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Changing their story

Changing their story

With next to nothing at stake, journalists are turning on Clinton

President Clinton's political survival strategy reminds me of a Texas story about a lawyer, R.E. L. Knight, who arrived home very late one evening. When Mrs. Knight asked for an explanation, Mr. Knight said he had been worrying about an old and ill woman, a friend of the family, so he had stopped in for a long chat.

"That was very thoughtful of you," said Mrs. Knight, "but the odd part of it all is that Mrs. Bishop spent the evening right here. She went home only a few minutes ago." Mr. Knight simply shook his head and remarked sadly, "That may be. Nevertheless, I think I shall stick to my story." That has been the Clinton approach, and so far it has worked. But the compromises he has been forced into have angered some journalists on the far left. The true believers in a rapidly expanding welfare state, for example, are now out for blood.

Other reporters are liberal but honest enough to respect the muckraking roots of 20th- century journalism. When people call them "knights of the keyboard" they respond in the manner of Shanghai Pierce, a wealthy rancher who stuck a statue of himself out in the pasture so he could ride by on horseback each morning, doff his sombrero politely, and say to the statue: "Morning, Shanghai, you damned old cow thief."

It was hard for such reporters to remain silent throughout last year's campaign, when they knew that Bill Clinton was heaping up lies the way dragons of legend heap up jewels on which to lie. Think of the fortitude it must have taken to keep silent, when every little breeze was whispering liar, and every journalistic nerve was screeching, go for it.

But they persevered. With the exception of Maureen Dowd, an unusually feisty New York Times woman, and a few others, they kept silent, believing that the nation just could not afford a Republican presidency: Look at what might happen to the right to choose abortion, drugs, homosexuality, or other cultural sacraments of our age.

Overriding the instinct to expose was also self-preservation, for journalists who break from the pack often are shunned. When Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice during the 1980s became pro-life, his fellow radicals sneered. When David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times wrote a series of articles at the beginning of this decade pointing out that pro-lifers were treated unfairly in the press, many of his colleagues viewed him as a traitor. Only the exceptionally brave are willing to be so bold.

Washington reporters thus faced a crisis which they could only avoid by hiding their heads in sand. If they followed their normal impulses--follow the money trail, look for the smoking gun, cherchez la femme-they might find a scoop that could help Republicans and put themselves on a list of traitors. So they looked the other way. It's not as if they covered up anything they found; they did not look, and found many other things to do, as long as the campaign lasted.

Now it's payback time. The Republican congress is doing so little that liberal journalists no longer fear it. Their contempt for Mr. Clinton is free to come out. That contempt reminds me of a story about the only other president to be elected twice in a row with less than 50 percent of the vote, Woodrow Wilson. One day Mr. Wilson stopped his presidential train in Hannibal, Mo., so he could visit Mark Twain's boyhood haunts. The president asked a townsman, "Could you tell me where Tom Sawyer was supposed to live?" The man said, "Never heard of him." The president tried again: "How about Huckleberry Finn?" "Never hear of him." Wilson, trying one last time, brought up the main character of another Twain novel: "How about Pudd'nhead Wilson?" This time the man bristled: "Sure I heard of him. I even voted for the durn fool."

That's the way honest liberal journalists feel: They voted in Mr. Clinton in 1996 by looking the other way when scandal lurked, and now they feel contempt for him and contempt for themselves. Now that they're free to go on the hunt again, with Republicans asleep at the congressional wheel and a GOP return to the White House put off for at least four years, look for more tough reporting.

Let's hope for the sake of the country that there is not more evidence of Clintonian corruption-but the experience of those looking into the Clinton administration so far has been, seek and you will find.