Topic: White Water

Rogue State: Regrettable Van Susteren

National Review
October 15, 1998 JONAH GOLDBERG

Mr. Goldberg is an NR contributing editor.
His daily internet update, The Goldberg File, appears on NR Online at www.nationalreview.com

THE smoke has not yet cleared enough to determine exactly which part of the civic culture has been damaged the most by the Clinton Presidency. But surely one noxious outcome of Bill Clinton's effrontery has been to advance the "legal analyst" to the highest niche in television's pundit taxonomy.

Increasingly, the pundit class is dominated by people trained primarily in how to keep guilty people out of jail. Thus these new pundits are especially gifted in the techniques of equivocation, confusion, distraction, and blame shifting. So, largely thanks to the lawyers in this Administration of lawyers, and to their colleagues on TV, we have a scandal that is called complex ("What are High Crimes and Misdemeanors really?") when it is actually quite simple ("He's a pig").

The dogs of law were first unleashed on the viewing public by the decision to allow cameras in the courtroom, together with the boom in all-news networks. They found their supply of raw meat in the televised trials of William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers, and, of course, O. J. Simpson. Their influence was as deeply pernicious as it was straightforward: "Put the system on trial." They made Davids out of alleged rapists, Goliaths out of venerable institutions, and jokes out of deadly serious moral points. Jill Abramson claimed that her clients, the Menendez brothers, did not blow their parents' heads off. Instead the boys merely unloaded a shotgun in their direction.

But the Clinton scandal is something new. Using the independent counsel as their entree, the lawyers have replaced the philosophers, journalists, and politicians as the priestly class charged with reading the entrails of the Clinton Presidency. En masse they have slithered from the shadow of O.J. to become the Greek chorus of the Clinton scandal. It should not be surprising, then, that the high priestess of Clinton apologists is the first among equals from the O.J. punditocracy: Greta Van Susteren, co-host of CNN's Burden of Proof and ubiquitous CNN legal analyst. She is, thanks to CNN's global presence, the international poster girl for all that is wrong with American political commentary.

Miss Van Susteren distinguished herself during the O. J. Simpson trial by muddying the waters of Simpson's crystal-clear guilt by picking at procedural nits. This was a clever marketing tactic-if every intelligent person in the world thinks X, television producers will seek out and exalt someone who argues for Y, all in an effort to provide "balance." Miss Van Susteren became a passionate advocate for Simpson-although she often denied it. She was masterly at importing a courtroom technique into the television studio: the moral equivalence of facts. According to this credo, an almost comical abundance of DNA evidence carries no more weight than one detective's racist comments ten years before the murder in question. As Felix Frankfurter once observed, "To some lawyers, all facts are created equal."

While this kind of argumentation is despicable, we make allowances for it in the courtroom because of our admirable devotion to due process, especially in capital cases. But Greta Van Susteren and her colleagues have carried this mode of analysis into the political arena. It has had a lobotomizing effect on civic discourse. For example, on September 21 on Larry King Live Judge Robert Bork asserted that a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would be, and should be, impeached if he was sexually serviced by an intern in his chambers-even if he never lied about it. That someone should be punished for something that is not a crime flummoxed Miss Van Susteren to the point of incoherence, "Maybe if he's a bachelor, may-have-what if he's a . . . bachelor? . . . as consenting adults?"

There was a time when poor manners and dishonorable behavior were judged as reprehensible as committing a crime. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Claude Rains tries to commit suicide on the Senate floor because he has disgraced himself, not because he's going to jail. Today if one has violated every tenet of decency but stopped short of violating criminal law-a constantly moving goalpost-then one is merely expressing oneself (like Larry Flint) or minding one's own business (like David Cash, the vile Berkeley student who stood aside as his friend raped and murdered a young girl). We are greeted constantly with the images of scoundrels triumphantly leaving courthouses celebrating the fact that their repugnant behavior was found not to have technically violated the law.

