Transcript for: How Should We Handle Scandal?
Think Tank Transcripts: How Should We Handle Scandal?
|Transcripts||Joining us to sort through the
conflict and consensus are: Larry Sabato, professor of
government at the University of Virginia and co-author of
'Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in
American Politics'; Suzanne Garment, resident scholar at
the American Enterprise Institute and author of 'Scandal:
The Culture of Mistrustin American Politics'; Elizabeth
Drew, author of 'Showdown: TheStruggle between the
Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House'; and Gil
Troy, professor of history at McGill University in
Montreal and author of the forthcoming book, 'Affairs of
State: The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple.
The topic before this house: How should we handle scandal? This week on 'Think Tank.'
America loves a good scandal. American politicians aim to please. In the 1920s, the Harding administration was tarnished by charges of bribery in the Teapot Dome scandal. In 1884, after it was revealed that Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, Republicans chanted, 'Ma, ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.' And Grover Cleveland was ... elected.
Of course, in 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned because ofthe scandal which became known as Watergate. Since Watergate, major scandals and firestorms have exploded at an apparently escalating rate, driven by congressional hearings, newly created independent counsels, investigative reporters, and public interest groups, all in business to expose wrongdoing, a view that has been advanced by our panelist Suzanne Garment.
Recent allegations and revelations about President and Mrs.Clinton have sent the scandal industry into overdrive, raising some important questions, including, to what extent are these scandals media-created and media-driven? When is a scandal important and whenis it trivial? And have Americans accepted scandal? After all, a recent poll showed 56 percent of Americans believe President Clinton intentionally abused power by obtaining FBI files, but the same poll also found that 56 percent of the public approve of the job President Clinton is doing. And lastly, how should American voters handle scandal?
Larry Sabato, has the playing field in the school for scandal changed in recent years?
MR. SABATO: I think it's changed enormously, at least in the recent decades. It used to be that the media refused to air or print rumor without a substantial body of proof or evidence. Now rumor is aired and printed with abandon.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Elizabeth Drew.
MS. DREW: I agree, Ben. I think the bar has been lowered against what gets into print and even goes out on the air. I think probably areal low was hit over the Gary Aldrich book. And I think a lot of news organizations --
MR. WATTENBERG: The Gary Aldrich book -- tell us what that one was about.
MS. DREW: Oh, the man who's always described as 'a former FBI agent' -- I mean he was one -- who was assigned to the Bush and then the Clinton White House published a book that had a number of -- as he had to admit -- unsubstantiated rumors in it. And a certain amount of that, in fact a great deal of that, got into the, quote, 'legitimate,' unquote, press as well as on television. And I think anumber of news organizations are going through little sessions of self-criticism now, and those that aren't should.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Gil Troy.
MR. TROY: Nineteenth century press was filled with rumors, it was filled with bile, it was filled with scandal. I think what's changed, though, is the context in which we do it. We tend to respect the press more, we tend to believe them more, and we also don't have other experience with politics. We don't vote as much, we don't marchas much, we don't have party identity, and so we don't have mediating influences to dilute the scandal.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Suzanne Garment.
MS. GARMENT: It has changed. Every generation sets its own rulesfor scandal. We have lowered the bar in modern times, and we're inthe process now of deciding whether we want to raise it again.
MR. WATTENBERG: But you have also written that the structure ofscandal generation has changed, that we have institutionalized what-- why don't you just explain that to us.
MS. GARMENT: It's true that today there are many more institutions with the capacity to uncover alleged wrongdoing, publicize it, punishit, so that you have more sources of possible scandal news. What we can do about it, though, if we don't like the results, is to change the way we view the information that these institutions produce. The press is the first place where those decisions get made.
MR. WATTENBERG: Elizabeth, the point was made on this Gary Aldrichbook that true blue reporters, probably even you, use anonymous sources. Why was it so terrible for Gary Aldrich to use anonymous sources?
MS. DREW: Because of what he purveyed and, as he said, really without many sources at all. I mean, in the end, the most squalid thing he purveyed -- which I don't want to repeat on the air, I'm not going to be part of his transmission bell -- he had to admit, he finally said, 'Oh, that was some speculation that needs to be pursued.' I mean, that's no standard at al.
