This Week’s Column:


by Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons' January 29 commentary for the Arkansas Democrat–Gazette quickly became a hot topic of conversation in the book industry, but by the time most people heard about it, it was no longer available on the newspaper's website. In response to the growing interest, Lyons has provided MobyLives with the following text of the original column and permission to run it.

Toward the end of her astonishing review of Susan McDougal's book "The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk" in the New York Times Book Review, Beverly Lowry con–descends to give the author some advice. A novelist and professor of creative writing at George Mason University, Lowry thinks McDougal ought to have sought professional help writing her memoirs, "an editor or writer. . .who would have persuaded her all she had to do was tell the story straight."

This is big talk from a reviewer who couldn't even summarize the book's basic facts competently. According to Lowry, Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation "came up with pretty much of nothing, beyond a felony conviction for McDougal on charges of obstruction of justice and criminal contempt."

Starr's failure to convict Susan on precisely those charges provides the book's triumphant climactic scene. As Judge George Howard read the jury's "'not guilty'" verdict on the obstruction charge McDougal writes "a cheer went up in the courtroom . . .We had taken on the most powerful prosecutor in the country, an organization with an unlimited budget and incredible resources, and we had beaten them soundly. But as much as I enjoyed being a part of the victory, I was not naïve enough to believe that the verdict was about Susan McDougal. The entire trial was a referendum on Kenneth Starr, and we had succeeded in showing just how corrupt his investigation was."

A waspish reviewer might sneer that Susan's triumph over her tormentors has a cornball "Erin Brockovich" meets "The Pelican Brief" quality. It would be mean and stupid, but a defensible opinion. Lowry, however, seems completely oblivious that in the end, Susan McDougal DID finally talk. She testified for several days in open court during the aforementioned trial. So did three of Starr's prosecutors. The jury believed Susan.

Here at Unsolicited Opinions, Inc., we too have reviewed a bunch of books over the years and have also taught writing to college students. At the expense of pedantry, we'd like to offer our esteemed colleague at George Mason this advice: "Yo, Beverly. Next time, read the damn book."

Assuming minimal competence, Lowry simply cannot have done so. She appears to have skimmed the opening chapters for information confirming her own loopy notions about "girl children from the Deep South" — she's the kind of Professional Southerner who peddles moonbeams to Yankees — then winged it. Her summary of what Whitewater was supposed to have been all about is filled with preposterous errors. Joe Conason exposes a half dozen howlers in

Some of Lowry's problem is just bad writing. Check this out: "The future president was governor and the McDougals owned a bank and a savings and loan and were buying and selling land and, like a lot of other people they knew, making money hand over fist. Unquestionably, the Clintons took part in Whitewater and irrefutably they and the McDougals trampled on some rights and bent some rules along the way. But they were on a roll, life was good, Arkansas sheltered them, and nobody thought life would ever go any other way."

The syntax is murky, but if that's supposed to mean the Clintons made money on Whitewater, the fact is they irrefutably lost $45,000. As for trampling rights and bending rules, if Lowry's review were a sophomore's paper, I'd write "BE SPECIFIC" in the margin in big red letters. Which rules? What rights? Even the independent counsel's final report stipulates that the Clintons had no knowledge of Jim McDougal's monkey business, which didn't involve Whitewater anyway. The phrase "Arkansas sheltered them" would rate a big "EXPLAIN," because insofar as it means anything, it implies improprieties not in evidence.

True to the moonbeams and magnolias school of bad Southern writing, Lowry speculates that Susan must have been in love with Bill Clinton, a notion her book lampoons, portraying the former Chief Executive as a glib horn–dog who looks awful in jogging shorts. Lowry also questions if "we" can trust McDougal, given what she calls bizarre charges of "embezzlement of $150,000 brought by the orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta, and his wife, Nancy."

Unfortunately, Lowry neglects to mention that the California jury that acquitted Susan held a press conference denouncing the prosecutor for accusing her without a shred of credible evidence. Several jurors then came to Little Rock to support her in her final showdown with Kenneth Starr. Once again, it's all in the book. To raise such issues without saying so isn't quite as reckless as falsely accusing somebody of two felonies, but it definitely comes under "telling the story straight."

As for the New York Times, what is there left to say? The cover–up continues. Mention the Clintons or Whitewater, and the nation's single most influential book review metamorphoses into The Drudge Report. Have its editors no standards of professionalism and intellectual honesty whatsoever?

Gene Lyons is a former general editor of Newsweek, and author of "The Higher Illiteracy," and, with Joe Conason, of "The Hunting of the President: The Ten–Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton."

©2003 Gene Lyons


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