Friday, March 2, 2007

Review of "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater" (1996) by Gene Lyons

 In the history of the disaster we know as the Iraq War, the date March 8, 1992, deserve a special place. That was the date Jeff Gerth's first story on "Whitewater" appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

That is as good a time marker as any to designate the start of the collapse of our national "press corps" into the deep dysfunction that gave us Judith Miller's and Michael Gordon's phony stories on Iraq's nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction", also on the front page of the Times. And that presented the spectacle of legendary Watergate investigative reporter Bob Woodward penning two court histories of the Cheney-Bush administration and covering up for the bad actors in the Valerie Plame scandal. The path from the Whitewater pseudo-scandal to the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, is indirect but real.

Gene Lyons' Fools for Scandal chronicles the first four years of the Whitewater story, carefully showing how Establishment reporters like Gerth managed to get themselves conned by a few Arkansas scamsters and well-funded rightwing smear operations into hyping the Whitewater scandal. To say that the reporting on Whitewater by the New York Times and the Washington Post was careless or light on basic fact-checking hardly begins to describe it. It was more like blatant journalistic malpractice.

The dysfunctional habits that began to overwhelm the press corps in those days isn't ideological as such. But, in practice, it has often benefitted the Republicans disproportionately. As Lyons writes:

By the time House and Senate hearings on Whitewater began in late summer 1995, the Washington media had turned itself into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. The opening of hearings must have come as a great relief to many reporters. No longer would it be necessary to conduct forays into remotest Arkansas; Whitewater had arrived in the nation's capital, where it properly belonged. Furthermore, the unspoken rules of covering such events were understood by all. Once the "scandal" template had been fitted over the keyboard, Whitewater stories would almost write themselves.

On Capitol Hill, GOP staffers would gain the immeasurable advantage of spinning the story by the art of selective leaking. Naughty reporters, it goes without saying, could expect no help from the prosecution. Their editors, in turn, would wonder how come the Times and Post got all the juicy tidbits while they didn't. Every new fact, almost regardless of where it fit (or didn't) in the grand scheme of things, could be played as a "revelation" that advanced the story.
What was "Whitewater" exactly? For all the complicated, convoluted accusations and reports and rumors associated with it, Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement with the project can be summarized fairly briefly. In 1978, Jim and Susan McDougal bought 230 acres of land on the White River in the Ozarks, on which they made a verbal agreement with Bill and Hillary to jointly own and finance. In 1979, Jim McDougal had the Whitewater Development Corporation set up and the McDougals and Clintons transferred the 230 acres to the corporation. The plan was to develop the acreage as residential lots to be sold. The corporation was capitalized with 1,000 shares, with half going to the Clintons and half to the McDougals.

Chris Wade, operator of the Ozarks Realty Company, was hired by Jim McDougal to develop and sell the lots. By 1985, only 20 of the 44 lots had been sold. Jim McDougal, without consulting with the Clintons, sold the remaining lots at a loss to Wade. (Technically, he traded them for a 1979 Piper Seminole private airplane.) In December 1992, the Clintons liquidated their remaining interest in the Whitewater Development Corporation for $1,000. The end result was that they lost $42,192 on their investment. On the advice of their attorney Vince Foster, they did not claim the loss on their 1992 income taxes, because the Whitewater records kept by McDougal were such a mess it would be difficult to document the exact amount. So they reported the $1,000 as 1992 income.

That's it. That is the basic outline of Bill and Hillary Clinton's Whitewater investment. (See
Final Report of the Independent Counsel In Re: Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan Association by RobertW. Ray, Independent Counsel 01/05/01, pp. 6-17.)

Around this simple structure, the Times, the Post and the American media that generally followed their lead built a massive superstructure of pseudo-scandals, with the eager help of Republican partisans, of course. At the time of the publication of Fools for Scandal, the "Whitewater" issue had become incrusted with a wide variety of alleged misdeeds: Did the Clintons do favors for Jim McDougal's S&L Morgan Guaranty (which he bought after they began the Whitewater investigation together) that delayed government intervention when his S&L got into financial trouble? Did Hillary Clinton perform improper legal work for McDougal or his S&L at the Rose Law Firm where she worked in Arkansas? Did Vince Foster's suicide have anything to do with Whitewater? Were documents concerning Whitewater improperly removed from Foster's office after his death? And on and on.

The most famous Whitewater spin-off, the one involving Monica Lewinsky, was to come later. Although that was actually more of a spin-off from the out-of-control Indepedent Counsel Ken Starr's partisan zealotry.

As the final report of the Independent Counsel linked above explains in great detail, no wrongdoing on the part of Bill or Hillary Clinton was found in anything to do with their Whitewater investment. After surviving impeachment, Clinton eventually had his Arkansas attorney's license suspended for a period of time due to dissembling under oath about his sexual activity with Lewinsky under the bizarrely convoluted definition of sex established by the Independent Counsel's office.

Lyons' book was published over 10 years ago but is still valuable for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it's a vivid indictment of the sloppy and irresponsible reporting by leading lights of the mainstream press like the Times and the Post during that period. Sadly, it turned out not to be a temporary aberration but a major breakdown in the general quality of American journalism. A breakdown that more recently enabled the march to war in Iraq on phony tales about nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction". Judith Miller's pre-war WMD reporting was very much in the tradition of Jeff Gerth and the other Times reporters who covered Whitewater. It's just that the consequences have been far, far more destructive.

