The Media Flips

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:17

    I was riding down the elevator in our apartment building last Friday morning with two construction workers who were off on a coffee break. One of the guys was wearing a tie-dyed shirt and had long, black hair down to his butt: a 60s throwback performing an honest day?s work?that is, if you consider unions honest. Anyway, I asked him about BillClinton?s scorecard so far on Kosovo: "He?s chickenshit. I say parking lot in Yugoslavia, baby." His older companion, a black man, just nodded: "I have a son in the military, and that draft-dodger scares me." Mind you, upon further questioning, both these men thought the impeachment proceedings against the President were much ado about nothing; it was simply Ken Starr digging for sex stories. Nothing wrong with B.C. gettin? a little on the side. So ended Clinton?s worst week in his roller-coaster presidency. Pundits are curious as to why his polling numbers are in free fall now?contradicting the usual rallying round the flag and commander-in-chief?especially when he became more popular with each criminal, and immoral, revelation that was publicized last year. My guess is that Americans now realize how hapless their "leader" is: They could dismiss the Monica unpleasantness as "just sex," especially as the economy soared, but now that Clinton is stumbling so disastrously in the war against Slobodan Milosevic, it?s apparent to all that this hack has no business occupying the White House.

    Consider Clinton?s actions in the past two weeks: He?s admitted that he had to "read up" on the Balkans before making a speech to the nation; he invoked Hitler, "genocide" and ?never again,? playing-to-the-crowd rhetoric that?s typical of an official who?s never transcended pure politics; he allowed, inexplicably, cameras to film him golfing last Monday while bombs were falling in Serbia; and had the gall to tell CBS? Dan Rather that he didn?t see his impeachment "as some great badge of shame," that in fact he was "honored" for the opportunity to defend the Constitution in the face of a partisan inquisition by Ken Starr and the GOP.

    After three American soldiers were captured by the Serbs, Clinton told the nation, "The United States takes care of its own. President Milosevic should make no mistake. We will hold him and his government responsible for their safety and for their well-being." What?s Clinton going to do at this point, fly to Belgrade and challenge Milosevic to a thumb-wrestling match? No, this was a hollow threat, since he?s resolutely against sending ground forces into the region. What is he thinking? That a smart bomb will rescue those POWs? That the yellow ribbons sympathetic Americans are tying around trees in solidarity with the prisoners are going to sway Milosevic one iota? Doesn?t Clinton realize that when the country is at war there will be casualties, not only innocent European civilians, but U.S. soldiers as well? On Friday, NATO dumped bombs for the first time on Belgrade, apparently inflicting huge damage on the Yugoslav capital, although in the confusing trade of propaganda between both sides it was hard to determine how effective the barrage was. Maybe some military storehouses were taken out; maybe more pharmaceutical plants. It was decisive, necessary action, even though one wonders how Clinton squares this strike during the Easter weekend when, in December, on the eve of his impeachment, he said he?d cease the bombing of Iraq when their holy days, Ramadan, began. That was then; now he?s still in office, I guess.

    Pardon the obvious, but while Clinton was plotting against his domestic enemies in the past two years, he?s been an ostrich on the international front. Milosevic has been able to play his hand because Clinton?and his double-A team of Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and William Cohen?has ducked the difficult task of developing a cogent, working post-Cold War policy. Where do we want to be on the spectrum defined by total isolationism, at the one extreme, and total global involvement and enforcement, at the other? What price will we be willing to pay to attain our goals and ensure our policies? Presumably, Americans would sacrifice willingly, with blood and material resources, if Canada were uprooting our citizens from Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire and pushing them south. We know that. But the government doesn?t have much of a working strategy beyond that, one that the public understands and embraces. One of the abilities of a great leader is to sort through profound, complex issues, digest them for the people and develop a consensus through a process of debate and education.

    Clinton?s approach has been: 1) avoidance, hoping he doesn?t have too many international incidents on his watch for which he?ll have to actually design a decisive and morally sound U.S. position; and 2) to read the polls and assimilate his policies to the public?s sentiments, just as he does with domestic issues. The problem here is that Americans are generally uninformed on matters that stretch beyond U.S. borders, and consequently need a strong president to lead them, not vice versa. Clinton?s "policies" are transparent to world leaders. It?s not hard to imagine Saddam Hussein on the horn with Milosevic, telling him how to outfox the U.S.? indecisive leader. If Clinton had been prepared, he?d have delivered a massive punch to Milosevic immediately, and telegraphed to other rogue leaders around the world that brutal acts of aggression will be repaid swiftly, with resolution and tenfold.

    Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial headlined "Does Character Matter Yet?" rightfully ridiculed the Beltway establishment for defending Clinton?s inept presidency for so long. "Less than a week into the bombing in Kosovo," the writer begins, "the political establishment in Washington is beginning to criticize President Clinton severely for ignoring the advice of the military and CIA that ground troops would be necessary, that air power alone would not deter Milosevic and the Serbs. There is now talk of a military disaster... We would like to know where this establishment?the politicians, pundits and Beltway press?has been the past six years, when some of us were pressing the argument that Bill Clinton?s handling of Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers, the draft, Filegate and all the rest were relevant to the character and conduct of his Presidency. We were told, long before Monica and even before the Lincoln Bedroom rentals, that it didn?t matter." 

