Flickr Photo by tsevis
Today’s Republicans are thumbing through Newt Gingrich’s worn playbook of 1993 looking for tips on how to blunt President Barack Obama’s political momentum and flip it to their advantage. In doing so, they also appear to have dug in to what might be called the secret appendix.
The official history of what happened during Bill Clinton’s difficult first two years – which ended in a sweeping Republican congressional victory in 1994 – focuses on the GOP’s united resistance to his economic plan and Hillary Clinton’s failed health care reform. But there was a darker side to the political damage inflicted on the early Clinton administration.
Republicans and their right-wing allies disseminated what – in a covert operation – would be called “black propaganda.” Some exaggerated minor scandals, like the Travel Office firings and Clinton’s Whitewater real-estate deal, while other key figures on the Right, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, spread ugly conspiracy rumors linking Clinton to “mysterious deaths” and cocaine smuggling.
Sometimes, these multiplying “Clinton scandals” built on themselves with the help of their constant repetition in both the right-wing and mainstream news media. For instance, overheated accusations about some personnel changes at the White House Travel Office pushed deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster into a deep depression.
Then, on July 30, 1993, a distraught Foster went to Fort Marcy Park along the Potomac River and shot himself. The Right quickly transformed the tragedy into a new front in the anti-Clinton psychological warfare, with Foster’s death giving rise to a cottage industry for conspiracy theorists and a new way to raise doubts about Clinton.
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, among others, popularized the notion that Foster may have been killed elsewhere, with his body then transported to Fort Marcy Park. Repeated official investigations confirmed the obvious facts of Foster’s suicide but could not quell the conspiracy rumors. [For the fullest account of the Foster case, see Dan Moldea’s A Washington Tragedy.]
The “mystery” around Foster’s death also bolstered the “mysterious deaths” list, which mostly contained names of people who had only tangential connections to Clinton. The effectiveness of the list was the sheer volume of the names, creating the illusion that Clinton must be a murderer even though there was no real evidence implicating Clinton in any of the deaths.
As the list was blast-faxed far and wide, one of my right-wing sources called me up about the list and said, “even if only a few of these are real, that’s one helluva story.” I responded that if the President of the United States had murdered just one person that would be “one helluva story,” but that there was no evidence that Clinton was behind any of the deaths.
Other dark Clinton “mysteries” were spread through videos, like “The Clinton Chronicles” that Falwell hawked on his “Old-Time Gospel Hour” television show. Plus, salacious tales about the personal lives of the Clintons were popularized via right-wing magazines, such as The American Spectator, and the rapidly expanding world of right-wing talk radio.
The Right also generated broader conspiracy theories about “black helicopters” threatening patriotic Americans with a United Nations takeover. The paranoia fed the rise of a “militia movement” of angry white men who dressed up in fatigues and went into the woods for paramilitary training.
By fall 1994, Clinton’s stumbling performance in office and the public doubts created by the black propaganda opened the way for a stunning Republican victory. Recognizing the influence of talk radio in spreading the Clinton smears, House Republicans made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the GOP caucus.
However, the forces that the anti-Clinton psy-war campaign set in motion had unintended consequences. In the months after the Republicans gained control of Congress, one pro-militia extremist, Timothy McVeigh, took the madness to the next step and blew up the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Clinton Coup d’Etat?”]
Reprising the Smears
Now, 16 years since the start of Clinton’s presidency, the Republicans and their right-wing allies are again on the outside of Washington power and are back studying the lessons of 1993-94. Only a month into Obama’s presidency, there are some striking similarities in the two historical moments.