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The American scandal machine (1996) | THINK TANK

The American scandal machine (1996) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Subpoenas are flying around the White House
and the Clintons are in hot water over Whitewater. Meanwhile, the Speaker of the House, Newt
Gingrich, is under investigation by a special counsel. Are these real scandals or just the product
of a scandal machine in Washington? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Suzanne Garment, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
and author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics”; Michael Beschloss,
author of “The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev”; Robert Lichter, president of
the Center for Media and Public Affairs and author of “Good Intentions Make Bad News:
Why Americans Hate Campaign Journalism”; and Larry Sabato, professor of government
at the University of Virginia and author of “Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of
Corruption in American Politics.” The topic before this house: the American
scandal machine. This week on “Think Tank.” Scandals are nothing new in Washington. Some have been real, and some have not been
real. The last 30 years have seen Bobby Baker, Chappaquiddick,
Tom Eagleton, Spiro Agnew, Watergate, Bert Lance, Billy Carter, Abscam, Senate pages,
Wedtech, Jim Wright, Gary Hart, Iran-Contra, Michael Deaver, Clarence Thomas, and Anita
Hill. President Bill Clinton [from videotape]: I,
William Jefferson Clinton — Ben Wattenberg: Since Bill Clinton was elected
president, similar sorts of scandals, some real and some not real, have beset his administration. Here’s a short list: Whitewater, Travelgate,
Web Hubbell, Vince Foster, David Watkins, Paula Jones, Ron Brown, Roger Altman, Castle
Grande, and legal records that have disappeared and reappeared. But are there really more scandals today than
ever before, or are scandals no worse than in the past? Or have we just created a giant scandal-making
machine that is hell-bent on finding dirt even if there isn’t much to find? Ben Wattenberg: Suzanne Garment, your book
lays out a thesis of what has been going on. Why don’t you drive this bus for us? Suzanne Garment: Okay. The incidence of scandal is not the same as
the incidence of corruption. You can have a lot of corruption, very successful
corruption, and no scandal because nobody finds out about it. But the incidence of scandal has risen in
the past 30 years because over that time, opinion leaders have grown less trusting of
government. One result is that we consider more things
scandalous, and the other result is that we’ve developed much more elaborate means than we
used to have for finding out about misdeeds and publicizing them and punishing them. Ben Wattenberg: For example, what are some
of those new instrumentalities? Suzanne Garment: For instance, we didn’t
have an independent counsel before Watergate. Now today we have one. We have inspectors general that report not
to their administrative chiefs alone, but to Congress directly as well. Within the agencies, we have officers that
serve the same function. We have a press that’s more investigative
than it used to be, public interest groups devoted often precisely to exposing wrongdoing
in their fields of interest, and a lot of players who have an interest in showing us
as much as possible. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s get some comment. Bob Lichter. Robert Lichter: Well, I’d like to pick up
on one element of that, which is the more aggressive press that you talked about. A couple of things have changed. First is journalism has changed. Journalists are willing to probe into areas,
like sexual misbehavior, that they used to turn a blind eye to. And the media have changed as well, not just
the way journalism is practiced, but now you have all sorts of competing media outlets. You used to have an oligarchy of the prestige
press, the networks. Basically, what The New York Times and CBS
said was news was news, and that was it — “all the news that’s fit to print.” Now they try to ignore something, you’ve
got all of the ‘Inside Editions’ and ‘Hard Copies’ and The Washington Times, The New
York Post, that are willing to carry these stories and force them out where the mainstream
media eventually has to cover them. Ben Wattenberg: Why did you pick two papers
that syndicate my column? [Laughter.] Larry Sabato. Larry Sabato: Well, the press has changed. I agree entirely with what Bob and Suzie have
said, but the people have also changed. The American people over the course of the
last 35 to 40 years have become enormously more cynical. They are also more interested in private life. The line between public life and private life
has dissolved and not just because press coverage has grown more intense, but also because people
