They were called “The Clinton Crazies.” It was the 1990s and while the rest of the nation seemed to bask in an era of nearly unprecedented peace and prosperity, they saw all manner of dark deeds emanating from the White House. To them, Bill Clinton, enabled by his wife, was a serial rapist, a drug-runner, a closet racist, a cocaine addict, someone who ordered the murder of close friends and aides.
When Hillary Clinton referred to the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, she meant them. They wore the epithet like a badge of pride.
It has now been two decades since American politics seemed overrun with a cadre of conservative journalists, opposition researchers, and Republican lawmakers committed to bringing down the president, despite what they saw as the mainstream media’s efforts to protect him. In those intervening years, Clinton’s approval ratings have sky-rocketed as he matures into the role of globe-trotting elder statesman. His wife frequently tops the list of most admired women in the world.
Over the last several weeks, The Daily Beast tracked down more than a dozen Clinton accusers, conspiracy mongers and dirty tricksters. Almost to a person, they look back on the Clinton years as one of the most exciting times of their lives, a time when Washington was crawling with all manner of rumor and allegation (most of which originated in Arkansas, a state largely mysterious to most Beltway types) and the presidency seemed likely to topple at any moment.
Time has, for sure, dulled some of the fervor. Back then, there was certainty in some circles that the Clintons had ordered the murder of Vince Foster, a longtime aide who was found dead in a D.C. park from an apparent suicide. Few soldiers in the Clinton Wars of yore believe that the First Family ordered the hit.
“We were simply asking questions about the death of a high-ranking administration official in very peculiar circumstances, and we were just supposed to accept the conventional answers even though when you look at the forensic evidence there were a lot of questions,” said Joseph Farah, the editor of WND.com and the former head of the Western Journalism Center
In 1996, the Columbia Journalism Review described the WJC as dedicated to “trying to inject the dark view of Foster’s death into mainstream reporting and thinking. Last year, to this end, the Center bought full-page ads in several major newspapers, including The New York Times… to offer for sale special Vince Foster reports.”
“Do I think it was a mistake to be attacking the president? Um… Yes, in the way I did, yes.”
That Foster was murdered, Farah says now, “is not something you will ever see me saying. I am a journalist. I don’t draw conclusions unless there is proper evidence for it. I don’t what happened but I don’t think he committed suicide in Fort Marcy Park.”
But Farah remains largely unrepentant, convinced as ever that “with Bill and Hillary there are some fundamental character problems, and I haven’t seen any improvement. They have always been very power hungry, wealth hungry, and motivated only by what is good for them.”
As for the notion of a vast right-wing conspiracy, Farah and other reputed members say that it never existed. When a lengthy White House memo was recently released from the Clinton archives detailing how the administration tracked conspiracy theories from right-wing think tanks and British tabloids to the American mainstream, its finding were news to those who were in the thick of the action back in the day.
And they bristle too at the notion that they had some kind of personal enmity toward the president.
“They called us Clinton-haters. I was never a hater,” Farah says. “But you could certainly say I was one of his enemies.”
And even with the remove of two decades, Farah stands by his reporting—although he acknowledges that not all of it was in the tradition of even-handed journalism.
“Accurate? Yes. Fairness is a nice thing that we try to do in journalism. We don’t want to smear people. We don’t want to be untruthful. But the most important thing is holding power accountable, and that is what we tried to do.”
Farah is not alone among Clinton conspirators with his lack of self-doubt about his work back in the ’90’s. But there are some soldiers of the Clinton Wars, comrades in arms with Farah and his ilk, who look back on those days and cringe. Richard Mellon Scaife, who helped fund the so-called “The Arkansas Project”—which sent opposition researchers to Clinton’s home state to find out where the bodies (or bimbos) were buried—was once described in the New York Times as a “charter member of the vast right wing conspiracy,” but now counts himself a Clinton admirer. David Brock, a conservative journalist whose investigations helped spur the “Troopergate” investigations, today runs a liberal media watchdog site.
