"It is the story of a loose cabal, if not quite a 'vast conspiracy,' involving longtime Clinton adversaries from Arkansas and elsewhere: an angry gallery of defeated politicians, disappointed office seekers, right-wing pamphleteers, wealthy eccentrics, zany private detectives, religious fanatics, and die-hard segregationists who went beyond mere sexual gossip to promote rumors of financial chicanery, narcotics trafficking, and even politically motivated murder. Some were energized by spite, others by ideological zeal, and more than a few by the prospect of personal profit. Some shared all three motives. It is also the story of the most successful and long-running 'dirty tricks' campaign in recent American history, fomented by a handful of professional Republican operatives and corporate lawyers, and funded by a network of wealthy conservatives. Swept up in their movement's anti-Clinton fervor, these respectable figures sometimes eagerly joined forces with persons of considerably lesser repute. Indeed, the effort to destroy Clinton began early on in the highest councils of the Republican National Committee, and included aides to former president George Bush. Arguably, not even the chief justice of the United States held himself entirely aloof from the great crusade. It is also the story of important journalists and news organizations succumbing to scandal fever, credulously and sometimes dishonestly promoting charges against the Clintons in heavily biased, error-filled dispatches, columns, bestselling books, and TV news specials, and thus bestowing 'mainstream' prestige upon what was often little more than a poisonous mixture of half-truth and partisan malice. Some conducted themselves as if their mission were less to inform the public than to guard their institutional prestige by protecting their own erroneous reporting from correction." -- Joe Conason and Gene Lyons
"In October 1998, [the New York Times's Michael] Oreskes told a group of newspaper executives [in reference to the Lewinsky scandal], 'None of us had ever seen a story like this before.' Never before had an independent counsel launched a criminal investigation of a sitting president, charging him with possible perjury, suborning of perjury, and obstruction of justice. Never before had an independent counsel submitted an impeachment report to the Congress. Never before had a president been impeached essentially for lying about an affair. Never before had the media reported so intrusively and exhaustively about the sexual life of a president while in office, 'media' being defined as everyone and everything from Koppel to Drudge and from the Internet to a local radio station. The scandal of January 1998 was an original. It stained the presidency, tarnished the reputation of the press, and cast a long shadow over the entire country." -- Marvin Kalb
Until the remarkable events of January 1998, none of the efforts to bring about the political destruction of Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared to have any chance of succeeding. His enemies' relentless intrusion into the president's intimate life, the continuing examination of his family and political finances, and the ever-expanding investigations of his administration had failed to find sufficient credible evidence to prevent his election and then his reelection, to bring about his impeachment, or to sustain a civil lawsuit against him. Similarly, Hillary Clinton's oft-predicted indictment was by that time little more than a partisan daydream.
"Despite several years of effort and many millions of dollars expended by teams of investigative reporters, two independent counsels, and multiple congressional inquests, in addition to the probes privately funded by Richard Mellon Scaife and other political adversaries, no prosecutable offense had been found. Although independent counsel Kenneth Starr was still keeping that secret to himself for the time being, the most heavily investigated couple in the United States had emerged unscathed. Nearly four years of costly litigation by the Paula Jones legal team had produced a weak case that would not withstand summary judgment.
"Yet the hunting of the president had inflicted a severe trauma on him, his family, his friends, his administration, and more broadly on the political culture of American democracy. It had perverted the law and debased the media, and in the months to come it would cost the country still more.
"Despite his reckless and foolhardy behavior, the looming threat of impeachment had not been created by Clinton alone -- as his enemies, seeking to obscure their own complicity, would stridently insist. The separate strands of the rope with which those bitter foes had so long hoped to hang him -- Paula Jones's civil lawsuit and Kenneth Starr's ever-expanding criminal prosecution -- were each too weak to bear any such constitutional weight alone. But during the bleak early days of January those two threads had been cunningly twisted together to form a noose, which the president then pulled over his own head." -- Joe Conason and Gene Lyons
"Rarely in this century has the impulse to destroy dominated our national discourse the way it has during the past decade [the 1990s]. 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 William Jefferson Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. In historical terms, certain of the mechanisms necessary to inflict this kind of punishment -- from the Office of Independent Counsel to the twenty-four hour news 'cycle' and the Internet -- are quite recent innovations. All have been brought to bear against the Clintons and their associates with stunning effect.