are more interested in that. And I think the coverage reflects what people
are interested in, and that relates to the number and kinds of scandals that are covered. Ben Wattenberg: Michael Beschloss, you are
a distinguished historian. Why don’t you give us a take looking back? Michael Beschloss: Well, I think this is all
true, and I think there is a historical reason for it. And that is that 30 or 40 years ago and before
that through American history, it used to be the case that, for instance, a president
would be nominated in convention by a process dominated by party leaders. Those people would vet a potential president
and usually when there was someone with financial scandal in his past or another kind of vulnerability,
that person was not likely to be nominated. That process is no longer here. There’s not a party to do this vetting. Now that falls to the American press and the
American people. It has to be done all out in the open. One other thing that I think has developed
— has really changed things — is that before roughly 30 or 40 years ago, it used
to be the case that it was very rare that someone would be nominated for president without
having been a national figure for a pretty long time, a governor of New York or some
other major figure of prominence. Now that you have a situation where a Jimmy
Carter, a Bill Clinton can come in, win the New Hampshire primary, be nominated very quickly
by people who 90 days ago or six months ago had never heard of them. That means that there is a process by which
we have to find out things about these people that we otherwise would have known had they
been in public life for 30 or 40 years. Ben Wattenberg: So does that mean that the
American people are really getting the wrong story, that they believe because of all these
factors that you have talked about that there is more corruption and more scandal than there
actually is? Is that — Larry Sabato: No, it’s a question of balance
and proportion, Ben. All of these stories — and I don’t know
whether Suzie agrees with this — but I think all of the stories have some merit to them,
or at least the vast majority do. There is some grain of truth in most of these
controversies, but it’s a question of balance and proportion. Do you really get a picture of the whole person,
the whole candidate when the news media coverage focuses so completely sometimes on the negative
aspects and the scandals that have dogged a candidate in the past? Ben Wattenberg: They go into what you have
called the feeding frenzy mode. Larry Sabato: They go into the feeding frenzy
mode. They focus almost entirely on the negative
motives and the vices. And these people are very complicated human
beings. They have virtues writ large and vices writ
large to match, and it’s wrong, as the press did 40 years ago, to focus just on the virtues. But it’s equally wrong to focus just on
the vices. Robert Lichter: I just want to make the point
that, although God forbid that I should defend the press, it isn’t as if there is this
rogue media out there that is stampeding and destroying the whole system. Michael’s point was very important, which
is that political careers are made through the media much more than they used to be. And so there is this system that has worked
out that people in the press are fed rumors and fed scandals by opponents of politicians,
and whereas a generation ago, they would have reveled in knowing this gossip and being the
only ones to know it, now they gain professional status by being the one to break the story. And so there’s a system of incentives that’s
built in. I mean, this is a way, in effect, for a politician
to get a free negative ad running against an opponent. Ben Wattenberg: And that dovetails exactly
with the structural point that Suzie was making. There are all these additional sources and
infrastructures that are designed to just churn out scandal, and that sort of plays
right into what you are talking about. Robert Lichter: Yeah, when you have a media-driven
system and a media that is driven by entertainment values, scandal is almost a natural to burble
up in public discourse. Larry Sabato: And of course, many of these
sources are political consultants. You know, let’s be direct about it. They’re a permanent part of the system. They’re the permanent sources for the press,
and of course they’re involved in dozens of major campaigns in a given year, and over
the course of their careers probably in hundreds of campaigns. And they’re supplying a lot of this gossip. They know how to play the press like a fiddle. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask a question. Until fairly recently, there was a point of
view that said because the major media was tilted to the left, most of the scandals revealed
were on the right. Now, of course, you have the whole phenomenon
