"Quit looking at the symbols. Get out and get a job. Quit shooting each other. Quit having illegitimate babies." -- Republican state representative John Graham Altman of South Carolina, addressing African-American concerns about the "symbol" of the Confederate Flag, New York Times, January 24, 1997, quoted by Brandi Mills
- January: Authors Joe Conason and Gene Lyons write, "The more sincerely the Clinton critics believed that the White House was covering up serious crimes, the more difficult it was for them to imagine how little evidence of those supposed offense had been assembled after more than two years of costly investigation by the Office of the Independent Counsel. Despite a steady media drumbeat suggesting that Starr's probe had reached 'a critical turning point' or 'a crucial phase,' the truth was that OIC prosecutors had already taken their strongest shot during the election year with mixed results: convictions of the McDougals and Tucker, acquittals of Branscum and Hill." (See the 1996 page of this site for details of these two trials.)
- Despite the illusion of a vast web of criminality, the independent counsel hadn't found much in the way of credible testimony or documentation." The Webster Hubbell plea bargain involved crimes that not only had nothing to do with his former law partner Hillary Clinton, but actually victimized her and his other law partners. The OIC was unable to come up with a single crime from either the "Travelgate" or FBI files investigations. As for Whitewater, by January 1997, Starr's investigation had hit a wall. Nothing he and his office could turn up showed any wrongdoing on either Clinton's part over any aspect of the real estate deal; though they told fairy tales about the imaginary $50,000 benefit the Clintons acquired from the deal, the mountain of evidence shows that the Clintons actually lost money on the venture. Both of Starr's main witnesses, David Hale and Jim McDougal, are convicted criminals who have repeatedly and systematically lied and perjured themselves; the respective jurors have already found them completely unreliable. And OIC prosecutor Ray Jahn himself, in his closing argument in the trials of Tucker and the McDougals, specifically and categorically exonerated Bill Clinton of any wrongdoing regarding Whitewater. Any such prosecution of the Clintons for any Whitewater-related charges would founder because of these established facts and testimonies.
- Kenneth Starr realizes that his investigation into the Clintons is essentially over, and that any prosecution will damage him, his credibility, and his judicial ambitions far more than it will harm the Clintons. Instead of owning up, he tells the media that his investigation is "progressing," privately telling supporters and reporters that indictments and perhaps even impeachment proceedings are forthcoming. Meanwhile, Starr wonders how he can get out of the entire ugly mess with his ambitions intact.
- Of course, the press corps, particularly those on the right wing, continue predicting doom and destruction for the Clinton presidency. The American Spectator, notorious for its series on "Troopergate," prints a pseudonymous story by Washington lawyer and Arkansas Project member Theodore Olson advocating that the RICO statutes, the body of law written in reaction to the many interwoven crimes of the Mafia and other criminal organizations, be applied to the Clintons, and comparing Clinton to The Godfather's Don Corleone. Meanwhile, Olson continues as legal advisor to David Hale, Kenneth Starr, the Arkansas Project, and Paula Jones, all in direct violation of the law and of his oath as an officer of the court. (Joe Conason and Gene Lyons)
- Early January: In a cover story, Newsweek assistant editor Evan Thomas personally apologizes to Paula Jones for doubting her story of Bill Clinton's sexual harassment. Thomas has apparently forgotten the May 23, 1994 Newsweek article blasting Jones's claims and featuring statements from Jones's co-workers who remember her prattling endlessly about various episodes from her varied and eventful love life, but don't remember her mentioning Bill Clinton at all. The story describes Jones as a "Dogpatch Madonna," a self-dramatizing, unreliable person who had made a pest of herself hanging around the reception desk for months after the allegedly "horrifying" (in Jones's words) incident between her and Clinton at the Excelsior Hotel; Jones would annoy the receptionists for hours on end with what former press aide Mike Gauldin describes as "hours and hours of beauty-shop inane conversation...." Gauldin described Jones in the article as "a groupie." (Thomas also apparently ignored the author of the 1994 