More and more, Washington is a nasty place, like Dallas 1963. The nation’s capital is a city where rhetorical sniper rifles poke out of nearly every window. Character assassination has become a daily fact of life. Calumny is the new local dialect.
While all sides in Washington share blame for this epidemic of meanness, some are more responsible than others. For the well-funded conservative movement, slander has evolved into a sophisticated form of political control, a way to intimidate dissident voices during the Reagan-Bush years and now to threaten the political survival of a sitting Democratic president.
Over the past two decades, while fancying themselves the victims of some all-powerful liberal establishment, conservatives have built a well-oiled attack machine–and have shown no compunction about using it. In recent years, almost anybody who stepped into the path of the conservative agenda–politician, journalist, or investigator–has run afoul of the GOP machine.
A typical smear job might start in the right-wing American Spectator or the Moonie-owned Washington Times, then get repeated on Rush Limbaugh’s liberal-bashing talk show or by the Christian Broadcasting Network. The attack might be reprised on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, repeated by the many nationally syndicated conservative columnists, and bandied about by the multitude of conservative voices on the weekend chat shows. Soon, simply through repetition, the lies take on the ring of truth.
Since the 1970s, many of the sensible Republicans–leaders such as Barber Conable, who cared about making sense–have disappeared. Others have thrived, like Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. A smart man with a clever wit, Dole has emerged as the preferred television spokesman for harsh Republican partisanship.
When Clinton’s Whitewater troubles reached flood stage in late 1993, Dole took to the Senate floor and the Sunday talk shows to demand a special prosecutor to investigate. Dole was the outraged defender of the public’s right to know. He seemed to forget that he had led the Republican filibuster in 1992–when George Bush was president–to kill the special prosecutor law.
At that time, of course, Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh was unraveling the Republicans’ long-running coverup of President Reagan’s illegal arms sales to Iran and Bush’s lies about being “out of the loop.” Dole and the conservatives were desperate to block Walsh’s progress, so he became a target of the machine. The conservative media seized on minor indiscretions and personal foibles to humiliate Walsh.
Dole boasted to an enthusiastic convention of conservative activists that he had “taken to the Senate floor on countless occasions to detail the dismal record of Walsh. I’ve discussed his violation of Washington, D.C., tax laws, his first-class air fares, the lavish office space. I’ve talked about his breakfasts, his paid-for room service, and dinners provided by American taxpayers.” Dole bragged that he even examined the “political leanings” of Walsh’s staff lawyers, some of whom subsequently faced personal attacks in the right-wing press.
A year later, without a blush for his hypocrisy, Dole excoriated the Clinton White House for any delay in appointing a special prosecutor for Whitewater.
For his part, Clinton might have expected a respite from the scandal-mongering when he entered the White House. He might have hoped for a period of political tranquility during which the nation’s growing domestic problems could be addressed and debated. But he was wrong. The Republican attack machine opted instead for continuation of campaign-style opposition research, the state-of-the-art process for digging up dirt to muddy Clinton and his key liberal appointees.
The Republican attack machine took shape in the mid-1970s, initially as a defensive reaction to the Watergate scandal and domestic opposition to the Vietnam War. To punish anti-war Democrats and counter a news media that had grown suspicious about Nixonian political tactics, an embattled conservative movement launched a multipronged counterattack.
Terry Dolan’s National Conservative Political Action Committee ambushed liberal senators with vicious TV ads. Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media stepped up personal assaults on the patriotism of honest journalists. Richard Viguerie pioneered direct mail to stir up rank-and-file conservatives. Backed by well-heeled conservative foundations, new right-wing think tanks flooded the editorial pages with hard-edged rhetoric.
Then, in 1980, Reagan’s victory turned the executive branch’s power over to these same conservative forces. Working closely with the White House and the national security agencies, the machine accelerated attacks on the president’s perceived “enemies”–in the press, Congress, and activist communities, such as those opposing Reagan’s policies in Central America.
Fewer politicians and journalists dared confront the machine. Too many careers had been damaged or destroyed. The silence helped the White House keep secret illegal policies in Central America and the Middle East. By the mid-1980s, any effective oversight of Reagan’s White House and William Casey’s CIA had ended.
Except for a Sandinista soldier’s lucky missile shot in fall 1986 that brought down one of Oliver North’s supply planes, and a story published in a Beirut weekly exposing the administration’s secret arms-for-hostages deal, Iran-contra might have remained a secret. Still, in the ensuing months, the Democrats and the media failed to plumb the depths of the scandal. Then a correspondent at Newsweek, I encountered growing opposition from senior editors who sided with the Reagan-Bush administration’s desire to bury the scandal for, as one put it, “the good of the country.”
With the Clinton presidency, the machine shifted to offense. Clinton’s would-be nominees quickly became victim to the machine’s modus operandi, with Bob Dole’s loyal lieutenants, Senators Orrin Hatch and Nancy Kassebaum, usually leading the charge. Lani Guinier saw her writings distorted and herself portrayed as a “quota queen.” Mort Halperin, a former member of the Nixon administration who broke with Henry Kissinger over the Vietnam War, found his nomination to a Pentagon job blocked by ugly insinuations that he was disloyal.
But Dole and the Republicans had a bigger target in their sights: the president himself. Petty administration disputes, such as replacement of the White House travel office, exploded into hot topics in the news and on the talk shows. Tawdry and graphic accounts of Clinton’s alleged sexual behavior, such as described in the conservative-backed lawsuit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, received wide publicity. The Vince Foster suicide fueled rumors about the Clintons’ marriage and speculation over their 15-year-old Whitewater real estate investment.
Whatever Clinton’s other shortcomings, his destruction by the conservative machine would be a stunning development. It would mean that the machine even has the power to dislodge a president. Even fewer politicians and journalists would dare venture into the machine’s path then.
Robert Parry is the author of two books about Washington deception: “Fooling America” and “Trick or Treason.”
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