The New York Times virtually ignored Bill Clinton’s Arkansas scandals in exchange for an exclusive interview with the president during the 1996 election campaign, according to former presidential adviser Dick Morris.
New York Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld
The implied commitment to pull coverage of the scandals came directly from the paper’s new executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, who held that position prior to Howell Raines, Morris says in a column today in the New York Post.
Raines, accused by some critics of moving the paper further to the political left, resigned earlier this month in the wake of a devastating scandal in which reporter Jayson Blair was found to have falsified and plagiarized dozens of stories despite repeated warnings about his work.
But Morris insists with Lelyveld’s return, Times readers should expect more of the same.
“Anyone who thinks that Howell Raines’ resignation will restore editorial balance to the New York Times is in for a sad disappointment,” Morris writes.
In his newly released book, “Off with Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media and Business,” Morris said Lelyveld came to him for help after failing for many months to land an exclusive interview with President Clinton.
When Morris spoke of Clinton’s sensitivity to criticism from the Times, Lelyveld’s “sunny face” turned to a worried frown.
Morris says Lelyveld then assured him with sotto voice: “You know, we don’t think that the public cares about what happened back in Arkansas.”
Indeed, writes Morris, “in the two months before Election Day ’96, the Times ran no stories on its front page about Paula Jones, the Rose Law Firm, Hillary’s billing records and only lightly covered Whitewater.”
The next day, Morris says, he informed Clinton of the conversation.
The president was skeptical, but “somehow the interview got granted.”
The reporter assigned to the interview called Morris, asking if he could meet for a chat before talking to Clinton.
“After some light chatter over drinks, he began, casually, to tell me the questions he was going to ask,” Morris says. “‘I’ll ask him what are his proudest achievements, what he’s most ashamed of, why he thought he lost the Congress [in the 1994 elections], what he proposed to do about Bosnia . . .’”
Morris says he couldn’t believe his luck — “a reporter briefing a presidential aide on the questions he was preparing to ask the president.”
“Pushing my luck,” he says, “I prompted him: “Why don’t you ask him about . . . ”
Morris says his “obedient reporter/friend” responded, “Good idea” and jotted down notes.
The briefing of the president before the interview was easy, Morris says.
Clinton wondered: “What if he asks about Whitewater?”
“He won’t,” Morris assured him. “He’s told me exactly what he’s going to ask.”
On May 19, 1996, the president’s smiling face was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine above the headline “Facets of Clinton.”
“The story touted the president as ‘one of the biggest, most talented, articulate, intelligent, open, colorful characters ever to inhabit the Oval Office,’” Morris says. “It went on to call him ‘breathtakingly bright’ and even noted that he ‘exudes physical attraction.’”
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