Despite numerous errors and flaws, Sally Bedell Smith book on Clintons largely escaped factual scrutiny

Sally Bedell Smith's book For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years has largely escaped factual scrutiny, although Smith has appeared on several network and cable news programs to publicize the book. Media Matters has identified several errors and flaws in Smith's book.

Author Sally Bedell Smith, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair who has previously written books on the Kennedy White House and Princess Diana, has received media attention for her book For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years (Random House, October 2007). Smith has appeared on NBC's Meet the Press (October 21) and Today (October 19), MSNBC's Hardball (October 26), and Fox News' Hannity & Colmes (October 26) and The Big Story (November 1), but her book has largely escaped factual scrutiny. Most recently, on December 11, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Smith on the prospect of “Two Presidents in the White House[]” -- the headline of the piece -- if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton [D-NY] is elected president. In the op-ed, Smith wrote: "[G]iven the Clintons' long history of close consultation, their partnership could end up distorting the way the executive branch is supposed to function -- regardless of the talents each of them might bring to the White House." Below are several errors and flaws in Smith's book that have been identified by Media Matters for America.

1. John Podesta: On Page 301, Smith quotes then-White House chief of staff John Podesta quoting Bill Clinton as saying of Monica Lewinsky, “I did not screw that girl” and “she did not blow me.” Smith's endnotes claim these quotes come from “Grand-jury testimony of John Podesta, June 16, 1998, vol. 3, p. 3311.” That testimony is available here -- but it doesn't contain anything like the quotes Smith attributes to Podesta.

2. Minimum wage: On Page 254, Smith claims that “the President made no mention of the new minimum wage law” in his 1996 convention speech. This is false. During that speech, Bill Clinton bragged about "[t]en million workers getting the raise they deserve with the minimum wage law."

3. Webster Hubbell: On Page 255, Smith writes about a March 25, 1996, telephone conversation between former associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell and his wife, Suzy:

Suzy told her husband that White House aide Marsha Scott, another old friend from Little Rock, had warned he would receive no “public support” if he were to “open up Hillary to all this.” “I'm hearing the squeeze play,” Suzy added.

Replied Webb, “So I need to roll over one more time.” When Suzy asked whether overbilling was “an area where Hillary would be vulnerable,” Webb cautioned her, “We're on a recorded phone.” Talking to Scott the same day, Hubbell said, “There are issues that I have to stay away from to protect others, and I will.”

Smith's description of the phone calls mirrors the selectively edited excerpts released by House Government Reform and Oversight Committee chairman Dan Burton's (R-IN) staff. Burton's chief investigator, David Bossie, lost his job over the controversy that ensued after it was revealed that the edited transcripts omitted exculpatory comments, such as Webster Hubbell's statement that Hillary Clinton "just had no idea what was going on. She didn't participate in any of this."

4. Haircut myth: On Page 101, Smith writes, “Bill was caught by White House reporters holding up traffic at Los Angeles International Airport for forty-five minutes while he got a two-hundred-dollar haircut on Air Force One from ... Hollywood stylist, Christophe Schatteman.” In fact, Clinton's haircut did not delay air traffic. In an endnote, Smith appears to cite several sources for her false claim, including Page 144 of All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos. But in fact, Stephanopoulos writes on that page: “The truth is that while the reporters traveling with the president were delayed, no other air traffic at LAX was affected.”

5. Trouble with quotes: According to a New York Times book review by New York magazine contributor Lloyd Grove, Smith “also gets a few nuances slightly wrong -- for example, crediting Hillary's confidante Susan Thomases with coining the epithet 'white boys,' [Page 65] which, by the time Thomases used it to deride her male counterparts in the 1992 campaign, had been in circulation for several election cycles. Smith misstates what she calls 'the second-most famous quotation' of the Clinton presidency as 'It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” means,' [Page 337] substituting 'means' for 'is.' " Additionally, Smith substituted “upon” for “on” -- meaning that she got wrong two of the 11 words in what she described as the “second-most famous quotation” of Clinton's presidency.

6. Gennifer Flowers: On Page 295, Smith claims that during his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit, Bill Clinton “admitted sexual intercourse with Gennifer Flowers.” She repeats the claim that Clinton “confirm[ed]” that he had “sexual intercourse with Gennifer Flowers” on Page 325. In fact, during the deposition, Clinton admitted only to having had “sexual relations” with Flowers once in 1977. Under the definition of “sexual relations” that was in effect for the deposition -- a definition that had been created by the Jones attorneys, not by Clinton -- the phrase included a wide range of actions that do not constitute “sexual intercourse,” including “contact with the ... inner thigh.” Smith knew how broad the definition was; she actually quotes it on Page 295 in the very paragraph in which she falsely claimed Clinton had admitted to “sexual intercourse.”

