Mar 1 1993

Media Litmus Test on Clinton’s Cabinet

The Washington Post (12/11/92) reported on Clinton’s economic team in an article headlined “Clinton Appointees Form a Collage of Varying Economic Views.” The piece claimed that Clinton’s administration would be a “tent big enough to accomodate a wide variety of viewpoints.”

How wide are the viewpoints represented? The article cites Lloyd Bentsen, an “old-time wheeler-dealer” who supports “tax incentives” for business; Rep. Leon Panetta and the Brookings Institution’s Alice Rivlin, who are described as “deficit hawks”; and investment bankers Robert Rubin and Roger Altman, who are said to provide “real world imput.”

“If you’re in favor of any of these things, you’re represented,” says Reagan administration official William Seidman–referring to tax cuts for big business, cutting government programs or having economic policy set by investment bankers. This lineup will “reassure different audiences about the steadiness of government policy,” says Carter-era official Stu Eizenstadt, citing the business community and bond markets, and people interested in the deficit. The only audiences that don’t seem to get any reassurance are workers and consumers–you know, the “special interests.”

The Clinton administration may be a big enough tent for every big business viewpoint, but not public interest perspectives–as shown by a New York Times article (12/17/92) called “Ideology Seems to Doom Cabinet Contender.” It concerned Dr. Johnetta Cole, president of Spelman College, who served as an advisor to the transition on educational, labor and arts issues. Cole was considered a likely pick for secretary of education, but was eliminated as a cabinet possibility because she is, in the New York Times‘ view, “associated with the far left wing of American politics.”

Her chief sins are her “reported affiliation with a pro-Palestinian group” and her presence on the board of a group that sponsors volunteer work in Cuba. For this, the Times accurately reported, “Dr. Cole has been the subject of several critical newspaper articles and columns…. She found herself under intensive questioning by reporters this week while attending President-elect Bill Clinton’s economic conference in Little Rock.”

It’s instructive to compare the media controversy over Cole’s opposition to the Cuba embargo with the muted outrage over Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s PR work for the regime of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. The New York Times (1/7/93) reprinted without question Rep. Charles Rangel’s claim that Brown’s representation of Duvalier “had helped the people of Haiti.”

Similarly, mainstream media have shown almost no inclination to explore the extensive ties between Treasury Secretary Bentsen and the managers of the corrupt S&Ls–so close that Bentsen advised Michael Dukakis not to bring up the S&L looting during the 1988 campaign because it “was not going to be a winning issue for their ticket” (William Greider, Who Will Tell the People?).

Nor did many outlets pick up on David Corn’s report in The Nation (1/25/93) that Clinton chief of staff Thomas McLarty was under investigation by the Resolution Trust Company, the government entity tracing where the missing S&L funds went. McLarty was connected to a failed thrift that made $300 million in questionable loans, including $5.6 million to Bentsen’s son that was never paid back.

When Les Aspin was named to be Secretary of Defense, Nightline (12/22/92) didn’t examine whether his support for the Reagan military build-up and for expensive weapons systems like the B-2 bomber would make it difficult for him to chart a new course at the Pentagon. Instead, in a quasi-red-baiting report, Nightline questioned whether Rep. Ron Dellums, Aspin’s successor as head of the House Armed Services Committee, would be too “radical” because he had opposed such policies.

While the conservative positons of Clinton appointees like Bentsen and Aspin largely were ignored or approved of by the media, commentators kept a sharp eye out for any appointment that supposedly deviated to the left–such as Donna Shalala, Clinton’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, she favored affirmative action and multicultural education, for which she was dubbed the “Queen of PC.” Her efforts to prohibit hate speech on campus, while constitutionally questionable, were twisted by a USA Today news article (1/11/93) into “an effort to prohibit campus free speech against liberal positions.” She also favors abortion rights, opposes a ban on gays in the military and has criticized Ronald Reagan.

Because of these positions, according to columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak (Washington Post, 1/8/93), her appointment “challenge[s] the authenticity of Bill Clinton’s self-portrait as a centrist Democrat turning his party’s course back to the middle of the road.” In other words, he was just kidding when he named all those corporate lawyers and Reagan Democrats to cabinet posts; his health and human services nominee shows where his heart really lies.