“At the time, I think I was just trying to do a good job as a journalist, but it was to just get caught up in this anti-Clinton movement and belief that he was a bad guy no matter what he did,” said Chris Ruddy, CEO of the conservative media company NewsMax, and close ally at the time of both Scaife and Farah.
He said that a lot of the right-wing suspicion of Clinton grew out of the campus culture wars of the 1990s.
“How could this guy who was a Vietnam War protester be the commander-in-chief?”
And if you were a young journalist back in the ’90s, it was easy to get sucked into an all-out war with the Clintons, mainly because the White House’s communications team would come at them so ferociously, demonizing them in the mainstream press.
“It becomes almost like trench warfare. You have a permanent stalemate and a permanent sense of war and anger and it keeps escalating and there is nobody to bring a truce,” Ruddy said.
He found his way out of the hysteria, he says, during the Bush years, a period which by comparison made Clinton look sober and judicious. At New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s urging, Ruddy and Scaife reached out to Clinton, and met with him for lunch at his Harlem office in 2007.
Now, he says, “I don’t feel like I did anything wrong. I think that at the time I was acting as the opposition press. Do I think it was over the top? Yes. This was 20 years ago. It was my first big adventure in journalism. I was caught up in the moment. You live and learn and you grow. Do I think it was a mistake to be attacking the president? Um… Yes, in the way I did, yes.”
Needless to say, this hasn’t played well with the true believers.
“Scaife and Ruddy have run from what they did,” said Farah. “Without any real explanation that makes any sense. You won’t see them talking about Vince Foster any more. They think Clinton has grown up since leaving the presidency, that he is somehow a changed man. Well, maybe they are the ones that changed.”
It is hard to remember now, but most of the big disputes around the Clinton presidency played out in a media environment that more resembled the 19th century than the 21st. There was no MSNBC and no Fox News. Conservative talk radio was just beginning to grow in popularity. More than a few people interviewed for this article recalled with wonder that they still sent out most of their findings in newsletters using direct mail lists, and bootlegged VHS recordings of anti-Clinton documentaries to send to their friends. The fervor in right-wing circles over the Clinton presidency made media heroes out a few figures still around, like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Matt Drudge. There was no YouTube or social media; the Internet was in its infancy.
Preston Crow was a college student living in Idaho when he created a website dedicating to all things Clinton conspiracy, including a “Clinton Body Count” that tracked all of the supposed murders that the White House had ordered. He now proudly notes that his website was “pre-Yahoo,” even, as if it harkened back to a time when the World Wide Web ran on steam power. But despite the fact that much of the country was not yet online, Crow’s site averaged close to 10,000 hits a day, and he became a hero in far-right circles.
“I bought into the conspiracy theory around Vince Foster, because it seemed more likely than the official story, and it was politically convenient with what I believed at the time,” Crow says now. He has, he says, “come a long way since then.” Crow serves on his town’s planning board and will be a delegate to the Democratic Massachusetts State Convention. And he sees the same kind of thinking that led him to brand Clinton a murderer in people who think that 9/11 was an inside job, or who think that vaccines cause autism.
“Everybody should buy into a conspiracy when you are young and then find out that it is not true, because you will see the same pattern over and over again,” he said. “There was no Fox News at the time, and you felt like you were creating a community as you find people who agree with you. You don’t question facts you already agree with.”
Crow married and says that midway through the Clinton presidency his wife began to nudge him to the left. Now, he acknowledges he went too far. Crow said he has thought about writing to the Clintons to apologize for the “body count” list, even as remembers that time of his life with fondness.
“Being in the middle of something like that, being the go-to person in all of this, was kind of neat.”
But if Crow found his way out of the Clinton Wars, others remain in them, still battling, but with little to show for a cause they have committed so much of their life to. Kathleen Willey was a White House volunteer who said she was groped by Bill Clinton in the Oval Office in 1993. Her claims were largely discredited, and now widowed and divorced, she has dedicated her life to proving that Clinton is “a serial predator.”
