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Democrats' Bipartisan Folly
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Clinton Scandals

This media imbalance ensured that every Clinton administration mistake, no matter how petty, would be seized on as a major “scandal” with congressional hearings, media breast-beating and appointments of special prosecutors – while conversely there would be no interest in reexamining any of the Reagan-Bush scandals from the 1980s.

Clinton’s sloppy Whitewater real estate investment, therefore, became the subject of nearly eight years of investigations, with side trips into such trivial matters as the Travel Office firings and the mistaken delivery of FBI files to the White House – none of which led to any charges related to the actions of Bill or Hillary Clinton.

Conservatives and some leftist journalists also promoted bogus allegations suggesting that White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster had been murdered, though investigation after investigation found his death to be an obvious suicide. The right-wing attack machine added to the clouds of suspicion by distributing lists of so-called “mysterious deaths” pinned on Clinton.

Stepping back and viewing this process in its totality, the “Clinton scandals” had the look of a CIA-style “black propaganda” operation. Just as false or exaggerated charges were planted against U.S. adversaries in Guatemala in the 1950s or in Chile in the 1970s or in Nicaraguan in the 1980s, now those tactics were turned against an American president.

The right-wing attack machine’s most notable success was in funding Paula Jones as she lodged dubious – and shifting – claims against Clinton for allegedly exposing himself to her as a come-on. Although lacking legal merit – the case eventually was rejected by a Republican judge in Arkansas – the Paula Jones case enabled conservative lawyers to corner Clinton with questions about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

At that point, Clinton lied, trying to keep the relationship secret. His deception – compounded by his finger-waving denial on national television – handed the Republicans their ultimate victory in discrediting this Democratic president.

Though Clinton survived impeachment, his reputation was permanently sullied. The public’s displeasure with Clinton’s personal behavior also damaged Vice President Gore’s campaign to succeed his boss.

Saving George W.

Ironically, the Democratic strategy of taking dives on the scandals of the 1980s came back to whack the party another way.

Having protected the reputation of President George H.W. Bush in 1993, the Democrats found themselves faced with the strong candidacy of Bush’s son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose principal qualification – arguably his only qualification – was the honorable reputation of his father.

In veiled references to the so-called “Clinton squalor,” Gov. Bush promised to restore “honor and dignity” to the White House. Because of the decisions made eight years earlier, the Democrats had no effective response to this Bush campaign pledge. They simply hoped that the American people would not punish Gore for Clinton’s personal misdeeds.

By the late 1990s, however, the national news media recognized only one currency for framing scandals: they had to be Clinton-Gore stories, even if the evidence pointed in a very different direction. So when the Chinese espionage scandal broke in spring 1999, the media framed it as another Clinton-Gore scandal, although the facts were that the key U.S. nuclear secrets had been lost in the mid-1980s.

Similarly, as Campaign 2000 began, the media transformed Gore – a staid, serious public servant – into a pathological liar who lived in a world of his own delusions. Often, this disqualifying image was based on false or highly distorted reading of the facts. Gore, for instance, was frequently quoted as having claimed to have “invented” the Internet, when he never made that claim.

In another situation, major newspapers wrote that Gore had claimed credit for discovering the Love Canal toxic waste problem. Gore supposedly had said, “I was the one that started it all.” Actually, Gore had been referring to a similar toxic waste case in Toone, Tenn., and had said, “That was the one that started it all.”

Only grudging corrections were made by the news media, often in the context of making new accusations about other supposed exaggerations. The journalists responsible for this inept reporting appeared to suffer no adverse consequences. They were still covering the campaign as it ended.

Some Republicans have cited their success in tagging Gore as a liar – and thus linking Gore to Clinton’s deception about Lewinsky – as crucial in making the 2000 election competitive.

Recount Battle

The media imbalance proved critical on Election Night and the days that followed. A key turning point in the election occurred when The Associated Press and other news organization involved in exit polling determined that Al Gore was the choice of Florida voters. The loss of Florida seemed to doom George W. Bush’s hopes.

In an unusual Election Night scene, however, Bush summoned a news crew to the room where he was watching the returns with family members. Bush challenged the exit poll results in Florida and the news media quickly backpedaled on its “mistake” in calling Florida for Gore.

