Bill Clinton's 'Vanity Fair' Moment

Bill Clinton speaks to supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton in Richmond, Va. i

Bill Clinton speaks to supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton in Richmond, Va., Feb. 9, 2008. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Bill Clinton speaks to supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton in Richmond, Va.

Bill Clinton speaks to supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton in Richmond, Va., Feb. 9, 2008.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Is it possible Bill Clinton had a journalistic point in his latest outraged, self-serving, self-destructive and, forgive me, also entertaining rant?

A huge new Vanity Fair article by Todd Purdum, titled "The Comeback Id," scrutinized the former president, accusing Clinton of behaving inappropriately in the years since leaving the White House. In turn, Clinton called Purdum "sleazy" and worse. Nothing Clinton said in an explosion Monday dispelled the headline's characterization.

But it's worth hearing Clinton in his own voice, and thanks to Mayhill Fowler of the Huffington Post — whose sympathetic prodding prompted Clinton's remarks as he mingled with voters while campaigning for his wife in South Dakota — you can.

Purdum's narrative has Clinton cozying up to questionable foreign figures, jetting around with playboy billionaires, raging uncontrollably in fits that may be linked to his heart surgery, and generally causing staffers anxiety because of his perceived behavior toward women.

Clinton didn't like any of that too much. His office released a lengthy denunciation, saying, among other things, that Purdum should have interviewed some of the 1.4 million people whose lives, according to the statement, were saved by the humanitarian work of the William J. Clinton Foundation. But in person, Clinton couldn't help himself and claimed the reporter had been unfair since his days covering the Clinton White House for The New York Times.

Let's just stipulate that's not an adroit move. Clinton is presumably trying to help his wife persuade superdelegates not to join a looming stampede toward Barack Obama. The would-be first mate is also struggling to convince others he wouldn't be a liability in a Hillary Clinton presidency. So this may not be the best moment for him to draw more attention to an article in a big glossy magazine suggesting he's an ethically ambiguous, skirt-chasing, ticking emotional time bomb.

Purdum is well known in Washington circles and by the Clintons — he is married to former Clinton White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers, who has her own complicated feelings about the Clintons but has given money to Sen. Clinton's presidential bid and is the author of a new book called Why Women Should Rule the World. Bill Clinton's office cited that as a conflict of interest — although the office didn't explain why that conflict would work against the former president.

But Clinton raises one intriguing and fundamental journalistic critique:

"I'll tell you what — anytime you read a story which slimes a public figure with anonymous quotes, it ought to make the bells go off in your head," Clinton told Fowler.

And on that one, he's right. Sure, there's Deep Throat for Watergate and Daniel Ellsberg for the Pentagon Papers. But readers, listeners, viewers, should pay especially close attention anytime allegations about politicians are made by mainstream media organizations relying on unnamed sources. And that probably goes double for accusations about personal behavior that are often tough to prove. Slate's Jack Shafer has noted 39 instances of unnamed sources cited in the Vanity Fair story — often to report such topics as the concern over Clinton's possible infidelities.

Not once, however, was any recent affair proven (since his involvement with Monica Lewinsky, naturally). Purdum was simply recounting the perception of aides and associates of both Clintons that his behavior could turn out to be a political problem.

"I'm very careful to say that there is no clear-cut evidence that President Clinton has done anything improper," Purdum told CNN. "What I am careful to say, and what is the truth, is that this former senior aide was concerned enough that prominent Democrats around the country were complaining about hearing reports of this in their own backyard that he felt President Clinton should be made aware of it and should know that it was out there in the slipstream ... and that it could have an effect in the campaign season."

That summoned to mind the Times story on John McCain earlier this year, in which it reported on the earlier concerns by some aides to the Republican senator about his closeness to a female lobbyist, including the perception that the involvement might be romantic. The Times did confirm the apprehensiveness that McCain seemed too chummy with the lobbyist, it and quoted McCain adviser John Weaver about his meeting with her to warn her away from the senator.

There was a public interest angle: Her clients often had business before the Senate committee McCain led, and that could have undermined McCain's image as a crusader against the inbred workings of official Washington. But a romantic link was never proven in the lengthy expose. The paper failed to cite a single source by name who acknowledged just the perception that the tie between lawmaker and lobbyist might involve an affair.

As a result, the backlash against the Times article obscured its central point, the hard-charging reformer's close link to lobbyists — an issue that has become a major headache for the McCain camp in recent weeks. A stream of McCain aides have been forced to leave the campaign, generating embarrassing coverage as his new rules restricting the participation of lobbyists in his presidential bid have taken effect.

In talking to the Huffington Post's Fowler on Monday, Bill Clinton proceeded to accuse Purdum of writing the story in his head before even reporting on it, and he wrapped up his remarks with this clincher: "He still hasn't apologized to me for Whitewater." That tells you which headlines still vex Clinton most — even when campaigning for his own wife's presidential aspirations, some 15 years after the fact.



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