    True, there?s a measure of we-told-you-so self-aggrandizement in the Journal?s words, but who can blame the editorial board when it?s been casually dismissed as part of the mythical "vast right-wing conspiracy"? The Journal is correct when it calls Clinton?s foreign policy "narcissistic," and claims that the country "and especially those three captured GIs, are paying the price."

    The New York Times, not surprisingly, has been patient with Clinton, despite clear evidence that he?s in a fog. The paper editorialized last Friday: "In warfare, disappointment and frustration can produce impulsive, defective decisions. Mr. Clinton seemed to recognize the danger yesterday when he told a Navy audience in Virginia that ?We must be determined and patient.? He and his aides should be guided by that view as they manage what promises to be a long and difficult conflict with Serbia."

    Again, I ask: Just when does happy hour start in Howell Raines? offices? Clinton has been "patient"?that is, not paying attention?for years now. Why he didn?t "read up" on the Balkans months ago is a question no one has the answer to. Had he prepared ground troops?even if he wasn?t going to deploy them?he wouldn?t find himself right now in the bind that will certainly cap off his failed presidency.

    I was talking with Al From Baltimore on Friday, suggesting that Clinton is certainly the worst president we?ve had since World War II. Al didn?t completely disagree, but countered that Clinton has signed some significant bills, e.g., welfare reform and the balanced budget. I argued that those successes weren?t his idea: that the first two years of his administration were highlighted by an onerous, class-warfare tax hike and by his wife?s socialist health-care plan. It wasn?t until the GOP took control of Congress that Clinton shifted right, to the horror of his liberal base?and not because he really believed that "the era of big government" should be over, but because he wanted to be reelected in ?96. Enacting that legislation, along with some financial hanky-panky with the Chinese, let him achieve that goal.

    Just last month, he backed away from his plan to "save Medicare." Realizing he was in political trouble, he retreated to the David Bonior/Maxine Waters camp and broke his word. As the Journal wrote on Friday, "Mr. Clinton?s double-cross of the [Sen. John] Breaux Medicare Commission just last month didn?t cost him a political dime. Commentary after commentary told the President his skill at avoiding getting tagged with responsibility for anything was political genius. Now some half-million refugees are streaming out of Kosovo, three beaten-up U.S. soldiers are in Serbian captivity and President Clinton was on primetime television Wednesday night telling his interviewer that he isn?t sending ground troops into Kosovo and he doesn?t think impeachment is a badge of shame. Some genius."

    In any case, it?s not just the Journal that?s lacerated Clinton since the bombing began. The media world has turned upside down, with broadcast and print pundits usually in the tank with the President severely critical of his disorganized wartime strategy. Appearing on Chris Matthews? Hardball last Monday, NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell ridiculed the President with a vehemence I?ve never seen before from an "objective" network journalist. Speaking about the now-infamous golfing photo-op she said: "I mean, it?s quite extraordinary. I?ve got to wonder who was directing the politics in the White House. It?s clear that Ed Rollins, when he was political director in the Reagan White House, would not have directed this picture. This would not have been the picture you would?ve seen in the middle of an air war when we?ve got refugees streaming across the border, a tragedy of epic proportions on the ground, and here?s the President of the United States taking time out to play golf."

    I think Mitchell was excessively harsh: Obviously, Clinton has been working around the clock, albeit ineffectively, on this catastrophe, but like any person he needs some time to relax. I don?t begrudge him a round of golf, a hand of cards, a blowjob in the Oval Office, whatever. But I agree with Mitchell that the President?s staff is in terrible disarray, allowing such an image to be broadcast around the world.

    On Thursday?s Hardball, Matthews had a disparate group of historians and academics?Robert Dallek, Douglas Brinkley and Ken Jowitt?and they were unanimous in their scorn not only for Clinton?s handling of the Serbian crisis but for his remarks to Rather as well. Dallek, who wrote Flawed Giant about LBJ, was pointed in his criticism: "The problem is not just that the bombing doesn?t work, but that it divides the American public. And a president, to be effective in conducting a foreign policy like this, has got to have the public behind him, he?s got to have the Congress behind him." As far as goes Clinton?s impeachment, this liberal historian said: "Of course this is going to blight his presidential reputation forever. Clinton is never going to escape this impeachment proceeding. And remember, he?s the only elected president in the country?s history to have been impeached."

    Brinkley, who wrote The Unfinished Presidency about Jimmy Carter, thinks it was a mistake to get involved in the Balkans, but blames Clinton for not following through with his threats now that NATO has committed to the action. "Now that we?re in," Brinkley said, "we have to go forward. And there?s more than just bombing? strategic bombing is important, but also an economic embargo. We?re gonna have to freeze Yugoslav assets and then move troops into the region... Bill Clinton made a major mistake in telling Milosevic that we?re not gonna be using ground troops." Brinkley, hardly a fan of Ken Starr, Henry Hyde or any of the House managers who were demonized by the Democrats and mainstream press, was harshly critical of Clinton?s self-serving remarks to Rather. "It?s obviously quite ridiculous," he said. "But we?re kind of used to that thing in Bill Clinton. What?s more frightening, if you think about it, is the whole Starr inquiry cost about $50 million. It?s costing $50 million a day in bombing... And as low as his presidency sunk due to the Lewinsky affair, I think he?s in grave danger of turning this into a major foreign policy disaster if he doesn?t have some quick turn of fate coming up very soon?and I don?t like the fact that he?s trying to treat things in a trivial fashion both on impeachment and the golfing scenario."