Now the President of the United States benefits from this new standard. During the seven long months when Bill Clinton interrupted the business of government far more severely than any "government shutdown," and allowed the entire Executive Branch to lie for him, Greta Van Susteren was his chief cheerleader. The President was just another perp, with no obligation other than staying out of the orange jumpsuit of the federal penitentiary. She argued time and again that the President should be praised for "standing on his rights" and that he has no obligation to clear the air about whether or not he's a scoundrel. "Had I been the President's lawyer," she said, "I would have urged him to fight this all the way to the United States Supreme Court."

In the end, all the legalese may simply be a con. Miss Van Susteren is pathological in her insistence that she is not a journalist. She asserts that she is a lawyer first and foremost and just concerned with "arguing the evidence." This is plain dishonesty. Say what you will about the serpentine James Carville or even Geraldo "I want to hug the President" Rivera, at least their biases are open for inspection. The legal pundits claim in an aw-shucks style that they are simply stating "the law." This infuriates lawyers who actually care about the validity of the law. Miss Van Susteren often suggested that there was no precedent for a President to testify. But there are numerous recent examples of Presidents offering testimony, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Miss Van Susteren suggests that everyone ranking higher than the White House janitor has executive privilege, although the judges before whom the question has been brought scoff at the notion and hand Kenneth Starr courtroom victories.

Miss Van Susteren recently observed of Clinton's testimony, "There was no perjury. . . . I mean is the President obligated to make out the case for Paula Jones's lawyers?" According to Stuart Taylor, writing in National Journal, "The most charitable interpretation of such stuff is that Van Susteren had read neither the Jan. 17 deposition transcript replete with unambiguous perjuries-nor the Starr Report, which provides so-far-unrebutted proof of those perjuries and powerful evidence that Clinton resumed perjuring on Aug. 17." We can forgive Paul Begala's distortions of the truth on behalf of Bill Clinton, but should CNN's leading legal analyst fall in the same category?

Greta Van Susteren elicits strong feelings, which usually translate into high ratings. She is a ubiquitous presence on CNN, constantly on the air even when Burden of Proof isn't. She co-hosts the show with Roger Cossack, who is at best like the silent partner from Penn and Teller: a silent straight man whose interruptions are only permitted to allow Van Susteren to take a breath or for comic relief. To explain Miss Van Susteren's perspective, many critics point to her real partner. James Coale, her husband as well as her law partner, is a self-described "ambulance chaser" and has enthusiastically earned himself one of the most nefarious reputations in the country. In 1984 he acquired the nickname "Bhopal Coale" by being the first lawyer to hop on a plane to India to sign up gas-leak victims who couldn't even read their retainer documents.

American Lawyer magazine called him "a symbol for everything wrong with the plaintiff's bar." In 1987 the same magazine awarded Coale its Most Frivolous Suit Award: He had sued his tailor, on the grounds that the sub-par work on his shirts had subjected him to "public humiliation . . . severe emotional distress, and embarrassment." The West Virginia Bar tried to disbar both James Coale and Greta Van Susteren for their allegedly unethical behavior in soliciting the families of coal-mine accident victims, among others. Coale's repeated unapologetic defenses of his professional practices are true to form: "Everything I've done is permissible under the First Amendment."

This attitude highlights the deeper sympathy between Greta Van Susteren and Bill Clinton. Trial lawyers are the President's most loyal constituency-and not just because he employs so many of them. They contribute vast amounts of money to his campaigns and to the Democratic Party generally. Indeed, when one looks at the lawyers who are his most ardent defenders they are trial lawyers, starting with the wildly biased Larry Pozner, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Those lawyers who are more critical of Clinton's behavior-Robert Bork, Jonathan Turley, James Stewart-tend to be academics or self-described journalists. If Miss Van Susteren and all those lesser lights who imitate her on the various television shows claim that their first allegiance is to the legal profession rather than to journalism, is it any wonder they are wild defenders of the President?

When Bill Clinton announced that he would have a Cabinet that "looks like America," he must have thought that 90 per cent of Americans had passed the bar exam. For quite some time he relied on Jeremy Bentham's adage: "Lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished." Had Bentham lived two centuries later he might have said, "Television lawyers."

National Review

Posted by: JeanS (dsbuilders@globaldialog.com) *
10/15/98 18:29:54 PDT