article, Michael Isikoff, who briefed him on the story's contents before he wrote his apology.) The Newsweek article heralds a shift in the media's coverage away from its previous skepticism and towards a more accepting, credulous view. One of the few to contradict Jones is Stuart Taylor, whose Legal Times article documents how Jones's story has become steadily more lurid over time, and how her initial claim of the encounter happening at 2:30 pm has changed to a less definite time period after reporters reveal that Clinton left the Excelsior much earlier in the day, sometime in the mid-morning, and had spent the afternoon at a function at the governor's mansion. However, the Washington press corps will trail docilely after Thomas's lead, assisting the Jones lawsuit to become a serious threat to Clinton's political survival. (Newsweek/Joe Conason and Gene Lyons)
- January 7: President Clinton awards Medals of Honor to seven black soldiers who earned their citations in World War II, but due to racial prejudice, were not nominated for the awards in a timely manner. Six of the soldiers are already dead, and their medals are awarded posthumously. The sole survivor, Vernon Baker, says after the ceremony, "It's a great day. The only thing I can say to those who were not here with me today is, 'Thank you, fellows. Well done. I'll always remember you.'" (Michael Cooper)
- January 10: The New York Times prints the transcript of a secretive cell phone call made by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The transcript, from a tape of the phone call leaked by Jim McDermott, the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, proves that Gingrich has, in collusion with fellow House Republicans, broken the legal conditions surrounding his "plea bargain" with the Ethics Committee over 1996 charges that he illegally profited from selling videos of college courses he taught. Gingrich agreed to pay a $300,000 fine and not publicly minimize, or "spin," the charges against him. The cell phone conversation proves that Gingrich has colluded with House Republicans to violate his agreement by "spinning" the charges in the media. The phone call, which Gingrich believed was secure, was accidentally overheard by a Florida couple, John and Alice Martin, who realized that they were listening to and decided to tape-record the conversation. After consulting with their own House representative, they give the tape to McDermott, who is appalled by the conversation he hears.
- The Martins' decision to record the conversation is a crime in and of itself -- in fact, the couple will later be prosecuted and forced to pay a $500 fine. But McDermott decides that it is not illegal for him to release the contents of the tape to the media -- in essence, deciding that the Martins are no different than government whistleblowers who release secret documents to journalists in order to get the truth into the public eye. McDermott makes the decision to give the tape to the New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution; the Times publishes the story of Gingrich's violation of his ethics agreement.
- The story creates a partisan firestorm of controversy. Many feel, with good reason, that the public needs to know just how Gingrich colluded with his Republican colleagues to break the ethics agreement. Others feel that McDermott has committed his own transgression by releasing the contents of the illegally recorded tape to the press. "I felt people ought to know right now," McDermott explains, and adds that someone needs to ensure that Gingrich is exposed. McDermott insists that he has a First Amendment right to leak the contents of the tape, just like the journalists who wrote about it have the right to quote from it; none of them had themselves participated in the illegal behavior that led to the creation of the tape. Republicans disagree, and demand an investigation by the Justice Department. That investigation produces no charges against McDermott, but the Republicans aren't through. In March, 1998, Republican congressman John Boehner, one of the participants in Gingrich's conference call, files a civil suit seeking $10,000 in damages from McDermott for the disclosure of his private conversations. The suit rattles around in the court system for years, and as of this writing is still not settled. There is a strong possibility it has raised enough First Amendment and privacy issues to be heard by the Supreme Court. Though McDermott defends his actions as being within the bounds of the First Amendment, the fact that he waited five years to admit to being the one who leaked the tape, and on at least one occasion lied about it, makes his position less strong.
