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Last of a three-part series.
Hillary Clinton’s propensity for overkill earned her and Bill the enmity of people capable of inflicting serious damage, as the Whitewater and Cattle Futures scandals duly attested. And soon, as they embarked on the 1992 presidential campaign, the same overkill reflex produced a perfect storm of bad publicity that came within an ace of finishing Clinton off altogether.
In January 2002, America was introduced to the Gennifer Flowers scandal, courtesy of the National Enquirer. Flowers was a former Little Rock newscaster with whom Governor Clinton had an extended love affair for five years in the 1980s, as pleasingly chronicled in Flowers’ entirely credible memoir, Gennifer Flowers: Passion and Betrayal.
After the Enquirer broke the Flowers story while Clinton was campaigning in New Hampshire, his campaign advisors went into crisis mode, trying to figure out the best defense. Seasoned tacticians like Betsey Wright and David Ifshin suggested that the best course would be to shrug the story off as unsubstantiated gossip mongering by a supermarket tabloid. The national press corps was already taking this tack, since the reporters on the campaign bus were loath to admit they had been scooped by the Enquirer – whose story was in fact a piece of well-researched investigative reporting, backed up by taped phone calls and messages to Gennifer from Bill.
It was Hillary who instructed the campaign to put the ruthless private investigator Jack Palladino on the case. In her memo to Palladino, she ordered him to “impeach Flowers’ character and veracity until she is destroyed beyond all recognition.” Thus primed, Palladino went into action, seeking to portray Flowers as a prostitute, a shakedown artist and career scamster.
While Palladino was trying to finish off Flowers, Hillary urged Bill to follow the high-risk strategy of both of them going on CBS’s 60 Minutes for an interview conducted by Steve Kroft. In front of a vast national audience Bill, visibly ill at ease, admitted to causing pain to his family while denying that their marriage was merely an arrangement. “This is a marriage” he asserted. Hillary broke in. Years of effort in burnishing Bill’s image as a Son of the South went up in smoke as she declared, “You know, I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”
The polls promptly showed Bill’s numbers plummeting south of the Mason-Dixon line. An affair with Flowers was one thing, but insulting Tammy Wynette? The nation’s number one country star had been watching the program and was furious. She immediately called her publicist to vent her outrage, and the publicist relayed this to the press. For three days the Clinton campaign tried to talk to Wynette. She declined all calls until finally they got Burt Reynolds to call her, and she relented, releasing the news she would accept Hillary’s apologies.
The next storm the Clintons had to face was the matter of his avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War. James Carville, the campaign manager, advocated forthright admission that this is what he had done. Clinton agreed with Carville’s plan to go on ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel, bringing with him his famous letter to Colonel Eugene Holmes frankly discussing the conflict between his desire to go and fight in Vietnam and his concomitant eagerness to “maintain my political viability”. But Hillary was adamant. He should not admit that he wanted to avoid the draft. On the other hand, he should not be forced to apologize for being against the war. The entire file of documents and letters should be concealed. Her view prevailed, and the inevitable consequence was the draft-dodging issue stayed alive as a steady stream of compromising documents was leaked to the press over the next five months.
The desire for secrecy is one of Mrs. Clinton’s enduring and damaging traits, which is why these campaign imbroglios are of consequence. Clinton dug himself into many a pit, but his greatest skill was in talking his way out of them in a manner Americans found forgivable. Befitting a Midwestern Methodist with a bullying father, repression has always been one of Mrs. Clinton’s most prominent characteristics. Hers has been the instinct to conceal, to deny, to refuse to admit any mistake. Mickey Kantor, the Los Angeles lawyer who worked on the 1992 campaign, said that Hillary adamantly refused to admit to any mistakes.
It’s clear from Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.’s very revealing Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton that Mrs. Clinton played a major role in driving White House lawyer Vince Foster to suicide. After the Clintons arrived in the White House, it became Foster’s role to guard their secrets. It was one thing to lock documents into a secret room during the campaign. It was quite another to play
hide-and-seek with files in the White House, as Mrs. Clinton required Foster to do. Now there weren’t nosy reporters but special prosecutors with subpoenas, looking for documents relevant to Whitewater, to Mrs. Clinton’s billing records at Rose Law, her tax records relevant to the commodity trades. Foster was tasked with hiding all these documents: some in his house, some in his office and some – the most damaging files – back in his Little Rock house.
There were additional burdens for Foster. He was trying to douse another fire started by Mrs. Clinton. This was her instruction to fire the White House travel staff, on a trumped-up rationale. There were six separate investigations into these firings, all of which Foster had to deal with. Finally, the wretched man had to listen to Mrs. Clinton publicly blame the whole “Travelgate” mess on him, even as he was concealing documents making it clear she had been the person initiating the mess. On top of that, Mrs. Clinton demanded Foster be the principal liaison with Congress on her health reform plan. For the last month of his life, she refused to communicate with him, even though their offices were thirty feet apart.
