The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton

by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons

Published by St. Martin's Press

413 pages, 2000

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Vast and Vicious

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


It was coincidental, but appropriate, that I finished reading The Hunting of the President on the very day, earlier this spring, when Robert Ray, who replaced Ken Starr as the independent counsel probing alleged misdeeds by the Clinton administration, reported that there was "no substantial and credible evidence" of criminality in what the American press had dubbed "Filegate."

That pseudo-scandal, which dates back to U.S. President Bill Clinton's early days in the Oval Office, involved his staff's receipt of confidential files on mainly Republican appointees who'd served previously in the White House. The new Democratic administration excused the matter as a bureaucratic blunder, but Filegate nonetheless incited investigations by GOP-led committees in both houses of Congress and fired up reporters hungry for a latter-day Watergate. It also became one of many rallying cries for Clinton bashers seeking either to raise money for opposition candidates or raise hell against a commander-in-chief they portrayed as unfit for his exalted post. So it wasn't surprising that Ray's report was promptly denounced by anti-Clinton groups. After all, they've made an industry out of presidential "scandals" over the last seven years. Why would they let mere truth stand in the way of their juicy charges?

Previous presidents had to withstand nasty attacks in their time. Andrew Jackson's critics labeled him a murderer. Abraham Lincoln was called a "hideous baboon," whose speeches were no better than "crude, ignorant twaddle." Grover Cleveland was accused of wife-beating, while Franklin Roosevelt was supposedly a closet communist who suffered from "congenital insanity."

But few of his 40 predecessors attracted hateful right-wing extremists and nutball conspiracy-mongers as prodigiously as Bill Clinton has done. And almost never did earlier accusations against presidents receive such an airing in the press or prove to be so destructive as those leveled against the first baby boomer to hold America's highest elective office. "[R]arely in this century has the impulse to destroy dominated our national discourse the way it has during the past decade," award-winning political journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons remark in their thorough -- and thoroughly maddening -- new study. "No president of the United States and no first lady have ever been subject to the corrosive combination of personal scrutiny, published and broadcast vilification, and official investigation and prosecution" endured by the Clintons.

This combination fed on voters' largely knee-jerk distrust of government, sullied the reputations of "respectable" news organizations and exposed in the world's last-remaining superpower an undercurrent of intolerance and hatred that shocked the majority of its citizenry. It was this same combination of factors that, in 1998, nearly drove Bill Clinton from his job in what many observers have characterized as a veiled coup d'etat.

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Tracking the roots of these politically partisan efforts, Conason and Lyons find a principal source in a "dirty tricks" campaign launched by Lee Atwater, the late chairman of America's Republican Party. Near the close of the 1980s, it seems, Atwater identified then-Governor Clinton of Arkansas as a potential and serious threat to the GOP's hold on the White House. A brilliant and gregarious young political strategist with a mainstream message, Clinton also was dogged by rumors of official malfeasance and infidelity, and Atwater was determined to exploit such malicious murmurs against him. After Atwater's death from cancer in 1990, others -- both inside and outside the U.S. government -- took up the cudgel. For instance, Conason and Lyons write that during the 1992 presidential race, Republicans offered a cabaret singer named Gennifer Flowers money to tell the media that she'd carried on a 12-year affair with the governor (a dubious allegation, since a Little Rock, Arkansas, hotel where she claimed they'd trysted between 1978 and 1980 wasn't even constructed until 1983). When that didn't cripple Clinton's candidacy, then-President George Bush's reelection campaign tried to initiate a criminal investigation of his opponent's link to a money-losing real-estate venture known as Whitewater, but it went nowhere at the time -- perhaps, write Conason and Lyons, because Bush feared it would draw attention to his own sons' disaster-fraught business dealings.

As The Hunting of the President recounts ever-more outrageous indictments against Bill and Hillary Clinton, only to shoot each down in a barrage of well-documented and often previously ignored exculpatory evidence, it's frightening to realize how easily America's scandal-hungry mainstream media were manipulated by a "loose cabal" of well-financed Clinton haters ("an angry gallery of defeated politicians, disappointed office seekers, right-wing pamphleteers, wealthy eccentrics, zany private detectives, religious fanatics, and die-hard segregationists"). In these pages, we find a wealthy Chicago Republican (with ties to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich) secretly paying off Clinton's former Arkansas bodyguards to repeat questionable tales of his philandering to the press. We read about tens of thousands of dollars being spent to perpetuate the myth that the president had fathered a black prostitute's son and we see the supposedly honorable Wall Street Journal scheming to acquire bogus surveillance videotapes showing Clinton paying a bribe. We discover other news organizations -- including The Washington Post and The New York Times -- propagating half-truths and partisan rancor, then defending their "facts" even after they're proved erroneous. And we visit with former backers of Republican President Richard Nixon, who imagined finding in the ruination of Clinton some twisted form of payback for the indignities their own man had been forced to undergo a quarter-century before. Describing one such partisan, Lucianne Goldberg, a "literary agent provocateur" who had spied for Nixon on the 1972 presidential campaign of Democrat George McGovern, Conason and Lyons write:

Politically, she was a hard-bitten conservative of Nixonian vintage, with the same inclination to fight dirty that had always identified the late disgraced president and his circle. Her resentment sometimes sounded quite personal, less perhaps because Bill Clinton was a Democrat than because he represented the succession to power of the antiwar, pot-smoking generation that had rejoiced at Nixon's resignation. Clinton had demonstrated against the Vietnam War and worked in the McGovern campaign, while his feminist wife had researched impeachment for the Democrats on the Senate Watergate committee. For the aging, haunted Nixonites, Clinton's presidency renewed a desire for vengeance that had never been satisfied.