- Both McDermott and Boehner are politically damaged by the episode. McDermott resigns his position on the House Ethics Committee, and Boehner, exposed as a collaborator in Gingrich's plan to violate his ethics agreement, has his rise to power in the ranks of House Republicans temporarily derailed, though he will become House Majority Leader in 2006 when Tom DeLay resigns from the post because of the investigation into his own criminal behavior. One of the biggest effects of the legal case has been financial: Boehner often uses the case to help him in raising funds for his own and other Republicans, while McDermott, whose seat is so secure he has to raise relatively little money for his own campaigns, has been forced to raise money for his legal defense fund rather than for other Democrats. "This is a strategy of the Republicans to keep me from spending on other people," McDermott says. "There's no question it does that." If Boehner wins, McDermott will have to pay approximately $600,000 in legal fees that he does not have; conversely, if McDermott wins, Boehner, the plaintiff, has no legal obligation to pay McDermott's legal fees. As for press coverage, though McDermott is quite willing to speak to the press about the pending case, Boehner refuses to comment on it, though his spokesman says Boehner has been quite voluble about it in the past. One possible reason why Boehner may be reluctant to discuss the case is that he does not want to bring even more Republican ethics violations into the news. McDermott has broached numerous settlement offers with Boehner, who insists that McDermott take financial responsibility for the entire case as well as making a public admission of guilt on the House floor. McDermott refuses. "They wanted me to go out and confess to a crime that I didn't believe was a crime, that I still don't believe was a crime," he says. 17 media organizations have sided with McDermott in the case, saying that, among other issues, if Boehner's contention is upheld, then he could turn around and sue the papers who printed the story of the cell phone conversation, making it easier for other sources to use the courts to prevent the media from publishing embarrassing information about politicians and their potential criminal activity.
Lucy Dalglish, who heads the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, another supporter of the brief, says the case is vitally important to the press's continued freedom to report on the information supplied by whistleblowers, and points out that McDermott's case is very similar to that of two stories that won Pulitzer Prizes in 2005: the Times's report on the secret NSA domestic spying program and the Washington Post's report on secret CIA prisons in Europe. Both stories relied on information given to reporters in violation of federal laws. Like these reporters, says Dalglish, McDermott wanted to make important information public no matter what its source. "If someone broke the law in obtaining the information, and you feel you need to prosecute someone, that's the offense that should be prosecuted, the actual offense," she says. "You should not penalize anyone for using important information once it's out there." (The Stranger)
- January 13: The US Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, deciding whether or not such a civil lawsuit can be brought against a sitting president. Jones's legal briefs are prepared by two of her secret legal advisors, George Conway and Jerome Marcus. Jones's official lawyers, Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata, have long ago decided to keep any clandestine legal advice and the incessant fund-raising in Jones's behalf secret, fearing the destruction of their professional reputations. Also, they preferred to avoid any discussion of where their client and her team of lawyers were actually getting their money, primarily from sources controlled by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, most notably a $50,000 contribution funnelled through an obscure, one-man organization called the Fund for a Living American Government (FLAG), controlled by Scaife financial advisor William Lehrfeld. Nearly a million dollars of Scaife money has gone to the Landmark Legal Foundation, much of which has been spent on (or stolen from) the Jones defense fund, a million more to the Federalist Society, and half a million more went to the Independent Women's Forum, both heavy Jones fund donors. (It is worth noting that Kenneth Starr, Theodore Olson, David Sentelle, Conway, Marcus, and other jurists and lawyers heavily involved in the Jones case and other anti-Clinton measures are members of the Federalist Society. During the Bush presidency, many Federalist Society judges and lawyers will be appointed to high positions on the bench.) Society member Robert Bork, a failed candidate for the Supreme Court, and Olson both coach Davis and Cammarata on their upcoming appearance before the high court; Bork is in a position to intimately know the bench's inner workings, being a regular at poker sessions with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia. Olson has argued numerous cases before the high court. Upon leaving the session, Davis says, "someday someone will ask me who was present at this meeting." Of the participants, only Marcus and Conway, whose law firms aren't even aware of their involvement, insist on anonymity.
- The actual hearings do not begin until January 20. Following Olson's and Bork's advice, the Jones lawyers promise that the lawsuit will be scheduled around the president's own schedule.
- On the same day, Clinton himself takes the oath of office, sourly administered by Rehnquist. In classic Clintonian fashion, he makes an eloquent request for reconciliation between the two parties. His request will not be honored. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is particulary hostile towards the president, leading the charge of accusations that, in Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' words, Clinton's presidency is "fundamentally illegitimate" and that Clinton is "an ideological changeling who had stolen their strongest ideas -- welfare reform, crime control, a balanced budget -- and made them his own. Gingrich had already begun to make good on a promise to seize the new opportunities presented by the campaign-finance scandals."