If Gary Aldrich walked into a respectable newsroom -- if he had --and said, Look, you know, I've got it that President Clinton did this, and this and this happened, then they'd say, Well, because he has no credentials as a journalist -- I mean, I think you have to make some distinctions here.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, you say he has no credentials. He spent allegedly 30 years as an FBI investigator. Now, he would say that's as good credentials as Bob Woodward has or Elizabeth Drew.
MS. DREW: I don't think so. I mean, I'm not qualified to be an FBI agent. I don't -- in any event, I said he didn't have good credentials as a journalist. Or even if somebody came into one of those papers that was their own person who had something that was really so unusual, took the whole subject way beyond where it had been, he'd be questioned by his editors.
MR. SABATO: I think Elizabeth Drew makes the right distinction as far as the Gary Aldrich book is concerned. You can divide that book into two main pieces. One is credible, and that is relying on his experience as an FBI agent over 30 years and I believe 5 years in the White House, when he talks about the difficulty in getting the Clinton people to go through security clearance to get their proper clearance to view classified information. Those charges are serious,and I believe him because he has the background to make those sorts of distinctions.
But the other part of the book is absolute trash. It regards rumor as being fact, as Elizabeth has noted. He relies on just a single source for the most outlandish and scurrilous part of the book.
MS. DREW: If you have not been questioned on the validity of what you do, if you've built up a reputation over the years, people trustyou. And if you've shown yourself unworthy of trust, they don't. It's a character question.
MS. GARMENT: You know, the book --
MR. WATTENBERG: We will return to character. Go ahead.
MS. GARMENT: Oh, right. No, the book raises another question as well, even apart from veracity. There are some things that he saw with his own eyes. We should probably assume that they're true. And yet they raise the question of whether they're important enough to be reported, or reported as evidence as moral turpitude, which is what he's doing.
MR. WATTENBERG: What do you think? I mean, he says that he knows first hand that the Clinton original White House staff sought to avoid FBI investigations.
MS. GARMENT: That's pretty important. What may not be so important is all his observations about the dress habits of various Clinton staffers or what kind of Christmas ornaments Mrs. Clinton decided to put on the White House Christmas tree.
MS. DREW: If she did.
MS. GARMENT: That's right. For sake of argument, assume she did.There's still the question of whether it's evidence of anything morally significant.
MR. TROY: But I actually think that's the heart of the book. What's really going on is a culture clash between an older culture that this FBI agent represents, a rock-rib Republican culture, and a counterculture, the 'McGovernicks' as Newt Gingrich called them. And that's what really kind of makes the scandal interesting, and that's what makes it significant.
MS. GARMENT: It makes it both interesting and significant. Whether it's morally significant is another question.
MR. SABATO: It's trivial, though, Gil. I mean, that kind of information, while I agree with you, it can be fascinating at one level, it's trivial and it doesn't really feed into the basic decision that Americans are going to have to make in November.
MS. DREW: I have a little problem with lumping all the afore mentioned things into scandals. They are of such different scale and of such different importance. I mean, I will resist till my last breath using the suffix -gate on anything other than Watergate, which was the real name of the place where the little burglary occurred that started the whole thing.
Watergate was a constitutional struggle. It was very, very high stakes over very important things, like the Fourth Amendment. And I don't think we can throw -- and I wouldn't even call it a scandal, in a way. It was bigger than that.
MR. WATTENBERG: The Fourth Amendment is search and seizure?
MS. DREW: Yes, search and seizure. And here are these people,hired by people connected to the White House, going in and raiding somebody's psychiatrist's file. That's about as scary as it can get.
MS. GARMENT: Scandal is one of those words that are circular. Thatis, scandal is what scandalizes us. And you've pointed to the difference between the constitutional struggle and the Christmas tree ornaments, and I think it's that lack of discrimination that probably marks us the most of all.
