In discussing former President Clinton's interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Howard Kurtz wrote in his column that Clinton gave an "impassioned, finger-wagging answer" to Wallace's question about why he failed to "do more ... and put [Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda] out of business." On CNN's Reliable Sources, Kurtz asserted, "[I]t would seem that ... the former president just went overboard." But in neither instance did Kurtz indicate that Clinton gave a substantive defense of his administration's anti-terror efforts in response.
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In his September 25 column on Fox News host Chris Wallace's heated interview with former President Bill Clinton on Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday the day before, Washington Post columnist and CNN host Howard Kurtz wrote that Clinton had given an "impassioned, finger-wagging answer" to a question about why he failed to "do more, connect the dots and put [Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda] out of business" during his presidency. But Kurtz focused entirely on Clinton's objections to the nature of Wallace's question and gave no indication that Clinton responded on the merits, offering a substantive defense of his administration's anti-terrorism efforts. In doing so, Kurtz left the impression -- advanced by Fox News itself -- that Clinton overreacted by attacking Wallace in a "crazed" fashion.
Kurtz similarly characterized the Clinton interview on the September 24 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, saying that the question regarding Clinton's record on terrorism "resulted in a long, impassioned answer that eventually turned into an attack on Chris Wallace." During the segment, Kurtz aired a single clip from the interview -- of Clinton criticizing Wallace -- but never mentioned the actual substance of his answer.
In the interview -- which aired on the September 24 edition of Fox News Sunday -- Wallace asked Clinton why he failed to "do more" during his presidency to "put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business":
WALLACE: When we announced that you were going to be on Fox News Sunday, I got a lot of emails from viewers, and I gotta say, I was surprised most of them wanted me to ask you this question: Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were president?
There's a new book out, you may -- I suspect you've already read -- called The Looming Tower, and it talks about the fact that when you pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993, bin Laden said, "I have seen the frailty and the weakness and the cowardice of U.S. troops."
Then there was the bombing of the embassies in Africa and the attack on the Cole. ... And after the attack, the book says that bin Laden separated his leaders, spread them around because he expected an attack and there was no response. I understand that hindsight is always 20/20. ... But the question is: Why didn't you do more? Connect the dots and put them out of business?
Clinton responded with a vigorous defense of his administration's anti-terrorism policies. First, he refuted Wallace's suggestion that his decision to pull U.S. forces from Somalia led to bin Laden's rise, saying, "There is not a living soul in the world who thought Osama bin Laden ... was paying any attention to it or even knew Al Qaeda was a growing concern in October of 1993." He also noted that he kept troops in Somalia for six months after the deadly "Black Hawk Down" battle in Mogadishu, despite criticism from congressional Republicans who urged an immediate withdrawal. Clinton conceded that he had "tried and failed" to catch bin Laden, but highlighted the "comprehensive anti-terror strategy" developed during his tenure in the White House and noted that many conservatives had accused him at the time of being "too obsessed with finding bin Laden." Clinton also criticized the Bush administration's handling of the terrorism threat prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He cited the fact that Bush demoted senior counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, an expert on the Al Qaeda threat, and that the administration failed to respond to the attack on the USS Cole once the FBI and CIA certified in early 2001 that Al Qaeda was responsible for it.
In the column -- headlined "Clinton's Finger-Wagging Moment" -- Kurtz wrote that "Wallace said ... he was stunned when Bill Clinton accused him of a 'conservative hit job' after he challenged the former president on his record in fighting terrorism." Kurtz went on to quote Clinton's "impassioned, finger-wagging answer" but only excerpted moments where Clinton criticized Wallace or Fox News. From the column:
"I thought it was a fair, balanced and not especially inflammatory question," Wallace said yesterday in recounting his "Fox News Sunday" sit-down with Clinton. "I even said, 'I know hindsight is 20/20.' But he went off. And once he went off, there was no bringing him back. He wanted to talk about it in detail. He wanted to conjure up right-wingers and conservative hit jobs and a theory involving Rupert Murdoch that I still don't understand."
