The Ever-Present Threat

(Note:  When a system upgrade at misfired, Economic Principals was unable to publish its usual email edition.)

A remarkable fourth act in the history of The Washington Post has been overshadowed momentarily by the wave of Watergate nostalgia and introspection occasioned by the identification of the previously-mysterious player known as Deep Throat.

This fourth act has placed the newspaper at the center of American politics today — which is the topic of discussion here. But first a little history, to place the Watergate nostalgia in historical perspective.

Investment banker Eugene Meyer bought the Washington Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, barely a month after resigning as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Having already moved his family to Washington, he ran the Post with a central banker’s vocation for responsibility, annually making up its losses from his ample fortune.

Charismatic Philip Graham married the publisher’s daughter in 1940 and the couple took over the paper from Meyer eight years later. As publisher, Graham put the Post on a solid footing. In 1961, he bought Newsweek magazine, resolving to challenge the primacy of both Time and The New York Times. In large measure, his vision has been realized — thanks to his widow and his son.

Katharine Graham took the corporate reins after her manic-depressive husband’s suicide in 1963. Relying initially on a raft of friends, a partner-lawyer (Fritz Beebe) and two strong editors, Ben Bradlee at the Post and Osborne Elliott at Newsweek, she gradually became one of the century’s great publishers.

In 1971, the Post joined the New York Times in publishing the extensive government study of the origins of the Vietnam War known as “the Pentagon Papers,” an exercise in full-frame democratic politics that drove President Richard Nixon to the edge of paranoia in dealing with those he perceived to be his enemies.

The apogee of the Post’s influence came in 1974, when its stalwart reporting of Nixon’s various abuses of power initiated the series of events it then reported — Judge John Sirica’s punitive sentencing, the Senate Watergate Committee, the House Judiciary panel and the Supreme Court’s rulings — that led to his resignation, halfway through the president’s second term

Publisher Donald Graham took over from his mother in 1979, editor Leonard Downie from Bradlee in 1991. The newsmagazine business has become generally less important in the years since.  But Graham and Downie have built the paper into a sturdy rival to the Times and The Wall Street Journal.  Each of these three great dailies has singular strengths.

But in national political reporting the Post routinely beats them both.  I can’t prove this (though I think probably it could be proved). I’m certain only that this is the right way to read the national papers: side by side, to see who is getting the story.

Exhibit A is reporter John F. Harris, who last week published The Survivor:  Bill Clinton in the White House. Thorough and reasoned in its judgments, the book is part of the newspaper’s recognition that deep and lengthy examinations of important topics are crucial adjuncts to its daily newspapering.

(Other specimens of such journalistic “thick description” include David Maraniss’ First In His Class, an extraordinary biography of Bill Clinton in the years before 1992, and the steady stream of titles that have issued from Bob Woodward’s study over the past 25 years, examining everything from Warren Burger’s Supreme Court to actor John Belushi’s drug habit to Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve Board, and, of course, the several presidential administrations in between.)

The resulting accumulation of background knowledge keeps The Post firmly anchored in the real world.  It was a reliable guide to developments throughout the 1990s, at a time when a competitive folie a deux lathered the Times and The Wall Street Journal into an impeachment fury.

But news is, by definition, emphemeral. The most recent proof of just how well The Washington Post’s approach works came last week when the most interesting political stories in the press came from Harris.

First there was a story about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s evolution from the wife of the president-elect in 1992 to likely presidential candidate herself in 2008. “Although focused principally on her Senate reelection campaign next year, her advisers are informally — and in some cases not so informally — planning for a White House run,” wrote Harris.

(Economic Principals, among others, has called attention to the potential presidential candidacy in 2008 of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Such a bid would have been all but unthinkable before George W. Bush returned to the White House eight years after his father left it, thereby rendering less far-fetched the possibility that Mrs. Clinton might succeed her husband after an equal interval — provided that she establishes a similar degree of independence from her predecessor.

