By Dick Morris
June 19, 2003
Anyone who thinks that Howell Raines' resignation will restore editorial balance to The New York Times is in for a sad disappointment. The following excerpt from my book, "Off with Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media and Business" (published today), examines an incident that shows the partisan tilt of Joseph Lelyveld, Raines' successor - and predecessor - as the Times' executive editor.
During the 1996 presidential campaign, Lelyveld told me, as he sought an exclusive interview with President Clinton, that he did not feel "the public cares about what happened back in Arkansas." His implied commitment to pull coverage of the scandals that dogged Clinton throughout his first term illustrates how facile is the hope that he can restore non-partisanship to the Times.
Indeed, in the two months before Election Day '96, the Times ran no stories on its front page about Paula Jones, the Rose Law Firm, Hillary's billing records and only lightly covered Whitewater.
Here's the story:
While working for President Clinton in 1996, I got a call from the Lelyveld's office. Naturally, I agreed to a meeting the Times' chief to "get to know one another."
As Clinton's chief political adviser, I knew the request had something to do with the White House. But I was surprised to be asked by Lelyveld and a Times reporter to help them get an exclusive interview with the president. "We've tried for months and come up empty," the editor pleaded. "Can you help get it done?"
I spoke of Clinton's sensitivity to criticism from the Times and how he had bristled particularly at Raines, then running the editorial page. A worried frown clouded the editor's formerly sunny face. "You know," he assured me sotto voce, "we don't think that the public cares about what happened back in Arkansas."
I wondered if I heard right. Did the top editor of The New York Times just imply that they'd pull their punches over Whitewater, Paula Jones, the Rose Law Firm, Hillary's billing records, the Web Hubbell hush money and the rest of the scandals that had emerged from Clinton's Arkansas Pandora's Box - all in return for an interview?
I certainly got that impression.
The next day I was in the White House residence, after our weekly strategy meeting, whispering in Clinton's ear about my conversation with the Times.
"They're B.S.-ing you," the president said. (He didn't use the initials.)
"No," I protested. "I wasn't fishing for the concession, they just threw it out."
"Hummmf," he grunted, moving on to our next topic.
Somehow, the interview got granted.
Then my phone rang. It was the reporter who had sat with his editor in my hotel suite. I'd known him for some time, and he was calling to tell me that he would be conducting the interview. I congratulated him, and he invited me for a drink.
As I crossed through Lafayette Park to get from the White House to the Hay Adams Hotel to meet him, I wondered why he wanted to talk before the interview.
After some light chatter over drinks, he began, casually, to tell me the questions he was going to ask. "I'll ask him what are his proudest achievements, what he's most ashamed of, why he thought he lost the Congress [in the 1994 elections], what he proposed to do about Bosnia . . ."
A reporter briefing a presidential aide on the questions he was preparing to ask the president: This was about as common as it is for Nebraska to brief Miami on their football signals before the game. I couldn't believe my luck. Pushing my luck, I prompted him. "Why don't you ask him about . . . "
"Good idea," my obedient reporter/friend said as he jotted down notes.
The briefing before the interview wasn't even hard. Sitting on the couch with the president in his wing chair on my right in the Oval Office, I fed the reporter's questions to Clinton, and we worked out answers.
"What if he asks about Whitewater? Clinton wondered.
"He won't," I assured him. "He's told me exactly what he's going to ask."
Clinton couldn't believe his luck! Knowing what was coming, we came up with answers to hit the ball out of the park.
And, on May 19, 1996, Clinton's smiling face adorned the cover of The New York Times Magazine, over the headline "Facets of Clinton."
The story touted the president as "one of the biggest, most talented, articulate, intelligent, open, colorful characters ever to inhabit the Oval Office." It went on to call him "breathtakingly bright" and even noted that he "exudes physical attraction."
Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years.
Dick Morris is a political consultant, commentator and best selling author. Look for Dick's newest book, "Power Plays" available now.
Look for Dick's new book, "Off With Their Heads Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists In American Politics".
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