Monday, March 12, 2007

"The Hunting of the President" (2000) by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons

The Hunting of the President surveys "the Clinton wars" over a money-losing land deal and Clinton's (real and imagined) sex life. It incorporates much of the material in co-author Gene Lyons' 1996 Fools for Scandal, which focused on the Whitewater pseudo-scandal itself and on the mainstream media's pathetic reporting on it.

Hunting takes the story through January 1998, to the eve of the publication of the Starr report with its obsessive attention to Clinton's sad affair with Monica Lewinsky, which was followed by a year of impeachment demagoguery. This story is an important link in the chain of events that led to the invasion of Iraq, the sadistic and criminal torture in the Bush Gulag, and the cynical and deliberate disregard of the law by the Cheney-Bush administration in spying on American citizens as well as in massive corruption of a type previous associated mainly with the "crony capitalism" of developing nations.

The two key links are the authoritarian character of the Republican Party which elevates loyalty to the Party over the Constitution and the law, and the massive dysfuntion of the major media to the point of what media critic Steven Brill called "an institution being corrupted to its core" in the matter of the Clinton pseudo-scandals.

I've previously discussed the pattern of media misconduct in my post on Fools for Scandal. Conanson and Lyons elaborate on that theme and add details of the 1996-98 period, including the disturbing practice of journalists passing on their material to the renegade Independent Counsel's office for prosecutorial usage.

Although they close the book on a hopeful note, the "hunting of the President" is one of the major events in a series that led the Republican Party to its current authoritarian state: the police-state measures of the Nixon Presidency that came to be known collectively as "Watergate"; the Iran-Contra rogue foreign policy operations during the Reagan administration; the "Whitewater" pseudo-scandals; and, now, the Unilateral Executive practices of the Cheney-Bush administration.

Other elements have been important in this process, of course. The rise of the Christian Right as a major, organized base constituency for the Party is one. That is very much in evidence in the Whitewater pseudo-scandals, though it might be more accurately described as the adoption of a theocratic ideology by the Republican right.

The dubious sequence of events by which the Reagan Presidential candidacy signalled to Iran their desire to postpone the release of Iranian hostages until after Reagan's election in 1980, described by Gary Sick in October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (1991) and discussed by Kevin Phillips in American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (2004), also deserves a place in that sequence. The evidence for the "October surprise" is largely circumstantial put still persuasive - and by circumstantial I mean circumstantial, not speculative.

Another factor which Lyons discussed, in Fools for Scandal and also elaborated in The Hunting of the President, is the adoption by the national Republican Party of one of the ugliest attitudes associated with the segregation system in the Deep South: making up outrageous sleaze about opponents of your candidate but simply ignoring even well-founded questions about your preferred candidate's conduct.

The Hunting provides another very specific channel by which this transmission worked. In order to combat court orders and political pressure for desegration, the state of Mississippi set up a state office called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. Conason and Lyons describe it as follows:

... an official propaganda and police outfit that spied on civil rights workers, prominent blacks, white liberals, and other suispected "subversives," while funding and pormoting the White Citizens Councils [a white-supremacist group that was especially influential in Mississippi, known today as the Council for Conservative Citizens].
Kevin Sessons in his recent autobiography called the Sovereignty Commission a "cracker KGB", which is the best brief description I've ever heard of it. One of the specialties of the Cracker KGB had been to make up and spread sex stories about its targets. A private detective, Rex Armistead, was one of the operatives working with the Arkansas Project, a group funded by rightwing billioaire Richard Mellon Scaife to dig up dirt on Bill and Hillary Clinton. Among other items in his career, he had served as the liaison for the racist Mississippi Governor John Bell Williams to the State Sovereignty Commission.

Armistead admitted to being at least marginally involved in one of the sleaziest dirty-tricks operations I've ever heard of, even now. The Mississippi Republicans tried to smear a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Bill Allain, as a customer of gay prostitutes. Conason and Lyons describe that incident as follows:

Within a year after he entered the private sector, Armistead provoked a searing political scandal back in his home state. Bill Allain, the Democratic candidate for governor, charged in October 1983 that the hulking detective had masterminded a Republican plot to smear him as a homosexual. As a former assistant attorney general for the state of Mississippi, Allain had encountered the ex-highway patrol officer on other occasions. "If you know Rex Armistead like I know Rex Armistead," he told the Jackson Daily News, "this is his bag, this is his kind of thing."

Armistead denied that he had done anything more than interview a few police officers about the allegations against Allain. But he had made the mistake of bringing the charges to the attention of Charles Thompson, a producer for 20/20, the ABC News magazine program. Thompson and correspondent Geraldo Rivera went down to Jackson to investigate the story, and quickly uncovered a clumsy scheme by prominent Mississippi Republicans — notably including Armistead's personal attorney and longtime friend, William Spell, Jr. — to pay three black transvestite prostitutes to falsely implicate Allain. Under questioning by Rivera on camera, all three recanted their slurs against the Democrat.

