THE BLOG
05/24/2006 06:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Times Blows It on Billary; Bill Blows Up Over Hillary

It's a day later and I still can't get the chalky taste of the New York Times' front page story on "the state of [the Clintons'] marriage" out of my mouth.

It's not just that they devoted nearly 2,000 words and precious front page real estate to gossip and innuendo about Bill and Hillary's sex life (or lack thereof)... it's that the gossip and innuendo was so... so, well, New York Times-y.

So instead of coming right out and asking what they really want to ask -- "Are the Clintons Still Doing It?" -- we get all these silly nudge, nudge... wink, wink hints, insinuations, and too-obvious-by-half code words.

There is the former president "zipping around Los Angeles with his bachelor buddy, Ronald W. Burkle." First of all, "zipping around Los Angeles"? Clearly Timesman Patrick Healy hasn't spent much time navigating L.A. traffic. And "bachelor buddy"? Shades of Howard Borden dropping in on the Newharts mid-seduction because he's out of gin. I guess the Times is too decorous to say "player" or "skirt-chasing rich dude". But the way the putative paper of record is heading, it might not be long before it's referring to Bill and Burkle as "The Yucaipa Mac Daddies." And, really, isn't the "Ronald W. Burkle" formality just a wee bit twee for this kind of sleaze?

Then there was this can-you-find-the-secret-hidden-meaning quote from an anonymous friend: "[Hillary] needs to be in her own separate orbit, so if something explodes in his world, she will have at least some space and distance to manage it." Gee, what kind of thing could "explode" for Bill Clinton? Let's ask Dr. Freud. Or Ron Jeremy.

The worst of it was when Healy pulled out his abacus to calculate the potential for couplings between the former (and potential) first couple: "Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average... Last August, they saw each other at some point on 24 out of 31 days. Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together." It's Page Six as math quiz!

Of course, this being the Times -- or at least what Bill Keller and company like to pretend the Times still is -- in the interest of fairness, we get the other side of the marriage coin: the gardening, the Christmas Eve strolls, the Valentine's Day rendezvous, the new diamond ring, the Scrabble. How many points do you get for "Who gives a shit?" (or is that too many letters?)

The piece was the worst of both worlds: it was tabloid journalism without the kick.

I've always felt -- and written -- that unless a politician has broken the law, his or her private life is none of our damn business, and the probing of it not a legitimate function of the media.

But that journalistic dam was breached a long time ago, and the probing into private lives is now political reality. But, apparently, not for everyone. Can you imagine a Page One, 50-source story being written about any of the other White House contenders? Especially on the GOP side. Atrios nails what that might look like.

So not only did the Times sink into the gutter, it did it while trying to retain the pretense of serious journalism.

The issue isn't whether Hillary and Bill still lie down together; it's where Hillary stands on the major issues of the day. Especially where she stands on the war in Iraq -- a calculated stance that was supposed to endear her to red-staters but has put her seriously outside the mainstream as more and more of those red staters turn against the war. Needless to say, it hasn't exactly endeared her to progressive Democrats either.

And whether he's "zipping around Los Angeles" or unzipping anyplace else, her husband is keenly aware of this. Just how aware was made forcefully clear this past weekend when he was the surprise speaker at an under-the-radar gathering of Democratic heavy hitters -- including deep-pocket donors like George Soros -- in Austin, Texas. The event was a meeting of the Democracy Alliance, the Rob Stein-led group that is helping build and fund a progressive infrastructure to match the GOP's well-oiled political machine.

Sources present at the off-the-record meeting tell me that during a Q & A session following Bill Clinton's speech, someone asked the former president about Hillary's support of the war.

Clinton became incensed and unleashed the kind of fury that former Clinton staffers tell me they are very familiar with.

Apparently Clinton directed his anger first at the questioner (indeed, the question itself as if it were impertinent and inappropriate), then at the whole crowd, which was startled at his vehemence.

Hit a nerve, Mr. President? He clearly recognizes that this is an Achilles heel for Hillary. And there are small but telling indications that Hillary is feeling the heat too. During an energy policy speech on Tuesday, Hillary kinda, sorta, in a weasely way inched "toward calling for a reduction in the America military presence in Iraq."

According to a New York Times blog (for some reason, typing those words together makes me smile), Hillary said that "we have to wait until an Iraqi government is in place" that "had the legitimacy to take responsibility for the security of the Iraqi people... And once we get to that point, then I think you can make other decisions. But I don't think we're there quite yet, but we should be there soon." Still sounds like Bush's "as they stand up, we'll stand down" spiel but with the added vague hope that it could happen "soon." Like when the insurgency hits its last throes?

So, to all future groups thinking of bringing in the former president to speak, take note: Leave Hillary's position on Iraq off the discussion menu. And probably bachelor buddy Burkle, too.