Instead of Assessing Clinton's Claims, Nets Portray Strategy to Motivate Democrats

Instead of exploring the accuracy or inaccuracy of former President Clinton's claims during his temper tantrum directed at Chris Wallace in an interview aired on Fox News Sunday, the ABC and NBC evening newscasts on Monday suggested a larger strategy to motivate Democrats. ABC anchor Charles Gibson framed the event: “When asked about efforts he made to get Osama bin Laden, the former President got angry. Was he really mad or was he using anger to make a larger point?” Reporter Dan Harris proposed: “Unlike Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, who many believe failed to effectively combat efforts to distort their image, the Clintons believe Democrats have to push back hard.”

NBC anchor Brian Williams turned to David Gergen who rationalized the tantrum: “He'd just come off a terrific week as ex-President and raised over $7 billion for worthy causes, walked into an interview with Fox with Chris Wallace that he thought was going to be at least half about his initiative. And then he thought he got sandbagged by this question...which echoes the conservative criticisms.” Gergen predicted: “It's going to be a rallying cry for Democrats because Bill Clinton has sent a very clear message to Democrats. If you get bullied, if they try to roll over you, you've got to punch back and punch back hard. That's the way to win.”

During the interview, Clinton contended: "Anybody who wants to say I didn't do enough: You read Richard Clarke's book." But as Jim Angle pointed out on Monday's Special Report with Brit Hume, Jim Angle:
"To back up his version of events, the former President repeatedly invoked the accounts of Richard Clarke, his counter-terrorism advisor. But Clark himself told the 9/11 Commission he vigorously recommended the Clinton administration strike bin Laden after the attack on the U.S.S Cole."

Richard Clarke, at March 24, 2004 hearing: "On several occasions, including after the attack on the Cole, I suggested that we bomb all of the Taliban and al Qaeda infrastructure, whether or not it would succeed in killing bin Laden."

Angle: "After the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, Clarke proposed an ongoing bombing of al Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan to stop what he called the conveyor belt of terrorists emerging from them."

Bryan Cunningham, former national security official: "That document by Richard Clarke's own account was rejected by all of the principles in the Clinton administration. So from 1998 to 2001, when they left office, they didn't take any action on that plan."

Transcripts of the September 25 stories, as provided by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth:

ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:
Charles Gibson: "The issue of terrorism helped provoke an extraordinary outburst over the weekend from former President Bill Clinton, who was being interviewed by Chris Wallace on the Fox News Channel. When asked about efforts he made to get Osama bin Laden, the former President got angry. Was he really mad or was he using anger to make a larger point? Here's ABC's Dan Harris."

Bill Clinton, in interview taped Friday for Fox News Sunday: "-right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try."

Dan Harris: "Bill Clinton was visibly irate, leaning forward in his chair."

Clinton: "You did Fox's bidding on this show."

Harris: "Interrupting."

Clinton: "Tell the truth, Chris. Tell the truth, Chris."

Harris: "Even taunting the interviewer who asked whether he'd done enough as President to get Osama bin Laden."

Clinton: "And you've got that little smirk on your face, and you think you're so clever. But I had responsibility for trying to protect this country. I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it. But I did try."

Harris: "The 9/11 Commission report says Clinton never made clear to the CIA that he wanted bin Laden dead, but the report does not blame Clinton for 9/11. In this interview, however, Clinton's advisors say he was doing more than just defending his legacy. He was also, they say, sending a message to fellow Democrats."

Jay Carson, Clinton spokesman: "We cannot continue to allow the Republicans to use their tactics of smear and fear to win in this next election. President Clinton's not going to allow that to happen, and he thinks Democrats shouldn't, either."

Harris, over video of Dukakis in the tank and of an ad using Kerry on a sailboard to illustrate his flip-flopping on Iraq: "Unlike Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, who many believe failed to effectively combat efforts to distort their image, the Clintons believe Democrats have to push back hard. Bill Clinton is quoted in a forthcoming book, coauthored by ABC News political director Mark Halperin, as saying, 'All of this is a head game. Our candidates have to get to a point where they don't allow other people to define them.'"