MR. TROY: The populous. Millions of people are fascinated by this. Why are they fascinated by this? Because they impute a certain kind of significance to these issues, and I don't think it's just trivial. I think that people -- you know, in 1996, there's going to be a generational clash going on between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, and both of them are going to try to trigger all kinds of associations saying, what do I stand for? Who am I? And it gets to kind of the fundamental questions of democracy, who do we want as a leader andwhere do we want to go? And it also gets to one of the crucial questions of our time, which is since the 1960s, our consensus culture has been splintered. We're not quite sure where to go, we're not quite sure what we believe and we're trying to recreate some common value, and the unfortunate thing is that we have to do it in a world where the media is so central.
MR. SABATO: Well, Gil -- oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead, Susan. Well, no, Gil, what you're saying is true in the sense that you're talking about the character issue, and it is important to focus on the character issue, I agree. But look, the distinction that I'm trying to draw here and I think some others are trying to draw is that the media ought to focus on aspects of character for which there's a substantial body of proof or evidence, that false allegations have no business being given air time or being given print space in newspapers.
MS. DREW: Or unsubstantiated.
MR. SABATO: Unsubstantiated rumors and allegations.
MR. TROY: Journalists have always been scavengers on a certain level, with all due respect, and I think the difference is the way we view it.
MR. WATTENBERG: As opposed to academics, Professor Troy, right?
MR. TROY: Oh, we're just pompous --
MR. WATTENBERG: You're pompous. Okay, right.
MR. TROY: We have different character flaws. But what I'm interested in is why is that voters so focus on the media, and I think it's because, you know, we don't interact with each other in communities anymore, we don't interact with each other even over the radio talking about what's going on. We sit and we experience things through television, through a newspaper, and so there aren't these other mediating influences, there aren't these other to dilute ourexperience with the media and with scandal. And so as a result, we spend far too much time focusing on journalists, we spend far too much money paying them to lecture and we spend far too much --
MR. WATTENBERG: Careful, careful.
MR. TROY: -- and we end up respecting them when we've made them the centers, the stars of our political arena. And as a result, our political arena is suffering.
MS. GARMENT: It's true that as other institutions have declined, the press for some people becomes the only bulletin board in town. Soany flaws that are there are magnified in their effects.
MR. TROY: And journalists have this mantle of objectivity. I mean,in the old days of the partisan press, if I was a Republican, I believed what I read in the Republican paper, and what I learned was that Democrats were scoundrels, but I also learned that th eRepublicans were heroes. And we also -- we've kind of lost heroes in our world. We don't have people kind of building them up.
MS. DREW: I think if you look at the polls, though, the approval polls, journalists are way down there with politicians and sometimes confused to be the same thing. I don't think it's --
MR. WATTENBERG: Down with used car salesmen in a lot of --
MS. DREW: It's just plain there. I think we're getting a little astray. If you could look at how many people read newspapers even. SoI'm not sure that it's -- journalists as stars may raise someproblems, but I don't think that one.
MR. WATTENBERG: Elizabeth, is the character issue on whatever politician, not necessarily President Clinton, is that a legitimate issue, or should voters say, it's content, stupid, and I agree with Clinton; maybe he's a scoundrel, maybe he's not, but I like him? Orshould they say, any candidate, not President Clinton, he is morally flawed, and as Gil says, morally flawed in a certain way, coming out of this counterculture, whatever it is, and therefore character is destiny, and content?
MS. DREW: I wouldn't begin to tell the voters how important this should be to them, nor would I suggest that character is something that you can only decide on based on these, quote, 'scandals.' Character is also how you deal with issues, and it's a very subjective thing and voters are going to decide, you know, I don'tlike that guy because -- and he may be saying something or she may besaying something that doesn't have to do with scandals. Maybe theythink somebody is too slick, to take a wild example. (Laughter.)
Or to take another one, maybe they think somebody is sort of too out of it and, you know, not up to date. There's a whole amalgam of things that I think make up character well beyond anything --
MR. WATTENBERG: And these are very legitimate concerns for avoter.
MS. DREW: Of course they are.
MR. WATTENBERG: That they don't just vote on how they stand on welfare or how they stand on foreign policy.
MS. DREW: Well, but Ben, what I'm saying is you could also say how they stand on welfare can even be, in some people's minds, a character issue.