She wrote a book: Target: Caught in The Crosshairs of Bill and Hillary Clinton, but aside from the occasional Fox News appearance, has found few venues willing to give her an airing and fewer employment prospects.
“I am not ashamed to say this. I am fighting for closure. I am hanging on for dear life. I am not blaming somebody else for this, but how would an employer feel if my name across their desk. They would say, ‘Hmm, Kathleen Willey, don’t I know that name?’ I haven’t been able to find a job. I am struggling, I am doing everything I can to keep my home because it is all that I have left.”
And she believes that she could still get caught up in the Clintons’ crosshairs at any moment.
“There was a complete terrorist campaign against us. The Clintons are surrounded by layers and layers of people who do anything they ask them to do. I am constantly looking over my back.”
In 1994, Patrick Matrisciana produced a film called The Clinton Chronicles that was, according to its subtitle, “An Investigation Into The Alleged Criminal Activities Of Bill Clinton.” Over 500,000 copies found their way into circulation, but the distribution company that Matrisciana founded, Jeremiah Films, was since shut down (his son operates a rebooted version of it), and he has no plans to do another film on the Clintons.
“I am actually broke. The price you have to pay is very dear, and I just don’t have the resources to fight in that arena any more.”
Matrisciana says that he was audited every year after producing that film. He rented an apartment in Arkansas for six years that served as a base of operations to all manner of Clinton investigator, and he says that it was was broken into repeatedly by Clinton cronies. “We were constantly under surveillance.”
Life as a Clinton obsessive was, he now realizes, a hard one.
“It is sort of like a person with a disability. You learn to live with it. The repercussions are there. And they will be there a long time in terms of business. People will have nothing to do with me because of my activities 15 years ago. It’s like having a police record.”
Matrisciana is something of an admirer of Clinton’s now. He liked how he balanced the budget and was able to work with Congress, but says “I didn’t really put out the bad stuff.” It takes very little to get him started on stories of Clinton’s sexual escapades down in Little Rock that he says he largely ignored.
“I don’t think government should be involved in people’s bedrooms, but let’s just say he and Hillary had kind of a ’60s kind of relationship. I could tell you stories for a very long time.”
And even though he once produced a movie called The Death of Vince Foster: What Really Happened, he denies that he ever accused the president of murder.
“Did Bill Clinton murder Vince Foster? I never said that! I said there are suspicions. But I stand completely by that film.”
“I am not saying everything in the video is a hundred percent true. But I believed it was. Everything I said at the time I believed it was true, because we had multiple sources. I mean, every news story isn’t one hundred percent true either.”
Others found the work to be less of a burden. Hugh Sprunt was a Vietnam vet living in Texas and railing against what he called the creeping up of “the therapeutic state,” which had been steadily progressing since the Civil War. He found—and still finds, for that matter—the official explanation of the supposed Foster suicide unconvincing. “They said he was depressed, he was losing weight. Well, he was actually gaining weight!” he said by phone from the Bay Area, where he now lives.
A CPA and tax attorney, Sprunt became one of the major players in the world of Clinton conspiracy, writing a 300-page “Citizens Investigative Report” on the Foster affair, traveling the country to lecture on the matter.
“It was no sacrifice. I did it because it was fun and a way to get five of my promised 15 minutes of fame,” he says. “It was a reprise of all of my concerns from the ’60s. It was a chance to come back at them as a more mature adult and go on the record. I had some time and some expertise and it turned into a paying hobby.”
That was the thing about the Clinton conspiracy—once the details started not adding up, there was really no end to it. Sprunt, for one, still believes that Clinton allies were behind the plane crash that killed Cabinet Secretary Ron Brown, and that there is more to the story of the TWA Flight 800 that crashed off of New York in 1996.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard was one of the White House chief antagonists from his perch as White House correspondent for the U.K. Daily Telegraph and the author of a book that, among things, alleged that Clinton’s Department of Justice covered up the FBI’s role in the Oklahoma City bombing.