Waving off any notion that he was the "instigator ... behind this plot," Armistead insisted that he had merely helped out as a favor to Bill Spell. He seemed to regard the Republican dirty trick as a kind of civil duty. "If the man is a homosexual, the publichas a right to know," he said of Allain, who passed a lie detector test and went on to win the election.
Fortunately, Allain won the election despite that manufactured sleaze.

But the practice of that kind of sleaze has now become standard operating procedure for the national Republican Party. Up to and including taking the country to war on claims about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" that were scarcely more credible than the claims made by the gay transvestite prostitutes for pay against Bill Allain.

It's easy to point to the hypocrisy of the Republicans who, for example, think that Scooter Libby's perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the outing of an undercover CIA officer are harmless offenses but who also thought far murkier charges against Bill Clinton were world-historical sins. Or who defend the unrestricted power of the President to violate laws and even Constitutional provisions whenever he chooses, but were enthusiastic about using Congressional powers against Clinton.

Hypocrisy is in no shortage there, of course. But it's also important to understand that there is a consistency that links the renegade conduct of Independent Counsel Ken Starr, the impeachment of Clinton and today's assertion of essentiall unlimited Executive power for Cheney and Bush. The Party and not the law or the Constitution have become the Republicans' highest standards. For Ken Starr to engage in prosecutorial misconduct, for the Republican Congress to use and abuse their every Congressional power to oust Clinton, and for the Cheney-Bush administration to attempt to thoroughly politicize the US Attorneys are linked by a willingness to abuse whatever power is at their disposal to achieve their goals and to maintain and increase the power of the Party.

That continuity, placing the goals and interests of the Party above the law and the Constitution, are a consistency in today's authoritarian Republican Party that is far more central than the fact they change positions shamelessly on such issues as Congressional war powers.

The Hunting of the President is a valuable account of that ugly period in American history and gives important background on the authoritarian evolution of the Republican Party. For Republican trolls looking to revive their fond memories of the controversies over Bill Clinton's manly organ, I would recommend sticking with the salacious Starr report. But for understanding the Whitewater pseudo-scandals, Hunting is invaluable.

A final word on Bill Clinton's alleged perjury. The crucial moment was on January 17, 1998, when Clinton was giving a deposition to the attorneys for Paula Jones, who was suing him for alleged sexual harassment (an exceptionally flimsy case in itself). Conason and Lyons recount Clinton's response to questions about Lewinsky from Jones attorney James Fisher:

Taking full advantage of a peculiar definition of sexual activity adapted by the Jones lawyers from the criminal code — which, of course, deals largely with nonconsensual encounters — the president thought he had spotted a loophole. After the judge struck a couple of clauses so vague they could have applied to two people who brush against each other in an elevator, "sexual relations" was defined for the purposes of the deposition as "contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person." On that basis, he testified, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her."

There is no question that Clinton intended to deceive the court and Fisher, not to mention his own attorneys. Since the dictionary definition of "sexual relations" is "coitus" or "intercourse," his answer could be considered technically true, even though it did put him in the preposterous position of arguing that he was not having sex with Lewinsky at the very moment that she was having sex with him. (my emphasis)
As a reminder of how bad reporting can linger for years, I have been saying every since that time that Clinton admitted to having a one-night stand, which I assumed included intercourse, with the serial fabricator Gennifer Flowers. Conason and Lyons point out that his admission was in the course of that same deposition:

Toward the end he had finally admitted that, under the convoluted definition of "sexual relations" provided by the Jones lawyers, he had once done something sexual - exactly what they did not ask - with Gennifer Flowers in 1977.
Looking at that definition of sexual relations, that could have meant a one-second contact of his hand with her thigh or even pinching her on thebutt. How serious those actions might be considered would vary by person and according to the particular context. But he clearly did not admit to having "had sex" - which to most people would mean intercourse - with Flowers.

In their Afterworkd, Conason and Lyons remind us forcefully that for all the hysteria, hype, and hoopla - and the badly dysfunctional performance of our "press corps" on top of it - the general public saw through the scams. They write:

As the ideological motivation of Clinton's enemies became clearer, their isolation became inescapable. Americans of all persuasions were disturbed by Clinton's behavior, but the most insistent voices calling for his removal—and most often speaking in southern accents ironically like his own—were heard from the precincts of the religious right. Organizations such as Citizens for Honest Government, Citizens United, and the Council for National Policy received scant notice in the months leading up to the impeachment vote, while characters like "Justice Jim" Johnson remained discreetly out of sight. But Richard Mellon Scaife and the Arkansas Project gained considerable notoriety, and figures such as the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Georgia representative Bob Barr appeared on television nearly every night.

Barr did not serve his cause well when he characterized the effort to remove the president as a "civil war," nor when he lectured a distinguished black federal judge testifying before the House Judiciary Committee that "real Americans" favored impeachment.

Such incidents and personalities helped frame the impeachment debate in terms of earlier cultural and political clashes, ranging from the Scopes trial of the twenties to the civil rights movement of the sixties. Both the nature and the agenda of the forces aligned against Bill Clinton made most Americans determined to deny them a victory. Having at last instigated the "culture war" for which they had long been yearning, the theological warriors of the religious right were chagrined to find themselves decisively outnumbered.
See also Susan McDougal: The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk 01/16/07.

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