[Excerpted from Whitewash by L. Brent Bozell III and Tim Graham, published in 2007.]
Though the media were obviously uncomfortable with the arrival of the Gennifer Flowers scandal, the Clintons had no choice when on January 23, 1992, Flowers announced that the following Monday she would hold a press conference and play the incriminating tapes of her phone chats with Bill Clinton. It was time for Bill and Hillary Clinton to employ the tactic that would become a trademark of their damage-control efforts for years to come.
The Clintons agreed to be interviewed by CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft in a hotel room in Boston on for airing right after the Super Bowl, a gift of remarkable national visibility for a presidential candidate. Hillary was not only the co-star, but a crucial stage manager for the 60 Minutes interview. “Both Clinton and Hillary were adamant about the A word, arguing that it was too grating, too harsh, too in-your-face to the viewers at home,” said George Stephanopoulos. He then says he prepared talking points after “Hillary adjourned the meeting around one A.M.”
When Gennifer Flowers held her press conference on Monday and played her tapes of phone chats with Clinton, the aides were disgusted and demoralized, but Stephanopoulos said “Hillary rallied all of us that night with a conference call from Minneapolis, foreshadowing another pattern that would be repeated again on a larger stage. If she was standing by her man, than so were we.”
Steve Kroft’s 60 Minutes interview had the same withering weakness as Ted Koppel’s: it allowed the Clintons to set the terms of discussion, and to argue that only a crotch-obsessed press wanted to discuss hanky-panky at the Quapaw Towers Apartments when people are out of work in New Hampshire. Kroft established the tone from the beginning, when he underlined for viewers how the “tabloid” charges were (then) unsubstantiated.
Kroft did ask about adultery multiple times ("You've been saying all week that you've got to put this issue behind you. Are you prepared tonight to say you've never had an extramarital affair?" "You keep saying you made mistakes. What kind of mistakes? What mistakes -- mistakes with women?") He also wanted Clinton to address questions about his veracity ("A good friend of yours, one of your campaign advisers, told us the other day, 'Bill Clinton has got to level with the American people tonight. Otherwise, his candidacy is dead.' Do you feel like you've leveled with the American people?) And he wanted to know whether Clinton was feeling good about it all ("You came here tonight to try and put it behind you. Are you going to get on the plane when you walk out of this room and go back to New Hampshire? You think you've succeeded?")
But if Kroft's questions were persistent, they were not at all specific. He didn't ask a single question about the Flowers tapes. He didn't ask about Flowers's state job. And he didn't ask whether Clinton has suggested she lie about the job if pressed on the subject.
Viewing the 1992 interview today is fascinating not simply because the edited 11-minute piece looks like CBS’s attempt to get Clinton past the charges -- it allowed him to plead that no one in history had been so maligned, to claim that admitting to an affair would never end the questions, and to insist that the scandal was not so much a character test for Bill Clinton, but for "the character of the press.”
Watching the interview now is especially interesting for Hillary's performance. Putting on the hillbilly accent like an ill-fitting straw hat, she delivered statements -- unchallenged by her interviewer -- that were truly preposterous. In her first answer, she claimed to have met with women implicated in affairs with her husband. (Note how she used “this woman” to describe Flowers, just like her husband would later distance himself from Monica Lewinsky.)
When this woman first got caught up in these charges, I felt like I’ve felt about all of these women. They’ve just been mindin’ their own business and they got hit by a meteor and it was no fault of their own. We reached out to them. I met with two of them to reassure them they knew they were friends of ours. I felt terrible about what was happening to them. You know, Bill talked to this woman every time she called, distraught, saying her life was going to be ruined . You know, he’d get off the phone and tell me she said sort of wacky things, which we thought were attributable to the fact that she was terrified.
Phony accents aside, imagine the spectacle of Mrs. Clinton meeting the “bimbos” in question and “reassuring” them they were her “friends.” Creepy as it sounds, it has been at least partially confirmed. Juanita Broaddrick has asserted publicly that after Bill Clinton sexually assaulted her, Hillary came up to her at a reception and gripped her hand to thank her for “all her help.” Reassuring is probably the last word Mrs. Broaddrick would employ to describe that meeting.
The quotes CBS put in heavy rotation the next day featured Hillary insisting on a “zone of privacy” and what would become the infamous Tammy Wynette quote, with the g’s dropped and her fist pumping: “I’m not sittin’ here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sittin’ here cause I love him, I respect him and I honor what he’s been through, and what we’ve been through together, and you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck, don’t vote for him.”
And yet Hillary was never the "little woman," never a sappy doormat who would offer, as the song says, “two arms to cling to” when her husband was embattled by what the Clinton campaign called “bimbo eruptions.” She was the leader of the anti-bimbo shock troops, ruthlessly organizing the she’s-nutty-and-slutty talking points. She was the most enthusiastic destroyer of Clinton accusers.
In his memoir All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos remembered his first “bimbo eruption” in November 1991. Rock groupie Connie Hamzy made charges in Penthouse that Clinton had propositioned her at a hotel. He recalled that while Clinton seemed amused in recounting his version of the Hamzy story, Hillary was blunt: “We have to destroy her story.” (Italics his.) When he succeeded in getting the story killed in the press, he received “an appreciative phone call from Hillary and the governor.”
