before revisions delete any excess candor, the first draft of a chapter about media coverage of his presidency might include a passage like this:
From the outset, I wanted to prove that I was a genuine New Democrat. Fortunately, I had the personality and the connections to pull it off. Bubba on Wall Street. Cracker with Chablis. A modern Huey Long, but well tailored and tamped down.
To be taken seriously by the Washington press corps, a presidential hopeful needs influential backers with access to millions. At the start of the 1990s, I gained momentum by excelling at events like the cozy bull sessions on Pamela Harriman’s estate in Virginia fox country. I talked up a “third way” — not liberal, not conservative. I was something else!
I conveyed to a lot of journalists that I trusted their political sensibilities, revered their symbols, talked their language. I pursued a strategy to acquire a coveted media label — “moderate” — the favorable tag for a politician who supports abortion rights and won’t rock the big corporate boats.
There was that unpleasantness about Gennifer Flowers, but it didn’t do much damage after Hillary and I talked our way past it on 60 Minutes. I had the political two-step down cold — talk like a mature populist and swing with the money boys. The media pros were often warm; those who didn’t hate me were inclined to swoon.
At the ’92 convention, the bio flick was pure media gold — especially because of the Rose Garden scene with me and President Kennedy shaking hands. At year’s end, Time magazine couldn’t stop gushing about that footage: “Now the torch is being passed to the generation that was touched and inspired by Kennedy. Indeed, the most memorable moment in the convention video about the man from Hope was the scene of the eager student being inspired by Kennedy’s anointing touch.”
While I made a lot of media hay about my Cabinet “looking like America,” few journalists focused on the blue-blood orientation. I sealed the deal by installing Wall Street bootlicker Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) as treasury secretary and Bob Rubin (D-Goldman Sachs) as economic policy czar. Both were fervently appreciated in the upper reaches of American journalism.
When I took early flak about gay rights in the military, I caved. But I knew what to fight for.
I went to the mat for NAFTA, and then for the GATT treaty forming the World Trade Organization. That boosted my stock among media elites. Even pundits who despised me, like Wall Street Journal editorial writers, had to give me grudging credit. Of course, with the hostility from media owners like Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Rupert Murdoch, I could never please the rabid right at outlets like the Washington Times and Fox News.
Overall, the big media wheels kept spinning in praise of my aversion to “big government” (the Pentagon excluded, naturally). When I showed myself eager to slash the social safety net, they knew I meant business.
There was a bit of grousing when I signed the welfare reform bill. If a Republican had done it, some media liberals might have gone nuts — but they were content to give me, at most, the press equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
It sure didn’t hurt that I pulled off the bipartisan Telecommunications Act of 1996. This multibillion-dollar gift to broadcasting’s powers-that-be really helped to further ingratiate me with media moguls. They were thrilled to proceed with merger mania and ratchet up already-humongous profits.
To be frank, bombing also came in very handy. I don’t want to hear about Wag the Dog. No president needs a Hollywood movie to understand that when the commander-in-chief kills some foreigners, all kinds of media goodies follow.
I was five months into my presidency when I gave the order to launch two-dozen missiles at an Iraqi office complex. (If it bothered any important American journalists that a number of nearby civilians died in a residential Baghdad neighborhood, they never let on.) I loved Time‘s coverage of my televised Oval Office announcement: “one of his finest moments; he struck the right tone, reasoned but forceful.” My subsequent use of missiles — whether against Sudan, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, or Iraq again — won me floods of media praise.
Even in the depths of the Monica mess, there was appreciable media allegiance to me, perhaps in gratitude for the political agenda that I championed so well as president. Many a journalistic lap dog couldn’t stop drooling.
Sure, again and again, I betrayed my own high-sounding calls for social justice and economic fairness. But I learned early on that when such betrayals occur, forgiveness tends to rise with income bracket. And when was the last time a poor person owned a TV network?
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