- During the Supreme Court hearings, investigative reporter Michael Isikoff of Newsweek receives a tip from Cammarata about a second woman claiming to have been sexually harassed by Clinton, Democratic Party volunteer Kathleen Willey (who at the time refuses to give Cammarata her name, but gives a number of hints as to her identity, including her husband's 1993 suicide that has showed up on some of the infamous Clinton "death lists." Isikoff finds that her husband, Edward Willey, shot himself the day after the incident, not because of any connection to Clinton, but because he was about to be indicted for embezzlement). Isikoff will hound Willey until she tells him, off the record, a story in what Isikoff calls "gripping and microscopic detail" about supposedly being "groped" by Clinton during a November 29, 1993 visit to the Oval Office where she was asking for a paying job. According to Willey, who claims that Clinton has flirted with her since 1992, "His hands were everywhere. ...He put his hands up my skirt." Willey claims that an aide's knock on the door gave her a chance to flee. Willey steers Isikoff to two friends of hers, Julie Hiatt Steele and Linda Tripp. Steele, a close friend of Willey's, initially confirms the story but later admits that she lied in her statement confirming Willey's story, at Willey's request. Tripp, a low-level Pentagon employee and a holdover from the Bush administration with a secret but heavy loathing for the president and his administration, also confirms Willey's story, but puts her own spin on it: both to Isikoff and later to a grand jury, Tripp contradicts part of Willey's story. Willey says she left Clinton's office upset and embarrassed; Tripp says Willey appeared "joyful" if somewhat disheveled: "her face was red and her lipstick was off. ...I can tell you that she was very excited, very flustered. She smiled from ear to ear the entire time.... She seemed almost shocked, but happy shocked." Isikoff is hot to publish the story but knows that his editors at Newsweek will demand independent confirmation. He continues to dig. In August 1997, Isikoff will print a story centering on Tripp's recollection of Willey's allegations, but Willey will deny the story. For the next several years, Willey will go back and forth, first denying, then confirming, then denying the tale. (Marvin Kalb, Executive Intelligence Review, Joe Conason and Gene Lyons)
- January 16: Two bomb blasts an hour apart rock an Atlanta building containing an abortion clinic. Seven people are injured. The clinic is left in ruins. It is apparent that the second bomb blast was timed to attempt to kill or injure police, firefighters, and emergency rescue workers who responded to the first blast. "We were horrified and outraged by news of this tragedy, but hardly surprised," says Eleanor Smeal of the women's rights group Feminist Majority. President Clinton condemns the explosions as "a vile and malevolent act" of terror, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican who represents the area, says "Americans should join "in condemning any act of violence, especially political violence." "Vicious," says Democratic representative John Lewis, who visits the site after the bombings. "Vicious and evil." (CBS, Washington Post)
- January 26: Former White House security agent Gary Aldrich publishes a sensational, largely baseless book called Unlimited Access. The book, subsidized by Richard Mellon Scaife and published by right-wing printing house Regnery, repeats the oft-told lie about Clinton's late-night trysts at the Washington Marriott Hotel. Aldrich, an ex-FBI agent who admired the hard-line politics of his former boss J. Edgar Hoover and later joined the secretive Council for National Policy, is one of the few friends of disgruntled former White House aide Linda Tripp. Aldrich and Tripp were two of a small number of anti-Clinton White House staffers held over from the Bush administration; Clinton had tried to demonstrate his commitment to bipartisanship by keeping a number of former Bush employees in his new administration, and some of them had repaid the favor by passing along inside information, gossip, and lies to various anti-Clinton groups such as Citizens United. Aldrich kept in contact with Richard Larson, who had been retained by the Clinton administration but quit in 1993 to join the Republican minority staff of the House Government Operations Committee as an investigator; he and Tripp will pass along damaging and often fictitious information to Larson concerning the Travel Office imbroglio and the supposed misuse of FBI files, information used by Republicans after their takeover of Congress in 1994 to initiate investigations into the White House. (Joe Conason and Gene Lyons)