The Consortium

Lynching a President?

By Robert Parry

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright's decision to toss out the Paula Jones case on summary judgment underscores a fact that should have been obvious from the outset: the case always was a political device to destroy President Clinton and negate the electoral results of 1992 and 1996.

But what was perhaps most remarkable about this conservative political strategy -- driven as it was by such a transparently flawed vehicle -- is how successful it was in scarring the president and how willing the national news media was to collaborate in this ideological task.

The media stampede reached its crazy peak in the weeks before the Jones case came crashing down on April 1. Rupert Murdoch's magazine, The Weekly Standard, spoke for many in its March 30 issue by celebrating the latest lurid disclosures from the Paula Jones case and predicting that Clinton -- derided as the "pretender-in-chief" -- finally would be destroyed.

"The man has already painted himself into a eensie-weensie corner," an editorial stated. "Sooner or later, we wager, one way or another, he will be cornered for good."

It was historically notable, however, that the many anti-Clinton attacks -- in both the conservative and mainstream media -- were unabashed in their crudity. Clinton had slid into the "pariah" category, a P.R. netherworld normally inhabited by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega. Virtually anything could be said against Clinton, no matter how incredible the source, how unlikely the circumstances or how unreliable the evidence.

Exploiting this "pariah" status, the Christian Right lawyers representing Paula Jones saw fit on March 28 to release a statement by Phillip David Yoakum, a Clinton enemy who claimed that a woman told him that she was raped by Clinton two decades ago. In a pre-trial motion, Jones's lawyers put the accusation into the public domain, where it drew a day's worth of breathless press attention, including a credulous segment by NBC News' Lisa Myers.

The Jones lawyers, however, withheld what any fair-minded person would think was relevant: a sworn statement from the woman, Juanita Broaddrick, who flatly denied that Clinton ever assaulted her. But so routine had the smearing of Clinton become that the rape ruse provoked no editorial or political outrage.

Fiction & 'Non-Fiction'

The ease with which Clinton could be accused of serious wrongdoing spread into the popular culture, too. In the fictional "Primary Colors" movie, the Clinton character -- played with a good-ole-boy charm by John Travolta -- beds his teen-age baby-sitter and then covers up his possible paternity of her illegitimate child.

The story of this sexual offense was made up. But "Primary Colors" was sold as a thinly veiled roman a clef. So, the baby-sitter seduction could be expected to merge in the American cultural mix of fact and fiction about Clinton.

But why should "fictional" accounts to be any fairer than "non-fiction" ones? The Weekly Standard -- published by right-wing tycoon Murdoch -- was typical of the media as it wallowed in the latest smutty allegations from the Jones case. There were no standards of propriety left.

With a devilish glee, The Weekly Standard even revived Paula Jones's disputed claim about "distinguishing characteristics" of Clinton's penis. Jones's first lawyer, Daniel Traylor, had said Jones added that observation only days before filing her lawsuit in May 1994 -- three years after the alleged incident with Clinton.

But The Weekly Standard happily noted new "corroboration" from Debra Ballentine, Paula Jones's close friend. In a deposition, Ballentine helpfully recalled that Jones said in 1991, "there was something peculiar about Clinton's genitals," the magazine reported.

The editorial then added: "Did she [Jones] tell you anything else about his anatomy, Ballentine was asked in her October 1997 deposition? [Ballentine answered,] 'She said he was really white and really overweight.'" Murdoch's publication then summed up the physical assessment of Clinton: "Peculiar. Pasty. Fat."

The Weekly Standard also judged that the conservative strategy of destroying Clinton finally seemed to be working. "Clinton may appear serene on the outside," the editorial said. "Inside, he must be going near berserk."

Campaign Echoes

In many ways, this destruction strategy was a carry-over from the hard-fought 1992 campaign. Not coincidentally, the identity of The Weekly Standard writer who penned the "peculiar, pasty, fat" editorial was David Tell, who ran the anti-Clinton "opposition research" office for George Bush's re-election campaign.

An articulate young man who favors a casual blue-jean look, Tell scratched the hills of Arkansas for dirt on Clinton in 1992. Tell told me once that he even spent time in Louisiana trying to find evidence of medical malpractice by Clinton's mother, who had been a nurse.

Tell played a role, too, in one of the dirtiest tricks of the 1992 campaign. Two months before the election, Tell urged the Bush team to expedite a search of government files maintained on Clinton. That recommendation led State Department officials to rummage through Clinton's passport file in hopes they could find a rumored letter by Clinton renouncing his citizenship.