"From the beginning, his enemies portrayed Clinton as unworthy to occupy the office of president of the United States. This assessment held firm despite his acknowledged intellect, industriousness, and charm, and also despite the fact by almost every statistical measure, the American people and their government were in far better condition by 1999 than when the Arkansan took office in 1993. With his remarkable political skills, the president had broken the Republican 'lock' on the electoral votes of the southern states, muted his own party's clamorous left wing, adapted portions of the Republican agenda to his own uses, restored fiscal discipline, and outmaneuvered his bitterest foes in the GOP leadership again and again. But the better the president and the country did, the more his adversaries appeared willing to endorse almost anything short of assassination to do him in." -- Joe Conason and Gene Lyons
"Ironically, many of the same commentators who [during the Reagan/Bush years] decried the 'culture of scandal' and its contamination of American public life have applauded some of the most extreme assaults upon the Clintons. Even their young daughter has not been totally exempt from scrutiny. As a result, everything that conservatives once warned against when Republican presidents were embattled has since come to pass: the coarsening and debasement of democratic discourse; the abuse of criminal prosecution to resolve political disputes; and the diminishment of popular respect for the presidency, of Congress, the federal judiciary, the news media, and other vital institutions. Although Bill Clinton deserves his substantial share of blame, the ill effects of the campaign against him and his family appear all but certain to outlast the [Clinton administration]." -- Joe Conason and Gene Lyons
"That double standard has defined our politics since 1992: Bill Clinton was attacked relentlessly for crimes he did not commit and errors he did not make. Bush/Cheney have committed just such crimes and errors on an infinitely larger scale, so brazenly that they could keep a dozen independent counsels busy for the next ten years, and yet for over three years they were criticized or censured very little. [This was written in late 2003.] This paradox has been so dominant, and its consequences so enormous, that the term 'double standard' seems too weak to do it justice. Rather, there has seemed to be no 'standard' operating, but a raging Manichean animus; one that has impelled the corporate media as well as most Republicans. Clinton was routinely crucified for what he didn't do, while Bush did do it, or is even doing it now, yet everybody acts as if he never did and never would." -- Mark Crispin Miller
"Whereas Bill Clinton was condemned, and rightly, for his lodging wealthy donors in the so-called Lincoln bedroom, Bush/Cheney have hardly been rebuked for far more brazen doings of that kind. Their donors too have often been rewarded with nights inside the White House, all amenities included. (The White House has refused to say which presidential guests have spent the night inside the Lincoln bedroom, as if it would make any difference if they had been bedded down in any other chamber of the presidential home.)" -- Mark Crispin Miller
"It is not Bush but Clinton who has been stigmatized as the most lying president we've ever had -- a bigger liar than LBJ, an even bigger liar than Nixon, and, it goes without saying, a bigger liar than Reagan and George Bush the Elder put together. On this myth of Clinton as the Father of Lies -- as on his other mythic sins -- the ultraright is in complete agreement with the rightists who are closer to what used to be the center, and on the subject of Clintonian prevarication, those self-described 'conservatives' have often sounded like extremist nuts. For it is not just 'Slick Willie' -- or 'Clinton the Liar and Deciever [sic]' (as the group Citizens for Netanyahu puts it) or the 'lying, Jew-collaborating traitor that Bill Clinton is' (as neo-Nazi William Pierce once put it), or Clinton 'the pathological liar' (as Christopher Hitchens has put it repeatedly) -- who figures as an arch-falsifier in thier minds. Rather, they are thus repelled by all who share his alien creed, who come from his detested clan. 'We have a President who has a problem: he lies when he doesn't have to,' wrote William Safire in the New York Times. It was not just that president who had this problem. His closest comrade had it, too, as Safire noted often: 'Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenital liar.' Such were the mendacious, ever-shifting would-be King and Queen of the United States, the spiritual parents of 'those lying Democrats.'
