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August 4, 1999
Democrats' Dilemma: Deeper than Al Gore

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The growing power of the public/private conservative apparatus helped the Reagan administration keep the lid on a slew of secret policies: funneling illegal aid to the Nicaraguan contras, tolerating cocaine smugglers who had infiltrated the contra movement and swapping arms for hostages with Iran.

Even after the Iran-contra scandal finally broke in 1986 -- with the crash of a plane in Nicaragua and the disclosure in Beirut of the arms-for-hostage transactions -- the conservative media fought rear-guard actions that hampered official investigations.

In particular, the conservative media waged a long-running battle to discredit the work of Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, this finely tuned Right-Wing Machine was arguably the most powerful political operation in Washington. As a testament to its clout, conservative spokesmen were routinely featured on network pundit programs.

Even conservatives with extreme viewpoints had achieved a legitimacy denied activists on the Left. Despite its mysterious funding and Moon's virulent anti-Americanism, his Washington Times frequently was quoted as a respectable journalistic product and was granted a prominent place in the world of Washington journalism.

In 1992, the conservative media pushed hard for President Bush's re-election. In particular, The Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal's editorial played up questions about Bill Clinton's patriotism.

But Bush's lack of a clear agenda for his second term and Walsh's exposure of Bush's Iran-contra lies late in the campaign enabled Clinton to squeak out victory in a three-way race.

But the potent conservative apparatus did not go away. It simply switched from defense to offense. It also received a large infusion of new money from the right-wing foundations. Richard Mellon Scaife alone earmarked $2.4 million for a special investigation by The American Spectator called "the Arkansas Project."

Meanwhile, the conservative megaphone -- led by Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and Moon's Washington Times -- made sure that the public heard plenty about every Clinton mistake and misdeed, even trivial ones like the early firing of the White House Travel Office staff when money was found missing.

The right-wing media also spread baseless suspicions suggesting that deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster had been murdered in July 1993, although repeated police investigations concluded that his death was an obvious suicide.

For the two years after Clinton's election, Limbaugh devoted his daily three-hour radio show, airing on more than 650 stations and reaching some 20 million listeners a week, almost exclusively to tearing down Clinton and his wife, Hillary. In December 1993, The American Spectator contributed a lengthy article detailing allegations about the Clintons' sex lives.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media, finally seeing a chance to shed itself of the "liberal" label, joined in a kind of press riot over the Clintons. Just as no proof was good enough to nail Reagan and Bush, any proof would suffice against the Clintons.

The drumbeat of attacks -- Whitewater, Travelgate, Troopergate, Vincent Foster's "murder" -- set the stage for the Republican congressional triumph in 1994, a reality understood by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his troops.

"Rush [Limbaugh] is as responsible for what happened here as much as anyone," acknowledged conservative strategist Vin Weber. In tribute to Limbaugh's efforts, he was named an honorary member of the GOP freshman class.

By 1998 and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the distinctions between the old-line press corps and the right-wing media had all but vanished.

Supposedly centrist outlets, such as Newsweek and ABC News, competed for scoops with the right-wing Drudge Report and The Washington Times. Theocratic right-wingers, such as the Rutherford Institute's John Whitehead, were appearing as respected guests on CNN's "Burden of Proof."

Amid the saturation coverage of Monica Lewinsky, only snippets of skepticism could be found about the zealous investigation by conservative special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

Some stories questioning the rush to impeachment appeared in The New York Times, the Salon Web site, Geraldo Rivera's CNBC program and this publication. But overwhelmingly, the media promoted the Lewinsky scandal as a momentous event deserving the months of endless coverage that it received.

After years on the defensive, President Clinton contributed to the political mess first by engaging in "inappropriate" conduct with Lewinsky and then by offering tortured definitions of "sexual relations."

As the scandal progressed, the White House sought to finesse the charges, combining Clinton's public contrition with smart lawyering. Except for Hillary Clinton's early remark about a "vast right-wing conspiracy," the administration offered little public explanation of the larger conservative strategy.

By November 1998, the press pundits expected the Republicans to expand their congressional majorities and then move to oust Clinton from office.

The American voters, however, intervened by handing the GOP a surprising rebuff at the polls, cutting the Republican House majority in half. Though the lame-duck Republican House still voted to impeach Clinton, the GOP drive lost steam in the Senate where Clinton was acquitted.

Ultimately, the Clinton impeachment gambit failed, but it still advanced the larger goal of consolidating the conservative media dominance. Near the end of the Clinton era, the Democrats' "media deficit" had never been larger.

More than ever, conservatives set the Washington media agenda, as was seen in the recent concentration of "stuck in the mud" stories about boring Al Gore and the "silly season" euphoria about charismatic George W. Bush.

That Democratic "media deficit" -- along with the huge money-in-politics investment behind it -- is the crux of the problem now confronting Bill Clinton's vice president.

With the conservatives exercising broad control over the political debate and with George W. raising record sums of campaign cash, Al Gore faces a long and arduous uphill climb ahead.

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