    My favorite guest on Thursday?s show, a real pistol, was Jowitt, incongruously a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley. When Matthews asked him about Clinton?s handling of the Balkans crisis, the academic unleashed a vicious, but articulate, tirade. "Well, I think it?s a bit surreal and it?s also irresponsible. I mean look at what he?s done. Basically, you?ve got a Mother Teresa foreign policy, which is fine, you know? I liked Mother Teresa. He?s trying to do something ethical. But if you?re going to be Mother Teresa, you better back it up with Mother Superior force.

    "And basically what we?ve done is exacerbate the very situation that we?re trying to ameliorate. Every single outcome goes against what we wanted. We?ve allowed him to escalate the war in Albania, to go through ethnic cleansing, through ethnic expelling, traumatize his population, destabilize Albania, destabilize Macedonia?and we?re supposed to be for nascent, fragile democracies?unsettle Greece and unsettle Italy, which doesn?t want a new province populated by Albanians, at the same time consolidating support for Milosevic and doing away with the opposition. This is one hell of an effective strategy."

    Then Jowitt goes on the offensive, articulating what many Americans feel: "I think right now we should do something. And this is radical. I think we should take Primakov?s argument. We should say to Milosevic, ?We?ll meet you in Moscow?? and basically argue, ?We?ll stop the bombing and we?re going to partition Kosovo with you. And if you don?t take it, we?re going to invade you.? That?s what a great power does. Invasion is a very serious thing. Invasion means we?re going to have to occupy the equivalent of Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and we haven?t done very well in either Haiti or in Bosnia. We have not thought out the consequences of this bombing, and no decision is mature unless the consequences are understood and accepted. This is an irresponsible policy. And the shrill hyperbole that Milosevic is a combination of Pol Pot, Stalin during the Great Terror and Hitler, there?s only two things wrong with that. Serbia isn?t Germany and Milosevic isn?t Hitler."

    About the Rather comments, Jowitt was equally acerbic: "Well, I think basically what you could say is this man?s disconnected from reality. He?s supposed to be a political figure, which means you?re in touch with the people. I don?t know that he?s in touch with, but it certainly isn?t political reality."

    Last Friday, The Washington Post, which was very squishy on the impeachment issue, siding with Democrats in calling for censure rather than the Senate conviction that Clinton deserved, ran a bitter editorial about Clinton?s self-defense in his interview with Rather. (To digress briefly, I wonder how all the senators and pundits who argued strenuously for Clinton?s acquittal on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice feel now. I?ll bet more than a few would agree that we?d be better off with Al Gore as president right now. He may not have invented the Internet, and perhaps he rents hogs in Iowa to prove his farming roots, but I?d have a lot more faith in Gore?s leadership during this crisis than I do in Mr. I?m Burnishing My Legacy.)

    The Post wrote: "The unseemliness of Mr. Clinton?s self-pitying musings, especially at a moment like this, is stunning. On the historical interpretation, we certainly part company with the president. We believe that lying under oath was a serious offense, and we don?t ascribe base political motives to all of those who felt such conduct warranted his removal from office. In fact, we can recall Mr. Clinton himself, at moments when he evidently felt in more political jeopardy than he does now, acknowledging the seriousness of his offenses and expressing a willingness to accept a fairly severe censure from people whom he did not attack, at that time, as political malcontents... Mr. Clinton had the audacity to compare himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to a question about his reputation for ?parsing words too closely??for toying with the truth, that is. ?That?s what they said about President Roosevelt, too,? Mr. Clinton said. ?He made a pretty good president.? Mr. Roosevelt did make a pretty good president. One reason may be that he spent more time earning his place in history and less time decorating it in advance."

    Let?s take a look at what the pundits wrote last week, most of them pro-Clinton in the past. Maureen Dowd, whose columns about Clinton in the past year had a yo-yo quality, depending on her mood and social contacts?one week the President is a philandering snake, 10 days later Ken Starr is a prurient Christian who jerks off while reading the details of Clinton?s trysts with Monica?exhibited a reassuring return to reality last Sunday. True, the headline of her New York Times column, "Yuppie Foxhole," was stupid, and her line "Yuppies are going to war. The most self-indulgent generation in history is being asked to sacrifice by the most self-indulgent Commander in Chief in history," isn?t true. "Yuppies" aren?t going to war, and it?s doubtful that many of their children are. There?s no draft anymore, Mo; those are professional soldiers in the Balkans, and I don?t really know that "yuppies" are being asked to sacrifice anything.