"...The myth of Clinton's devilish lying had far more to do with the mentality of those attacking him than with the actual history of his remarks. That Clinton could be glib there is no doubt, and with the charge that he lied baldly to the public about Monica Lewinsky there can be no argument, but that he somehow lied more ably or compulsively than any other politician is itself a paranoid delusion, or a lie, intended to define his strengths -- great charm and keen intelligence -- as signs of evil.
"The fierce distrust of Clinton felt and propagated by his rightist adversaries is a bit mysterious, in part because when Clinton did fake people out, they were usually people on the left, for whom he tended to reserve his wildest campaign promises -- not proof of an extraordinary immorality, but just a function of the fact that Clinton was a centrist Democrat who ran, at first, as more progressive than he was." -- Mark Crispin Miller
"What is new about Clinton's crisis is the web that has been woven by three groups, which feed on each other in a national frenzy," authors Stanley Hilton and Anne-Marie Testa wrote in 1998. The first is Ken Starr's prosecutorial team, who spent years unsuccessfully digging up dirt about the president's financial dealings regarding the Whitewater land deal, then, after finding out about the Lewinsky affair, suddenly veered off into investigating that, eventually producing a report unmatched in government publications for its salaciousness and political irrelevance. The second is the media. Motivated by greed for money and fame, it didn't take long for media publishers to realize that the more they published -- factual or not -- about Clinton's scandals, the higher their circulations soared and their ratings rose. The third is the Republican leadership in the House. Bloated with scandals and corruption themselves, the House Republican leadership -- Henry Hyde, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Dan Burton, Dick Armey, Bob Barr, Robert McCollum, and others -- have led their fellow Republicans, and not a few Democrats, in a witch hunt in order to take down a president they could not legitimately defeat in 1996. Republicans in the Senate were waiting impatiently to try the president, led by, among others, Trent Lott, Phil Gramm, and Alfonse D'Amato. "It is truly a farce." -- Stanley Hilton and Anne-Marie Testa
"In Clinton's wilder critics there appears to be imposture of another, stranger kind [as opposed to ordinary hypocrisy], driven by a perfect inability to recognize the error of their ways. If they did it, it cannot be wrong, as they can do no wrong, no matter what they do, for they are who they are, and they are good. And yet such 'good' requires reconfirmation day by day, hour by hour: that is, incessant accusation, condemnation, persecution of the 'bad' -- who are relentlessly constructed by 'the good,' out of their own internal demons. In other words, that sense of super-rectitude comes not from any inner certainty, but rather is contingent on an endless furious denial of one's own 'bad' aspects, which are imputed -- much exaggerated and distorted -- onto one's enemies, whoever they may be (and they are legion). Unlike the hypocrite, in short, the mad projector, although self-absorbed and self-promoting, is forever brooding on the Other, and always searching for new opportunities to smear him, bring him down, do him injury, make him suffer: kill him, kill his family and his friends, his colleagues and his followers, and finally wipe out everyone who's even slightly like him." -- Mark Crispin Miller
"The President's attackers are a motley band, consisting primarily of perjuring partisan politicians, strumpets, hogs, bitter old segregationists, hired guns for cigarette companies, felons, judges who trade favors for jobs, bitter, defeated, pathetic former political rivals, Hillary-hating misogynists, wacko billionaires, gay-bashers, hate-radio hucksters, mother-subpoenaing prosecutors, and mother-suing nutcases, all feeding an endless line of lies and half-truths to jealous journalists, envious editorialists, curmudgeonly columnists, and cranky commentators more concerned with their own self-importance and trashing the good name of a great President than the truth." -- James Carville
In 2001, Marvin Kalb wrote One Scandalous Story, which focused on the 13-day period between January 13 and January 25, 1998 -- the time period that saw America's mainstream media descend into a feeding frenzy over the Monica Lewinsky allegations. During this time period, as Kalb sorrowfully documents, even the most respectable of American media outlets -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the three network news shows, CNN, others -- abandoned virtually every journalistic principle and restraint in their attempt to hammer the Lewinsky story down the throats (no pun intended) of the American public. (Kalb uses the term "mediathon," coined by columnist Frank Rich in regard to the media's obsession with, for example, the O.J. Simpson trial and the life and death of Princess Diana, and now the Lewinsky allegations.) "The journalist saw old standards fall and new ones created for the occasion," writes Kalb.