(Without going into details, the argument is that, as a Democrat, Sen. Clinton could hope to win all the same states as did Sen. John Kerry in his recent narrow miss — plus Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa and, quite, possibly, Ohio and Florida as well. Indeed, so skilled a politician has she become since her election to the Senate from New York, and so great has grown mistrust of the newfound political involvement of the religious right, that the potential exists for what would pass for a landslide.)

That much was known, if not all the official details of her transformation contained in the story. The next day, however, Harris recorded his real scoop — the news that, four years after he first confided it to an aide, Bill Clinton still regarded his dream of becoming secretary general of the United Nations as “something more than flight of fancy and something less than a serious prospect,”  according to aides who had spoken to him in recent months.

Next September, Clinton plans to host the first “Clinton Global Initiative” in Manhattan — not an annual golf tournament of the sort favored by President Gerald Ford; nor low-income home-building sessions with Habitat for Humanity, nor election monitoring, such as ex-president Jimmy Carter made famous; nor the principled seclusion of George H.W. Bush.

What Clinton has in mind is a three-day annual event loosely modeled on the annual World Economic Forum talkfest in Davos, Switzerland; similar, that is, but more concrete. “I’m telling people not to come unless they are prepared to make a commitment to do something when they leave,” he told Harris. Prospective attendees include Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch, Arnold Schwartenegger and Kofi Annan, as well as myriad business celebrities and show business stars.

“His ambitions are no less obvious than when he is on the rise as a domestic politician,” wrote Harris. “Clinton wants to present an alternative face of America to the rest of the world — in implicit opposition to President Bush, and to create a legacy that builds on his eight years in office.”

The stage is not big enough for both of them. The ever-present threat to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy is her husband. Until his ambitions are trammeled and defined, once and for all, Bill Clinton will remain a potential hazard. The country can deal with his womanizing, after a certain amount of distancing take place — it may or may not continue, even after his recent heart surgery. (The man is “a one-man supermarket tabloid,” Primary Colors author Joe Klein wrote the other day. “Absent any evidence, the former president should be considered guilty until proved really guilty.”)

But if he persists in trying to hog the political spotlight, he could cost her the election.

Maybe the Clinton Initiative will evolve into a Downtown Renaissance Weekend for the Superannuated.  In that case, why not move it to where the effort is needed — if Hilton Head and Davos are taken, why not Kampala or Dakar?

The sad fact is that Bill Clinton has missed the ideal post-presidential employment that was suggested a few years ago by a former newspaper editor — as a band leader. A white suit, a couple of saxophone solos, frequent anecdotes and asides to the audience.

There would be plenty of opportunities for fictional spin-offs, in which the famous bandleader would secretly undertake dangerous missions on behalf of his country while his orchestra toured middle Europe, cities in the Andes, along the Silk Road, the Golden Triangle (perfect cover!), books, movies and adventure stories galore — all of it clearly labeled fantasy, thus posing no threat to the family member still working as an elective politician.

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Update: What reasonably can be inferred from the abrupt rescheduling that took place last week in US of America vs. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Andrei Shleifer? On Wednesday morning, lawyers were suddenly instructed to show up at 845a Thursday instead of, as has been scheduled, after lunch.

Wednesday evening, just as unexpectedly, the hearing was once again postponed, this time for another ten days — the seventh rescheduling since January, when the parties first requested thirty days in which to try to negotiate a settlement.

Was US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock’s sudden decision to start the conference early in the day (and thus leave plenty of time to work through all the intricacies of scheduling a trial for which preparations might take as much as a year) a none-too-subtle way of telling to lawyers to fish or cut bait? Or was there some other a compelling reason?

We’ll find out — maybe — Monday afternoon, June 13.

Harvard has been clinging to the pipedream that a lengthy jury trial on the issue of damages will redeem the reputation of its Russia Project instead of call wider attention to the corruption at its core — the fact that its team leaders and their wives were using their positions in an attempt to enrich themselves while giving the Russian government supposedly disinterested advice.

The recognition has been growing that the university should finally take the hit and put this embarrassment behind it.