Recently, several "news outlets" have published what may appear to the casual reader to be several blockbuster scoops about the Democratic primary race. One in the New York Post recounts Hillary Clinton allegedly profanely screaming at President Obama over the investigation into her emails, another chronicles supposed health problems Clinton is experiencing, and another claims Obama has agreed to back a Joe Biden presidential run if he can choose Biden's running mate. Each has the same source — a new book by the writer Edward Klein, scheduled to be released next week.
But work from Klein is generally greeted with strong skepticism, statements of disbelief, and downright mockery from many in the political media world — including conservatives.
Klein is infamous for writing books with salacious details about the Clintons and Obamas, filled with what purport to be direct quotes of the couples spilling their true thoughts in private. These quotes are always attributed to anonymous sources who just happen to be present at the time. They generally portray the politicians in a very unflattering light. And it's difficult to find anyone who believes they really happened. Here's how people have reacted to various Klein "scoops":
The @nypost is embarrassing itself with this Ed Klein reporting, splashed on cover.— Michael Barbaro (@mikiebarb) March 15, 2015
Wow, an Ed Klein story that only makes sense as anti-Clinton fan fiction! Again. pic.twitter.com/MijgjqnV6x— daveweigel (@daveweigel) March 15, 2015
No, I don't believe Ed Klein. But I still would like to know what the hell it is that Valerie Jarrett actually does at the White House.— Mark Hemingway (@Heminator) March 15, 2015
That said, let's be VERY VERY clear about something: author of NYPost story is Ed Klein. I don't trust him. You shouldn't trust him either.— Jeff B@AoSHQDD (@EsotericCD) March 15, 2015
.@RMH2345 Why don't I trust Ed Klein? Bluntly put, because he makes shit up. Shit I like to hear, but made up nonetheless.— Jeff B@AoSHQDD (@EsotericCD) March 15, 2015
I stopped reading at "Ed Klein" https://t.co/GNEjcAZhrl— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) September 24, 2015
Klein's quotes from the Clintons sound really weird
One reason people are so skeptical is that the quotes simply sound bizarre and absurd — but in a way that would sell a lot of books. In Klein's book Blood Feud, Bill supposedly tells Hillary that if he should die during her 2016 campaign, she should push to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery (despite his lack of military service). He supposedly adds that she should "take maximum advantage of my death," since "it should be worth a couple of million votes." The date of the supposed conversation? An unspecified "mid-summer" of 2013. The apparent sources? Two anonymous "female friends" with Hillary that day.
Katherine Miller gave a particularly entertaining rundown of Blood Feud's "9 most insane passages" at BuzzFeed. It includes Hillary Clinton supposedly telling graduates of her college class, regarding Obama, "You can't trust the motherfucker," and says of her husband, Bill, "All that shit of throwing things at him and yelling is in the distant past."
Even Rush Limbaugh found many of Klein's quotes hard to swallow. Here's how he reacted while reading a Klein excerpt, in which Bill Clinton supposedly said, "I hate that man Obama more than any man I've ever met, more than any man who ever lived," on air in 2014:
'I'm not alleging it doesn't exist and isn't true, any of that, but some of the quotes strike me as odd in the sense that I don't know people who speak this way... Does this guy [Bill Clinton] talk that way? "I hate that man Obama more than any man I've ever met, more than any man who ever lived." Why would he tell people this? If they've got this public show going on of unity, you know, one of the things you never betray your true feelings about people.'
Other reporters don't get quotes like this
Significantly, despite Klein's portrayal of the Clintons as incredibly indiscreet — "A lot of Klein's revelations come from other characters confessing their deepest thoughts to people they haven't seen in a while," writes Marc Ambinder — somehow no other reporter in the country has managed to confirm Klein's reporting, or get accounts of quotes anywhere near as salacious as the ones he prints.
And though politicians frequently dispute reporting they don't like, the Clintons' condemnations of Klein have been unusually harsh. A Bill Clinton spokesperson has called Klein a "known liar" and said various excerpts from Klein's book The Amateur about Clinton were "totally and completely false." And Hillary Clinton campaign spokesperson Nick Merrill told the Post this week that "the only true thing about him is his consistent and utter lack of a relationship with the facts."
"Almost deliberately uncheckable"
Klein has made some definite factual errors. For instance, Blood Feud describes Hillary Clinton profanely trashing Obama at a restaurant named "Le Jardin du Roi." Klein writes that "the wines had been carefully chosen by Roi, the owner of the restaurant," and that "Roi waited on Hillary personally." But as the Guardian's Jon Swaine pointed out, Roi isn't the name of a person but rather the French word for king, with the restaurant's name meaning "the king's garden." The owner of the restaurant is a guy named Joe.
