Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hillary's record withstands 'character' attacks

by Gene Lyons

Maybe somebody ought to give Iowa waitress Anita Esterday a political TV talk show. She couldn't be any worse than, say, MSNBC's Tucker Carlson. Recently, the boyish pundit has been suggesting that there's something deeply weird about female voters who support Sen. Hillary Clinton because they'd like a woman president, although it's entirely reasonable for "married white men" to despise her "because she gives off the feeling that she despises them." Got that ? Women: dangerously irrational. Men: terrified of women. If you think that's an isolated example, tune in "Hardball." Now that hyperthyroidic host Chris Matthews has finally exhausted the topic of Clinton's troublesome laugh, he's recently focused several programs on her peculiarly "Chinese" manner of clapping her hands.

It's not just MSNBC's testosterone brigade that's gone all Gong Show. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd actually favorably cited somebody scolding "Hillary's callousness in dumping Socks, the beloved White House cat and bestselling author, on Bill's former secretary, Betty Currie."

Try to believe it: Clinton's daughter grows up and leaves home, so a friend adopts her cat. To Dowd, this epitomizes the candidate's "opportunism... her secrecy, her ruthlessness."

What's wrong with these people ? It's common to compare Washington's self-infatuated media celebrities to high school kids. But even high school was never like this. Adolescents normally try to conceal their neuroses. These jokers mistake them for insights.

But let's get back to Esterday of Oelwein, Iowa. She served Clinton a sandwich during her shift at the Maid-Rite restaurant. At a later campaign stop, Clinton talked about meeting a waitress, a single mother working two jobs, exactly the kind of person her candidacy's all about.

Yeah, they all say that. So anyway, National Public Radio reporters descended upon the Maid-Rite, where Esterday, although she didn't blame Clinton personally, complained that Clinton's entourage hadn't left anybody a tip. NPR broadcast the story, a classic "gotcha." The great champion of hard-working women was too cheap to leave a tip. Good for a halfdozen "Hardball" episodes or Dowd columns, minimum.

Except apparently it was false. A Clinton spokesman said that staffers had left a $ 100 tip on a $ 157 tab at the cash register. This will scarcely be credited by anybody who's worked in a restaurant, but it seems that the money never got to the waitresses. NPR's "gotcha" fell apart, as careful reporting would have established in the first place. Some stories are too good to check closely.

Contacted by The New York Times, Esterday was properly amazed.

"You people are really nuts," she said. "There's kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now - there's better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn't get a tip."

Amen to that. Indeed, it may be time to revise H. L. Mencken's immortal trope that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. True, scary numbers of people can't name their U. S. senators or locate Iran on a map. This leaves them vulnerable to shameless propaganda.

Today, it's the irresponsibility of Washington media celebrities that's most troubling. Consider Social Security, something that couldn't be more relevant to somebody like Anita Esterday. In 2005, Democrats defeated GOP schemes to privatize, i. e. hand over to the geniuses responsible for the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the most successful social insurance program in American history.

So here came NBC's Tim Russert, doing his act at the recent Democratic presidential debate. Along with co-moderator Brian Williams, Russert's performance made it official: Among Beltway All-Stars, it's open season on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards played along - and they did - they're fools.

There are many legitimate issues to debate - Clinton's vote for Joe Lieberman's saber-ratting Iran resolution, for example, or what many see as her excessively nuanced position on Iraq - without buying into these RNC-manufactured "character" issues. Grab the lead and it'll be your turn next, boys.

Regarding Social Security, the amiable Russert asked Clinton a question he said impinged on her "credibility." Supposedly, she'd told an AARP audience that she'd never raise taxes to augment the program and repeated herself to Russert in a New Hampshire debate, but was overheard telling an Iowa teacher that she'd consider it. "Why do you have one public position," Russert asked, "and one private position ?" Jamison Foser at mediamatters. org checked the transcripts. Guess what. Russert's accusatory query was factually false in every particular. Clinton's answers, public and private, have remained consistent: There is no Social Security "crisis." Any actuarial adjustments that may be needed should be considered only after "fiscal responsibility" has been restored. Then raising the tax limit of $ 97, 500 might be among them. She'd like a bipartisan commission. Several of the NBC stars' "character" attacks were similarly off target. Likely, they won't need Social Security. Likely you and Anita Esterday will. It's your democracy they're clowning with.

This article originally appeared in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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