“It was just an incredible story,” he now says of the Clinton White House. “I was completely amazed that somebody could be elected president of the United States who only six years previously had been mixed up with incredible people and so many incredible things going on. When I dug into it it just seemed to go further and further and further and deeper and deeper, all of these mysteries.”
And although Evans-Pritchard, now the business editor at the Telegraph, says that “I don’t feel any of it now, any feeling of getting worked up and emotional about it all has completely disappeared,” moments later, reached at his home in London, he is worked up and emotional, laying out the case for Foster’s murder, and Clinton’s role as an undercover agent in the 1960s in Eastern Europe where, Evans-Pritchard says, he was filing CIA reports on draft dodgers.
“Oh, the memories of all these things!” he said. “I still can’t believe that the American press never followed up on any of this stuff!”
Looking back, he says that Clinton was the perfect leader for the time, even if he once called the leader of the free world the last great cad of the 20th century.
“Oh, that. Well, I look at things differently now. Yes, maybe I got worked up a bit.”
If time has a tendency to take some of the sting of the moment away, it dulls memories too. A promotional spot for Matrisciana’s film featured the Reverend Jerry Falwell speaking to a silhouetted “investigative reporter” who claimed that his life was in danger because of what he had found out. Matrisciana later admitted to Salon that it was he, the producer of the film, who was behind the curtain.
“Obviously, I’m not an investigative reporter,” he said, “And I doubt our lives were actually ever in any real danger. That was Jerry’s idea to do that.”
When asked about it, he said he barely remembered the incident: “It has been so many years since I have seen that thing.”
Likewise with Dan Burton, the Indiana congressman who led the investigations into the administration from her perch as House Oversight chairman, and who once shot a watermelon with a rifle in his backyard to “re-enact” Vince Foster’s murder.
“There was never any rifle, there was never any watermelon,” he says now. And even though he once told an editorial board that the president was “a scumbag,” he now says, “I never wanted to go after him personally.”
“The animosity was conjured up the by media that wanted to stop our investigation. If you are doing your job and the media approves of the person being investigated, they are going to give you a pretty hard time and they did.”
The bias to protect the Clinton and smear their accusers, he added, still exists.
“The whole purpose of you calling is to try to conjure up some kind of story about how people were that did this investigation. We did our job. We were criticized and that is just the way it is. You are going to write a rotten story and so go ahead and write what you want, I don’t really care.”
If, as expected, Hillary Clinton runs for president, it remains to be seen how much the vast right-wing conspiracy will reconstitute itself. Those who regret their role in the Clinton Wars think that it is a mistake to rehash Benghazi, nevermind Vince Foster or Katherine Willey.
But those who think that Clinton was one of history’s great scoundrels are gearing up for a sequel. Even if they failed to much derail the first President Clinton, who is to say a further airing of the allegations won’t slow the potential second?
“Ancient history is often true history,” said Emmett Tyrell, founding editor of The American Spectator, which had something of a heyday back in the 1990s reporting on one Clinton allegation after another. “I don’t think that ancient history which is true history is suddenly void. Her involvement in Bill Clinton’s scandals will be a legitimate issue.”
It was at The American Spectator that the “Arkansas Project,” which led to the Troopergate and Whitewater investigations, began, although Tyrell now says the whole thing was a joke.
“Bill Clinton provided a lot of laughter to me and to The American Spectator,” he said. “Without him we would have had a very dull 1990s.”
It is this notion of Clinton as (somewhat, at least) lovable scamp which may save his wife from the kind of cottage industry that the Clinton White House spawned.
“There was such a rich vein of stories about Bill. You can never go too far with a good joke,” said Tyrell. “Hillary just isn’t as funny.”