MR. SABATO: It's a combination. I think for most voters, it's a combination of their judgment about the candidate's character and their agreement or disagreement with the candidate's positions on key issues. I mean, most people weigh all of these matters in making uptheir mind, and that's perfectly legitimate.
In Bill Clinton's case, my point to the Clinton critics, the people who are spreading many of these scurrilous rumors, is look,there's plenty already on the record about Bill Clinton, both positive and negative, in the character arena. I go back to what the great political scientist V. O'Key (ph) said. He said, 'Voters are not fools,' and they really aren't. They take all of this information and they weigh it and they balance it, and in the end, they reach a responsible judgment, in most cases.
MR. TROY: One of the great ironies of the Clinton administrationis that in 1992, he tried to make the election a referendum on issues. And he said, 'It's the economy, stupid.' Let's not focus on issues -- let's not focus on character, let's not gossip. And I thinkin the last three, four years, what we've seen is a resurgence of the character issue because he in his presidency has somehow linked the character flaws with some of the policy flaws. Joe Klein in 'Newsweek' wrote this great piece on the politics of promiscuity, how Bill Clinton's need, his desire, his compulsive push constantly to seduce people, both one on one and also fellow leaders, has led to a certain kind of sloppiness in foreign policy, a certain sloppiness indomestic policy. And that is a point where you can't quite distinguish between character and policy, so I think we --
MR. WATTENBERG: Have the American people with this explosion of scandalmongering, have they become more accepting of it -- those poll results we showed where the majority of people think Clinton did something wrong on the FBI files and yet say, I'm going to vote forhim.
MS. DREW: Well, let's see how this evolves over the summer and into the fall. You could make the case, and I sort of think it, that if the problems from Whitewater, from the files, from other things keep accruing -- and we don't know that, then I think there will bean erosion of his standing. Look, the election is being fought over the undecideds. An awful lot of people have decided long since thatClinton is flawed, but I prefer his ideas about government, I prefer the direction he wants to go. Others have made up their mind they can't stand him and nothing can talk them into it.
But I think we're in a fluid situation. Might there come a point if there is too much that comes out that is credible where this group that's going to decide the election throws up their hands? I don't think we can sit here today and say.
MR. WATTENBERG: Just tactically, from the Republican point of view, the more they can drive this scandal, the more it keeps Clintono n the defensive and off message.
MS. DREW: But they have to be careful. It looks like they're exploiting it.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MS. DREW: It can backfire.
MR. WATTENBERG: They have a very good -- I'm sort of surprised that they are not concentrating -- or the appearance that they are not concentrating on I'm a conservative, he's a liberal, here's what conservatives believe, here's what liberals believe, because that's the natural advantageous terrain for the Republicans. That's how --the obvious way to run a campaign right now.
MS. DREW: Wait for the fall. I think you're going to see a lot more of that. But that doesn't mean -- what I said before when I said they have to be careful -- that doesn't mean that important Republicans aren't egging on certain committee chairmen, that they're not floating around a lot of information around town. If you want to hear some good rumors, call a Republican. They've got, you know, somevery interesting ones. But they're sort of, you know, affecting the atmosphere.
MR. WATTENBERG: So Suzie, you wrote a book about this. Did the Democrats do the same thing when there was a Republican president?
MS. GARMENT: Oh, sure. (Laughter.) I mean, the post-Watergate rise in the incidence of scandal was partly a matter of Democrats getting a real kick out of being able to beat up on Republicans when RonaldReagan took over in the executive branch. And there is an element ofpayback now.
MR. WATTENBERG: So this is -- are we agreed that this is a bipartisan phenomenon, depending on who's in and who's out, whose ox is gored, anybody will take advantage of these new conditions?
MS. DREW: No. No, because then you'd have to say there is a Whitewater equivalent, you know, in every administration or there's a Watergate equivalent. I don't think you can do that.
MR. SABATO: Although certainly both parties do, obviously, take advantage when they're in the majority.
MS. DREW: Sure.
