April 14, 2008—As one of the few mainstream Washington journalists who defended the Clintons when they were under often unfair attack in the 1990s, it sometimes pains me to watch how that experience shaped – or misshaped – them in their national political revival a decade later.
The two most distinctive features of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign – and Bill Clinton’s attempts at a supporting role – are a seemingly bottomless pit of self-pity (excavated in part by the right-wing attack machine years ago) and the copycat use of many right-wing tactics to demonize their opponents and critics.
It’s like watching a Democratic mirror image of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove (albeit without all the creative destructive brilliance and with more whining about alleged media bias against individuals, Hillary and Bill Clinton).
Not that the Right didn’t whine over the years. A central theme in the Right’s faux populism was the long-asserted grievance about “liberal media bias.”
That right-wing complaint emerged historically in the 1950s when white Southerners grew angry about what they saw as sympathetic Northern news coverage of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights protesters.
The “liberal bias” argument gained steam in the late 1960s and the early 1970s when mainstream TV and print journalists were blamed for undermining public support for the Vietnam War and for driving Richard Nixon from office over the Watergate scandal.
Indeed, the Republican Party’s chip-on-the-shoulder style can be traced to these alleged injustices – even if the complaints hold little water (few Americans today would defend racial segregation; U.S. military historians pin the Vietnam defeat on incompetent battlefield strategy and high casualties, not the press corps; and President Nixon was guilty in the Watergate scandal).
Nevertheless, the right-wing anger over integration, Vietnam and Watergate transformed the U.S. political system, as Republican operatives justified their nasty hard-ball tactics as payback against the elitist liberals. Conservatives were the victims, you see.
So, in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, wealthy right-wingers built an extraordinary attack apparatus – their own media, well-funded think tanks and groups that would target journalists who exposed facts that endangered some other Republican president. There would not be “another Watergate.”
That was the strange world the Clintons entered in 1993 when they arrived in Washington. During the presidential campaign, they had gotten a taste of the attack machine (see, for instance, the targeting of Bill Clinton’s patriotism by President George H.W. Bush in the Passportgate scandal).
But the Clintons thought that the Republican meanness would subside once they took office, that they would be given a fair chance to govern.
So, in what he apparently regarded as a gesture of bipartisanship, Bill Clinton helped sweep under the rug serious investigations that were then underway into major political crimes of the Reagan-Bush years, such as the secret Iraqgate arming of Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Contra Affair. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
All Clinton’s generosity did, however, was free up the Right’s attack apparatus from its original role of playing defense for Republican presidents and let it go on the offensive against him and his wife.
Soon, the Right’s rapidly expanding media was full of ugly stories about the Clintons.
Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk show hosts regaled millions of listeners with tales of Clinton scandals; Jerry Falwell hawked a slickly produced video suggesting the Clintons were murderers; David Brock of the American Spectator wrote salacious stories about the Clintons’ personal lives in Arkansas; the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1994 was a virtual trade show for hate-Clinton paraphernalia.
Plus, given the mainstream news media’s sensitivity to the “liberal bias” label, editors and producers at major newspapers and TV networks joined in the “dump-on-the-Clintons” fun to show they could be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.
During this period, I was working at PBS Frontline, which wanted to do its own story about the Clinton scandals (presumably to strengthen its flanks against right-wing criticism of PBS’s “liberal bias”). But I argued that the anti-Clinton attacks were essentially “oppo” – or opposition research – run wild.
My efforts to turn the documentary more into an examination of how “oppo” techniques had distorted the U.S. political process led me to investigate how some of the false allegations against the Clintons were generated.
However, when my senior producer left Frontline for a job at another network, my effort to put the Clinton stories into this broader context died – and so did hope for any future work for me at Frontline.
After I founded Consortiumnews.com in 1995, as a way to tell important stories that the U.S. press corps was ignoring, one of our earliest series (in 1996) examined how President Bush’s re-election campaign had sought a political “silver bullet” that would take out the young Arkansas governor.
That was what had led to State Department political appointees rifling through Clinton’s passport file in late September 1992, followed by the Bush campaign’s attempt to impugn Clinton’s patriotism over a student trip he had taken to Moscow.
Another of my stories exposed how U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist had engineered a key personnel shift in 1992 to put the panel that picked “independent counsels” under the control of a right-wing judge, David Sentelle.
A protégé of Sen. Jesse Helms, Sentelle then picked partisan Republicans to investigate Clinton and his administration. One of Sentelle’s choices was former Bush administration lawyer Kenneth Starr, who conducted a zealous investigation into the Clintons’ Whitewater real-estate deal.
That inquiry eventually morphed into a recommendation that Bill Clinton be impeached for lying about a sexual affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
At the time, while many Washington journalists mocked Hillary Clinton’s claim about a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” I wrote an article saying she had a legitimate point.
Our political correspondent Mollie Dickenson also described how – even after Bill Clinton survived an impeachment trial in the Senate in early 1999 – the right-wing and mainstream news media continued to smear Hillary Clinton by publishing false leaks predicting that Starr would incriminate her in another offshoot of the scandal.
Though there’s an old saying that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sometimes what happens is that a person (or a political movement) becomes badly scarred by abuse or takes on the tendencies of the abuser.
As Bill and Hillary Clinton returned to the national political stage in Campaign 2008, they have personified both tendencies: they have displayed the thin skin of people who have been burned before and they have employed their own slash-and-burn tactics.
