The Legend of Wicked Willie | Media | Chicago Reader

The Legend of Wicked Willie 

By Michael Miner

The Legend of Wicked Willie

Is Bill Clinton evil? It's an important question and may not be settled before he's reelected. But a consensus is forming.

Linda Bowles, inevitably, leads the way. "Clinton is incontrovertibly a liberal! But he is also a pragmatist," she wrote the other day. "He learned he cannot openly declare his intentions. He must remain in the closet to succeed." Liberalism, in Bowles's lexicon, is evil by another name. Liberalism that dare not speak its name is most iniquitous of all.

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen comes at it from the other direction. "The worst Dole can do is call Clinton a liberal, a scurrilous charge implying Clinton has beliefs." A morally bankrupt empty suit isn't necessarily evil incarnate, but you can see how Cohen's leaning.

The New York Times's Maureen Dowd just had another go at our "improvident" president. "Bill Clinton has given us the Limbo Presidency," she wrote. "Slowly, inch by inch, he lowers the bar and we bend to accommodate his failings." In her view he's taking the rest of us down with him. Ted Van Dyk, a 1992 adviser to Paul Tsongas, explained in a Wall Street Journal essay why this time around he's voting for Dole. Painting Clinton as a politician "who is driven by expediency and self-interest and holds the truth in a high disregard," Van Dyk asserted, "But any matters of personal corruption pale alongside the president's unforgivable policy corruption."

Duplicitousness has become a given. "There is something wrong with the way this president and his wife behave," wrote Mike Barnicle in the Boston Globe. "Ironically, it has little to do with day-to-day governing and everything to do with character, arrogance and hypocrisy." Deceit was the motif for a Jim Hoagland column in the Washington Post on the reasons behind Clinton's "crumbling" Middle East policy: "Chief among them is the administration's growing inability to tell the world--and itself--the truth about inconvenient change in that volatile region."

Perhaps you've seen Clinton described somewhere recently as an honorable man. I haven't.

Fifteen years ago I began a column with this question: "Is Ronald Reagan dumb?" He'd been in office less than a year, and already the press was beginning to hint broadly that the new president was an ignoramus. He was, I observed the press concluding, "along for the ride," escaping culpability for his administration's follies only because of mounting evidence that he had no idea what it was doing. The balance of Reagan's first term did nothing to establish his cerebral credentials, and when it became clear he would nevertheless be reelected in a landslide nonenthusiasts raged at the blindness of so many millions to so fundamental a flaw.

History repeats itself. "Clinton has amply demonstrated his contempt for Americans," Dennis Byrne wrote in the Sun-Times. "A little contempt in return isn't out of line." Byrne thinks contempt should rain down on Clinton from Robert Dole as "a public service." A Washington Times editorial also urged Dole to speak out. "It is not nice to call someone a liar or a rogue or a crook. But it isn't very nice to be a liar, a rogue and a crook, either....What we need is not civility, but a higher standard of vitriol." The New York Times's William Safire believes contempt should be universal, and he's troubled by its lack: "Will anything so old-fashioned as moral outrage ever make a comeback?"

Pointing to both Whitewater and the recently revealed "Clinton-Mochtar [Riady] connection" that's funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clinton campaign from Indonesian sources, a Wall Street Journal editorial insisted, "There comes a time at which refusing to incorporate these events into the November decision--pro or con--approaches irresponsibility."

But despite torrents of commentary insisting on Clinton's Meph-istophelian essence, he somehow retains an overwhelming lead in the polls. The danger the press must now contemplate is this: that the public will conclude it's held in much less contempt by a nefarious president than it is by hysterical newspaper columnists. Once that conclusion is reached their message won't be any easier to get across.

Courting Contempt

Readers tell us they are frustrated by the media 'getting in the way' of what politicians say," Sun-Times editor in chief Nigel Wade explained, by way of introducing his paper's great experiment. "So we invited leading candidates to write essays of 2,000 words, with a photograph, to make their case for election, without editing or journalistic 'filtering,' which readers say they find so bothersome."

On a Wednesday the Sun-Times presented the "exclusive" essay of Bill Clinton, on a Thursday the "exclusive" essay of Bob Dole. And on Friday the paper's front page exposed what Wade knew all along--that both essays were hardly exclusive at all: Clinton's essay was a "rejiggered" version of his acceptance speech, and Dole's the "barely altered" introduction to his recent book Trusting the People (which perhaps one Sun-Times reader in 500,000 had heard of). Excerpts from the original and Sun-Times texts were printed side by side, to lay the deception bare.

"We had hoped for better. I believe our readers will be disappointed," declared Wade in a boxed "message from the editor." And sure enough, a Berwyn woman was trotted out to say, "I feel kind of cheap now" (now that she knew the essays she'd read hadn't been worth reading). An editorial thundered, "A sad misuse of the public's desire for substance....A sorry charade....Could further fuel voter cynicism." And editorial board member Cindy Richards confessed, "I don't think I could be angrier, or more insulted....I figured the candidates would see this as an opportunity to move beyond campaign rhetoric and political pandering. I can't believe I was so naive." At least Senate candidates Richard Durbin and Al Salvi, whose own turns came this week, were now on notice they'd be damned fools not to do better.

It all made for a curious tour de force. Filling several pages for three days running without adding more than a lick of original reporting (sickened readers asked to comment, campaign spokesmen asked to defend their candidates' honor), the paper flaunted its high-mindedness, its gullibility, and its wrath. "We are too realistic to believe that Clinton and Dole would sit down, pen in hand, and write directly to you--the voters of Chicago," said the editorial. "But we hardly expected that the candidates would be so cynical of the voters, so uncaring, that when offered a chance to detail their dramatically different positions...they would regurgitate cliches empty of fact, reason or proof."