    But she makes up for this silliness by writing the two best paragraphs about Clinton and the Yugoslav dilemma that I?ve read so far: "Instead of tipping off the villains in Belgrade that he was only willing to fight an air war, the President should have approached the conflict with the same bravado he showed when Dick Morris told him that polling indicated he should not go public with a confession about Monica. According to Mr. Morris, Mr. Clinton replied, ?Well, we just have to win, then.?

    "If the President had thought of Kosovo as a primary state, he might have mustered the burning determination needed to scare Slobodan Milosevic."

    The Daily News? Lars-Erik Nelson, one of the President?s staunchest supporters, to the point of nausea, now sounds like Pat Buchanan in his opposition to the NATO bombing. Although in a column last week he didn?t mention the President by name, his indictment of Clinton?s muddled policy was clear. On March 31, he wrote: "But under NATO bombing, Serbs support [Milosevic] now. Milosevic has a knack for dividing his political opponents and stirring the historic patriotic passions of the Serb people. Bombing may weaken his military power, but not his political strength... More bombing won?t oust him. We bombed Germany to smithereens, but it took the Red Army?s capture of Berlin to get rid of Hitler."

    Last Friday, in The Baltimore Sun, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, two old-line journalists who are about as centrist (and usually Democratic-leaning) as you can get, were exceptionally skeptical of Clinton?s actions. "The situation in Kosovo is rapidly taking on the dimensions of a disaster?militarily and politically... [O]ne tangential added casualty of the disaster in Kosovo may be President Clinton?s last shred of credibility as a national leader. It is clear that the president failed to understand the basic rules of political conduct of foreign policy written by the American experience in Vietnam a generation ago... Already the president is trying to counter the accusations that the bombing of the Serbs caused Slobodan Milosevic to send more forces to conduct genocide in Kosovo. But when Mr. Clinton says that is ?absolutely not? the case, will the public believe him?... There is a restiveness about Kosovo among some of our allies and many of our citizens. If he can still lead the country, the president needs to do it by laying out?better late than never?a convincing rationale for the policies he is following."

    The Washington Post?s Mary McGrory, who?s allergic to almost any conservative?with the possible exception of John McCain, every pundit?s favorite Republican?was similarly scathing about the President?s behavior during the crisis, zeroing in on his golfing expedition. Yes, she did take a cheap shot at President Bush for boating in Maine before the Gulf War (unfair, since when the conflict actually began months later, a prepared Bush, in suit and tie, worked tirelessly to monitor and direct the invasion), but her words about Clinton were nasty.

    On April 1, she wrote: "Since Clinton does everything for a reason?or a poll?we have to wonder if he was signaling his wife and daughter, who are gadding about the Middle East, that they drove him to this public relations blunder by leaving him alone in the White House while the greatest upheaval since World War II was under way?and he was being blamed for it... Clinton could not have been thinking of the wretched refugees. He was thinking of himself. He was doing what he has done before, yielding to an adolescent impulse to demonstrate nonchalance during a calamity... We were told that, from the clubhouse, Clinton called the prime ministers of Great Britain and Germany. Do you suppose he told them where he was?"

    Ed Koch, writing last Friday in the Daily News, was soft on the President, inexplicably giving him credit for "marshaling NATO?s air war over Serbia and Kosovo," without pointing out that Clinton has no game plan beyond that. He knows that Clinton has ruled out ground forces, but writes nonetheless, as if he?s not listening: "We, along with every other NATO nation, must be part of the rescue effort, even if that requires sending in U.S. ground troops." As is the former mayor?s style, he then plays to the crowd, Clinton-style: "As a Jew who remembers how the world stood by and allowed my people to be rounded up, brutalized and, ultimately, gassed to death, I can only hear in my head the promise made by decent people around the globe following World War II: Never again."

    Politicians and world leaders pick their battles; media commentators similarly choose the foreign flare-ups and slaughters that touch them either personally or emotionally. So it would be unlikely that Colbert I. King, who wrote in last Saturday?s Washington Post, should have the same opinion of Clinton?s fortitude as Koch. After expressing amazement at Clinton?s blithe dismissal of his impeachment debacle, King turns to another question Rather asked. He writes: "Next comes Rwanda... Rather asked Clinton about the allied bombing campaign. ?Why now and why [Yugoslavia]? We?ve had Rwanda, Sudan?you didn?t go into those places?? Here?s what Clinton said: ?Let?s remember what happened... I think the rest of the world was caught flat-footed and did not have the mechanism to deal with it. We did do some good and I think limited some killing there.? I?ll bet that?s not how those who watched the dead pile up in Rwanda remember it."

    King then goes on to catalog the carnage that began in Rwanda five years ago: "That?s the date?April 6?when the Hutu government?s killing machine got rolling in Rwanda. Three months later, after the soldiers, militiamen and death squads silenced their rifles, grenades, machine guns and mortars and put down their machetes, hammers, spears and clubs, at least a half-million men, women and children?three quarters of Rwanda?s Tutsi population?had been slaughtered. It was genocide. The world was not caught flat-footed as the president told Dan Rather. It looked squarely in the face of evil and averted its gaze... No, Mr. President, say what you wish to the cameras, but your administration was not caught flat-footed in Rwanda. Your State Department and United Nations ambassador?then Madeleine Albright?heard the terrifying words of warning. Your White House just didn?t want to get involved... ?We did some good,? Clinton told CBS. Amazing. Simply amazing."

