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Hillary Clinton's Sleaze Parade

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Paul Rogat Loeb
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Politics can be a rough game. Candidates need to hold their competitors accountable and challenge distortions and lies. And God knows, we need a Democratic nominee who's willing to fight. But Hillary Clinton's campaign has included far too many cheap shots, sleazy manipulations, and unsavory players.


New questionable actions emerge daily. You're probably familiar with many. But it's the broader pattern that disturbs me--how much the Clinton campaign seems to nurture questionable actions from her operatives, supporters, and surrogates. And how the campaign's actions go beyond drawing legitimate political lines to an all-too-Rovian instinct to do whatever's deemed necessary to take down those blocking Clinton's potential victory. Here's a representative list of actions that, taken together, offer a troubling portent for her candidacy and presidency.


Start with the hiring of chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn. He's CEO of a PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, that prepped the Blackwater CEO for his recent congressional testimony, is advising the giant industrial laundry corporation Cintas in fighting unionization, and whose website proudly heralded their union-busting expertise until it became a potential Clinton liability and they removed that section. B-M has historically represented everyone from the Argentine military junta and Philip Morris to Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal disaster.


Then there are Clinton's campaign donors. Any major candidate has some dubious supporters, but Clinton's gotten money from particularly noxious sources. Start with her donation from Rupert Murdoch, who's given to no other Democrat. Add in massive amounts of money from Washington lobbyists and from industries like defense, banking, health care, and oil and energy providers (though Obama's also gotten a lot from some of these industries). Then there's Norman Hsu, who brought in over $850,000 to Hillary's campaign after returning to the US following his flight to evade a fraud conviction (Hsu was subsequently rearrested, sentenced to three years, and is facing further federal charges, and the campaign eventually returned the money he'd raised). There's the Nebraska data processing company InfoUSA, whose CEO, Vin Gupta, used private corporate jets to fly the Clintons on business, personal, and campaign trips, gave Bill Clinton a $3.3 million consulting contract, and is now being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly diverting company money to his own personal uses. Mississippi attorney Dickie Scruggs recently canceled a major December 15 Hillary fundraiser (with Bill Clinton headlining) after being indicted for trying to bribe a judge. Major international sweatshop owners, the Saipan-based Tan family, have given Clinton $26,000, complementing their previous massive support for Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay. That doesn't even count dubious supporters from the past, like Peter Paul, the convicted con-artist turned event producer who coordinated a massive Hollywood Clinton fundraiser during the 2,000 election. Taken together, it's a pretty tainted constellation of backers.


Like most candidates, Clinton spends the bulk of her money on ads and mailings, and she's taken some pretty problematic approaches there too. I wonder how many of the New Hampshire women who voted last minute for Clinton were swayed by a mailing claiming that Obama wasn't really committed to abortion rights because he'd voted "present" on some abortion-related legislative votes. Except that Obama had done so as part of a strategy devised by Illinois Planned Parenthood to protect vulnerable swing district representatives. New England Planned Parenthood's Board Chair strongly refuted Clinton's letter, pointing out that Obama had a 100% record on all the votes that really mattered. But the mailing may still have damaged his support.


The distortion of Obama's position on abortion echoes Hillary's audacious argument that Obama really wasn't against the Iraq war and betrayed his promises by failing to vote against war appropriation bills after the Democrats couldn't override Bush's veto. I wish Obama had bucked the Democratic leadership and taken a stronger stand. But it's a gross distortion of history to equate his positions with Clinton's overt support for the war authorization, refusal to apologize for her vote, and claim that she was really doing it all to promote more diplomatic solutions.


We can find further distortions in a mailing sent out before the Iowa caucuses by the independent expenditure committee of a key Clinton ally, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The AFSCME mailing attacked Obama on his health care plan by using a John Edwards quote that was featured so prominently that recipients could assume that his campaign was the source of the attack piece. This and other actions so disturbed a group of seven AFSCME International Vice Presidents wrote a public letter to their union president, saying that although the union had endorsed Clinton on a split vote, the political committee had no mandate to attack Obama. They demanded the committee stop what they called "fundamentally dishonest" attacks.


Other surrogates have attacked Obama's character. Twice they've tried to raise Obama's early drug use as a campaign issue--despite his having addressed it directly and frankly in his book Dreams From My Father. Hillary's New Hampshire campaign chair, Billy Shaheen, mentioned it first, claiming that he was only worried about how the Republicans might use it. Sheehan resigned from the campaign after a storm of criticism, then Black Entertainment Television CEO Robert Johnson (who's backed Bush on issues like the estate tax) raised it again, with Clinton standing next to him at a South Carolina rally. After Johnson's words drew major heat, Clinton belatedly distanced herself from them, but the smear still stands, along with the disingenuous claim that those making it were just neutral participants, only trying to serve the Party's best interests.


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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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