In May 1997, the weekend chat shows lit up with outrage. Bob Dole had agreed to loan money to Newt Gingrich for a $300,000 ethics penalty assessed by the House.
On CNN's "Late Edition," journalist Steve Roberts noted Dole's job with a law firm lobbying on the tobacco settlement and asked, "Do we really want a speaker of the House who owes $300,000 to a guy who's a principal in a major lobbying firm?" On "Inside Washington," Newsweek's Evan Thomas bemoaned that Dole had retired from public service to "become an influence peddler so he can post bail for Newt Gingrich."
If that outrage was valid then, where were those reporters now that the Clintons have accepted a tiny loan of oh, $1.35 million to buy an address that would make Hillary a New Yorker?
It's amazing, isn't it? No one really wanted to discuss how the loan provider, political fixer and fundraiser Terry McAuliffe is presently under investigation in several parts of the government. No one is asking if we really want a President who owes a million-plus to some lobbyist. Few care to note McAuliffe provided the booty in cash to evade any messy financial disclosure requirements. But that didn't mean the shows weren't amusing, as the pundits labored not to raise the controversy.
On "Inside Washington," gruff liberal columnist Jack Germond was the exception. He suggested Mrs. Clinton was "going to start to get a little static from the Republicans on the Terry McAuliffe putting up the $1.3 million for their house. No other Senate candidate could do that and get away with it. If that were a Republican we'd all be screaming at the press." He added that if a conservative "were getting that kind of money we'd all be saying that's illegal." In response, the pride of National Public Radio, Nina Totenberg, corrected Germond on what would be their precise pose of hypocrisy. "Well, that's not illegal. We'd all be saying it smells." By contrast, Totenberg implied, this smells like perfume.
On September 2 and 3, many network shows ran items on the house purchase and the loan. You judge the seriousness of the tone. Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" carried the media zeitgeist by giving the Clintons the traditional up arrow: "First re-elected Dem prez since FDR needs co-signer to buy house. Next stop: Ikea."
For "tough" coverage of this latest emission from the Clinton sleaze factory, let's go to ABC's new objective political analyst, George Stephanopoulos. On "Good Morning America," co-host Elizabeth Vargas asked, "Why do you think the Clintons picked this house?" Mr. Unbiased replied: "Oh, I think it fits on a lot of different levels. It fits their personal taste, it's a nice traditional house, it's private, near a lot of golf courses for the President, and finally they've got a swimming pool...Hillary has wanted a swimming pool for a long time." Yes, she couldn't build a pool at the Governor's mansion in Little Rock or refurbish the old White House pool, "But she gets her pool now." On "CBS This Morning," co-host Thalia Assuras wondered: "Do you expect them to participate in, oh, let's say, stoop sales and bake sales?" How's that for scrutiny?
In Newsweek, Newt-basher Evan Thomas gave McAuliffe's role the glib once-over: "An amiable Clinton golfing buddy who, perhaps as much as any friend, stood by the President during the Lewinsky scandal, McAuliffe is also raising money for Hillary's Senate campaign. While unorthodox, McAuliffe's sugar-daddy role on the Clinton house appears to be perfectly legal." How quaint. To Thomas, Dole was an "influence peddler," but McAuliffe's an "amiable friend."
Generating outrage over perfectly legal activity was a media specialty in the Reagan years. Back in those less permissive days, when reporters had by comparison a positively antediluvian outrage over the "appearance of impropriety," any old anti-Reagan buzz would do.
When the Reagans prepared to retire to Bel Air in 1988, then-Newsweek reporter Thomas DeFrank offered the liberal lowdown on those pampered plutocrats: "The gossip mills were already spinning with the well-sourced word that Mrs. Reagan is unhappy about the presidential retirement home, a mansion in Bel Air, Calif., that was bought for $2.5 million by a group of the Reagans' friends to be leased to them after they leave Washington. 'She'd rather be a little more upscale,' says a friend. With only three bedrooms, six bathrooms, three maids' rooms and a butler's pantry, the house is the least fancy dwelling in the neighborhood."
All that class-war claptrap now simply won't do for the Clintons. All those media bigwigs who clink glasses with Bill and Hill at Martha's Vineyard and the Hamptons can't wait to see Hillary's new pool. And that's the way it is.