    On April 2, The New York Times? Thomas Friedman was doubtful that the administration will come up with any coherent strategy, writing, "We are losing now, folks." He then sums up NATO?s options: "Beat the Serbs until they learn to love the Kosovars. Invade Kosovo and own it forever. Cut and run and bear the stain forever. Or bomb and talk and hope to build a messy diplomatic solution from the ashes of Kosovo. Oh, there?s a fifth option: Put your hands together and pray that the Clinton team knows something that you don?t."

    Even The New York Observer?s Joe Conason, who?s defended Clinton far more strenuously than a man of his intelligence should, joined the naysayers, although softly, about the President?s lack of a clearly thought-out military plan. In his April 5 column, Conason concluded: "Whether Mr. Clinton once believed that Mr. Milosevic could be curbed by air strikes alone no longer matters much. It still is conceivable that sustained bombing will force the Serbian tyrant to seek a deal. But sometime during the next several weeks Mr. Clinton may have to decide whether to commit ground forces. In the debate over that issue, everyone should understand that the price of backing down from this test and undermining NATO may not come due until years after Mr. Clinton leaves office." Of course, that wouldn?t bother Clinton at all: leaving his miserable droppings for a predecessor.

    Which reminds me: where?s Sidney Blumenthal? Ever since his dust-up with Christopher Hitchens, the White House scoundrel hasn?t been heard from. Has Hillary put him under house arrest for insubordination? Or did that duty fall to Al Gore, the loyal vice president who, probably against his better instincts, has toed the Clinton line so assiduously since their bus tour in ?92 that he?ll now get creamed in his own race for the Oval Office?

    Last Saturday, The Boston Globe?s John Ellis declared that the war was already over; Milosevic has achieved his "ethnic cleansing" and will initiate "peace" talks with the NATO powers. "And," Ellis writes, "President Clinton will take whatever he can get and get out... At the peace conference, Milosevic will be happy to spit back territory in southern Kosovo that he neither cares about nor needs. He?ll call it a concession and perhaps throw in the kidnapped U.S. infantrymen as a gesture of ?good will.? Clinton will take that, too. He cut and ran in Somalia. He?ll cut and run in Yugoslavia...

    "The watching world will learn a new lesson, which is that the iron fist of the United States doesn?t pack much punch. Homicidal gangsters have hamstrung the most powerful military force in human history. This is Clinton?s national security legacy. This is his bridge to the 21st century. This is the cost of feckless leadership."

    I?ve laid out this sampling of leading newspaper pundits?omitting The Washington Post?s Charles Krauthammer and Michael Kelly and The New York Times? William Safire, all three of whom have been historically more fierce in their criticism of Clinton?to demonstrate how far the President has fallen from the heady days of Whitewater and Oralgate, when his approval ratings were stratospheric and his friends in the press numerous enough to fill Yankee Stadium. That isn?t the case anymore. With this most public and embarrassing debacle, this stunning example of his inability to lead the country either morally or strategically, it?s finally clear that William Jefferson Clinton will slink back to Little Rock or Hollywood a diminished man who, even by the most liberal historian?s reckoning, will be judged as a politician who excelled at little more than getting elected to the presidency twice. John McCain?s Moment Don?t believe for a minute that presidential politics hasn?t played a major secondary role in the Balkans crisis. I don?t care for Arizona?s Sen. John McCain?he?s a weasel who?ll get torn to shreds by the liberal press once they get over his POW status in Vietnam?but he was magnificent both politically and militarily as he appeared on almost every talk show in the past two weeks. McCain wasn?t in favor of the NATO action, but he reluctantly voted for Clinton?s war in Congress, and then proceeded, without directly criticizing the President, to pulverize the administration?s aimless strategy. Whether it was on Meet the Press, The Today Show or Crossfire, McCain reiterated what?s just common sense: that, with bombing commenced, there had better be a clear goal, even if achieving it means committing ground troops. A few planes dropping bombs from Concorde level wouldn?t deter Milosevic, McCain said, and in war, despite the Lip-Biter?s aversion to blood, Americans had better expect some body bags to return home. Politically he was brilliant, postponing the official announcement of his candidacy because of the war while his challengers either vaguely supported the President, like George W. Bush, or thundered that we should never have begun the conflagration, like Pat Buchanan. McCain was resolute and clearheaded about the impact the NATO invasion would have on the nation.

    Lars-Erik Nelson, in the Daily News last Sunday, seemed like a speechwriter for McCain?s longshot campaign. Extolling the Senator?s advantages in a military crisis, Nelson even took a rare (for him) shot at Clinton: "[McCain] does his homework: when McCain speaks, he is not regurgitating a briefing paper he read the night before or mouthing a poll-tested sound bite written for him by a team of off-stage ventriloquists. He speaks with an almost brutal clarity, tempered by a sense of humor. Arguing for ground troops on CNN?s ?Crossfire,? he said, ?The last time, I think, that air power won was when Zeus used to have an unlimited supply of thunderbolts.?"

