So once again, Julian Assange places his hand near the plunger, threatening to detonate more anti-Hillary dynamite. Fair enough. If he has something real, whatever we think of him and his methods, it will have to be grappled with. But before he starts in, let’s put the topic of New Clinton Revelations in the context they deserve—a context everyone forgets the instant a titillating email or tape emerges, like the tape from this past weekend in which Clinton supposedly demeaned Bernie Sanders’s supporters but in fact did the opposite (as Sanders himself agreed).
I’ve written two columns in my little series aimed at trying to persuade swing voters why they really don’t want Trump in the White House. The first argued that while she may be flawed, “even deeply flawed,” he is psychotic (an argument that’s looking better with each passing week). The second made the case against voting for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.
This third one is toughest one to write so far (and will be the longest one, because it requires some detailed explanations of some things). Here, I’m going to try to tell you, if you’re a younger voter or if you just don’t remember this stuff because you have other things to think about in life, that Hillary Clinton isn’t nearly as crooked as you think she is; that most—yep; most—of what you’ve read about her over the past quarter-century is either wildly exaggerated or, in a surprising number of cases, simply not true at all. You will wonder: How could something that’s simply not true even make its way into the newspapers in the first place? In due course, I will explain.
So let’s go back to 1992, and her husband’s first campaign, which is where all this started. Ponder this context: At that point, since 1948—for 44 years—American had only had presidents who’d served in wars in some form or another, usually World War II (Ronald Reagan by making movies, but he got the draft board to count it somehow). And, for an even longer period—much longer—America had only had first ladies who were proverbial little women at their husband’s side. Except for Eleanor Roosevelt, they didn’t have opinions about matters of state. And they certainly steered well clear of meddling in the presidency (officially, at least; Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan were the most notable unofficial exceptions). They selected china patterns.
And finally, remember that it was 26 years ago, and life was different from today. Yes, the feminist revolution had happened, and women had joined the work force in huge numbers by then. But not everyone liked it, not by a long shot. And more broadly the culture wars were raging; the very term “culture wars” had just come into general use in 1990 or 1991.
So into this milieu walk Bill and Hillary Clinton, the first president and first lady from the ’60s generation. He, to his critics, was a draft dodger (and there is no doubt that he delayed service as long as he could and then had the good fortune to draw a high lottery number). And she was a feminist, which she didn’t bother to deny. In addition, for years she had been the chief breadwinner in the Clinton household. The governor of Arkansas made $30,000, maybe $35,000 in the ’80s. Hillary, a partner in Little Rock’s prestige law firm, made six figures. And she was seen, then, as “secretly” more liberal than her centrist husband.
What I’ve described so far comes under the heading of ideology—her feminism, her public profile, and her known beliefs all added up to a woman who challenged the conventions of the day. You can see, given the image of the First Lady that prevailed up to Hillary’s arrival on the scene, why that upset some people. But what, you might be wondering, do these ideological matters have to do with corruption? This is the key question that must be answered in assessing Hillary Clinton’s public life and reputation.
The answer starts with this: It is because Hillary so fully defied social conventions that her conservative antagonists decided they needed to persuade America that she was a terrible person. This began with attacks that were chiefly ideological; that she was a dangerous radical, and unfeminine.
Clinton gave these critics some ammunition, notably in the form of two infamous quotes. The first came in late January 1992, when she said on 60 Minutes, where the Clintons grappled with the infidelity issue, that she wasn’t just “some little woman here standin’ by my man like Tammy Wynette.” The second came in March, when she said in an interview, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” Her tone was, to be sure, dismissive of the mores of cooking-baking and tea-hosting.
But even so, the ideological attacks weren’t really taking. A lot of Americans were on Hillary’s side of this divide. Calling her an abrasive man-hater was preaching to the choir; it wasn’t going to resonate beyond the right. So what to do?
Here we find the Rosetta Stone: The answer was to paint her as corrupt, since concern about corruption transcends ideological and partisan lines. I’m not saying some committee met in a secret room and took a vote on doing this (although a large amount of right-wing money was, in fact, secretly spent on finding dirt on both Clintons). I am saying, though, that it became clear to figures on the right that the more effective way to make the Clintons unpopular, and to block his agenda as president, was to portray them as dirty.
In the media environment of 20 or even 10 years earlier, this would have been hard to do. But in 1992-93, some factors came together to make it surprisingly easy. Right-wing talk radio had recently exploded across the country. The 24-7 news cycle was just becoming a thing. There was a lot of airtime to fill. Competition for scoops at mainstream outlets was becoming more ferocious. And there was no bigger scoop in political journalism than the possibility of a scandal surrounding this new backwoods president or his controversial wife.
The big bear in those days was Whitewater. I don’t have space here to do chapter and verse, but: nothing happened. They invested around $45,000 in a land-development deal and lost almost all of it. There were a lot of facts that, strung together in the right way, could be made to look fishy. But neither Clinton did anything wrong. No proof ever emerged anywhere that Bill told regulators to look the other way, or that Hillary hid her billing records. It was investigated to death, for years, both by Congress and by a prosecutor, Ken Starr, who wanted to put them—and, perhaps, especially her—in prison. Another investigation, conducted by a government-appointed law firm and led in party by a Republican former U.S. attorney, found no evidence of wrongdoing. That was December 1995. It was barely mentioned in the press. Starr’s investigation dragged on for three more years.
