Saturday, July 24, 2004

THE CLINTON NON-SCANDALS REVISITED. A confession: the scales didn't fall from my eyes until September 1998, when Bill Clinton's nemesis, special prosecutor Ken Starr, issued his pornographic report. Up until then, I had actually believed that Starr would somehow tie the Monica Lewinsky matter to Whitewater. My favorite theory was that Clinton associate Vernon Jordan, who had attempted to find a job for Lewinsky, could be pressured into testifying about what if any favors he had done for Clinton's crooked friend Webster Hubbell, who was maintaining his silence from his prison cell.

The Starr Report removed all such illusions. Suddenly, the entire country knew (and believe me, the country was ahead of most of us in the media) that the president was being pursued by an out-of-control right-wing extremist whose obsession with sex revealed a highly disturbed mind. The fever broke, and Clinton's presidency survived, though it was permanently weakened.

Those events still seem so recent - and so irrelevant following 9/11 - that I wasn't sure I wanted to relive them. But on Friday evening, I saw a new documentary about the Clinton non-scandals by Clinton buddy Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry, The Hunting of the President, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Based on Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton, the film is flawed, and it's difficult to see where it's going to find an audience. Fahrenheit 9/11 it isn't. Yet it does manage to bring home in an occasionally powerful way the madness that gripped the media and political worlds before and during Clinton's presidency, all of it driven by - as Hillary Clinton memorably called it - the vast right-wing conspiracy.

First, the flaws. I nearly laughed when, near the beginning, journalist-turned-Clinton-aide Sidney Blumenthal smugly explained that the right decided to destroy Clinton because it feared the change he represented. You may recall that during his first two years in the White House, Clinton bet his presidency on forming alliances with corrupt hacks like Dan Rostenkowski, who eventually went to prison. Later Clinton hooked up with such noted reformers as Dick Morris. Clinton's alleged reformist zeal couldn't have been detected with a microscope. If he had been more of a reformer, he might have made more of a mark.

Also, Thomason and Perry don't trust the audience's attention span. The Hunting of the President is edited as though it were made for MTV, with head-whipping scene changes and a liberal use of clips from old black-and-white movies to inject a note of fun into the proceedings. It doesn't work.

But there is much of value here, as Thomason and Perry meticulously recount the Arkansas branch of the Clinton scandals, none of which ever amounted to a damn thing. Most important, we see Ken Starr for what he was: a politically motivated Republican activist, an ideological extremist with absolutely no integrity. It is amazing that, to this day, Starr has not been disbarred or otherwise sanctioned for his grotesque abuse of office. Far from it: in April, Starr was named dean of Pepperdine University's school of law, an institution that has benefited from the generosity of another right-wing extremist and fellow-traveler in the Arkansas wars, Richard Mellon Scaife. It's a job that Starr nearly took in the middle of the Whitewater investigation. Too bad he didn't.

The undisputed star of The Hunting of the President is Susan McDougal, the woman who would not lie. In a long, emotional interview, McDougal recounts how her ex-husband, the late Jim McDougal, terrified of being sent to prison, urged her to go along with Starr and his gang, who were trying to get her to fabricate a story and testify about illegal business dealings with Bill and/or Hillary Clinton. She recalls her ex-husband telling her, "They'll give you the story - you don't have to worry about it." She wouldn't do it, and she served hard time for that refusal, being imprisoned in a ward for child-killing mothers, locked in a cage on bus on the way to court appearances as male prisoners masturbated in front of her and urinated on her.

Dan Moldea, the author of A Washington Tragedy: How the Death of Vincent Foster Ignited a Political Firestorm, expresses disgust to Thomason and Perry about the media's complicity in amplifying Starr's leaks in order to move the scandal forward, calling it "the most corrupt journalism" he'd ever seen. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter talks about how socially unacceptable it was within media circles for a journalist to write or say anything positive about the Clintons. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz recalls the media burying a story about the Clintons' being cleared of some fairly serious Whitewater allegations.

The Hunting of the President begins and ends with Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers's memorable speech during Clinton's Senate impeachment trial, in which he said, "When they say it's not about sex, it's about sex." That would be bad enough. The deeper truth, though, is that it wasn't even about sex. It was about getting Clinton by any means necessary.

It's impossible to know whether Clinton could have been a great president, but we do know this: given the 10-year-long witch hunt devoted to destroying him and his wife, he really never had a chance to do much more than hang on and survive.

And Clinton's enemies on the right and in the media are still at large. They helped destroy Al Gore's campaign four years ago, and they're primed to go after John Kerry today. Amid the celebrating in Boston this coming week, Kerry's strategists had better be ready for what's to come. Because Scaife, Starr, and their fellow right-wing thugs make Karl Rove look like a weenie.

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