Fox had agreed in advance that half the interview would be about Clinton's Global Initiative forum and half about other subjects. Wallace began with a couple of questions about the initiative before citing the 1993 U.S. military withdrawal from Somalia and several bombings connected to al-Qaeda in asking, "Why didn't you do more, connect the dots and put them out of business?"
In an impassioned, finger-wagging answer, Clinton told Wallace, a former ABC News correspondent: "You did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. ... You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because Rupert Murdoch is supporting my work on climate change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you'd spend half the time talking about ... what we did out there to raise $7 billion-plus over three days from 215 different commitments. And you don't care."
In the interview, in which Clinton also accused Wallace of having a "little smirk" on his face, the host said he had planned to spend half the allotted 15 minutes on the Global Initiative and that "I didn't think this was going to set you off on such a tear."
"It set me off on such a tear because you didn't formulate it in an honest way and you people ask me questions you don't ask the other side," Clinton said.
"Sir, that is not true," Wallace replied.
Wallace said the surprise is not that he asked Clinton about terrorism but that no other television interviewer did during a round of appearances last week. Clinton, Wallace said, remained "upset" and "angry" after the interview.
The only mention in Kurtz's column of Clinton's substantive answer came from the former president's communications director, Jay Carson. Kurtz wrote, "Carson noted that the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole was officially linked to al-Qaeda after Bush took office."
Further, while Kurtz noted that Clinton accused Fox News of employing a double-standard -- "[Y]ou people ask me questions you don't ask the other side" -- Kurtz did not address whether Clinton's claim was accurate. In fact, an examination of Fox News Sunday interviews conducted in the past five years largely backs up Clinton's criticism, as Media Matters for America has noted.
On the September 24 edition of Reliable Sources, Kurtz similarly focused on Clinton's criticism of Fox News and Wallace, while ignoring his rebuttal to the actual question. Kurtz aired a clip of Clinton alleging a double-standard in Fox News' treatment of its interviewees. In the subsequent discussion, Kurtz asserted, "[I]t would seem that ... the former president just went overboard. ... [I]t wasn't a personal question. It was a question about his record as president." He went on to ask, "What's wrong with that?" Elsewhere in the segment, Kurtz posed similar questions: "[W]as it unfair for Chris Wallace to ask about Clinton's record on terrorism?" "[W]hy did he fly off the handle like that?" And when one of his guests, National Review Online contributing editor David Frum, began to talk about the "substantive story," Kurtz dismissed the topic by saying, "We can debate Clinton's record on terrorism for hours," and quickly steered the discussion back to the issue of Clinton's strong reaction, asking: "[W]as he particularly sensitive maybe about being asked this on Fox News?"
From the September 24 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
KURTZ: Welcome back to Reliable Sources. Fox News Sunday aired an interview with Bill Clinton about an hour ago. Host Chris Wallace asked the former president about his record on terrorism, which resulted in a long, impassioned answer that eventually turned into an attack on Chris Wallace.
Let's watch some of that.
[begin video clip]
WALLACE: Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were president?
CLINTON: So, you did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. What I want to know is --
WALLACE: Now, wait a minute, sir. I'm asking a question.
CLINTON: No, wait a -- No, no.
WALLACE: You don't think that's a legitimate question?
CLINTON: I'm -- no. It was a perfectly legitimate question. But I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked this question of. I want --
WALLACE: Do you ever watch Fox News Sunday, sir?
CLINTON: I don't believe you ask them that.
WALLACE: We ask plenty of questions.
CLINTON: You didn't ask that, did you? Tell the truth, Chris.
WALLACE: About the USS Cole?
CLINTON: Tell the truth, Chris.
WALLACE: I -- I -- with Iraq and Afghanistan --
CLINTON: Did you ever ask that?
WALLACE: -- there's plenty of stuff to ask, sir.
CLINTON: Did you ever ask that? You set this meeting up because you're going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers, 'cause Rupert Murdoch's supporting my work on climate change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you'd spend half the time talking about -- you said you'd spend half the time talking about what we did out there to raise $7 billion-plus in three days from 215 different commitments. And you don't care.
[end video clip]
KURTZ: That was quite an answer. We saw just a part of that. Clinton was also talking about Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism official, and why supposedly Chris Wallace hadn't asked Republicans about that.