MR. SABATO: And that's happening now. But it's also true if you trace back, with the exception of Watergate, which was the superscandal of all time, at least for this century, even greater thanTeapot Dome -- with the exception of Watergate, scandal really has determined very, very elections. And if Bob Dole wins, it isn't going to be because of scandal.
MR. WATTENBERG: I want to come back to that, but why was Watergate such a monumental scandal when in point of fact what drove Watergate was perjury, obstruction of justice, just the same things that people are alleging about Whitewater and travelgate and filegate and all this kind of stuff?
MS. DREW: Oh, Ben, I don't want to get into a debate over it.There's not much time. If Whitewater turns up certain kinds of actions once the Clintons, and I say the Clintons, were in the presidency. So far, that's not the case. It might be.
You had a criminal conspiracy being run out of the Oval Office.You had serious obstruction of justice. You had -- as I said, it was a challenge to the Constitution.
MS. GARMENT: The underlying offenses in Watergate are not assignificant -- I'm sorry, in Whitewater -- are not as significant as those in Watergate. If, however, you find out that there has been an abuse of the FBI to taint the reputation, indeed to indict and employee of the FBI for political purposes -- an employee of the White House for political purposes, if you discover that something really terrible has gone on with the FBI files, then you are talking about the same classes of offense. That's still an if.
MR. TROY: It's interesting how distorted things have become. We can't distinguish in some ways between Watergate and Travelgate and--
MS. DREW: I can.
MR. TROY: -- Whitewatergate because there's this constant bleeding from the media that everything's a scandal, everything's sensational.And there's the other very unfortunate phenomenon of the criminalization of political difference. Politicians lie, politicians occasionally obstruct the correct processes of government. That shouldn't mean that they should therefore be hauled in front ofcongressional committees, hauled in front of a special prosecutor, given six-figure legal bills. Many of these differences should be fought out in the political arena, but not in the criminal arena. AndI think in the last 20 years, there's been this unfortunate mixing ofthe two, which makes everything equivalent. And it shouldn't be, I absolutely agree with you.
MR. WATTENBERG: Gil, let me ask you a question. You are writing abook about presidential couples, presidents and first ladies. Is what's happening to Hillary Clinton, is that fair game?
MR. TROY: Nancy Reagan would think so. Many of the first ladies have often been punching bags for America. All kinds of anxieties about women, all kinds of anxiety about unelected people seizing power close to the presidency have come out and have led many of the first ladies to be pilloried. And Hillary Clinton has repeatedly said that. She kind of takes some solace in the fact that other first ladies have been equally beaten up, and sometimes I think she uses itas a way of excusing some of her own morally questionable actions.
MR. SABATO: And you know, you have to remember, even taking into account the Eleanor Roosevelt example, there never has been a co-presidency until now. I mean, they have advertised it as such, and I think in many respects there is a co-presidency.
MR. WATTENBERG: They have not really advertised it as a co-presidency.
MR. SABATO: Oh, 'two for the price of one,' absolutely in 1992.
MR. TROY: In 1993, I think there was a co-presidency. But let's talk about this six months from now, when my book comes out.
MR. WATTENBERG: Is it fair for people to -- I'm sure the Republicans are going to come to this. They're going to say, Look, if you elect Clinton, whether we like it or not, we are going to go through two or three years of big public hearings about the president, about the first lady, about Whitewater, about Paula Jones,about everything. Do you really want to live through that? Therefore vote for the other guy. Is that legit?
MR. TROY: Of course. That's perfectly legitimate. I mean, you cansee the storm clouds gathering. But, you know, the public will take that into account. They'll weigh the alternatives, and we'll see what they decide in November.
MR. TROY: Bill Clinton campaigned with his wife. At a certain point right before the 1992 convention, he made sure to be photographed on the cover of 'People' magazine with his wife and daughter in a group hug to show that he was a family man. I can think of no American politician who hasn't posed with the family at one point or another, who hasn't in some ways brought character into play. I think they all do it, and I think it's because we want to use that as a way of sifting through all these claims and as a way ofunderstanding is this a man or woman we trust?
MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Okay, thank you, Elizabeth Drew, Larry Sabato, Suzanne Garment, and Gil Troy.
And thank you. Please send your questions and comments to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036.
For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.
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