The Magazine

GERALDO PLAYS HARDBALL

Aug 10, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 46 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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WHO IS THE LEADING CLINTON APOLOGIST on television? None other than Geraldo Rivera, who has spent 1998 mauling Kenneth Starr and swathing the president in sympathy. And who is television's foremost Clinton attacker? Almost certainly Chris Matthews, who rides the president relentlessly, appalled that the man is still standing. Rivera and Matthews are the antipodes of prime-time scandal coverage. And they perform their acts on the same network, an hour apart, with identical zeal.


Rivera, of course, has been a star since the 1970s, when he was ABC's investigative bad boy. After a decade in the swamps of "tabloid TV," he is now host of Rivera Live on cable's CNBC. Matthews, on the other hand, rose to fame as Tip O'Neill's chief political lieutenant, when the Massachusetts Democrat was flaying Ronald Reagan as the enemy of decency and peace. Now Matthews holds forth on his nightly Hardball, dissecting Clinton and scolding Democrats who dare make excuses for him. Neither Rivera nor Matthews seemed destined for his present role.


Rivera is as wildly pro-Clinton as any White House spin artist, a suaver, hairier James Carville. He summed up his view of the scandal on the Tonight Show: "It's all about sex. Whitewater? They tried it, came up with nothing. Travelgate? Nothing. Filegate? Nothing. All they have is this purported semi-neo-almost-quasi sex," followed by a few harmless fibs. "What man is not going to lie about it?" Besides, it is only "Hillary's business, not the grand jury's business." Starr, he has sneered, is "vile."


Rivera has worked diligently to recast himself as a serious political journalist, but he is still a compulsive entertainer. On a recent show, he featured a little song that began, "Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr, now we see how crude you are." (It continued with a line about "kissing the treacherous Tripp.") He has made minor celebrities out of Hillary-style conspiracy theorists and denounced mainstream news publications for "suckling leaks" from the independent counsel. As for the notion of the Lewinsky affair as a "crime," even an "alleged" one -- why, "I wanna barf."


When discussion turns to matters carnal, Rivera is apt to go into what scandal matriarch Lucianne Goldberg calls "full scrotal torque." He chronicled his amorous doings in his 1991 memoir Exposing Myself, an account that makes the president's record seem almost Puritan. Amateur Freuds suspect that Rivera sees in Clinton a kindred spirit, chafing at the strictures of square society. Rivera has instructed his audience, "There is law and there is life. In life, a handsome, married man of a certain age, home alone behind closed doors with an obviously infatuated and attractive young woman, would clearly be creating the appearance of a brief clandestine liaison, also known as a quickie. But law is not life" -- and Clinton, Rivera maintains, is guilty of nothing worth prosecuting.


This is why the White House awarded Rivera a sugarplum during the president's visit to China. Press secretary Mike McCurry arranged for Rivera to have an exclusive interview with Clinton. As McCurry put it to TV Guide, "When it comes to the scandal stuff, Geraldo has been as open-minded as you would want a journalist to be. We notice things like that." So "open-minded" is Rivera, in fact, that when Monica Lewinsky concluded an immunity deal with the independent counsel -- causing the White House to reel -- he declared, "The president benefits." The ex-intern, you see, had at long last "triumphed over Ken Starr." Such is the wisdom on Rivera Live.


Chris Matthews, meanwhile, is unlikely to be huddling with the president any time soon. Night after night, Matthews inveighs against Clinton, decrying hypocrisy, warning against complacency, and laughing openly at Democrats who recite the administration line. He has no tolerance for what he terms "flackery." And his capacity for outrage seems inexhaustible. In great rushes of words (the guests on Hardball are mainly decoration), Matthews chases a single, overarching theme: The president has done wrong; it is not a matter of left and right; he should be held accountable.