Late on Tuesday afternoon, Bill Clinton submitted to an interview with longtime Washington, DC radio talker WMAL-AM (the D.C. home of Rush Limbaugh). The former president complained about media bias like it was brand new: "the political press has avowedly played a role in this election. I’ve never seen this before." (What about 1992?) He repeatedly insisted "two comprehensive, objective studies" show Barack Obama gets better press than his wife. When asked about the David Shuster "pimped out" remarks about Chelsea, Clinton praised his wife for countering the blatant sexism in the media: "I think she did the right thing to stick up, not just for our daughter, but for women everywhere. The level of blatant, vicious sexist comments by some people in this campaign has been appalling." He also applauded her for standing up for "basic human decency."
Clinton was interviewed by WMAL host Chris Plante (formerly a longtime CNN Pentagon reporter/producer) around 5 PM yesterday, and Plante aired most of it on his show from 8 to 10 PM. WMAL replayed clips of it several times again this morning. (Audio, whole or in parts, is presently here.) Plante began by asking if Hillary was now the underdog, and momentum was slipping away. Clinton went straight to media bias:
I think she has been the underdog ever since Iowa. She’s had, you know, a lot of the politicians, like Senator Kennedy, opposed to her. She’s had, the political press has avowedly played a role in this election.
He then talked about Obama’s other advantages. It could not have escaped Bill Clinton that 1992 is perhaps the most dramatic campaign of goo-goo press coverage a presidential candidate has ever received. He could hardly claim that when the Washington Post was running gooey Clinton-Gore headlines like "Heart Throbs in the Heart Land," that the press was playing it straight. Plante returned the discussion to the press coverage:
PLANTE: You said, Mr. President, that the political press has played a role in this. Do you think the press has been unfair to Senator Clinton, and excessively generous to Barack Obama?
CLINTON: It’s not my opinion. There have been now two comprehensive, objective studies done which show there has been a drastic difference in the coverage. But she hasn’t complained about it. She’s just gone right on and campaigned. And she has done a remarkable job....
He sold his wife’s campaign for a while, but Plante again returned to Issue A:
PLANTE: Do you think that the press has been too fair or too generous with Senator Obama? Do you feel that he’s been vetted properly?
CLINTON: I’m not going there. I’m just telling you they’ve been active participants in this election, and you know what the objective studies done. And they’ve, many of them are willing to be quoted on the record. But I don’t want to talk about the press. I want to talk about the people. That’s what’s wrong with this election, people trying to take this election away from the people...I think the press will cover her when she speaks her mind, and that’s the best we can do. And I don’t have any objection. I’m just observing that there are two independent studies done by members of the press themselves saying that. But she’s doing fine anyway.
Plante did not ask for a footnote on these two allegedly independent studies. Then the interview turned to Shustergate, and pressed Clinton to differentiate between Shuster's loose lips about the Clintons and Keith Olbermann's harsh words against President Bush and General Petraeus:
PLANTE: Now there is a, I’m sorry, we have so little time, there is an MSNBC news reporter by the name of David Shuster who found himself in a little hot water and is now suspended because he suggested that Senator Clinton and yourself were, his quote was, pimping out your daughter Chelsea, using her on the campaign trail. There have been other incidents on MSNBC, where Keith Olbermann, for example, said President Bush was pimping General David Petraeus, where Erin Burnett referred to President Bush twice as "the monkey." Inappropriate things are said by the press. Do you believe it’s really appropriate for senior government leaders to come down on reporters when they become angry with things that they’ve said?
CLINTON: I think it was inappropriate for him –
PLANTE: I agree.
CLINTON: – to refer to my daughter in the way he did. It was representative of the kind of blatant, careless, crass, cruel remarks that are altogether too common. And I wouldn’t use disrespectful language referring to General Petraeus or anybody else. But I think that it is remarkable how many sexist things have been said in this campaign that have not been reprimanded. Hillary never complains when people say things about her or me. But when he involved my daughter, she complained, and I think it was the right thing to do. Look –
PLANTE: Do you think it was –
CLINTON: Free speech runs two ways. They had to decide, MSNBC decided, they have certainly given their reporters a lot of latitude, their commentators. But free speech runs two ways. I think that when somebody says something like that, if he had made a racial slur against Senator Obama, he would have been fired.