Why would such a scandalous, salacious, yet ultimately meaningless, story take such a hold on the media to the point where it crowded out far more relevant and worthwhile stories? There are multiple reasons that we can guess on the part of various individual members -- moral revulsion, political retribution, ambition, a perhaps overzealous attempt to report on material being concealed by the White House -- but according to a number of journalists involved in the reporting at the time, one of the overriding factors was boredom. "There is no real news here," ABC's Cokie Roberts complained in late 1997. The New York Times's Rich added, "The country is bored, desperately bored. We have small ideas, small plans, small schemes." The National Review's Kate O'Beirne griped, "The Washington bureau is less interesting." Clinton's second term of office, before Lewinsky, was marked by a flagging Whitewater investigation, a resoundingly strong economy, a bullish stock market, record lows in unemployment, and a raft of foreign policy successes, or impending successes, from Kosovo to Northern Ireland to the Gaza Strip. The Cold War was relegated to the History Channel. The administration was priming the somnolent and fidgety media for a January 27 hullabaloo focusing on Clinton's State of the Union address and the announcements of a balanced budget and a projected budget surplus. In a sense, Clinton was the victim of his own political success. Clinton had either slain the dragons his administration faced, or left them alone to drop off the media's radar. The world was at peace, more or less, and any festering problems weren't registering as crises with the media. Therefore, lacking a real crisis, the media would all but create one.
Click here to go to an exhaustive summation of Marvin Kalb's walkthrough of the 13 days of media frenzy surrounding the then-breaking Lewinsky scandal of mid-January 1998, One Scandalous Story, augmented by material from Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' The Hunting of the President. The reason why I have covered the subject so thoroughly, and included so much material from both books on the subject, is to document just how much the media steered the government's and the nation's reaction to the story, demanding Clinton's resignation before knowing the details of the story and virtually ensuring that Congress would begin impeachment proceedings.
Marvin Kalb points out that, while sex has always been a good story, traditional (i.e. more "respectable") journalists left the tabloids to cover what he calls the usual run of "fantasy and filth." In January 1998, when the Lewinsky story broke, it took less than a week for the nation's most prestigious journalists and their publishers to abandon the century-old traditions of keeping the sordid -- and the unconfirmed rumor -- out of their stories. "Faced by a scandalous story involving a president and an intern, a competitive twenty-four-hour-a-day news cycle, and a coldly demanding economic imperative, many found themselves violating just about every rune in the book. One newspaper or TV news broadcasts would print a rumored story, such as the badly sourced and untrue allegation that a Secret Service agent saw Clinton and Lewinsky having a so-called "intimate moment" in a private area of the White House. Another news outlet would echo that report, sometimes couching it as a "report of a report," i.e. "The Dallas Morning News will print a story saying that...." By the afternoon, the story -- never sourced, never confirmed -- would have ricocheted around newspapers and TV newsrooms around the country, and be accepted by journalists, government officials, and American citizens as fact. Sometimes the original publisher would recant and retract the story. Sometimes not. In every event, the retractions barely raised a blip on the news radar, eclipsed by the next "breaking story."