On the Sunday after Steve Kroft's Super Bowl special with Hillary and Bill, 60 Minutes turned to another feminist hero, Anita Hill, and during that mostly sappy interview, Ed Bradley asked Hill, "People say, 'Well, I sat there, and I watched her, and I wanted to believe her, but I don't understand how she could say nothing for ten years. I don't understand how she could stay with him [working with Clarence Thomas]. I don't undesrtand how she could follow him to another job." This would have been a great line of questioning to apply to Mrs. Clinton. America still hasn't received her answer to that question. Why did she stay in that train wreck of a marriage?
Zoom Forward to 1998....and the Ten Commandments Lecture
Having put the media on trial in the 60 Minutes interview, the Clintons watched as the press dropped the Flowers scandal. After Kroft's 1992 report, ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN aired a grand total of fourteen stories on the evening news, and eight of those were brief anchor-read blurbs, which typically highlighted the money Flowers received for her story from The Star. The weekly news magazines touched on the allegations in only one issue, with hectoring headlines in the February 3 editions betraying their biases. There was "Money for Mischief" (U.S. News & World Report), "We've Voting for President, Not Pope" (Newsweek), and "Who Cares Anyway?" (Time). As for the Flowers tapes -- the real story -- only Nightline and the CBS Evening News aired snippets...and they were small snippets.
Nevertheless, five months later, at a luncheon held for top Democratic donors right before the Democratic National Convention, the top media stars beat their breasts over their coverage of the Gennifer Flowers story. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw complained, "I think we've made it almost unbearable [for candidates] to enter the public arena." ABC anchor Peter Jennings called coverage of Flowers a mistake: "I realized that the press only cared about Gennifer Flowers and the people only cared about the economy."
That might have been the end of the Flowers story, but six years later, news of the Monica Lewinsky affair broke. In early 1998, twelve days after the Lewinsky story appeared, 60 Minutes brought the 1992 Kroft interview out of the archives, running never-before-seen excerpts from 1992 to shed new light on the Clinton spin. This time, Kroft reviewed facts kept from CBS's viewers the last time around. Now he noted the Flowers tapes, which he did not note in the original interview, saying they showed “the governor was heard coaching her on what to say if any reporters started asking questions.” If this was important enough to report six years after the fact, why hadn't he raised it in his original story? Kroft was seemingly himself for history when he added, “But the tapes had been edited, and most people chose to ignore them.”
Interestingly, the fact that the tapes had been edited had been a key talking point for Stephanopoulos, James Carville & Co. back in 1992, and apparently they had convinced the media that the tapes were therefore not believable. Of course, that claim looked a little silly when Bill Clinton personally apologized to Mario Cuomo for saying on those supposedly unbelievable tapes that the New York governor was a "mean son of a bitch" who, he agreed, "acts like a Mafioso" (the Cuomo segment was one of the snippets CBS aired).
In any case, it’s always comical to hear TV journalists say that you can’t trust edited conversations. If that was true, why should anyone be asked to trust the seven-second snippets on TV news -- or the edited eleven-minute 60 Minutes interview -- as reliable, either?
The new material 60 Minutes released in 1998 showed that Slippery Hillary had been sitting next to Slick Willie that day back in 1992. In a pickle, not only could Hillary lie, but she could also share her husband’s chutzpah in supposedly standing up for the truth against all those other liars out there.
In the new excerpts, Kroft directly asked Hillary about how they defined “problems” in their marriage: “What does it mean in America in 1992, that you had ‘difficulties’?” Hillary struggled to stay vague: “We’ve had problems. We’ve had difficulties, in, in the past. And I agree with Bill that we – we think that’s between us.” Fair enough, but then she went for the zinger: “We don’t owe anyone else besides each other the honesty that we’ve tried to bring as we’ve worked these problems out.”
She also said: “Part of what I believe with all my heart is that the voters are tired of people that lie to them. They’re tired of people who act like something they’re not.” Like acting like you have an Arkansas accent?
In another snippet out of the archives, Kroft suggested that Bill's attractiveness was a political problem, and Hillary grew snippy: “You know, you are very good, Steve. You ask the same question nine or ten or twelve different ways and it – and – and I don’t mean to be avoiding the question,” which is precisely what she was trying to do. She chose instead to moralize: “If character only revolves around one question -- which is what you're asking in the press -- that's a shame, you know, because there are a lot of other questions that are, if not more important, certainly equally important. You know, there are ten commandments, not one. And one of them is, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.’”
It was the quintessential Hillary Rodham Clinton moment. Asked about her husband's violation of the Sixth Commandment, Hillary has responded by accusing their critics of violating the Eighth Commandment.
Kroft betrayed CBS’s original point of view at the end of the 1998 segment, claiming: “Tonight, only the president knows whether he is disappointed with himself in his dealings with Monica Lewinsky, the young White House intern. But this time, his wife is not the only person who has the right to know." Kroft had inadvertently acknowledged that conventional media wisdom has deemed previous Clinton affairs, the Flowers one being the most notable, as none of the public's business -- never mind that in 1992 America was beinfg asked to decide if the man was fit to serve as president of the United States.
In the March 9, 1992 issue of The New Republic, senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg gave a refreshingly candid assessment of the elite media when he asked his political-reporter colleagues for whom they would vote were they Democrats registered in that state. The “answer was always Clinton...Almost none is due to calculations about Clinton being 'electable'...and none at all is due to belief in Clinton's denials in the Flowers business, because no one believes these denials. No, the real reason members of The Press like Clinton is simple, and surprisingly uncynical: they think he would make a very good, perhaps a great, President.”