PLANTE: Well, in fairness –
CLINTON: I don’t think you have a doubt in the world about that.
It sounds incredibly strange (at least outside the gravitational pull of Clinton fandom) that Bill Clinton would offer himself as the defender of women against crude talk (not to mention action), as if he is the world's best male feminist or the role model of gentlemanliness. But there it was. Plante continued his argument:
PLANTE: I agree the comment was inappropriate. But my question was really is whether it’s appropriate for government officials, which your wife certainly is, to come down on news organizations and threaten news organizations because of words uttered by a news reporter.
CLINTON: No, no, no. How did she threaten? She didn’t threaten to use the power of her office.
PLANTE: Threatened not to appear on their hosted debates, and presumably, other shows.
CLINTON: She didn’t do that as a government official, sir. She did that as a candidate.
PLANTE: But she is a government official.
CLINTON: Sticking up for her daughter against blatant sexist remarks, and I think that, you know – Look, man, we believe in the First Amendment, the First Amendment doesn’t just apply to the press. It applies to everybody. Everybody should have free speech. She never threatened to use the power of her office. That would be wrong. She did not do that.
PLANTE: But aren’t they inseparable, though?
CLINTON: She threatened to use her freedom of speech to not appear. She has a right not to do that. I don’t recall people any great criticism being leveled against all the people who said they wouldn’t do a Fox debate or something.
PLANTE, with a laugh: That’s right. There was no criticism leveled.
CLINTON: I think, my view is, these candidates are free citizens of the United States. They have the freedom to speak their mind, and they all should.
PLANTE: Would it then be appropriate for President Bush, when Keith Olbermann said that President Bush was pimping General David Petraeus, would it have been appropriate for the White House, for the administration – and your wife may hold this position soon, you obviously did hold the office – would it be appropriate for the White House and the president to come down on NBC for what Keith Olbermann said?
CLINTON: I think it would have been appropriate for him to say that he strongly objected to that kind of language, and General Petraeus, whether you agree with his policies or not, has served this country with honor, and should not be discussed in a disrespectful way. And I would not take any offense at that. It would be inappropriate for President Bush to take any executive action against NBC as a network. It would be inappropriate to try to use the power of government to do that. But to speak his mind, I don’t think there’d be anything wrong with that.
PLANTE: Isn’t that – I mean didn’t – I mean, again, isn’t it inseparable when a Senator running for the presidency sends a letter to the, I don’t know what the stationery was, whether it was personal or Senate, but to the president of NBC News leading to the suspension and possibly the firing of a reporter because of two words he uttered that a Senator took umbrage with?
CLINTON: No, I think she did the right thing to stick up, not just for our daughter, but for women everywhere. The level of blatant, vicious sexist comments by some people in this campaign has been appalling. She didn’t threaten to take any action, she said it on campaign stationery, there wasn’t a thing in the world wrong with it. Free speech runs both ways. And you know –
PLANTE: This isn’t yelling fire in a theater, though.
CLINTON: You can’t say, sir, you cannot say, sir, that the media should be free to attack a person and take a blatantly partisan line in a campaign, obviously intended –
PLANTE: But don’t they do that all the time?
CLINTON: Wait, wait, obviously intended to hurt one candidate and help another, and the candidate says, ‘well, they’re beating my brains out and they’re insulting my daughter, but because they’re in the press, I have to just take it and smile.’ I think all she did is speak up for basic human decency. And I think there’s still a role for basic human decency in American life, and I hope in American politics...
I think everybody on MSNBC, on every other network, and you and everybody else are entitled to their opinion. But this election is about the American people, and about their needs and about their future, and you know, any time anybody is out there hurling personal insults, it’s an attempt to distract the voters and get them to stop thinking. I think that is a mistake for the American people and the political process. And I do not believe that a candidate gives up the right of free speech just by becoming a candidate. If Hillary or anyone else ever used any legal authority to try to gag anyone else’s free speech, I would strenuously oppose it. But she never did any such thing. She just stuck up for her daughter, and for girls everywhere, and women everywhere, and it’s about time somebody did after a lot of the rhetoric we’ve been through in this election.