In the case of the Secret Service allegation, Steven Brill put it quite nicely: "This story of a 'Secret Service' witness seems to have been a one-source story from a fifth-hand source: [lawyer Joseph] diGenova (1) heard his wife (2) talking to a friend (3) of someone (4) who had talked to someone (5) who said he'd seen Lewinsky with Clinton." Bad journalism, and a tremendously thin rationale for impeaching a president. Although the Dallas Morning News was burned particularly badly in this particular incident, blame also lies with ABC for originally broadcasting the story, and other news outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal and CNBC, for picking up the story and running with it without bothering to give it the most cursory of fact-checks. White House spokesman Mike McCurry rightly called it "the sleaziest episode in the history of journalism." McCurry could not have known that future journalistic "mediathons," such as the 2001 Gary Condit/Chandra Levy debacle and the "swift Boating" of John Kerry in 2004, would drive journalistic standards to even lower levels.
As Kalb observes, "The Lewinsky scandal did not, on its own, smash the standards of American journalism. It merely accelerated a disturbing trend that has been apparent for several decades." Kalb points to two phenomena that have changed mainstream journalism in the past years -- the explosion of technology, bringing "news" in the form of cable television punditry and the Internet into America's living rooms, and "the radical change in the economic ownership and management of a deregulated business. Both the new technology and the new, looser economic underpinning have transformed the news business from one tied to public trust to one linked to titillation and profit." Giving just one example -- General Electric's ownership of NBC -- Kalb writes, "In this brave new world, NBC has begun to manufacture news in much the same way as GE manufactures light bulbs."
Joe Conason and Gene Lyons note one telling moment that most observers missed -- Starr's claim, over challenges from Clinton's lawyers over Starr's repeated violations of the rule forbidding prosecutors from leaking confidential grand jury information to the press, of "informant's privilege." Unbeknownst to the court at the time, Starr was seeking not only to shield information given to him by reporters, but information given by him to reporters. The identities of his journalistic accomplices were never made public. (Marvin Kalb, Joe Conason and Gene Lyons)
"What makes the media's performance a true scandal, a true example of an institution being corrupted to its core, is that the competition for scoops so bewitched almost everyone that they let the man in power write the story -- once Tripp and Goldberg put it together for him." -- Steven Brill, quoted by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons
According to eminent prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is "one of the most reprehensible public figures we've ever been exposed to in America." Worse, he dragged the country through an exhaustive investigation of Clinton's sex life that never should have happened in the first place. As Bugliosi notes, even Starr had to admit that the affair between Lewinsky and Clinton was completely consensual -- therefore there was no crime to investigate. The affair was "lawful activity, [therefore] no one had the right to criminally investigate this private relationship in the first place. When you've done something -- here, the president having sex with Lewinsky -- which, even though perfectly lawful, could destroy you if it becomes known, does anyone, a court or anyone else, have the right to in effect say to you, 'Either you admit to this thing that can destroy you, or, if you deny it, we're going to prosecute you for perjury.' In other words, either way you're going to be destroyed. That, to me, sounds much more like totalitarianism than the free society we all cherish. What I am saying is the impropriety, the misconduct, the villainy, if you will, is the question, not the answer." -- Vincent Bugliosi
Bugliosi also goes into some detail about the illegal "perjury trap" Starr laid for Clinton in the Paula Jones trial -- remember, Starr illegally provided counsel for Jones's legal team while he was running the Whitewater investigation -- and notes that trial judge Susan Webber Wright should have disallowed any questioning about Lewinsky during Clinton's deposition. She later disallowed the Lewinsky testimony for use during the Jones trial, but by that point it was too late -- "Starr had his opening, and the rest, as they say, is history." -- Vincent Bugliosi
"How was the Lewinsky scandal covered? The journalists claimed that under the circumstances, they did quite well, thank you. The president did in fact have an affair with Lewinsky, he did lie about it, the dress did have a semen stain, and so on. In fact, a small number of reporters with good sources did a good job, but many did poorly. In the process, they ended up confirming the politicians' and the public's low esteem for the media as spoiled and disgruntled scribes engaged in an endless game of 'gotcha.'" -- Marvin Kalb