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The Cruelest Network

Hillary makes NBC apologize, again.

11:00 PM, Feb 25, 2008 • By HOWARD MORTMAN
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BY NOW YOU SURELY know the facts of what happened after MSNBC host David Shuster said Chelsea Clinton was "pimped out" in her mother's hunt for superdelegates. Hillary Clinton's campaign complained, MSNBC apologized, Shuster was suspended, Shuster was allowed to return.

But did you also know that well before there was David Shuster there was Wayne and Garth?

Let's go back to December 5, 1992. Saturday Night Live opens with "Wayne's World." Wayne and Garth supply a Top 10 list of things to look forward to during the Clinton administration. Number 2? Chelsea Clinton: "While it's true that adolescence has been thus far unkind, we think she's gonna be a future fox." Mike Myers says, "Chelsea Clinton--not a babe."

Uh-oh. Big mistake.

Enter the full force of a furious Clinton machine.

What happened next was best captured at the time by the Baltimore Sun's Susan Baer:

"After hearing boos from the TV community and public criticism from Hillary Rodham Clinton, the show's producers edited out the offending comments when the show was rebroadcast recently [summer 1993]. Mike Myers, a.k.a. Wayne, also wrote a letter of apology to the Clintons.

"'We felt, upon reflection, that if it was in any way hurtful, it wasn't worth it,' says executive producer Lorne Michaels. 'She's a kid, a kid who didn't choose to be in public life.'"

Not worth it? The amount of pressure required to force the pioneering creator of Saturday Night Live to confess anything isn't worth it must have been staggering. Maybe it was Hillary saying: "It's mean and nasty to pick on Chelsea's appearance. I think it's sad that people don't have anything better to do than be mean to a child." Or maybe it was the New York Times's arch tsk-tsker Frank Rich calling the show's Chelsea zingers "rude." But isn't rude what late-night comedy is all about?

Hillary's press secretary Neel Lattimore was quoted a few years later saying, "Her parents were very upset about it. They let it be known that the Saturday Night Live piece was cruel and disrespectful. This was a 12-year-old child they were parodying on a show for adults. Unbelievably cruel."

Unbelievably cruel, perhaps. We'll leave it up to the aggrieved party to define the amount of harm done. But for the Clinton camp, bullying NBC is something of a tradition. It happened again around the same time, with another late-night NBC funny show.

And with a steely personality who never caves.

In fact, David Letterman is the last person you'd expect to lose a showdown with anyone, let alone the Clintons.

But that's what happened in 1993 when Letterman, who regularly crushes politicians and entertainers alike, was on the losing end of a Chelsea conflict.

And this time, no joke even passed his lips.

Let's go back again, 15 years this month. February 16, 1993. Letterman is hosting his old NBC show, "Late Night With David Letterman." He's launching a new feature, "Tell Us About Your Lunch." The guest: Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

Here's one part of the exchange, according to the Washington Post's Feb. 18, 1993 account:

Letterman: "Are you enjoying your job there with President Clinton?"

Myers: "I am; it's been great."

Letterman: "And his daughter of course, Chelsea. How do you get along with her?"

Myers: "Chelsea is wonderful. She's a really good kid."

Letterman: "She seems like a very nice young woman."

Myers: "She really is. Dave, don't ever make any Chelsea jokes!"

Letterman: "I'm not making Chelsea jokes."

Myers: "I know; I'm just warning you."

Warning received. Warning obeyed.

The Post's then-TV writer John Carmody noted: "The exchange may have flustered Letterman."

Letterman flustered? Letterman flustered? A rare event. Actually, a cataclysmic event. Rattling David Letterman is a sure sign of the apocalypse.

Now, 15 years later, MSNBC's David Shuster makes the "pimped out" remark. He's sent to the penalty box for two weeks. (Disclosure: I worked two years as a Washington producer for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews alongside Shuster, whom I consider a friend.)

The events behind Shuster's suspension were well documented by many political and TV writers. Politico's Ben Smith, for instance, reported this odd turn:

Now on MSNBC: A full hour of its biographical program, "Headliners & Legends."

The subject: Hillary Clinton.

(This pre-empts the regularly scheduled programming, a show called Deadly Encounter. Not joking.)

"THE GROVEL CONTINUES," was the headline at Instapundit.

And it begged many serious questions, not the least of which: Couldn't they have instead shown canned footage of Barack Obama? Even John McCain?

Probably not when you have Hillary Clinton saying this (from her later appearance on Politico/Channel 7 on the eve of the Potomac Primary): "This is like the third time they've had to apologize. And there are a lot of things that they haven't had to apologize for that might have merited one. So I wish they would take a look at, you know, some of the pattern of demeaning comments that are made on their networks."

Ironically, the demeaning word pimp had already been used on air. In September MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann said President Bush was "pimping General David Petraeus."

Not a peep about pimp after that one.

No, it can't be the pimp factor. It must be the Chelsea factor. Maybe the Clinton camp wants NBC to stand for Never Badmouth Chelsea.

Howard Mortman is the public affairs practice director for New Media Strategies in Arlington, Va., where he writes the Extreme Mortman blog.