Mark Halperin, author of The Way to Win: "For the Clintons, this is Politics 101. Someone hits you in the nose, you don't just say, 'Please, sir, may I have another?' You hit them back.'"

Harris: "But Clinton's interview runs the risk of firing up more Republicans than Democrats. It's drawn ridicule today from the White House, the Republican Party and conservative talk radio."

Rush Limbaugh on his radio show: "I mean, he absorbs the criticism he has gotten, and he files it away, and it gnaws at him."

Chris Wallace to Clinton: "I didn't think this was going to set you off on such a tangent."

Harris: "Maybe he lost his temper, maybe he was deliberately trying to jolt his party into action, or maybe it was both. Dan Harris, ABC News, New York."

NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams:
Brian Williams, over "Speaking Out" graphic with Bill Clinton's picture: "This new NIE story is not the only story that broke this past weekend and is getting a lot more attention today. During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, with host Chris Wallace, former President Bill Clinton ended up in a combative exchange after being asked why he didn't do more about Osama bin Laden."

Chris Wallace, Fox News: "Why didn't you do more, connect the dots and put him out of business?"

Bill Clinton: "Okay, let's talk about it. Now, I will answer all those things on the merits, but first I want to talk about the context in which this arises. I'm being asked this on the Fox Network."

Wallace, after tape edit: "Do you think you did enough, sir?"

Clinton: "No, because I didn't get him."

Wallace: "Right."

Clinton: "But at least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all of the right-wingers that are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried."

Clinton, after tape edit: "So you did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me."

Clinton, after tape edit: "But I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked this question of."

Clinton, after tape edit: "I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody's gotten since. And if I were still President, we'd have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him."

Clinton, after tape edit: "But, you know, we do have a government that thinks Afghanistan is only one-seventh as important as Iraq."

Clinton, after tape edit: "And you've got that little smirk on your face and you think you're so clever. But I had responsibility for trying to protect this country. I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it. But I did try."

Williams: "For a little perspective on what you just saw, we are joined tonight by a former advisor to President Clinton and, for that matter, Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. David Gergen is with us from Texas tonight. David, you worked in the Clinton White House. I covered the Clinton White House. On the Clinton temper scale, this is only a four or a five out of 10. We both know that, but having said that, what do you think sparked it? What's behind it?"

David Gergen, former White House advisor: "Well, it wasn't a 10. He never got beet red. I'll tell you what I think sparked it. He'd just come off a terrific week as ex-President and raised over $7 billion for worthy causes, walked into an interview with Fox with Chris Wallace that he thought was going to be at least half about his initiative. And then he thought he got sandbagged by this question that was, the question, from Chris's point of view, I'm sure, was legitimate, but from Clinton's point of view was, 'You're trying to sandbag me with a question which echoes the conservative criticisms that you're trying to set me up as the guy who failed to get bin Laden, my administration failed, and that therefore I'm responsible for 9/11.' President Clinton completely rejects that. He's angry that that's out there, and he's willing to, if somebody's going to punch him with that, he's a fellow who's going to punch back."

Williams: "Now, do you think this makes for a distraction, another target for the Republicans, or do you think Democrats among themselves will use this to say here's how we ought to be talking?"

Gergen: "Well, of course there are some Republicans salivating over that clip because you don't usually see a President that angry, even a former one. But I tell you what, President Clinton's office today was flooded with calls, congratulatory calls. I think this is going to have a symbolism that goes beyond the interview. It's going to be a rallying cry for Democrats because Bill Clinton has sent a very clear message to Democrats. If you get bullied, if they try to roll over you, you've got to punch back and punch back hard. That's the way to win, that's the way I won. Remember we had that Sister Souljah moment before he got elected in '92. This is another symbolic moment."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center