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WASHINGTON DIARY: SAY IT AIN’T SO, JOE KLEIN

5 minute read
Margaret Carlson

I know Joe Klein. Joe Klein is a friend of mine. Joe Klein is no liar–or is he? I’m just one among many to whom Newsweek’s Klein denied, repeatedly and with increasing indignation, that he was Anonymous, author of Primary Colors, an unflattering novel based on the Clinton campaign. At first his denials were coy, but after New York magazine offered convincing proof in February that he was the one, Klein became adamant–and even abusive–until last Wednesday, when he was finally exposed by a handwriting analysis in the Washington Post. In fact, one of his worst performances was on the weekend before the New Hampshire primary when, enraged by the New York article, he publicly berated the magazine’s political columnist, Jacob Weisberg, and questioned the professionalism of editor in chief Kurt Andersen and Vassar professor Donald Foster, the Shakespearean scholar who had analyzed Klein’s prose.

Klein now says that throughout that weekend he was actually “in agony.” When I pointed out that he appeared quite happy as he ate dinner with me and some others at the Bedford Inn, he said, “Well, I’ve learned that I’m quite a good actor. Anyway, that piece was insulting, inaccurate and ridiculous.” But wasn’t it also right? “At the time I was caught between two ethical systems: that of Anonymous and his commitment to the book, and that of a journalist. I was Anonymous then.”

Well, this is an extreme case of why God created editors. But in this instance, Newsweek editor Maynard Parker–the only person besides Klein’s wife and agent who knew his identity–seemed to have also believed in the existence of Anonymous, who had an exemption to the Eighth Commandment. Parker now says that in February, “I warned Joe that those unequivocal statements were going to cause him trouble. It’s never a good idea not to tell the truth.” But Joe didn’t listen–the whodunit gimmick was boosting sales–and Parker didn’t insist. Instead, Parker published an item by senior editor Jonathan Alter guessing at Anonymous’ identity, thus dragging the magazine into Klein’s credibility gap. “In retrospect, I shouldn’t have published the item. Our interests diverged at that point.” Parker has apologized to Alter, who has not yet heard from Klein. “What happened can rub off on other Newsweek columnists who tell the truth,” Alter says. “I’m lucky I have a lot of options.”

Last Wednesday, Parker started out with the same attitude as Klein, trivializing the brouhaha over Anonymous as the equivalent of “Who Shot J.R.” and counseling critics to “get a life.” But by Friday, after a slew of negative comments from other journalists, culminating in a blistering New York Times editorial that called Klein’s actions “corrupt,” the mood changed. Klein, cocky during his press conference, became more subdued as he suffered the contempt of his colleagues. “The public looks at us as people who make judgments about character,” said nbc News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert. “When they see one of us lying, it hurts everyone.” Added New Yorker media columnist Ken Auletta: “The issue of cover-up became the issue. Maynard Parker allowed something to go into publication that he knew was untrue. Here’s Newsweek requesting an interview with Admiral Boorda to ask him whether he had lied about the medals on his chest. We have the same right to ask questions of Newsweek, and they should own up to their mistakes.”

In this week’s magazine, Klein expresses some regret–for not leveling with Dan Rather when challenged (CBS is debating whether to keep Klein on as a commentator) and for staking “his credibility as a journalist” on his denials to a Washington Post editor. Yet he has shown few signs of true contrition. In a fax to his Newsweek colleagues, handwritten on Waldorf Astoria stationery, he said he regretted the energy they had expended defending him “against a vicious, witless, disproportionate assault.”

It seems, indeed, that somewhere between landing on the best-seller list and clinching a million-dollar movie deal, the political columnist who specializes in exposing the self-indulgent moral relativism of fellow baby boomers badly lost his way. He still insists that some of his critics are driven by envy of his success, that he was following in the tradition of Henry Adams and that he is “damn proud” that the book and the mystery surrounding it brought a lot of pleasure to people. But this is the same person whose Jan. 22 column about the Clintons was headed, “The real character test for baby-boomer pols is owning up to their self-indulgent screw-ups,” and lamented the Clintons’ “lawyering, fudging, misdirection, obfuscation and generally slouchy behavior” in the face of tough questions. “The intensity of their denials is fascinating…” he wrote. “They defend their virtue against all reason; they never inhale.”

Klein wrote those words just before his book came out, and it would be too simple to say that he was projecting. But there’s still time to take a deep breath and inhale some of his own advice.

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