    After taking a shot at Bush for a "bland statement of support for the troops," Nelson ended his virtual endorsement (at least in the GOP primaries; come next spring, expect him to rally behind Bill Bradley) by saying, "If Bush should falter, McCain has clearly established himself as the top alternative in the GOP. When the guns went off, he was out front, explaining what had to be done to secure U.S. interests. There was nobody else in sight."

    Answering questions from Newsweek reporters in their April 12 issue, McCain said: "Our credibility is on the line here?credibility purchased with American blood. Yugoslavia is a country the size of Ohio: the Croatian Army beat these guys. Defeat is just not an option, and Milosevic needs to understand that even if every Kosovar moved out, and every village is burned to the ground, we can get them back in and we will rebuild their homes. There is no alternative to victory here, and the consequences of failure are profound."

    I?m a George W. Bush supporter?largely because I think he can win and because he?s proved to be an excellent governor of Texas, reaching out to minorities and supporting immigration while remaining fiscally conservative?and it comes as no surprise that he had a rough week in the press. There were stories about his long-ago engagement to a woman in Texas and about a drunken episode of nude dancing on a bar while in college. But Clinton has lowered the bar so dramatically for presidential candidates that this behavior?especially for a man who?s been faithful to his wife and stopped drinking 12 years ago?is small change.

    Al Hunt, The Wall Street Journal?s liberal cross-to-bear (sort of like NYPress? David Corn, but at least Corn is a stand-up guy with great taste in music), let Bush have it last Thursday. Noting that Bush had nothing specific to say about the Balkans war, Hunt took this as a sign that he?s an empty suit, ignoring his accomplishments in Texas. But what really got my goat was the following paragraph: "And, it is a reminder that Mr. Bush?s greatest strength?his name?also can be an Achilles? heel. When it comes down to the hot foreign policy issues of the day?the Balkans and China?the Clinton policies, whatever their shortcomings, are superior to the policies of President Bush."

    What nonsense. For starters, Gov. Bush is far more conservative than his father and is leading in the polls not just because of his name, but because of the "compassionate conservatism" policies that he espouses. That slogan causes liberal has-beens like Hunt to snicker, but it resonates with GOP voters and with Reagan Democrats, who are tired of Republican presidential candidates who have platforms that are so narrow?especially on social issues?that they turn off a majority of American citizens. Additionally, how can Hunt claim that Clinton?s foreign policy is superior to President Bush?s? It was Bush who doggedly built a coalition for the Gulf War, over a period of several months, not days, thus building respect internationally for the United States as well as himself. And in the wake of Clinton?s Chinese campaign cash scandals, Hunt should be banished from the Journal?s Washington bureau for making such an absurd and politically charged statement. It must make Robert Bartley, Paul Gigot and John Fund cringe to have to read Hunt?s mushy, and nakedly incorrect, essays every Thursday.  Al From Baltimore Reports Received your e-mail about the unanimity on the Capital Gang about what a bad job Clinton is doing in the Balkans. Watched the Sunday shows, and that was pretty much the consensus. Even people on Clinton?s side like Sen. Chuck Robb, while not criticizing the Prez, concede that having ground troops ruled out is stupid. Robb noted that Clinton has not used the word "never." Well, here we go again, trying the parse, as we used to say in the good old days of impeachment, the words of that man, Bill Clinton.   No one seems to think what we?re doing is right. There?s the neo-isolationists like Sen. Jim Inhofe, who think we should have never gotten involved in the first place, and then there?s everybody else who thinks that, regardless of whether or not we should be there, we need to finish the job quickly so as to minimize the human suffering of those getting screwed by Milosevic, and to maintain our credibility as a superpower. If we, in an alliance with 18 other countries, can?t finish off these guys pretty quickly, what are we spending $270 billion on each year? I think it would be irresponsible for the generals in the field to underestimate the enemy, but do we really have to listen to the politicians and pundits who oppose troop deployments scare us with how tough the Serbs are going to be? Shades of the Gulf War. Remember the "elite Republican Guard"? And the dug-in, battle-hardened Iraqi troops? Now we have to hear about how tough the Serbs are, how Tito evaded Hitler in the mountains for years, how they?ve been fighting for 600 years, how they?re united against us, how they?ll be dug in, blah blah blah. George Will has pointed out that the Germans got to Belgrade from Hungary, our new NATO ally, in days.

    The consensus that I think is building quickly is that it was irresponsible to start bombing if there was no contingency for ground troops. The Serbs can choose to let us keep bombing them as long as they want and yield nothing. I?m sure Clinton will try to avoid soldiers on the ground at any cost, but at a certain point, he won?t have any other option.

    The problem Republicans have had with Clinton is that he?s co-opted many of their issues and they don?t know how to respond. Clinton?s sexual adventures and his lying and smearing to cover it up turned conservative Republicans into the biggest boosters of our current sexual harassment laws. They missed the perfect opportunity to say, "Yeah, these laws really are excessive." Similarly, when Clinton does finally decide to project U.S. power to maintain Europe?s stability, Republicans should support him?it?s been their policy for over 50 years.