of the Clinton situation. Was that valid then? Is it valid now? Michael Beschloss: I think it’s really hard
to say that there have been, at least through recent history, the period during which these
scandals have really become something of an industry, that it’s either more left or
right. And I think the thing that — and this threads
through everything that we’ve been talking. Now since there is this structure that does
ferret these things out, I think it would be very hard to confine it to one side or
the other for ideological reasons. Suzanne Garment: Also, there is this great
imitative capacity of American politics. After Watergate, Democrats did take this morals
issue up with great enthusiasm and used it against officials in the Reagan administration
with great frequency, but it was really not very long at all before Republicans, Newt
Gingrich especially, figured out how to turn it around. Ben Wattenberg: Larry, let me ask you something. I know you have looked at the current situation
with the eye of a scholar. You investigated the Clintons’ situation. We are hearing, well, even if it’s true,
there’s nothing there. How do you come out on that? Is there a there there? Larry Sabato: Which scandals are you referring
to now? [Laughter.] Robert Lichter: There’s a tough question. Ben Wattenberg: I don’t have to say. You tell me which scandal. I mean, is there a there anywhere? Larry Sabato: On Whitewater, the jury’s
out, and I can’t tell you. We’re going to have to depend on the independent
counsel for that. As far as women are concerned, I don’t think
that anyone who has taken a close look at President Clinton’s past in Arkansas could
conclude otherwise than that many women were very close to the governor of Arkansas, who’s
our president right now. Whether it should matter is another question
entirely, and you could debate that endlessly. But I’ll tell you one thing. It’s going to be very difficult for conservatives
after the Clinton administration is over to say that the press just harps on the scandals
of the right because the Clinton administration has had many high points, but it’s also
been a long series of scandals. And you enumerated some of them, and there
are others beyond those. There are an awful lot of scandals connected
to the Clinton administration, and I don’t think the press has held back particularly
on most of them. They may have gone too far on certain aspects
of Whitewater, for example. Ben Wattenberg: How did it come to be that
at the same time that there was allegedly, and probably realistically, a sexual revolution
in the United States, where people are a lot looser about these kind of things, that at
exactly that time, the microscope started going in on politicians and saying, ooh, shame,
shame on you, you did an XYZ? That seems to be a contradiction. Robert Lichter: What happened is that sex
became politicized, and you had forces from both the left and the right, you know, traditional
forces that were very much against the social — the sexual revolution and the looser sexual
behavior and were scandalized to find political leaders behaving this way. [Laughter.] And you had feminists who were scandalized
not by sex, but by a patriarchy in which men got away with this kind of thing. So there are political interests feeding into
this machine. And this — I mean, this is something that
I want to really push when you talk about the media going after the right or the left
or whatever. A lot of it is this is happening in an era
of divided government in which you have hearings, in which news is being made, in which one
party can gin-up the scandal machine and give reporters a chance. Ben Wattenberg: Well, I mean, the Democratic
Congress went after Nixon. Now you have the Republican Congress going
after Clinton. One gets the feeling that is not an accident,
that it is not just that they — in either case that they have, oh, my God, just uncovered
a terrible crime. I mean, there is a lot of straight hardball
politics going on. I mean — Michael Beschloss: I think, and I think one
thing that can be said is that in recent years politics has to some extent become criminalized
so that you get in a situation where if you want to make war against a political opponent
or a set of opponents, one way of doing it is investigating very fiercely and hoping
that something will either become a scandal or something that becomes grounds for — I
mean to put it in the most extreme way — impeachment. Suzanne Garment: And there’s another contrary
trend that takes place. There has been a kind of grade inflation in
this area. Larry Sabato: Absolutely. Suzanne Garment: If there’s nothing to indict
for, these days we tend to say, oh, well, then it’s okay, because we’re so used
to — we’re used to indictment being the natural end of each of these scandals. Ben Wattenberg: There’s a book out called
“Primary Colors” that is a novel apparently — by an anonymous author, apparently based
