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Chris Wallace vs. Bill Clinton: postgame analysis

Ronald Reagan's press secretary once shouted "Screw you!'' at him in the middle of a  press conference and didn't speak to him again for four years. But Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace has never experienced anything quite like the angry on-air tirade Bill  Clinton delivered on his show this weekend.

"I can only call it spontaneous combustion,'' Wallace said Monday, after a red-faced, finger-jabbing Clinton accused him of setting an ambush in an interview obtained under "false pretenses'' in order to "a nice little conservative hit job on me.''

"I've never had an interview like that, certainly not with a former president of the United States,'' Wallace added. "No one could have been more shocked than I was.''

Jay Carson, Clinton's press spokesman, didn't return two telephone calls from the Miami Herald about the interview.

The fireworks began when Wallace, after leading with several innocuous questions about Clinton's charitable work since the end of his presidency, asked, "Why didn't you do more to put Bin Laden and al Qaeda out of business when you were president?''

"I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked, 'Why didn't you do anything about the [attack on the USS] Cole,'‚'' a furious Clinton retorted. "I want to know how many people you asked, 'Why did you fire [White House counter terrorism chief] Dick Clark?' ... You didn't ask that, did you? Tell the truth, Chris.'' Wallace, he added, was just doing the bidding of "all of the right-wingers who are attacking me now.''

Presidents have laid into reporters before -- Franklin Roosevelt, during World War II, once snapped that a Chicago Tribune reporter should get a medal from the Nazis for his stories -- but have generally avoided doing while TV cameras were around, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabot.

"Other presidents have not wanted to bare their teeth in public,'' Sabot said. "I just think this is unprecedented. But Clinton has a terrible temper and everyone knows it. I think he was probably tired, and having a bad day, and Wallace irritated him.''

Though the interview was conducted Friday afternoon, it didn't air until Sunday. But partial transcripts began to appear on Internet sites friendly to Clinton and the Democratic party Friday night, prompting some speculation by Weekly Standard Editor William Kristal and others that the former president had planned what he did and was just conducting a bit of political theater at Wallace's expenses.

Says Wallace: No way.

"What went on in the room makes it clear that it didn't happen that way,'' Wallace said. "I was knee to knee with him, he was wagging his finger, glaring at me. This was genuine raw emotion, Bill Clinton unplugged. As soon as he spun out, his press secretary started jabbing my producer hard in the shoulder, saying to end the interview immediately -- which my producer refused to do.

"Then, when it did end and they went out the door, we could hear him out in the hall, yelling at his staff.''

The transcripts that appeared on the Internet, Wallace said, were leaked by Clinton's office, which had a tape recording of the interview, which appeared first on a liberal website set up by Clinton's former chief of staff John Podesta. "The Clinton spin machine went into full operation as soon as the interview was over,'' Wallace said.

Wallace remains puzzled at exactly what triggered Clinton's meltdown. "I'd love to say I asked the perfect question, but I can't," he said. "I thought it was a good, solid, probing, but not especially confrontational question. I think I just hit a raw nerve. I don't know if was was the ABC docudrama [The Path To 9/11, which Clinton and several former members of his administration said unfairly blamed them for failing to prevent the attacks] or a longstanding feeling that he's judged differently than President Bush."

It took several weeks to set up the interview with Clinton, who had never appeared before during the entire 10-year history of Fox News Sunday, Wallace said, and the ground rules were simple and agreed to by both sides: a 15-minute interview, half on the Clinton Global Initiative, as the charitable work of Clinton's foundation is known, and half on anything Wallace wanted to ask.

"I don't think it was an unfair question or an unreasonable question," Wallace said. "You know, Clinton did a lot of press over the previous week in connection with the CGI, and to prepare for mine, I read transcripts of almost every interview he did. Tim Russert did one. Laurie King. Meredith Viera on Today. Keith Olbermann. And to me the surprising thing is not that I asked the question, but that none of my colleagues did."

Clinton's claim that Republicans get a free ride on Fox News Sunday is absurd, says Wallace. In a show just two weeks ago, he noted, he peppered Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with questions like, "Why didn't we finish the war in Afghanistan?" and "Didn't you and the president ignore intelligence that contradicted your case [for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq]?"

"When Rice's segment ended, [Democratic National Chairman] Howard Dean came on next. I can't believe you were so hard on Condi Rice,' he said. Well, yesterday he issued a statement saying I was part of the right-wing propaganda machine.' Ahh, politics."


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In Richard Clarke's January 25, 2001 "Memorandum for Condaleeza Rice", he details the threat posed by Al-Qaeda, and on page 3 says "Attached is the year-end 2000 strategy developed by the last Administration to give to you (titled "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of Al-Qida : Status and Prospects"). Also attached is the 1998 strategy.

Tonight I read "We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al Qaeda," Rice said in a transcript of her comments released by the State Department.

Look at the URL given to view copies of these documents from the National Security Archive.

So who is the liar and who is telling the truth?

Marian McCray

Were you actually watching the same program as I? Wallace definitely ambushed Clinton with a series of questions all at once, and Clinton deserved the right to answer them all. I did not see any anger or red face, only someone ready and determined to answer the questions posed without being interrupted. Wallace claimed these were only questions he had received in E mails. On Faux News? Pullease!!


Marian, when was the last time you saw a former president turn red-faced, accuse a reporter of having a "smirk" on his face and go off on a non sequiter tangent for more than 10 minutes? Clinton's behavior was newsworthy and simply embarassing for a former president. The worst thing is he is probably quite ashamed of himself right now and wishing he could do a "do-over" on that interview.

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