On and on it went. There was the White House travel office “scandal,” which Hillary handled clumsily but was in no way an ethical breach of any sort. There was the money she made trading cattle futures, which she made over the course of nine months (media reports at the time often gave the impression she made her $99,000 haul in a day or a week) before she lost her taste for gambling on the futures market. There was the sad suicide of her friend Vince Foster, whom the Clintons allegedly had killed because he knew too much (and of course because Hillary had had an affair with him). There was a thing dubbed Filegate, in which a low-level White House employee improperly requested the FBI files of some political figures. With no evidence, many began screaming that Hillary had to be behind it. It was investigated by three different bodies. Even the zealous Starr exonerated her on that one.
These were matters that consumed the mainstream media. On the right, meanwhile, the Clintons were painted as diabolical. Jerry Falwell backed a film in 1994, The Clinton Chronicles, alleging that the Clintons had people murdered. A web site devoted to the Clintons’ supposed body count still exists, though I won’t do it the honor of linking to it. Actually, there seem to be three. And they’re still adding bodies.
And don’t forget the books! According to this Wikipedia list, a whopping 45 negative books about Clinton have been published (note: My book about her 2000 Senate race is called “positive” on this list, and while I don’t dispute that overall, I certainly criticized her campaign where it erred, as I have this year; besides, my book was a reporting-based campaign book, whereas most of these attack books either strung together selected facts to make her look evil or simply made things up). There’ve been a few more of these on the best-seller lists this year. The m.o. is always the same: rip a few quotes out of context; take material from other sources that is totally unsubstantiated but has appeared “in print” and can therefore be cited in sober-looking footnotes; mix, to produce the finish portrait of a scheming, lying, ambitious, unpatriotic harridan.
The number and quality of the lies can stagger. Go to snopes.com and enter “Hillary Clinton” in the search bar. She and Lester Holt used hand signals to rig the debate (false). She said Christians in America must deny their faith (false). In the ’90s, she said “nurses are overpaid maids” (unproven). She wore black face at a costume party (false). There are dozens of them. You might laugh this stuff off. But these things get whipped around the country in email chains, and millions of Americans believe them, just as they believe she “let people die” in Benghazi on purpose (a conclusion that eight different investigations have failed to find any evidence to support).
I’m not saying Clinton has never done anything wrong. Obviously she has. Her email server decision was indefensible, and I’ve written that. She did embellish that Bosnian sniper-fire story, twice, back in 2008. The decision to accept a fat speaking fee from Goldman Sachs is incomprehensible to me. Both Clintons’ pursuit of money in recent years has been grossly excessive. The foundation-related stories that keep popping up prove no wrongdoing, but they do show in some cases a casual attitude toward appearances that’s concerning, given that they know that everything they do is being monitored by opponents who want to end their careers in disgrace.
Back in the ’90s, Hillary expected that journalists would respect a “zone of privacy” for the new first couple extending from their raising of Chelsea to other aspects of their personal lives. She soon learned that in the new age of the endless news cycle, no such zone would exist. She stayed in denial about that for too long, and it cost her a lot of credibility, because the press, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and while Hillary was creating the vacuum by not being accessible to the media, her attackers were filling it.
But most of what they filled it with was garbage. I’d say that around 80 percent of what you’ve read about her over the years is simply false. It didn’t happen the way it was presented, or a lot of the time it didn’t happen at all. And she has long since even stopped trying to correct the record in many cases, figuring it’s just no use.
The representative story along these lines is the New York Yankees fan controversy. In 1999, when she was first running for Senate in New York, she quipped that after her hometown Chicago Cubs, the Yankees had been her second-favorite team. She was pulverized by the New York press for pandering, and it played into all the stereotypes about her lack of authenticity and so on.
But it was true. The Washington Post had reported it in 1994, long before she had her eye on New York. But her campaign didn’t even bother sending the Post clip out to journalists, figuring after days of pummeling that it was too late to bother and that no one would write it anyway.
Assess her on her real errors of judgment. She’s made them. But she’s made far fewer of them than you’ve been led to believe. And ask yourself this. Counting Benghazi and the emails and Whitewater and Filegate and everything else, she’s easily been investigated by upwards of 20 official bodies. Some very skilled investigators, and certainly many who wanted to corner her. If she’d really done something unlawful or deeply unethical, don’t you think one of these investigations would have found the goods?
In the right-wing swamps, they have an explanation for this as they do for everything—it’s a liberal conspiracy, or she’s had critics killed, or whatever. But here on Planet Earth, maybe there’s another explanation, which is that the vast majority of stuff she’s been accused of, she simply didn’t do.
I know it can seem hard to believe that all these things you’ve been reading for 25 years can be that far off from reality. As much as people say they don’t trust the media, there’s another part of all our brains that sees something in print and believes it. Clinton has made her mistakes; a few big ones. But she’s been lied about more than anyone in American public life in the last 25 years, even more now than her husband. That is a fact, and it’s a fact worth remembering as we head into the final month.