not so loosely on the Clinton primary campaigns in 1992, and it paints a portrait of the president,
the president-to-be, then governor of a small Southern state unnamed in the book, who has
gargantuan appetites, let us say, in everything. [Laughter.] This is now the topic du jour among Washington
players. There is another book I think coming out about
President Clinton by David Brock, who is a pretty hard hitter on these kind of things,
and I think there’s one other, at least one other. Is all this going to set up another round
of “who is this man”? Larry Sabato: Well, I’m not sure that’s
the question that will be asked, but it will certainly — Ben Wattenberg: What’s the question? Larry Sabato: It will — well, the question
will be, what is this man’s private character, and how does it relate to his public character? You can be absolutely certain that between
now and November, probably in September and October, there will be a new round of character
questions about President Clinton. It is absolutely inevitable. And I think you’re right to focus on “Primary
Colors.” It may be a novel, but it is very thinly disguised. It is clearly President Clinton. Gov. Stanton is clearly President Clinton,
and frankly, I don’t think it paints a very favorable picture of President Clinton. Whoever the author is, I understand why he
or she went anonymous, particularly if it’s somebody in the Clinton entourage. Ben Wattenberg: The character, though, authentically
feels your pain. I mean, there is sort of a good side to that
portrait. I read it. It’s a very interesting book. It’s a lot of fun to read. Larry Sabato: There’s a good side to it,
but there’s also a lot of compulsive sexuality. And clearly there are character problems attached
to this particular individual, very serious character problems that will be a subject
for discussion. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but
it’s going to happen. Michael Beschloss: And I think maybe Bill
Clinton’s particularly vulnerable to this because in early 1992, when he was running
in the New Hampshire primary, two of the first things that Americans learned about him were
Jenifer Flowers and the draft business. That was very early in the curve. If this had been Hubert Humphrey running in
1968 and something like this had come out — no grounds for it, by the way, but if
something damaging had, he would have been someone who had been in national life for
20 years. People would have factored that in to everything
else they knew. And as a result, I think you can say that
although Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, it wasn’t because he had solved
this character issue; it was because he ran on the premise that perhaps I am not traditionally
everything that one looks for in a potential president, but I am tougher than George Bush
and I can deal with domestic problems that he has ignored much better. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask you another question. I listen to you here, and it’s kind of rancid,
isn’t it? I mean this whole — not you all — Michael Beschloss: Thanks a lot, Ben. Ben Wattenberg: No, that’s okay. Suzanne Garment: What? Larry Sabato: I’ve been called worse. Ben Wattenberg: No, no. I mean, is this demeaning and hurting American
politics? I mean, I think most of you would feel, as
I do, that beyond this American politicians in some ways get a bum deal. They’re trying hard, they’re patriots,
they do what they think is right most of the time, blah, blah, blah. And yet this rotten, rancid portrait comes
out. Is this bad for America? Is it good for America? Michael Beschloss: I think it’s horrible
but necessary. Because as long as we’ve got a system in
which, at least on the presidential level, presidents are nominated in public primaries
as opposed to in conventions with a lot of influence by party leaders, someone is going
to have to vet these people. And unfortunately, because the parties have
given up that responsibility, it has to be done out in public in this sort of free-for-all,
also by the press. If that is not done, especially because presidents
now can get nominated in a very short period of time, you could find someone on the railroad
track to a nomination who later on we find out has links to certain secret groups that
we wouldn’t want to see, certain very bad financial scandal that will shadow his or
her administration. So in a way, as distasteful as this process
is and as much as it keeps many good people from wanting to go through it, I think there’s
no other solution unless you change the system to what it used to be, which in many ways
I’d very much prefer. Larry Sabato: I agree with what Michael said. It’s also true, though, that character matters
fundamentally, particularly in the presidency. And while there are excesses in coverage — and