And since Fools for Scandal appeared essentially midway through the trashing of the Clinton's - "the hunting of the President", as the later book by Lyons and Joe Conason would be titled - it provides a snapshot in time to remind us that some people could and did see the dysfunction of the press in that whole shabby business, the fanaticism and dishonesty of the Clintons' accusers, and how those factors were feeding off each other. Various official investigations, including the Independent Counsel's final report, strongly validate Lyons conclusions in this 1996 book about the Clintons' role in "Whitewater".

James Boylan in
Whitewater: The Case Against the Press Columbia Journalism Review Sept/Oct 1996, thought that Lyons was going too far. Boylan wrote:

Well and good; he scores points. But the problem with Lyons, still, is that he damages himself by claiming too much and then bolstering his case with bluster. To compare a Times story to "a Pravda article on the Hitler-Stalin pact" is not only excessive but distasteful. However deserving of criticism, James B. Stewart, author of Blood Sport, should not be called, with cheap sarcasm, "Mr. Pulitzer Prize." Most disturbing, there is an undertone in Lyons's criticism that hints at willful wrongdoing - that the newspapers and the reporters are not merely misguided but corrupt.
Reading that paragraph from Boylan now immediately brings to mind the theme song from the old Barbara Steisand/Robert Redford film, The Way We Were:

Can it be that it was all so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line?

After our press corps spent five years, from 9/11/2001 to Hurricane Katrine in 2005, adoring the manly leadership of our Dear Leader Bush in his spiffy flight suit and impressive codpiece, it's a pleasant bit of nostalgia to see that Boylan was shocked, shocked that Lyons irreverently compared the Times to the old Soviet paper Pravda. It hasn't completely given up it Pravda-esque habits even now, as a recent Michael Gordon piece on Iran reminded us (see my post,
Is the DDR (Communist East Germany) the Cheney-Bush model for governance? 02/10/07.

Lyons' book also provides another piece of the complicated history by which the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln has become the neosegregationist Party of Jefferson Davis. Segregated Southern states had no monopoly on corrupt or sleazy politics in America. But massive corruption and dishonesty were integral features of the segregation system. And with the Whitewater scandal, the national Republican Party embraced an Arkansas approach to politics, as described by Lyons:

Given literacy levels among the lowest in the United States, what this adds up to is a populist brand of political warfare that often descends to the level of professional wrestling. In a small, largely rural state with only one real city, it also makes for fantastic - and highly entertaining - gossip. Almost everybody, it seems, has a neighbor whose second cousin knows an old boy who worked on the governor's dentist's car, and he says ...

During the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial primaries, for example, lurid tales of lust and fornication were widely circulated about three of the four serious candidates—both Republicans, and, of course, Governor Bill Clinton. Only Clinton's Democratic opponent, an earnest good-government type perceived to have no chance, escaped suspicion. There was talk of whores, drunken orgies at duck-hunting clubs, illegitimate children, hush money, even suicides. One Arkansas politician was rumored to have had carnal knowledge of a convicted murderess inside her jail cell. Interracial sex, of course, is a topic of perennial interest. Indeed, it takes some effort to think of an Arkansas politician of note about whom scurrilous rumors haven't circulated.

For most Arkansas voters, evaluating this avalanche of smut has always been simple: your candidate is innocent, his or her opponents are probably guilty. The fact that political fault lines here tend to coincide with religious differences - hard-shell denominations to the right, "mainstream" churches to the left - makes it easy to caricature one's enemies as pious hypocrites. Otherwise, it would be tempting to suspect that many Arkansans harbor the secret belief that any politician—or TV evangelist, for that matter - who didn't have some rooster in him couldn't be much of a man.

But who would have dreamed that this stuff could be exported?
This element of segregationist culture, making up outrageous sleaze about opponents of your candidate but simply ignoring even well-founded questions about your preferred candidate's conduct, became the standard operating procedure for the national Republican Party during the Whitewater scandal and the subsequent impeachment farce.

That process didn't start with Whitewater and didn't end with it. But it's a key part of the process of how today's neosegregationist Republican Party became what it is.

Links on the topic:

Final Report of the Independent Counsel In Re: Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan Association by Robert W. Ray, Independent Counsel 01/05/01, pp. 6-17.

Investigation of Whitewater Development Corporation and Related Matters Washington Post 06/17/1996,
Report of the Special Senate Whitewater Committee

Final Report of the Independent Counsel In Re: Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan Association by Robert W. Ray, Independent Counsel 01/05/01

The Foster Report

CourtTV site

CourtTV site for the 1996 Whitewater Committee report

Once upon a time in Arkansas by Gene Lyons Harper's Oct 1994

A conversation with Gene Lyons by Peter Carbonara Oct 1997 Frontline

TIME'S Empty Whitewater Exclusive by Gene Lyons Salon undated

Ken Starr's Secret: How he knows that Whitewater is bunk by Gene Lyons Slate 06/22/1997

Washington Post
timeline 1995-1998

The RTC Investigation CNN 1997

Related Links and Stories CNN 1997

And for an update on the current sad state of our "press corps" check out
Why do journalists suddenly love Al Gore? by Joe Conason Salon 03/02/07.


No comments: