National Notes

BILL'S MOTHER'S MILK: The Bill Clinton Presidential Museum, richly endowed by AFOBs (Asian Friends of Bill), should be quite a place when they get around to putting it up in Little Rock. I look forward to the Governor Bill virtual reality exhibit.

11am — Governor Bill blows HRC a kiss, goes jogging with bodyguards. Swerves into Gennifer Flowers' apartment building. Adults Only segment showing intimacies. (In 1977 the Arkansas legal code was amended to say oral sex would be construed as illegal sodomy if it was between two adults of the same sex. So Bill was safe.)

12:10 — Governor jogs to Chinese restaurant, greeted by Yah Lin Trie, who gives him a tray of fortune cookies. Governor breaks them open eagerly, unfolding the high denomination dollar bills enclosed therein, reading off the totals to his companions.

2:30pm — Meeting in governor's office with Jackson Stephens to discuss chartering of BCCI bank, accepts $100,000 check from BCCI president Abedi for Clinton Childhood Home Renovation project…

And so on.

Governor Bill did once say honestly enough that money is the mother's milk of politics. Even Jeff Gerth's convoluted prose in the New York Times' story couldn't quite obscure the amazing number of money-raising schemes the AFOBs and local fat cats have devised as a way of paying off the president. Already there's $600,000-$700,000 for the Clinton Birthplace Foundation (a hefty AFOB contribution generously supplied), plus other troves for the presidential running track, the inaugural committee, the Education and Information Project. This last one is James Carville's campaign against special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. One of the Matchless Moments of 1996 was Joe Conason maintaining piously on CNN that the Carville effort had nothing to do with the White House. I wonder how Joe feels about the Taiwanese religious sect that gave a lot of money. I seem to remember him getting up in arms about Rev. Moon in the past.

Gerth noted the estimate of government watchdog groups that “this administration and its allies have advanced the use of private funds to a higher level, taking in more money for more causes than any other president in modern times.”

UNCLE SAM'S MAN: I spent an hour on a plane last week reading a pretty good issue of The New Yorker. Since I've trashed it more than once over the past few months, let the record show that the issue dated December 16 had good stuff in it. Michael Korda offered a very funny memoir about Charles Bluhdorn, the mad-dog conglomerator who put together Gulf + Western and who ttherefore was the supremo of Paramount and Simon & Schuster.

Even better was Frederic Dannen's amazing story of the palsy relationship between the FBI and a mad-dog killer from Brooklyn called Gregory Scarpa. (Last week's AVA ran a quote from this piece.) By “mad-dog” here we mean the genuine article. Often assisted by crucial info from his FBI contact, Lin deVecchio, Scarpa would cruise Brooklyn during the Persico gang wars and, when he spotted a member of the opposing faction, poke a rifle through the car window and finish him off. Scarpa died of AIDS in 1994, originally infected by a blood transfusion. The surgeon who operated on him at the time he got the fatal transfusion was a Filipino named Angelito Sebollena. Scarpa sued him for making a faulty incision. While the case was nearing trial Sebollena got into further trouble for injecting two male patients with the drug Versed, a nervous system depressant that leaves the recipient conscious but unable to move (my normal state). Then Sebollena would perform oral sex on the incapacitated patients. Dannen writes that Scarpa's lawyer, Gary Pillersdorf, told him that the judge in Scarpa's malpractice suit motioned him to approach the bench, then said, “Let me get this straight. You're representing a hit man with AIDS against a doctor who sodomizes his patients. Am I on the right page?”

Scarpa was tough. Near the end, with a T-cell count of zero, and with no stomach, the mafioso was under house arrest with an electronic anklet when his son Joseph came in saying he'd been spoken to disrespectfully by a drug dealer during a transaction. Scarpa Sr. dashed into the street, got in a gun battle with the dealers, killed one of them, then got his eye shot out. Pressing a towel to the socket he swallowed a glass of Scotch, then drove himself to hospital. Brian Urquhart, who survived an unopened parachute drop (1,100 feet free fall, every bone broken) and went on to become assistant secretary general of the UN, once told me complacently, we were tougher then.

But the most interesting bits of Dannen's article concerned the uses to which the state put Scarpa. During the civil rights campaigns in the south in the 1960s Hoover's FBI was under pressure to perform better against the Ku Klux Klan. After one lethal Klan outrage on January 10, 1966, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach promised results. Eleven days later the FBI office in Jackson, Mississippi requested the services of FBI informant NY-3461. This was Scarpa. He was flown down and, with an FBI man, approached the tv service store of one of the Klan suspects, Lawrence Byrd. The two asked Byrd to carry a tv set to their car, then pistol whipped him into the backseat and drove him to Camp Shelby, a nearby military base.

“Scarpa then beat a confession out of him. 'Lawrence was a tough guy — big, raw-boned country boy — but he was beat up so bad he never was the same after that,' says W.O. (Chet) Dillard, the local district attorney.” Two months later Byrd signed a twenty-two page confession inculpating himself and seven others.

Amid AIDS dementia in his final days Scarpa would talk of his past and told one visitor of dirty jobs he's done for the government, including a murder in Costa Rica in the sixties, and how he had kidnapped a Mississippi man and put “a gun in his mouth and started cutting off his dick with a razor,” telling him to 'fess up to where three missing kids were buried. Dannen says this buttresses a story once published in the Daily News that it was Scarpa that had led the FBI to the bodies of civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Cheney, killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964.

Moral: the FBI needs gangsters, the same way the CIA needs drug smugglers. But you know that.

THEIR FINGERS ROUND OUR WINDPIPE: As Mark Scaramella wrote last in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, “creeping totalitarianism is creeping closer. It's happening on tv. It's happening to civil rights, it's happening with big penalites for small crimes. It's happening in school system monopolization… The latest to be targeted for incremental totalitarianism are the media.”

Mark was writing about the menace of a National News Council. This mangy creature shambles on to the stage every decade or so, and in normal times is hooted off with shouts of ridicule. Now 60 Minutes and Mike Wallace are pushing the idea. Wallace had an article in the Wall Street Journal on December 18, citing the Minnesota News Council, on which 60 Minutes recently did a piece. This outfit in Minnesota has been in existence for 26 years, has 24 members — half of them journalists and half of them “responsible members of the community” in the form of businessmen, lawyers, teachers, etc. Someone complains of maltreatment and the responsible folk — president over by a state supreme court judge — hear from both sides and then issue their judgment which is widely reported upon. The notion is to make the public feel that they can get back at some offending paper or program without embarking on costly libel suits with no future.

It's a terrible idea. Most members of the public, particularly the “responsible” sector, detest the press and would, if given half a chance, annul the First Amendment and shoot us all.

60 Minutes cited the case of Northwest Airlines which protested to the Minnesota News Council about maltreatment by a local Michigan-based tv station. Northwest has a big hub at Detroit Metro.

The program had pointed out problems in Northwest's maintenance record. It had also made it clear that Northwest's safety performance was as good as comparable airlines, but there was room for improvement. Northwest said that its reputation had been damaged. Of course if there had been anything substantively damaging, the airline would have sued for libel. But NW well knew it had no case, so it turned to the “responsible” News Council, stuffed with just the sort of corporate executives and cowardly editors who love to purse their lips at anything approaching robust stuff about any business conduct. After portentous hearings the Minnesota News Council voted 19-2 that the program was “unbalanced” and “irresponsible,” even “untrue,” though no untruthfulness was cited.

Net result: the tv station was censured, and the verdict widely publicized by its rivals. The senior anchorman who reported the Northwest series said he was retiring from broadcasting and that the whole process was unfair and unconstitutional — which indeed it was. Net result: you won't be seeing much adverse about Northwest airlines on tv in the Upper Midwest. Of course Northwest is a terrible airline, run by some of the most maniacally greedy execs in America's business history.

Now Wallace wants to swell this gang of prodnoses to the national level. The idea is to enhance the media's standing. But we don't want our standing enhanced. Things are getting way too respectable as they are. Journalists should pride themselves for their lowly status as scoundrels and junkyard dogs, only a yard or two ahead of the gendarmes and with prison or the stocks our likely fate if we do our jobs properly. Now the idea is to have the moral standing of bishops What rubbish! What pretension! If journalists want to be bishops they should go into Holy Orders (and go to prison for molesting choirboys — it's a different career track).

I'm glad to say that on the same page of the Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt vigorously disputed Wallace's plea, saying what codswallop it all was, and that the very first person to be censured by a National News Council would be Wallace.

Some of the best words on this topic of the press and responsibility were published back in 1980 in the London Times by the columnist Bernard Levin.

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly,” Levin wrote, “nor indeed put too extravagantly, that the press has no duty to be responsible at all, and it will be an ill day for freedom if it should ever acquire one. The press is not the Fourth Estate; it is not part of the constitutional structure of the country; it is not, and must never be, governed by any externally imposed rules other than the law of the land… we are, and must remain, vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued, and the making of comment that others would prefer unmade.”

Amen.

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