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.

The Clinton letter races to irrelevancy after that, demanding that readers know about "Vanity Fair's Troubling Ethical History." Yes, the magazine's been sued for libel, but that falls several thousand miles short of "Troubling Ethical History." Yes, Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter has capitalized "on his position at Vanity Fair to explore consulting and investment deals," but what does that have to do with the Clinton piece?

I'll leave it to Vanity Fair's fact-checking department and the Office of the President to haggle over the disputed facts that the critique lists. I haven't the patience.

What the Clinton letter fails to acknowledge is that his many questionable business dealings, all gathered here, make for an eye-opener for those who haven't followed his adventures since the final days of his administration. There's the Marc Rich pardon and Rich's ex-wife's $450,000 contribution to Clinton's library fund, not to mention all the dubious donors to the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation. There's Clinton's private-jet travel with investor Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted on soliciting prostitution charges in Florida. Don't forget the $3 million in consulting fees he's collected from InfoUSA, or the $15.5 million he's earned from playboy magnate Ron Burkle, or Burkle's investments in the Middle East. A whole book could be written about Clinton's relationship with the Canadian mining financier, which the New York Times broke in January and Purdum reprises. (Addendum, June 3: See also this Newsweek story, published several days before the Times article.)

If nothing else, Purdum's piece makes a superb case for the means testing of presidential pensions. Between them, the Clintons have made $109 million in the past eight years. Why does this man deserve a government pension? (See this Washington Post piece for the run-down on the Clintons' income.)

Clinton declined to speak to Vanity Fair for the piece, and my guess is that his growing appreciation for press criticism helped him make the decision. I'll bet that he's intimate with Purdum's work, not only because Purdum married his former press secretary Dee Dee Myers, but because he's haunted by a New York Times piece by Purdum from Aug. 18, 1998, titled "Strong at Politics, Weakened by Lapses," which paints Clinton as a habitual liar. He wrote:

Time and again in the risky running melodrama of his public life, Mr. Clinton has treated the truth as an a la carte menu. … [His] sweeping elisions of reality lie far beyond the ken of conventional political analysis. … [G]ray is Mr. Clinton's favorite weapon. It has been central to his successes and to his setbacks.

******

But dock Purdum a dozen points for describing Clinton as possessing "protean political talents" in both his 1998 Times piece and his Vanity Fair feature! Dock Clinton, too, for not noticing! Disclosure: Slate co-sponsored a conference on "innovative philanthropy" with the William J. Clinton Foundation and the Clinton School of Public Service in 2006 and 2007. No money changed hands, so I don't think the Office of the President will be writing me any chiding letters about this column. Dock me at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Purdum in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, June 3, 2008: The original version of this article misspelled Kathleen Willey's last name. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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