Conason, a former Village Voice writer and now a columnist with the online magazine Salon, and Lyons, a former Newsweek editor, have composed a superb retrospective analysis of the malignant campaign to unseat an optimistic and activist president. Their twisting tale reads like a thriller, its pace quickening as it reaches the final showdown between Clinton and a lineup of hypocritical GOP censors, the plot all along filled with quirky players. Among these, of course, is Paula Jones, the former Little Rock clerk who claimed that her drawn-out sexual-harassment suit against the president (subsidized by right-wing interest groups) had nothing to do with money, yet eventually fought for a much larger settlement in the case. Here, we are also reintroduced to Republican congressman Dan Burton of Indiana, who grew so fixated on the notion that Clinton loyalists had murdered deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster in 1993 -- despite police having concluded that the cause of death was suicide -- that he tried to prove his convictions with a now-notorious amateur ballistics test involving a .38 revolver and an innocent watermelon. Conason and Lyons give readers another glimpse of the troubled James McDougal, the Clintons' erstwhile partner in the Whitewater real-estate fiasco, who eventually agreed to submit damning testimony against the president, though his terribly contradictory statements hurt McDougal's credibility more than they contributed to any case against Clinton.

And what review of Clinton's second four-year term would be complete without the oleaginous Ken Starr, whose multiple conflicts of interest made him the least independent "independent counsel" in U.S. history. A former solicitor general, the ultraconservative Starr was sicced on Clinton in 1994, after Republicans on Capitol Hill determined that a previous probe, headed by the well-respected attorney Robert Fiske, was being too soft on the president and "moving much too fast" in its investigations. It was Starr who jacked the heat up on what had been a pretty dry investigation of long-ago property and financial dealings in Arkansas, recasting it as a puerile assault on Clinton's sex life, eventually threatening White House intern Monica Lewinsky if she didn't reveal the details of her dalliances with the commander-in-chief.

But while the prosecutor's moral zealotry provided plenty of red meat to be chewed over on right-wing talk shows, in the pages of The American Spectator and on Fox-TV's equally biased news programs, it eventually backfired. Ordinary Americans were infuriated to learn that Starr had spent more than $40 million of their tax money on a politically motivated quest to discredit and defeat a twice-elected president, and they were offended by what Conason and Lyons call the "blatant collusion" between Starr's office and "prominent members of the Washington press corps":

It was hard not to notice that the same reporters and news organizations that had been most critical of Clinton in the Jones and Whitewater cases also routinely scooped their rivals.... Starr's denials that he and his staff were illegally passing along grand jury evidence in order to put pressure on witnesses [against the president] and gain political advantage were widely disbelieved. The likelihood that reporters, editors, television correspondents, and producers were repeatedly fabricating attributions like 'sources in Starr's office' and 'Starr's investigators' seemed vanishingly small.

As Congress debated Clinton's fate in 1998, the American public sided firmly with the man to whom they had entrusted the leadership of their nation. They saw in Clinton a flawed president (which was nothing unique) and someone capable of poor judgment regarding women (a trait that made him typically male). Yet, they also owed him serious debts of gratitude: for deftly overcoming an economic disaster left behind by two Republican predecessors; for actually balancing the nation's budget, instead of just talking about how it should be balanced; for expanding family and medical leave programs as well as earned-income tax credits for the poor; for working hard -- and under severe criticism from naysayers -- to bring peace to the Middle East, Northern Ireland and the Balkans; for promoting health care reforms and expanding environmental protections; and for standing up against the nation's too-powerful tobacco and gun lobbies. Bill Clinton had demonstrated his willingness to fight on behalf of all his constituents, not just the wealthy, white minority that so consistently drew the attention of his fiercest GOP opponents. And that same broad range of constituents returned the favor in Clinton's hour of direst need, driving his job-approval ratings up to record levels even as Republicans on Capitol Hill struggled impotently to remove him from office. Those approval figures have hardly slackened since, allowing Clinton to continue pushing an ambitious agenda even during this, his eighth and final year in the White House.

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What's most unexpected about The Hunting of the President is how Bill and Hillary Clinton seem like secondary characters. According to Conason and Lyons, that's because most of the scandal talk that has swirled about the first couple had little or no basis in reality, but did manage to take on a life of its own, nurtured by numerous right-wing pundits and publications. Sadly, as the authors tell it, prosecutor Starr realized as far back as 1997 that Whitewater, Filegate and related controversies weren't going to win him the convictions that his conservative backers demanded. So instead, he went searching for any other weapons to use against the leader of the free world. Had President Clinton not opened himself to attack over his relationship with Lewinsky -- hardly a scandal of Iran-contra or Watergate proportions, but still a wrong and stupid thing to have done, by anyone's standards -- history might have remembered him for his many political accomplishments, rather than also for his personal appetites. | May 2000


J. Kingston Pierce is the senior editor of January Magazine.