Klein's more attention-getting claims, though, are made via anonymous sources and concern private conversations and matters — and are therefore impossible to conclusively debunk. "Like clever high school students, many of Klein's claims are almost deliberately uncheckable," Ambinder wrote, adding, "Who is going to know exactly whether Barack and Michelle Obama sleep in separate beds beyond maybe three other people in the universe?"
Anonymous sourcing can be misused, very badly
The ability to grant anonymity to sources is very important for reporters — particularly political reporters, in an age when so many officials are so reluctant to go on the record about anything.
Yet in the past, some reporters have been known to abuse this trust, using the cover of anonymity to push misleading or even completely fictionalized quotes. Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Jayson Blair of the New York Times were two well-known reporters who made up quotes out of whole cloth and managed to fool even reputable media outlets.
But the one time in recent years that Klein's work has been vetted by a serious news or publishing outlet didn't turn out well for him. After Klein's 2012 book on Obama, The Amateur, was published by the conservative publisher Regnery, its massive sales led major publisher HarperCollins to sign Klein to write a follow-up. Yet according to BuzzFeed's Ruby Cramer, "concerns about the reporting quality" of Klein's new book arose in HarperCollins when the manuscript was being legally vetted, leading to the termination of his contract. (Klein brought the new book back to Regnery, and a representative argued to Cramer that it was Klein's decision to do so.)
Klein's claims about Democratic politics don't make much sense
After their tense 2008 rivalry, Obama and Clinton might never become best pals. But, despite the recent interest by some in a Biden campaign, most accounts this year have suggested that the White House thinks Clinton would be a formidable Democratic candidate for 2016, and that her victory would be a good chance for Obama to secure his legacy.
Not Ed Klein. His new book conveniently advances his "narrative" from Blood Feud, in which he argued that the Obamas are positively desperate to stop Hillary Clinton, whom they despise, from winning the presidency in 2016. His evidence? Strange-sounding anonymous quotes, of course:
- An "Obama administration source," supposedly: "Barack, Michelle and Valerie [Jarrett] have been talking about Elizabeth Warren for quite some time. Valerie has told Warren that Obama is prepared to throw a great deal of money and organizational support behind her. The Obamas believe that Warren sees things from the same ideological point of view as they do. She is a committed progressive who, like Obama, wants to transform America into a European-style democratic-socialist state."
- Bill Clinton, to a "close friend," supposedly: "I've heard from [Democratic] state committeemen about Obama's preference in '16. And they tell me that he's looking around for a candidate who's just like him. Someone relatively unknown. Someone with a fresh face. He wants to clone himself — to find his Mini-Me."
- "A source close to the White House," supposedly: "Valerie has been holding secret meetings with Martin O'Malley and Elizabeth Warren. She's promised O'Malley and Warren the full support of the White House if they will challenge Hillary for the presidential nomination."
Only Klein knows for certain whether humans actually said these quotes to him, but they seem to describe a political world that exists only in some conservative fever dream. An Obama administration official actually confesses to a reporter known to be unfriendly that the president "wants to transform America into a European-style democratic-socialist state"? Obama confides his 2016 preferences in Democratic "state committeemen," who are basically local functionaries, and that's how it gets back to Bill Clinton? Valerie Jarrett has made sensational private promises to Warren and O'Malley — promises that would split the Democratic Party apart — and yet they've leaked to no one except a reporter well-known for selling books to conservatives?
Overall, what Klein writes simply doesn't make sense to political reporters — which is why his claims are ignored by the vast majority of the media. For instance, despite Politico's commitment to cover every micro-tidbit of political news, its media blog basically ignored Blood Feud's supposed revelations last year, instead posting links to three critiques of the book under the headline "Why we're not talking about Ed Klein." This decision, obviously, betrayed a lack of confidence in Klein's reporting, without taking him on directly.
But Klein's books make a lot of money, and his articles get a lot of clicks
Klein is frequently identified as the former editor of the New York Times Magazine. However, as the Guardian's Swaine recounted in an excellent profile, Klein was pushed out in 1987 after a management shake-up and a "pair of embarrassing errors" from the magazine. He wrote for Vanity Fair throughout the 1990s, before focusing on writing gossipy books about powerful families — starting with the Kennedys and proceeding to the Clintons and the Obamas. Swaine quoted Klein's former boss Tina Brown as saying, "Ed figured out where the big bucks were and tailored his ‘reporting' accordingly."
Klein's first book about Clinton, The Truth About Hillary, was released in 2005 — and pilloried by both liberals and conservatives in the media. Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan called it "poorly written, poorly thought, poorly sourced." She added: "Mr. Klein's problem is that he assumes the market is conservative and conservatives are stupid. They're not, actually. They want solid sourcing and new information that is true."
Yet The Amateur and Blood Feud, released in 2012 and 2014, were best-sellers, with the latter even outselling Hillary Clinton's own memoir of her time in the State Department. His new book is expected to sell quite well too, and Klein also performs very well in the currency of news websites, clicks, and Facebook shares. So it looks like Klein is here to stay.