    Clinton, too, doesn?t know how to handle being on what for him has always been the wrong side of this issue. His passions are clearly against the projection of U.S. power. I don?t think he can conceive of Americans occupying a foreign country while he?s president. That?s something he would be protesting against?or at a minimum, equivocating about.

    Maybe it?s time for the U.S. to be less involved in Europe, but we just don?t leave without making sure the Europeans are prepared to fill the vacuum. To the extent that Europe can?t handle this on its own, or provide the necessary leadership, it?s because our country has been doing that for them for half a century. We can?t abdicate our responsibility overnight.

    Watching Clinton squirm, lie and otherwise screw up during his impeachment ordeal was kind of fun. This is serious business. The day of the genial feel-good president may be ending presently. Even I will take no pleasure in seeing Clinton?s popularity drop if it?s at the expense of many Yugoslavian lives and our determination to project American power abroad. No Hornets In Tribeca It was a quiet Easter weekend for the MUGGER family, with hefty baskets?but with a minimum of candy?presented to the boys on Sunday morning. Mostly we?ve been getting used to our new apartment. My wife?s and designer Michael Formica?s work has almost come to fruition, with a spare decor that combines elements of the 50s and 90s, along with a sop to the 70s in the form of the Mongolian lamb pillows on the couches that face our 59-inch television. My favorite touch is the Venetian blinds that adorn our five giant windows facing north and east. They?re perforated, so at night, looking out at a few grand municipal buildings (not to mention George Tabb?s dwelling, as Junior is quick to point out), it?s like a light show; far fancier than the clunkers I remember growing up in our modest house in Huntington.  With Passover seders sending people out of town, the traffic was horrendous at the end of the week: One night it took me 50 minutes to get home from work, a cab ride that?s usually completed in a third of that time. On Thursday, I girded myself for the elements and took the human sewer from 28th St. to Chambers St. Much quicker, and I picked up a takeout menu from a stellar pizza joint, Victor?s of Little Italy. The kids thought the pie wasn?t cheesy enough?they?re used to Ray?s?but I thought the mixture of tomato sauce and mozzarella, accented by well-done pepperoni slices and artichokes, made for the best traditional Neapolitan pie I?ve had since my last visit to the incomparable Stromboli?s on University Pl. Looking out one of the windows on Thursday night, while a demonstration in front of David Bouley?s Bakery was taking place?seems he employs non-union workers and the protesters were equipped with that gargantuan inflatable rat they haul around in their effort to save the world?I could see Holland Tunnel traffic backed up all the way to Harrison St.   I find it curious how people suddenly rediscover their religious heritage when holidays pop up on the calendar. I?ve no objections to the Orthodox Jews?like my friend Binyamin Jolkovsky, who took a break from slaving on his website Jewish World Review from Thursday to Sunday?since they practice their beliefs and pray every day. In fact, Bin gave me a hard time recently about a column I wrote that described a meal of fried clams; he was afraid that his Jewish readers would be offended by the mere citation of shellfish. But come Passover, Purim, Rosh Hashanah and all the other important dates I can?t remember, it seems so many of my employees get back to their roots and have to take an inordinate amount of time off from work. Same thing with Good Friday: Why in the world is the stock market closed on that day? It?s amazing to me that the U.S. Postal Service, which closes with alarming regularity?I swear that Arbor Day will be the next bennie tossed those lazy layabouts?had full service on the holy day. I?m with Chris Caldwell, who writes in his column this week that the only national holiday that should be celebrated is baseball?s Opening Day. Okay, that?s a stretch: Let?s throw in Thanksgiving and Christmas, too. But this country has too many holidays that in the past generation have morphed into three-day weekends: President?s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day, Veteran?s Day, all bogus work-stoppage excuses. I?m all for remembering and honoring (it?s a shame that Bill Clinton and his new-age disciples have ruined a perfectly fine word like "honor") the men and women who fought in war and battled against unconscionable factory conditions, but does the country have to come to a standstill?

    But I?m getting sidetracked. On Friday night, Mrs. M and I were joined by Mike Gentile, Tara Morris and Andrey Slivka for a meal at El Teddy?s, and if the food and drink were predictably fine, the conversation, when it turns to water-cooler headlines, can be pretty entertaining, and there?s always a bunch of new stories that I?ve never heard, since I?m locked in my sweatbox for most of the day. Needless to say, I can?t divulge the exact info, but 1999 has brought an even more diverse crew to 333; we?ve hired a slew of new people, and they all have their own past lives that trickle out over drinks at the Triple Crown. I have to repeat once more my favorite line from our comptroller Paul Abrams: NYPress is a "circus of humanity." And we wouldn?t have it any other way.

    I?m not much for eyebrow rings, goth tattoos, hair extensions, strong cologne (although that?s a relief in our increasingly crowded men?s room), Elvis shrines, ponytails on men, blaring electronica, tofu burgers or 6 o?clock brews on the sales floor, but if others can put up with my idiosyncrasies?like keeping my office at 90 degrees and the plethora of stray Power Rangers and family photos that decorate my lair?I?ve got no room to complain.