What were the convention speeches--what would be the debates--but such a chance? Did the Sun-Times think the candidates would turn to trusted minions and bark, "Knock out 2,000 words to send to that paper in Chicago. But remember, none of the usual bullshit"?

"Journalistically," Wade would say a few days later, when WBEZ's Mara Tapp wondered why the paper didn't simply spike the essays that disappointed it so deeply, "it was more interesting to run them and then run what we thought of them." So the Sun-Times eventually got to scratch that itch anyway--the itch to be "getting in the way." It gave Clinton and Dole their "exclusive" says and lambasted them the next day for their faithlessness. Readers were encouraged to see clearly the proof positive that neither candidate wishes to be clearly seen. That's something.

News Bites

He was jaunty about it, but between the lines Tribune editorial writer John McCarron excoriated his own paper last week. In an op-ed column he nominated as a "four-star Tuchman moment"--that is, a deliciously epiphanic coincidence of the sort so often noticed by historian Barbara Tuchman--the events last August 15, as reported by the Tribune.

Page one carried an account of Robert Dole's nomination in San Diego. The Metro section brought news that Governor Edgar had approved a plan to extend the North-South Tollway south into Will County. And "as far back in the paper as a story can be without becoming an obituary or a weather report" was the story of a police raid on the home of Bolingbrook mayor Roger Claar--who, like Edgar, was attending the Republican Convention at the time.

McCarron noted that Edgar had appointed his old college chum Claar to the Illinois Toll Highway Authority; that court documents filed by the state police alleged that Claar "may have accepted thousands of dollars in payments for helping a developer sell to the tollway authority, at an inflated price, a 27-acre tract south of Bolingbrook needed for the tollway extension"; and that "yet another friend of both Edgar and Claar, former tollway executive director Robert Hickman, is currently under indictment for his role in a similar sale of suspiciously high-priced land to the tollway authority." It's been estimated, McCarron reported, that the tollway authority paid half a million dollars more for Claar's tract than it should have.

What "rollicking fun" it would have been to run those three stories together, wrote McCarron. In that playful spirit he imagined Roger Claar stepping to the podium in San Diego to give archenemy "Big Government" credit for one small thing--its ability to line politicians' pockets by building tollways.

But it would have been more than rollicking fun, as of course McCarron knows, even if he couldn't say. It would have been responsible journalism.

What McCarron was getting at was the Tribune's failure to perform the normal journalistic practice of connecting the dots. A few more dots appeared two weeks ago when Palumbo Brothers Inc., one of the state's largest road-building firms, was charged in a federal indictment with overbilling state and local governments by more than $20 million since 1985.

The Tribune coverage noted that Palumbo Brothers and two other family firms had received a "staggering" $357 million in state business since 1989, despite a one-year suspension for overcharging; that Palumbo Brothers is also accused of "cheating hundreds of employees" out of some $3 million in wages and benefits going back almost 20 years; that another family firm was convicted in a bid-rigging scheme and fined $200,000 in the late 70s; that Palumbo contributes to the political campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats; and that it's being defended by a former U.S. attorney, Republican Dan Webb.

"Victims of the alleged fraud"--as the Tribune put it--include the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. Perhaps. There are victims, and then there are innocent victims. And when all the dots are connected such a distinction might have to be made here.

Jon-Henri Damski's been writing poetry. Virtually Incurable, But Not Yet Terminal is a book of sorts bound inside a manila folder labeled "X-RAY REPORTS"; it contains 181 poems written during the last few months by the Outlines columnist and self-designated "gay writer/queer thinker" while living with cancer. Damski held court a couple of Sundays at People Like Us, a Belmont bookstore, selling his book--which was produced by his friend Michael Vore's Firetrap Press--and collecting checks to help with the rent. Friends are pitching in to see to it that Damski, despite income following the same course as his health, can stay put in his familiar Belair Hotel. Those friends include Alderman Bernie Hansen and the 44th Ward Democratic headquarters.

Damski was in fine form. Most of his poems go by in an eye blink, but his riffs on them rambled far and wide "You have to be dumb and smart to catch onto a poem," he lectured. "Teachers miss it. They aren't dumb enough. Students miss it. They aren't smart enough.

Some of the most pointed of the poems he didn't read, perhaps because he was too happy for them that day, perhaps because they left nothing to be explained. "Suffering" was one such: "In the end / it's just the end for you / and the middle / for everyone else." Damski described a spirited competition he imagines himself in with Cardinal Bernardin to see who lives longer. If the doctors are right it'll be close.

A roast for Damski will be held November 8 at the AIDSCARE Chapel, 309 W. Barry.

Damski discovered the poems of Wislawa Szymborska when the Polish writer received the Nobel Prize for literature. "The Nobel Prize committee called her ironically precise," he says. "Actually, she's ironically imprecise. If you're imprecise it increases the irony. I think she's a bad, mad woman and that's good." The committee's own finicky imprecision helped Damski recall the common mistake of his students back at Bryn Mawr, when he was young and teaching Latin poetry: "They were trying to make a linear interpretation of a double vision."

Heretofore unpublished translations of three poems by Szymborska are contained in the new issue of Story Head, a local literary zine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Bill Clinton by J. Scott Applewhite - World Wide Photos.

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