No such letter existed, but the Bush administration seized on two staple holes in the corner of Clinton's passport application to fashion a criminal referral. The supposed "crime" was that Clinton or an ally had removed the imagined letter. The Bush team then leaked the confidential criminal referral to Newsweek, which published the story creating fresh doubts about Clinton's patriotism.

Because of fast work by Democratic investigators, the passport "oppo" was exposed. But it was only one of many. [For details, see The Consortium, Feb. 16, 1998.]

In the April 1998 issue of Esquire, conservative writer David Brock published an apology to Clinton which described the background behind the GOP promotion of the Clinton sex scandals. In 1992, "a major contributor to Newt Gingrich's GOPAC ... importuned [me] to follow up on a story in a super-market tabloid that suggested you had fathered a child with a Little Rock prostitute," Brock wrote. Though that story went no where, Brock added, "it was my introduction to the gothic world of anti-Clintonism."


In November 1992, Clinton won the election, but the battle was only beginning. "Eight months into your presidency, the dirty war was on again," Brock wrote. The same GOPAC contributor hooked Brock up with four disgruntled state troopers who hoped to make money from their stories about Clinton's alleged extra-marital affairs.

"There was talk about how to structure a future book deal, and there were several rounds of negotiations between [Clinton nemesis] Cliff Jackson and the GOPAC moneyman about guaranteeing the troopers income and legal expenses," Brock recalled. Brock cobbled the lascivious trooper tales into a lengthy American Spectator article that appeared in December 1993. This so-called Troopergate article recounted a host of sexual and other personal escapades by both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Some of the stories were bizarre and unlikely. The troopers charged, for instance, that Hillary Clinton would call the governor's mansion from her law office "and order the troopers to fetch feminine napkins" for her. One trooper, Larry Patterson, claimed that he witnessed Vincent Foster fondling Mrs. Clinton's breasts at a party, while "she just stood there cooing, 'Oh Vince. Oh Vince.'"

Other stories were patently false. Brock quoted Patterson as claiming that Clinton was so furious in 1988 about his poorly received speech at the Democratic convention that Clinton "refused to endorse [nominee Michael Dukakis] until a few weeks before the election." If Brock had bothered to check, he would have discovered that Clinton's convention speech was the nominating address for Dukakis.

Later, Brock recognized the damage he had done by substituting personal attack for political debate. When the troopers fabricated new tales about Vincent Foster's death in a plan for a money-making video, Brock realized that he had relied on witnesses who were not credible.

Yet, even as, Brock expressed regret in Esquire, he was not telling the whole story. He did not identify the GOPAC contributor. But he later confirmed accounts by the New York Observer and the Chicago Sun-Times that the moneyman was Chicago investment banker Peter W. Smith, a major Republican donor. Smith reportedly paid $6,700 each to state troopers Roger Perry and Larry Patterson as well as tens of thousands more to lawyers and public relations consultants involved in spreading the Clinton stories. Under questioning, Brock confirmed that he got $5,000 from Smith in 1992. [WP, April 1, 1998]

Despite his remorse, Brock could not turn back the clock. His American Spectator article had introduced Paula Jones to the world and, with the encouragement of her friend Debra Ballentine, Jones had filed suit alleging that Clinton asked for oral sex and exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room on May 8, 1991.


Over time, even Jones's lawyers came to doubt elements of her story. Her first lawyer, Daniel Traylor, quit and later objected to additions that Jones made as the case evolved. Her second set of lawyers quit, too, emphasizing strategic differences but also citing unspecified "illegal or unjust" actions by their client. In Esquire, Brock noted that "one of Jones's key legal advisers told me that he didn't necessarily believe her story of sexual harassment."

But in the three years since Brock's initial story, several mainstream reporters came to see the sex scandal as a career-maker. Michael Isikoff, from The Washington Post and Newsweek, eventually replaced Brock as the leading journalistic advocate of Troopergate.

In his Esquire article, Brock recalled how he once met Isikoff for drinks at Washington's glitzy Four Seasons hotel. Isikoff had dug up more Clinton sex stories but couldn't push them through his Post editors. "Isikoff passed them on to me, resident bottom-feeder," Brock wrote.