Health reform was Mrs. Clinton’s assignment in her husband’s first term. The debacle is well known. In early 1993, 64 per cent of all Americans favored a system of national health care. By the time Mrs. Clinton’s 1342-page bill, generated in secret, landed in Congress, she had managed to offend the very Democratic leadership essential to making health reform a reality. The proposal itself, under the mystic mantra “Managed Competition”, embodied all the distinctive tropisms of neoliberalism: a naïve complicity with the darker corporate forces, accompanied by adamant refusal to even consider building the popular political coalition that alone could have faced and routed the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies – two of the most powerful forces on the American political scene. Mrs. Clinton’s rout on health reform remains one of the great avoidable disasters of the last century in American politics, and one with appalling human and social consequences
This disaster was compounded by the fact that after the collapse of health reform, on the advice of Dickie Morris (summoned by Mrs. Clinton), the Clintons swerved right, toward all the ensuing ghastly legislative ventures of their regime – the onslaughts on welfare, the crime bill, NAFTA. With Morris came the birth of “triangulation” – the tactic of the Clinton White House working with Republicans and conservative Democrats and actively undermining liberal and progressive initiatives in Congress. Money that could have given the House back to the Democrats in 1996 was snatched by the White House purely for the self-preservation of the Clintons.
After health care went down the tubes, Hillary adopted a very low-key political profile, in part because Leon Panetta, the new White House chief of staff, banned her from political meetings. She outflanked him in two ways: by secret strategizing with Morris every two weeks and by nightly strategy sessions with Clinton and Al Gore. She swung back into a crucial public role with the Lewinsky affair, ironically enough, standing by her man. Gerth and Van Natta establish that she knew the full extent of her husband’s relations with the woman she called “Elvira” (the mid-’90s horror queen) on January 21, 1998, eight months before the official narrative claims that Bill informed her of his treachery the night before he gave his deposition. She ordered a full-bore attack on Lewinsky as “a stalker with a weight problem” and shoved Bill toward the doomed posture of total denial. He himself had initially been trending toward a stuttering half-admission that hanky-panky might have taken place. But after he returned from the Lehrer show where he had taken this non-combative route, Hillary lashed him into the categorical denial – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky” – that exploded so disastrously in the months and years ahead. (Only months earlier, Hillary had been the one who insisted that no deal be made with Paula Jones, who could have been bought off with the modest settlement her lawyer was requesting. Hillary said she didn’t want Jones to get “a single dollar”.)
Bill had his Tammy, and he knew the price. “Whatever Hil wants, Hil gets,” he told his staff in 1998, and he began to read books about the campaigns of successful female politicians – Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir. As Clinton headed toward impeachment, Hillary set her course for the New York Senate seat.
Since Vietnam, there’s never been a war that Mrs. Clinton didn’t like. She argued passionately in the White House for the NATO bombing of Belgrade. Five days after September 11, 2001, she was calling for a broad war on terror. Any country presumed to be lending “aid and comfort” to al-Qaeda “will now face the wrath of our country.” Bush echoed these words eight days later in his nationally televised speech on September 21. “I’ll stand behind Bush for a long time to come”, Senator Clinton promised, and she was as good as her word, voting for the Patriot Act and the wide-ranging authorization to use military force against Afghanistan.
Of course she supported without reservation the attack on Afghanistan and, as the propaganda buildup toward the onslaught on Iraq got underway, she didn’t even bother to walk down the hall to read the national intelligence estimate on Iraq before the war. (She wasn’t alone in that. Only six senators read that NIE.) When she was questioned about this, she claimed she was briefed on its contents, but in fact no one on her staff had the security clearance to read the report. And her ignorance showed when it came time to deliver her speech in support of the war, as she reiterated some of the most outlandish claims made by Dick Cheney. In this speech, she said Saddam Hussein had rebuilt his chemical and biological weapons program; that he had improved his long-range missile capability; that he was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program; and that he was giving aid and comfort to Al Qaeda. The only other Democratic senator to make all four of these claims in his floor speech was Joe Lieberman. But even he didn’t go as far as Senator Hillary. In Lieberman’s speech, there was conditionality about some of the claims. In Senator Clinton’s, there was no such conditionality, even though a vehement war hawk, Ken Pollack, advising Senator Clinton prior to her vote, had told her that the allegation about the al-Qaeda connection was “bullshit”.
Later, as the winds of opinion changed, Senator Clinton claimed – and continues to do so to this day – that hers was a vote not for war but for negotiation. In fact, the record shows that only hours after the war authorization vote she voted against the Democratic resolution that would have required Bush to seek a diplomatic solution before launching the war.
In 2007, Hillary Clinton endorsed Bush’s desperate “surge” in Iraq and claimed that it was working. From candidate, and maybe president Hillary Clinton, Iran can expect no mercy.
Click here to read Part One: From Nixon Girl to Watergate.
Click here to read Part Two: The Seeds of Corruption.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is adapted from a series that ran in the November 2007 edition of CounterPunch.