Arianna Huffington, was it unfair for Chris Wallace to ask about Clinton's record on terrorism? And why did he fly off the handle like that?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON (co-founder and editor of The Huffington Post): Well, I don't know what the private arrangements were about what he could talk about and he could not. But frankly, once you go on the television show, you should know, if you're the president of the United States, or the former president, or me, or anybody else, that you can be asked anything at all.
What this may lead to, which could be good news, is that Bill Clinton may wake up to the fact that there is a real battle going on to define who is going to keep America safer, and for him to try to have it both ways, to have Laura Bush do the keynote during his conference, as though we're all in this together, to have Rupert Murdoch, Chris Wallace's ultimate boss, do a fundraiser for his wife, all that stuff is simply not making it as clear and as distinct as it to needs to be for the American people.
There are two very different views, and there should be, leading up to the '06 election, about who is going to keep America safer. And Bill Clinton needs to decide if he's just a former president or a former Democratic president helping his party define what is at stake in the upcoming election. So, this may be a good wake-up call for him.
KURTZ: Good wake-up call for everybody who was watching.
Just to clarify on Arianna's point, Fox says that there was an agreement that half the interview would be spent on his global initiative, and -- but at one point Chris Wallace tried to get back to the global initiative and Clinton kept going on this issue of terrorism.
FRUM: It looks like -- if you look at the transcript, it looks like about half to me.
I'll tell you, if I'm ever summoned to the vice principal's office, Bill Clinton is the guy I want next to me. I mean, what a filibuster and what amazing effrontery. I just went through the transcript and counted half a dozen urgings to people to go read Richard Clarke's book.
And it's a wonderful Washington moment. Here's this national best-seller, and he knows no one in Washington has, in fact, read it, because if you do, it's a damning portrait of the Clinton administration.
KURTZ: But why do you say effrontery? I mean, shouldn't the former president be able to defend himself forcefully, emotionally, that's the Clinton's style --
KURTZ: on this issue of what he did or didn't do on terrorism?
FRUM: Of course, he should. Of course, he should.
But to say, "Go read this book that says I was -- I did a great job," when the book -- now, the beginning and end, because Clarke is personally loyal to Clinton, give Clinton all kind of points -- but when you read the actual, substantive story, at one point, you know, Clarke comes out of a meeting with Clinton officials and says, "What is it going to take to wake this country up? Are they going -- is Al Qaeda going to have to smash a plane into the Pentagon?" And that's during the Clinton years.
Again and again, Clinton says, "I want to do something, but the CIA won't let me, the FBI won't let me." And this is Richard Clarke's story --
KURTZ: We can -- We can --
FRUM: -- all in the book that Clinton kept telling them to read, counting on them not to.
KURTZ: We can debate Clinton's record on terrorism for hours. What I want to know, Roger Simon, is, was he particularly sensitive maybe about being asked this on Fox News, where he's never before done a one-on-one interview? He brings in Rupert Murdoch and "conservative hit job." What do you think?
ROGER SIMON (Bloomberg News chief political correspondent): Well, a couple of things. One, I think we've seen, as if we ever doubted, that making yourself available to the media is not the same thing as liking the media. And Bill Clinton still does not like the media, number one.
And number two, I think what his answer shows is that he believes, as his wife once famously said, there is a vast right-wing conspiracy out to get the Clintons. That may be true. I'm not sure Chris Wallace is part of it, however. I think Chris Wallace was simply acting like a newsman.
KURTZ: And therefore, it would seem that -- Arianna, that -- that the former president just went overboard. I mean, it wasn't like a question -- it wasn't a personal question. It was a question about his record as president. What's wrong with that?
HUFFINGTON: I mean -- I actually like that kind of feisty Bill Clinton more than I like the one who congratulates the president on his handling of Katrina or lets Republicans get away on what is happening in Iraq. I prefer the feisty Bill Clinton.
KURTZ: All right.
HUFFINGTON: I mean, there's a -- there's a campaign going on.
FRUM: Arianna's right. He's not a very convincing statesman.
KURTZ: But he's always an interesting interview subject. Maybe he'll come on this show some time. Thank you all very much, David Frum, Arianna Huffington, Roger Simon.