Full steam ahead

The vast right-wing conspiracy that could.

IT WAS COINCIDENTAL but appropriate that I finished reading The Hunting of the President on the very day last month when Robert Ray, who replaced Ken Starr as the independent counsel probing alleged misdeeds by the Clinton administration, reported that there was "no substantial and credible evidence" of criminality in what's become known as "Filegate."

THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT: THE TEN YEAR CAMPAIGN TO DESTROY BILL AND HILLARY CLINTON

by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons (St. Martin's Press, $25.95)

That pseudoscandal, which dates back to President Bill Clinton's early days in the Oval Office, involved his staff's receipt of confidential files on mainly Republican appointees who'd served previously in the White House. The new Democratic administration excused the matter as a bureaucratic blunder, but Filegate nonetheless incited investigations by GOP-led committees in both houses of Congress and fired up reporters hungry for a latter-day Watergate. It also became one of many rallying cries for Clinton bashers seeking either to raise money for opposition candidates or raise hell against a commander-in-chief they portrayed as unfit for his exalted post. So it wasn't surprising that Ray's report was promptly denounced by anti-Clinton groups. After all, they've made an industry out of presidential "scandals." Why would they let mere truth stand in the way of their juicy charges?

"[R]arely in this century has the impulse to destroy dominated our national discourse the way it has during the past decade," award-winning national journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons write in The Hunting of the President. "No president of the United States and no first lady have ever been subject to the corrosive combination of personal scrutiny, published and broadcast vilification, and official investigation and prosecution" endured by the Clintons.

Tracking the roots of these politically charged efforts, Conason and Lyons found a principal source in a "dirty tricks" campaign launched by the late Republican chairman Lee Atwater. Near the close of the 1980s, it seems, Atwater identified then-Governor Clinton of Arkansas as a serious threat to the GOP's hold on the White House. A brilliant young political strategist with a mainstream message, Clinton also was dogged by rumors of official malfeasance and infidelity, and Atwater was determined to exploit such malicious murmurs against him. After Atwater's death from cancer in 1990, others—both inside and outside the government—took up the cudgel. For instance, Conason and Lyons write that during the 1992 presidential race, Republicans offered cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers money to tell the media that she'd carried on a 12-year affair with the governor (a dubious allegation, since a Little Rock hotel where she claimed they'd trysted between 1978 and 1980 wasn't even built until 1983). When that didn't cripple Clinton's candidacy, President George Bush's reelection campaign tried to start a criminal investigation of his opponent's link to a money-losing real estate venture known as Whitewater, but it went nowhere at the time—perhaps, say Conason and Lyons, because Bush feared it would draw attention to his own sons' disaster-fraught business dealings.

AS THE BOOK recounts progressively more outrageous indictments leveled against the president and first lady, then shoots each down in a hail of well-documented and previously ignored exculpatory evidence, it's frightening to realize how easily a "loose cabal" of often well-financed Clinton haters manipulated a press overly distrustful of government. In these pages, we find a wealthy Chicago Republican (with ties to Newt Gingrich) secretly paying off Clinton's former Arkansas bodyguards to repeat questionable tales of his philandering. We find tens of thousands of dollars being spent to perpetuate the myth that the president had fathered a black prostitute's son, and we see The Wall Street Journal scheming to acquire bogus surveillance videotapes showing Clinton paying a bribe. We see other news organizations—including The Washington Post and The New York Times—propagating half-truths and partisan rancor, then defending their "facts" even after they were proved erroneous. Of course, we also revisit Paula Jones, who claimed that her sexual harassment suit against the president had nothing to do with money, only to eventually insist on a much larger settlement in the case. And what account of Clinton's second term would be complete without the oleaginous Ken Starr, whose multiple conflicts of interest made him the least independent "independent counsel" in US history?

Oddly, Bill and Hillary Clinton seem like secondary characters in this eminently readable and thorough—as well as thoroughly maddening—study. According to Conason and Lyons, that's because most of the scandal talk that has swirled about the first couple had little or no basis in reality but did take on a life of its own, nurtured by numerous right-wing talk shows and publications. Sadly, as the authors tell it, Starr realized as far back as 1997 that Whitewater, Filegate, and related controversies weren't going to get him the convictions that his conservative supporters demanded. So instead he went searching for any other weapons to use against the leader of the free world. Had Clinton not opened himself to attack over his brief dalliance with a White House intern—not a scandal of Iran-contra or Watergate proportions, but a stupid thing to do by anyone's standards—he might have been remembered for his many political accomplishments rather than for his personal appetites.

 
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