For a slow day, you could do worse than read Joan Walsh in Salon on Taylor Branch's "Clinton Tapes." She focuses on what the history of presidential conversations contributes about the so-called liberal media that savaged Clinton for class and clan reasons. Who looks better in retrospect, Bill Clinton or Tim Russert?
Branch recounts being the lone Clinton defender on one of the last "Meet the Press" shows of Clinton's term, when all the other guests were still obsessed with the president's sex life. It was bad enough on camera, but during commercial breaks Russert and his friends gossiped about alleged new Clinton girlfriends and sang the 2000 one-hit wonder "Who let the dogs out?" tapping their pencil along to the woof-woof chorus. (I don't believe in hell, but I think Russert spent some time in a way station in Purgatory being grilled on his poor political judgment during the Clinton-Gore years, before being welcomed to heaven by a God more forgiving than the Beltway mediocrities who sat in judgment on Clinton.)
It's always seemed to me no accident that the mainstream media began to lose its market share, its revenues and its respect in those years, when they slighted an embattled president's worthy if controversial initiatives on Middle East peace, Bosnia, welfare reform, making work pay and building a U.S. social democracy, in favor of gossip about his character, his marriage, his taste in women and even the distinguishing characteristics of the presidential penis.
Against this historical backdrop of childish media snickering, the sharp, accomplished Branch comes off as a naif and even a rube in some of his stories, consistently flummoxed by the enmity among Washington media players, some of them his friends, as they savaged Clinton beyond proportion. He writes, bewildered, about a spate of vicious headlines at the end of 1996: The Times' Abe Rosenthal accused the Clintons of "giving militant Islam its first beachhead in Bosnia," while Maureen Dowd dubbed Clinton the trivia-obsessed "President Pothole" and the "Limbo President," sinking ever lower. For good measure she added: "We pretty much know the Clintons did something wrong in Whitewater," when in fact, 12 years later, we know no such thing. Wen Ho Lee at least got an apology from the Times; the Clintons are still waiting. (Clark Hoyt, is it too late to take that factual error up with Dowd?)