Woodward and Bernstein: Whitewater Wimps

Woodward and Bernstein: Whitewater Wimps
by L. Brent Bozell III
April 14, 1994

Call it the Whitewater Wimp Factor. Suddenly many of those Dobermans of scandal, with teeth bared at the minutest ethical impropriety (or even its appearance) in the Reagan and Bush eras, are Man's Best Friend, lamenting their role in Clinton's Whitewater problems. Slowly but surely the media were forced to cover the story, but the kicking and screaming is incredible.

Whitewater coverage has been denigrated as a "lunatic cauldron" (Newsweek's Joe Klein), "too much, off-target" (Bryant Gumbel), "definitely overheated" (Walter Cronkite), "unprofessional and distasteful" (Marvin Kalb), driven by "Cotton Mather-ish obsessions with character and morality" (New York magazine's Jon Katz), with the media becoming "a too-powerful amplifier...blaring too loud" (Los Angeles Times reporter Tom Rosenstiel).

Fortunately, another segment of the media has foregone the embarrassment of premature partisan hypocrisy. Instead, they insist on reporting the story first and worrying about cosmic journalistic quandaries and comparisons later. New York Times reporter Michael Wines argued on April 10 that "Whitewater isn't Watergate, but not every story can be held to such a tough standard." Wines also noted what the rest of the media forgot: yes, Americans think Whitewater coverage is overdone, but "at the peak of Watergate itself, in the summer of 1974, half of Americans surveyed in one Time magazine poll found press coverage of the scandal excessive, and nearly three-fifths thought it unfair."

But the most amusing irony of the Watergate-Whitewater comparison is the changing views of Watergate icons Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The two heroes of the media's "good war" (as Steven Roberts put it), the idealist defenders of public integrity, now have a different set of standards for the Clinton administration.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Woodward badgered Rep. Jim Leach:

"Let me ask you about Jay Stephens, who has been hired now to pursue the civil claims in this case involving Madison and Whitewater. He is a known critic of Clinton. He is someone who was fired by the Clinton administration. He is someone who almost accused the Clinton administration of obstruction of justice in the Rostenkowski case. Is it fair to have him doing what he's doing?" Notice how the onus of partisanship is on the dismissee, not the dismisser. What evidence did Woodward have to suggest Stephens' probe of Rostenkowski was partisan before Clinton fired him? Had Archibald Cox been reappointed after Nixon fired him, would he have been labeled too partisan by the likes of Woodward?

Even worse, a week later, Woodward presented this delicious lawyer's defense of the First Lady's cattle killing: "Would it be possible that there's a crime involved in the $100,000 in the futures market? This was what, 15 years ago, so the statute of limitations automatically means it's not a crime." Somewhere in New Jersey, Nixon is giggling.

Woodward then attacked journalists for suggesting Hillary was greedy: "Look at journalism today. There are people, there are journalists who go out and give five, six speeches at universities, make $100,000 doing this. They take that money out of the university system, and there are minority and poor students working in the cafeteria scraping garbage. And if you were to lay all that out before the public and say 'Who's greedy? Who has the moral high road?', there might be a different answer." The answer is: they're both greedy, period.

Bernstein, who hasn't been able to keep a job in the media, now spends his time bashing from the outside. He told National Public Radio: "Journalism is part of popular culture, and popular culture right now is consumed by controversy, manufactured controversy, by Rush Limbaugh, by The McLaughlin Group yelling at each other, by Donahue, by freak shows. You can't separate the coverage of Whitewater from that atmosphere."

On CNN's "Inside Politics," he said Whitewater "seems to exist, in the press particularly, utterly without context. We have little sense of its real meaning except the sensational, except a kind of atmosphere that's a little hysterical...I think we've utterly lost contact with reality on what this story is."

As Perot might say, now that's just sad. If people can't separate Whitewater from Donahue, they're idiots. Bernstein thrives on cliche - can he document how many Whitewater shows Donahue's done? I count two - which is probably two more than Oprah or anyone else. Would Bernstein have confused Watergate with Laugh-In? For all of Bernstein's complaining about a lack of context, his argument mixing Whitewater with "freak shows" is the first to take it out of context.

Context is needed on the Whitewater story, and Watergate aces should be the first to realize the obvious - the self-proclaimed candidate for "those who play by the rules" makes up his own rules. Every new story adds strength to that context. But that first essential hypocrisy will remain, and be the main millstone around the Clintons' political futures.