Isikoff soon moved over to the Post's sister publication, Newsweek, where the market for sex stories was hotter. In 1987, Newsweek had led the pack in examining Sen. Gary Hart's sex life. That same year, I was a correspondent for Newsweek and came under pressure from editors to publish a story about homosexuals who worked with White House aide Oliver North, an article I declined to write.

But a decade later, Newsweek still valued the sale potential of political sex. "Soon enough, Newsweek would become The American Spectator," Brock observed.

The Jones case got another big journalistic boost from Stuart Taylor Jr. of The American Lawyer. Right before the 1996 election, Taylor wrote a long article giving great weight to "corroboration" that Jones's story received from Ballentine and another close friend, Pamela Blackard. [American Lawyer, November 1996]

Both women had submitted affidavits with the original Jones suit in May 1994, describing Jones demeanor after her 1991 meeting with Clinton. But the two women offered no details about what Jones told them at the time. Since then, the women had ducked reporters.

But on Oct. 1, 1996, Taylor reached both women by phone and they opened up. They insisted that Jones immediately recounted the Clinton incident in detail, including her claim that Clinton had exposed himself. Taylor found Blackard most impressive since she spoke with Jones only minutes after the alleged incident.

"I asked Blackard if she recalled Jones describing something dramatic happening just before Jones had left Clinton," Taylor wrote. "'He dropped his pants,' she [Blackard] responded, ... 'If someone goes up, and comes back in 10 minutes, and is shaking -- she didn't have time to make all that stuff up. And I'm like her best friend [at the time]. Why would she tell me something like that?'"

Taylor showcased Blackard's statement again in an article for Newsweek. "Jones whole story is supported by her co-worker [Blackard], who says a badly upset Jones told her about Clinton's groping, grabbing and dropping his pants in X-rated detail minutes after returning from Clinton's suite to the lobby," Taylor wrote. [Newsweek, June 9, 1997]

In the weeks that followed, however, Taylor's account proved wrong: Jones did not tell Blackard about Clinton exposing himself immediately after the alleged incident. Sources familiar with an earlier lawyer interview with Blackard said she claimed then that Jones added the dramatic details at a later date. That version was supported, too, by Jones's first lawyer, Traylor, who said Blackard told him that Jones did not mention Clinton exposing himself or asking for oral sex, when Jones returned from the meeting.

Taylor himself retreated from his original story in a June 23, 1997, article in Legal Times. Not only did Taylor include Traylor's account of Blackard's contradictory versions, but Taylor cited the contemporaneous recollections of another Jones friend, Carol Phillips, who worked in Gov. Clinton's Little Rock office.

Phillips said Jones visited the office the day after the alleged incident and praised Clinton as "sweet" and "gentle." Phillips said Jones then made repeated attempts to get Clinton's attention, sent him her phone number and asked permission to sign a group birthday card to him with the words, "Hi, Happy Birthday from Paula" followed by a suggestive question mark. [Legal Times, June 23, 1997]

The Clinton Template

Still, the journalistic template remained "Clinton's abuse of power." When information fit that, the stories landed easily on the front page. Contrary evidence didn't.

That was the pattern again with claims by former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey that Clinton groped her during a private meeting in the Oval Office on Nov. 29, 1993. Willey's charges were embraced by CBS's "60 Minutes" before a huge national audience on March 15.

But in the following days -- with far less attention -- Willey's credibility crumbled. There were disclosures that she had tried to sell her story for $300,000, about what she owed creditors. A friend, Julie Steele, swore that Willey had asked her to supply false corroboration for the story.

Time magazine added another nick to Willey's credibility. Time reported that in summer 1995, when Fourth of July plans went awry, Willey grew angry with her lover, a British soccer coach named Shaun Docking. To exact revenge, Willey concocted an elaborate lie in which she informed Docking that she was pregnant with his twins, Time reported. According to the story, Willey later had Steele tell Docking that she had a miscarriage.

The Time report, however, had little media bounce. One of the few national media outlets that gave serious attention to the faked-pregnancy story was "Rivera Live," the CNBC program with Geraldo Rivera.

Ironically, Rivera had emerged as one of the few media figures who will examine all aspects of the Clinton scandals, both the evidence for and the evidence against. Despite his "trash TV" reputation, Rivera displayed an open-mindedness lacking at many prestige news outlets.

That Geraldo Rivera is showing up the competition on standards of journalistic decency may be one of the most telling inside-the-business stories of the Clinton scandals. ~

(c) Copyright 1998 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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