By early morning, Fox News, working with a Bush cousin, flipped the call and gave Florida to Bush, with enough electoral votes to put Bush over the top for the presidency. Other news outlets followed. Though the networks also retreated from that call, voters turning on the television sets on Nov. 8 had the impression that Bush had won the presidency and that it was time for Gore to concede.

In the five weeks that followed, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his subordinates worked to certify Florida’s electoral votes for his brother while Republican operatives did all they could to stop a thorough recount that appeared likely to give Gore a Florida victory.

On Nov. 22, Republican hooligans charged the offices of the Miami-Dade canvassing board where a recount was starting. With the Republicans pounding on the doors, the canvassing board reversed itself and stopped the recount. The media treated the reversal as a victory for Bush, with little outrage over the strong-arm tactics.

The next night, these Republican activists – many recruited from GOP congressional staffs in Washington – celebrated at a Ft. Lauderdale hotel and received a thankful telephone call from Bush and Cheney, according to the Wall Street Journal. With few exceptions, the media showed little interest in this strange scene of a would-be president and vice-president thanking rioters.

Meanwhile, Gore reined in his supporters and concentrated on the courts. On Dec. 8, Gore seemed to be rewarded for this confidence when the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount of ballots that had been rejected by machine tabulations. The recount began on Dec. 9, with canvassing boards discovering scores of clearly marked ballots that had been rejected.

The Bush team, however, was determined to halt the count. Its first attempt with the conservative federal appeals court in Atlanta was rebuffed, but Bush’s lawyers had better luck with five conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court. In an unprecedented act in American history, the five justices stopped the counting of votes in a U.S. presidential election.

Three days later, on Dec. 12, the same five justices prevented a resumption of the counting and handed the presidency to Bush. Despite the brazen power play, most major media again handled the story primarily as a Bush victory and a Gore defeat.

More than anything, the media seemed to crave normalcy, and that was interpreted as a restoration of Bush rule. Gore’s half-million-vote-plus victory in the national popular vote was treated as an irrelevance.

More Hearings

The eight years of Clinton-bashing weren’t over either. As Clinton left the White House, he, too, seemed to have learned little about the rules of engagement in this new age of “information warfare.”

His decision to pardon fugitive commodities trader Mark Rich raised some legitimate questions about Clinton’s penchant for “feeling the pain” of his wealthy contributors. But Clinton did have more defensible reasons for pardoning Rich, including appeals from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a former Mossad director who had worked with Rich on Middle East peace initiatives.

Nevertheless, the Republicans saw another opportunity to drive up Clinton’s negatives. They twinned the Rich pardon flap with exaggerated claims about Democrats vandalizing the White House before they left. The strong impression to the public was that George W. Bush indeed had arrived to restore “honor and dignity” to the White House.

Clinton complained in one interview that he had been “blind-sided.” Other Democrats fumed about the Bush success in hyping the vandalism allegations. [See The Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2001] But the tactics should not have come as any surprise.

As they had for almost a decade, the Democrats let the Republicans determine which situations deserved investigations and which ones didn’t. While Republicans conducted new hearings on Clinton’s pardons – a contrast to the lack of hearings on George H.W. Bush’s Iran-contra pardons in 1992 – the Democrats made no move to force an investigation of the GOP power plays around the Florida recount.

The only congressional hearing on the Florida case was called by Republicans – and that was for the Orwellian purpose of having news executives explain why their “erroneous” projections had shown Al Gore to be the voters’ choice in Florida.

Though the Democrats have the right to demand hearings in the evenly split Senate, they appeared to have no stomach for confrontational hearings about the Florida showdown, clearly one of the most important political events in recent U.S. history.

Thanks to this Democratic timidity, no Republican has been called on the carpet for dispatching hooligans to south Florida. No conservative Supreme Court justice has been compelled to justify the unprecedented interference in the electoral process that meant negating more than 50 million votes cast by American citizens for Al Gore.

None of Jeb Bush’s aides has been hauled before Congress to explain how thousands of African-American voters apparently were purged from voting lists based on an inaccurate computer program for eliminating supposed felons. [See BBC story on What Really Happened in Florida?, Feb. 16, 2001.]

Having retreated so far and so often, today’s Democrats seem incapable of fighting back. It is a pattern of behavior that – as much as anything – has made the Republicans the dominant political force in Washington and left American democracy in an endangered state.

Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.

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