Bill Clinton's critique of the Vanity Fair piece about him starts strong and then collapses.

Media criticism.
June 2 2008 6:31 PM

Bill Clinton, Press Critic

His critique of the Vanity Fair piece about him starts strong and then collapses.

Bill Clinton. Click image to expand
Bill Clinton

It turns out that Bill Clinton commands talents I never knew he had. We're all familiar with his skills as diplomat, political fixer, campaigner, and foundation builder, but who had an inkling that he possessed the mental dexterity to perform the magic art of press criticism?

Yesterday, Clinton—er ... make that the "Office of President Clinton"—circulated a 2,500-word critique of "The Comeback Id," Todd S. Purdum's feature on the former president in the July Vanity Fair.

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"A tawdry, anonymous quote-filled attack piece," the critique seethed, one that "repeats many past attacks on him, ignores much prior positive coverage, includes numerous errors, and ultimately breaks no new ground. It is, in short, journalism of personal destruction at its worst."

It's true that the Purdum story is tawdry, but can any profile of the man whose name will forever be linked to Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Juanita Broaddrick, Elizabeth Ward Gracen, Sally Perdue, Dolly Kyle Browning, and Kathleen Willey * be anything but tawdry? Ripping Purdum and Vanity Fair on those grounds seems a tad unfair. If Clinton were smart, he'd not publicize Purdum's musings about the former president's gallivanting with the Steve Bing and Ron Burkle bone-daddy posse. But you know how self-righteous press critics get when they're scrutinized.

Clinton's office is right. Purdum's piece overflows with information culled from anonymous sources. Purdum describes those sources as:

  • one former aide to Clinton who is still in occasional affectionate touch with him
  • Another former aide, trusted by Clinton for his good judgment
  • A longtime Clinton-watcher, who has had ties to the former president since his first campaign for governor of Arkansas
  • Yet another long-serving Clinton aide
  • friends who worry that Clinton has never been the same since his quadruple-bypass surgery
  • one senior aide, who has known and served both Clintons for years
  • a participant [in a 1992 condom presentation to Clinton]
  • one former longtime aide
  • A former Clinton aide
  • one of [Maggie] Williams' former colleagues and friends
  • A range of Clinton loyalists
  • one former aide
  • someone who knows [current Clinton aide Doug Band] well
  • a former Clinton aide
  • four former Clinton aides
  • the aide
  • another aide
  • several Clinton aides and friends
  • A former Burkle associate
  • One person, who has worked at the highest levels for both Clintons
  • A Clinton aide
  • A Clinton adviser
  • one Clinton aide
  • Many of those who know [Clinton] well
  • one former aide
  • One senior aides
  • one of [Clinton's] closest former aides
  • Aides to both Clintons
  • the aide
  • Aides
  • this aide
  • a person close to [Edward] Kennedy
  • a Clinton campaign official
  • aides
  • Some aides
  • Clinton aides
  • one senior Clinton adviser
  • [Clinton] associates
  • friends

As a press critic who has sworn death to anonymice, I appreciate Team Clinton's condemnation of Purdum's extravagant reliance on unnamed sources. I'd appreciate Clinton's declaration more if he and his administration hadn't relied so heavily on anonymous leaks while he was president to manage the news to his benefit.

But after this terrific start, the Clinton press critique collapses so dramatically that I'd fly to New York City tonight on my own nickel and offer its author a seminar in remedial press criticism if I thought he'd take me up on it. The critique states:

Any balanced account of President Clinton's post-presidency—which other publications have referred to as one of "a great philanthropist;" the face of "the power of philanthropy" and "a major force in fighting the pandemic [HIV/AIDS]"—would recognize that the lion's share of his work is his multi-million dollar charitable foundation, which works in almost 50 countries around the world. …

President Clinton has helped save the lives of more than 1,300,000 people in his post-presidency, and Vanity Fair couldn't find time to talk to even one of them for comment.

Since when do individual stories have to be "balanced"? I blame the "fair and balanced" Fox News Channel for popularizing the idea that reporters must strive for some sort of Platonic equilibrium or they're not producing proper journalism. Such comprehensive coverage is neither possible nor desirable ("Mr. Hitler, who was responsible for the unnecessary deaths of millions, loved children"), and the testimonies of the 1.3 million people whose lives President Clinton has "helped save" don't really have any bearing on Purdum's thesis that Clinton's post-presidential personal behavior, personal associations, and financial dealings all suggest conduct not becoming the spouse of a U.S. senator who is running for president.