7. Al Gore: On Page 386, Smith claims that, prior to his June 1999 presidential campaign announcement, then-Vice President Al Gore “had expressed his dismay about Bill's conduct to a small circle of advisors but had kept quiet publicly.” This is false. Smith cites a 1999 Washington Post article by Ceci Connolly, but much of Connolly's reporting about Gore was wrong. Gore had publicly expressed his dismay about the president's conduct on numerous occasions. Indeed, Connolly herself wrote a September 1998 article that quoted Gore describing Clinton's conduct as “indefensible.” On his blog The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby has explained this falsehood in detail.

8. Harold Ickes: On Page 390, Smith writes that Hillary Clinton “thought it best to keep Bill away from the event” kicking off her Senate campaign at then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Pat Moynihan's (D-NY) farm, “but somewhat surprisingly she also excluded Harold Ickes because he was 'too liberal.' ” The confusing nature of Smith's endnotes make it difficult to determine which citation applies to this claim; either “NYT, July 8, 1999; LH, p. 507” or “NYT, Nov. 8, 2000.” What is clear is that no New York Times article from July 8, 1999, or November 8, 2000, includes a description of Ickes as having been “too liberal” to attend the event. Nor does Hillary Clinton's biography, Living History.

9. Naomi Wolf: On Page 420, Smith claims that “feminist author Naomi Wolf ... had advised [Gore] to wear 'earth tones'...” Smith cites “NYT, Nov. 3, 1999 and Vanity Fair, July 2001.” Neither of those sources directly supports Smith's claim.

The Vanity Fair article, which is reprinted in the book The Woman At the Washington Zoo by Marjorie Williams and Timothy Noah, simply states that “political reporters discovered that Wolf had been handsomely paid to advise Gore that he needed to ... adopt warm earth tones for his wardrobe.”

There is no November 3, 1999, New York Times article that makes reference to Gore, Wolf, and “earth tones.” That day, the Times did publish a column by Maureen Dowd that did so. Dowd wrote: “Time magazine revealed that Al Gore hired Ms. Wolf, who has written extensively on women and sexual power, as a $15,000-a-month consultant to help him with everything from his shift to earth tones to his efforts to break with Bill Clinton.” Dowd simply wasn't telling the truth: The Time magazine article she described did not contain the words “earth tones.” In a correction to a later article, the Times acknowledged that Wolf “was a consultant on women's issues and outreach to young voters; she was not Mr. Gore's image consultant and was not involved in his decision to wear earth-toned clothing.”

Curiously, Smith did not cite the first news report that mentioned Gore, Wolf, and “earth tones” -- a November 1, 1999, Washington Post article in which Connolly wrote that Dick “Morris speculated that Wolf, who has long contended that earth tones are more 'reassuring' to audiences, is the person behind Gore's recent wardrobe change. Others confirmed that she has supported the vice president's shift to brown, olive green and tan shades.”

That is the totality of the “evidence” that Naomi Wolf advised Al Gore to wear earth tones -- Ceci Connolly's paraphrase of Dick Morris' speculation, and her assertion that unspecified "[o]thers" confirmed that speculation.

In short: Smith's endnotes indicate that she based her claim on 1) a Vanity Fair article that contains no independent verification of the earth tones story and 2) a New York Times article that was really a Maureen Dowd column that falsely claimed that Time magazine had reported the earth tones story. Had Smith quoted the first news report that actually mentioned earth tones, readers would have seen that the whole story was based on nothing more than Dick Morris' speculation.

10. Travelgate: On Page 101, Smith claims, regarding the firing of White House Travel Office employees, that the “precipitous and amateurish dismissals [of the employees] became a damaging test of Hillary's honesty under oath before federal investigators.” Smith continues: “She [Hillary Clinton] insisted that she did not know the 'origin of the decision' to remove the employees, that she had 'no role in the decision,' and that she 'did not direct that any action be taken.' But her recollection was a at odds with a report issued in October 2000 after a lengthy investigation by the Office of the Independent Counsel, which concluded that her statements had been 'factually false' and that there was 'overwhelming evidence that she in fact did have a role in the decision to fire the employees.' ” However, Smith failed to note that Independent Counsel Robert Ray's report also stated, "[T]here is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Clinton's statements to this Office or to Congress were knowingly false." From Ray's report:

With respect to Mrs. Clinton, the overwhelming evidence establishes that she played a role in the decision to fire the employees and provided input into that decision to [former White House aide David] Watkins, [former White House chief of staff Thomas F. “Mack”] McLarty, [former deputy White House counsel Vince] Foster, and [Clinton friend Harry] Thomason. Thus, her statement to the contrary under oath to this Office was factually false. The evidence, however, is insufficient to show that Mrs. Clinton knowingly intended to influence the Travel Office decision or was aware that she had such influence at this early stage of the Administration. To a real degree, her interest in the matter was first generated by Thomason's intervention, and then overstated by him to others. Thus, absent persuasive, corroborated, and admissible evidence to the contrary, there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Clinton's statements to this Office or to Congress were knowingly false.