I’ve criticized them and Bob has and Suzie has and so on — while we criticize them,
it’s also important to note that they do serve a function. It is important for people to understand the
character of people who are running for president. They have to. Suzanne Garment: Some of the worst damage
that’s done to the system by this new tendency is not done at the presidential level at all. It’s done at lower levels of government,
where the justification for knowing about character is less strong. So that personnel directors in the White House,
for instance, ever since Watergate have had more trouble than they ever did getting people
into government. Ben Wattenberg: That’s a good area. Is this whole situation driving good people
out of government? Robert Lichter: I can’t imagine why anybody
would want to subject themselves to this. I mean, I really can’t imagine. When Colin Powell said no, I thought, why
would somebody like that ever consider sleazing themselves up unless they absolutely had to? Does it leave only the people who are driven
by a desperate need for power? Ben Wattenberg: Suppose somebody asked you
to be president. Would you — you would say no? Robert Lichter: Knowing what — if somebody
said, you know, I can guarantee, the way with Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur,” they said,
“Just get in the chariot and I guarantee you’ll win,” I’d say no because I’d
know how old I would look in four years from how old everybody else has. Ben Wattenberg: President Sabato — does
that sound nice? Would you run for office? Larry Sabato: Yes, and I was going to say,
the reason why Bob won’t run is of course because of all the scandals in his background. [Laughter.] You know, we don’t want to talk about those
here. Ben Wattenberg: Gotcha. Suzanne Garment: But you’re clean, you know. Larry Sabato: No, if some — I don’t think
there are very many people who would refuse the office were it handed on a silver platter
and you didn’t have to run. But there are very few — Ben Wattenberg: But would you go through the
process if you thought you had a good chance of winning? Larry Sabato: There are very few sane people
who would undergo this process, jump all over those barriers and obstacles put in the way. I mean, it’s — it takes a very special
person. And that’s important for us to remember,
too, when we look at the field of presidential candidates. These are not normal people. Very few normal people would run. These are people of enormous appetites in
lots of different ways, appetites of power and ambition and maybe personal habits of
which we might not approve. Nonetheless, they’re special people, and
you need to weigh their vices and virtues. You have to do that, and I don’t think we’re
doing that enough. Ben Wattenberg: President Beschloss — does
that sound nice to you? Would you run for office if somebody said
you — Michael Beschloss: I think I would not for
a lot of reasons. I think probably the world maybe needs a few
historians so I’ll stay with that. [Laughter.] You know, one thing that will — Ben Wattenberg: A lot. [Laughter.] Sorry. Michael Beschloss: Another program, Ben. One thing, not a bad bellwether, John Kennedy
the younger was asked, I think it was last year, how his father would fare in this new
process with certain, needless to say, vulnerabilities in his background and so on. He said that in this new system, he’s quite
sure that his father probably would not have run for president. And whether that’s good or bad, I think
we’re now in 1996 seeing a lot of people who might have run under the old system just
completely out of the process. Ben Wattenberg: President Garment, let’s
wrap it up with you. Would you — given this situation, would
you run for office? Suzanne Garment: Me? [Laughter.] Are you kidding? Of course not. No one can make it sure enough to promise
to you that you won’t get totally ruined by it. Ben Wattenberg: There is really a very tragic
aspect to the Clinton situation now. I mean, her three closest colleagues in the
law, one has committed suicide, one is in the slammer, and Kennedy went back to Arkansas
in some disgrace, and she’s in the ditch as well. So I mean, you really have — and a lot of
their friends — pretty ugly. Suzanne Garment: And she wouldn’t — you
wouldn’t have called her a prime candidate for this kind of thing. Michael Beschloss: And you might say, if the
two of them, the Clintons, had been shown in 1992 what was going to befall them during
the next four years, you wonder whether they would have made the decision and actually
had him run for president. Larry Sabato: He would have run. [Laughter.] He would have run. Ben Wattenberg: That is a good topic perhaps
for another program. Thank you, Suzanne Garment, Michael Beschloss,
Robert Lichter, and Larry Sabato. And thank you. Please remember, there is still time to enter
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