Frank Rich's Column on the Columbus Town Meeting

Jack Tomsky jtomsky at IX.NETCOM.COM
Sat Feb 21 18:28:48 MST 1998

Frank Rich is a liberal columnist for the New York Times.  He is
usually a strong Clinton supporter.  I don't know what's got into him
lately.  Earlier this week, he wrote a column criticizing Clinton's
attempt to placate John Travolta over his pet foreign policy project:
the Scientology cult in Germany.  Then today he wrote a review of the
town hall fiasco. I get the idea he must be secretly listening to Rush
on the radio during office hours. Below is today's column, as it
appeared in the New York Times.


Dying in Columbus

               Like a matinee idol who's lost his looks, a Presidency
that lives by show
               business can die by show business. That's what happened
this week in
          Columbus, where an Administration that knows nothing if not
how to put on a
          good TV show died big time, just when it could least afford
to, before an
          international audience of millions.

          The show-biz meaning of the verb "to die," my Random House
slang dictionary
          says, is "to fail utterly to satisfy an audience." The
Administration has no one to
          blame but its cynical self for its utter failure. It chose the
format and location for
          this exercise in news management. Town meetings had worked so
well in past
          campaigns, after all, and Ohio had so recently proved a
willing doormat for an
          empty Clinton show on race. The Administration also picked the
network to
          which it granted its "exclusive": CNN, which it apparently
believed to be a
          compliant Clinton News Network.

          But it all fell apart anyway, with a totality that could only
hearten Saddam
          Hussein, who just that night could also delight in the mockery
of Bill Clinton's
          motives and resolve by Iraqi television's airing of a bootleg
copy of "Wag the

          Certainly CNN did the President no favors with its bleak
imagery (lots of
          vacant seats), easily rattled anchors and surreal injection of
commercials (some
          of them for the video release of President Harrison Ford's
victory over
          terrorists, "Air Force One"). By restricting other networks to
two minutes of
          clips, CNN also insured that the most telegenic embarrassments
          dominate the evening news: the specter of unruly protesters,
their heckling
          amplified by the arena's empty expanses.

          But it was the stars cast by the White House itself that
turned a rollout of the
          Administration's bombing rationale into a public relations
Tet. If our top three
          foreign-policy officials had answers to the questions asked by
the citizens at
          the meeting, little else would have mattered.

          They didn't, whether the questioners were doves or hawks.
Secretary of
          Defense William Cohen responded to the very first query --
about our "moral
          right" to bomb Iraq -- not with an answer but with another
question. A
          veteran's nearly tearful concern that our assault on Saddam
would fall short
          brought forth no coherent endgame strategy. When Madeleine
Albright was
          asked by a history teacher about our apparently inconsistent
stance toward
          rogue states other than Iraq, the questioner was accused of
being soft on
          Saddam and patronizingly instructed to "study carefully what
American foreign
          policy is." It wasn't the screaming protesters so much as the
Secretary of
          State's self-righteous condescension that most recalled the
Vietnam era, in
          which the best and brightest of Ivy League-trained policy
makers were
          impaled on their own arrogance.

          Why were these bumblers chosen as designated Oprahs in the
first place? In a
          word: Monica. Had Mr. Clinton run this town meeting, the
anchors and
          protesters would have been handled, the veteran's pain would
have been felt,
          the teacher would have been flattered instead of insulted.
Maybe the President
          could even have papered over the tough policy questions his
          could not. But the President will no longer risk fielding
questions in an open
          forum, in Ohio or anywhere else. He has given no interviews
since the day the
          Lewinsky scandal broke, and can't give a press conference
without a human
          shield like Tony Blair. His one detailed speech about Iraq was
          delivered at the Pentagon and, as the Columbus questions only
one day later
          indicated, had no discernible impact.

          If the Clinton Administration, its star player now
indefinitely sidelined and
          isolated, has lost its once-unassailable ability to sell
policy on TV, isn't it fair to
          ask how it's going to lead a military action, especially if
anything goes awry?
          The conventional wisdom is that Americans will rally around
the President
          when the bombing starts, no matter what his plight. But the
journalists and
          officials putting out this spin are the same armchair generals
also expressing
          dumbfounded surprise that so many uppity citizens in the
heartland defied the
          White House's script by asking skeptical questions at a town
meeting. For
          those of us who are less omniscient, watching the
Administration die in
          Columbus sent a chilling alarm about its ability to hold that
heartland together
          should CNN bring us more death than we're prepared for from

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