    Andrey told us about his recent trip down South, the mammoth oysters along the Gulf Coast that took three bites to slurp down and the Twilight Zone culture in Mississippi and Louisiana that still makes this country multidimensional, despite all the chain food outlets and bookstores that you can?t escape, whether you?re in New York, Akron or San Antonio. Unfortunately, you won?t be reading about his journey in this issue: Mr. Slivka, the Angry Young Ukrainian, decided to put off writing about his road trip until further notice. When I questioned the wisdom of this decision?I believe travelogues should be produced when they?re still fresh in the journalist?s mind?Andrey dissembled like Bill Clinton and claimed he was suffering from writer?s block. Which is a bunch of hogwash considering the number of words he spits out in these pages every week.

    On Saturday, while Junior and Mrs. M went off to see Doug?s 1st Movie, I took MUGGER III to 333 and he was in rare form, racing around the office and "firing" the five or six people who were trying to get their weekend work completed. Later, he presented each of them with a jar of jelly that I swiped from the Bristol Hotel in Paris and said he was only kidding. While I futzed on the computer, my four-year-old took over John Strausbaugh?s office (he?s on yet another jaunt to Italy) and contentedly spent an hour with the CD-ROM "Let?s Start Learning." He didn?t want to leave, but we had chores to do, like going to the new St. Marks Comics outlet on Chambers St., where he picked out a Spider-Man action figure for himself and some ?99 baseball cards for Junior. All of which reminded me that another season has started and I?ll have to make my traditional $100 bet on the Red Sox with my friend Jim Larkin, knowing that it?s money down the toilet. (By the way, to all you "Mail" scribblers who claim I?m welshing on my Clinton bet with Alex Cockburn: Fuck off. The terms of the wager were that the $1000 wasn?t due until Clinton completed his second term in office. The way things are going, I?d say my chances of taking the dough from the penurious Cockburn aren?t dead yet.)

    In the middle of the night, MUGGER III fell from the top of his bunkbed for the first time. He was a brave little guy, only crying for a few minutes, even though his back, although buffeted by a thick rug, was a little worse for wear. After a shotglass of Motrin he fell asleep in his mother?s arms and didn?t wake up until Junior goaded him; after all, there were the Easter baskets to open. First, we made sure the little guy was okay, and then I told him about falling from the ladder on my bunkbed as a seven-year-old. My screaming woke up two of my brothers; they told me to shake it off and get back to sleep and stop causing such a ruckus. Well, it was the fall of ?62 and the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full gear, so a scrape on the arm didn?t seem so important when it could be it just days before the Russkies blew us all up.

    The boys got a packet of plastic WWII soldiers, so we set up a battle scene, with the green American tanks and planes decimating the gray Serbs and beige Russians until just one general, with a private by his side, was left standing. There were a few chocolate eggs in each basket, but Mrs. M went easy on the candy this year. I?ve told my sons?not that they think it?ll happen to them?about my own Easter nightmare from 39 years ago. I?d devoured some chocolate bunnies and those great yellow marshmallow chicks for a few days and then went for my check-up at the dentist. Dr. Ellis found 28 cavities in my baby teeth, put on the brakes and called in a specialist. I had to go for an overnight?I still remember the doctor putting me under?and when I awoke the next morning my mouth was filled with black fillings and one silver cap. Those were the days when cosmetics weren?t considered too important?or I suppose clear fillings just hadn?t been invented yet?but man, did I have an ugly set of choppers. And when food got stuck in that cap! Grossed me out. It taught me a lesson, though: When my adult teeth grew in, I took care of them, and haven?t had a cavity since Nixon was in office.

    MUGGER III also paid attention to another Huntington story of mine. While we were playing with the soldiers, Pokemon trading cards and Rugrats stickers, he said, "I?m not setting up near the fireplace, no way, dude!" When I asked why, he reminded me of the hornet sting I got as a youngster, when a nest built up in our chimney and an insect came flying into the playroom, zeroing in on Boy MUGGER. My dad was quick with the baking soda as a salve, but I cried for at least an hour, and this has stuck in both of my sons? minds. I reassured MUGGER III that bees don?t like New York City, and that a hornet paying a visit was about as likely as Al Gore becoming the next president.

    Later in the afternoon we paid an Easter visit to Mike Gentile?s new midtown pad, stocked with a cool combination of his paintings and glorious kitsch that reminds me of a townhouse in Baltimore?s Bolton Hill. Mike and Tara Morris, filling the apartment with gorgeous arrangements of flowers?so fragrant that even my impaired sniffer could enjoy them?were kind enough to give Junior and MUGGER III baskets of candy. A second visit from the Easter bunny! And the boys thought that benevolent creature?s work had been done.

    We drank Cokes and ginger ale, chatting while the kids watched Shelby Woo on Nickelodeon, and Tara told us about a terrific brunch they had had earlier at Moran?s, the Irish chop joint that takes up half a block on 10th Ave. Mike?s working on a new series of paintings?in addition to holding down the job of NYPress art director, he?s one of the city?s so-far unheralded fine artists?and promises he?ll be showing his work at a gallery in the upcoming months. Mrs. M and I have filled our loft with Mike?s canvases?some dating back 10 years?and I have no doubt that in the next five years late-to-the-game collectors will be calling to make bids on our collection. Three words: Not For Sale.

    APRIL 5