Whenever Hillary Clinton has faced criticism – whether legitimate or not – she has acted like an aggrieved victim and her husband often has hammered home the point. That was the context of Bill Clinton’s lament about how the press had distorted his wife’s gaffe about coming under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1996 and running for cover.
“A lot of the way this whole campaign has been covered has amused me,” Bill Clinton said on April 10 in Boonville, Indiana, though he obviously was using the passive-aggressive tense of the word “amused.”
The former president then launched into a false explanation of his wife’s earlier false account of the Bosnia episode – to show how unfair the press was acting.
He claimed she slipped up once (when she actually had puffed up the tale several times), made the mistake late at night (when it was a daytime speech), and corrected herself immediately (when, in truth, her campaign tried to beat back the journalistic reports and only backed off a week later after video was shown on CBS News).
Hillary Clinton also never really came clean in her explanation. She, too, used the cop-out excuse of exhaustion. A more plausible reason was that she had learned another bad lesson from the Republicans, that you often can get away with making false claims if you’re willing to denounce honest journalists who dare point out the facts.
But unlike the Republicans who have built their own machine – complete with dedicated media attack groups to go after troublesome journalists – the Clintons have a much more modest operation, essentially her campaign staff plus a handful of loyal commentators and a collection of angry bloggers.
Still, those limits haven’t stopped the Clintons from trying to bend reality to their advantage. To do so, they often have played games with one of the most sensitive issues in American politics, the historic discrimination against women.
Whenever Hillary Clinton has found herself in a tight spot, she has thrown down the gender card – even sometimes while saying she would never do such a thing – with complaints about the “all boys’ club” or talk about “breaking the highest and hardest glass ceiling” or having her surrogates bash her critics for “sexism” or “misogyny.”
The Clinton campaign’s thinking apparently is that by hitting people with such ugly charges, the critics will retreat into silence, much as Ronald Reagan’s backers used the phrase “soft on communism” or George W. Bush’s supporters used “soft on terror” or neocons label criticism of Israeli government policies as “anti-semitic.”
One example of this strategy came in late March when Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Barack Obama supporter, suggested that it might be time for Hillary Clinton to consider stopping her increasingly negative campaign to avoid damaging Democratic chances in November.
Though Leahy was just expressing his own political opinion, Sen. Clinton reportedly saw something more sinister. According to the New York Times, she told two Democratic allies that she would not be “bullied out” of the race and compared Leahy’s comment with the “big boys” trying to bully a woman.
The accusation that Sen. Leahy – regarded as one of the most decent people in the U.S. Senate and an ardent supporter of women’s rights – would bully a woman struck some people in Washington as either a strange delusion or a cynical political ploy.
Sen. Clinton later denied using the words “big boys” and “bully,” but the reported comments fit with her blunt warnings that her rejection by the Democratic Party risked causing women voters to sit out the general election.
“You cannot, as a Democrat, win the White House without a very big women's vote,” she told the Washington Post. “It's impossible. You go back and look at what's happened in the last four or five elections, if women don't turn out for the Democratic nominee, we don't win.”
I also encountered angry reactions from Clinton supporters when I wrote an article three months ago – just after the New Hampshire primary – citing the danger of the Clinton-Obama race degenerating into an unseemly competition between whether women or blacks had the larger historic grievance.
What I didn’t anticipate at the time was that this descent into identity politics would be something the Clinton campaign would encourage from both angles – with Bill Clinton portraying Obama as the black candidate in South Carolina – apparently making the political calculation that there were more white women voters than black voters.
At times, the Clintons and their surrogates have skirted close to a Republican-style race-baiting campaign, with Obama portrayed as a “lucky” and “elitist” young black man who consists of “just words” cutting line in front of a hard-working, older white woman.
The Clinton campaign’s angry tone also has exposed a deep well of self-pity, with Hillary and Bill Clinton signaling that they see a media double-standard against them.
So, when the press does its job in pointing out significant exaggerations and even lies told by Sen. Clinton, these legitimate criticisms are dismissed as anti-Clinton bias. Her aides and supporters rush to battle stations as if they were fending off a new assault from Ken Starr or the American Spectator.
The recurring complaints about an anti-Clinton media bias also are reminiscent of the Right’s endless accusations about the “liberal media,” a form of “working the refs” to get more favorable calls.
That tactic has worked well for Republicans in getting the Washington press corps to go out of its way to “prove it’s not liberal.” It now seems to be getting some journalists to toughen their treatment of Obama.
From e-mails that I’ve received, it also appears that some Democrats, who have suffered through decades of harsh Republican tactics, may welcome how the Clintons are trying to replicate the Right’s attack apparatus, though on a much smaller scale.
These Democrats argue that the party’s only hope for victory in November is to give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine. Some laugh at Obama’s concept of a “new politics” that appeals to voters with less partisanship, comparing his thinking to the campfire song, “Kumbayah.”
Some of these Democrats even argue that it is the Clintons’ duty to destroy Obama with negative attacks before the Republicans get their chance in the fall. It may be ugly but it’s for the good of the party, these Democrats contend.
But other Democrats are aghast at what they’re watching. They see Obama as a decent fellow and an inspiring (though thinly qualified) candidate who is being dirtied up by a Clinton-ized version of Republican attack politics.
To some, it’s hard to decide if the Clintons are suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome, in which they now identify with the cruel tactics of their past Republican tormentors, or if the Clintons are so consumed with self-pity that they would rather smash Democratic hopes this fall than face personal political rejection now.
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This story was published on April 14, 2008.