Hillary’s Emails: The Return of a Vast Right-wing Conspiracy?

We probably should have seen this coming. As Hillary Clinton’s email troubles continue to dominate her news coverage, her faithful husband Bill, aka The Big Dawg, has jumped into the fray to fight back against what he believes is unfair media coverage. In this interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria this past weekend, Clinton resurrected the specter of the “vast right conspiracy” as an explanation for the media’s fixation on his wife’s emails. In so doing, however, it’s not clear whether the Big Dawg has really helped his wife, or instead has reopened old wounds dating back to Clinton’s struggles with the press during his own run for the presidency. Here’s the interview with Zakaria. As you can see at the start of it, when Zakaria asks Clinton, whom Zakaria suggests is “the most skilled student of politics” in the U.S., about the roots of Hillary’s current struggles, Clinton references an incident dating back to his own run for president in 1991. Roll the tape:

As it turns out, that unnamed member of the George H. W. Bush White House that Clinton references at the start of his interview with Zakaria is Roger Porter, Bush’s chief domestic adviser. We know this because Clinton told this story in much greater detail in his lengthy (almost 1,000 page!) 2004 memoir My Life (and on several other occasions). As Clinton recounts the story, he received a phone call from Porter in 1991, at a time when Clinton had not yet committed to a presidential run. Porter, according to Clinton, called to see whether the Arkansas Governor had made up his mind whether to throw his hat in the presidential ring. After a few minutes of conversation during which Clinton discussed issues that concerned him, Porter reportedly interjected, “Cut the crap, Governor.” A startled Clinton then listened as Porter told him that because Clinton was viewed by the Bush White House as the strongest potential Democratic candidate, “they would have to destroy me personally.” As Clinton remembers, Porter lectured him, saying “Here’s how Washington works…The press has to have somebody in every election, and we’re going to give them you.” Porter went on to describe the press as “elitists” who could be easily duped into believing tales “about backwater Arkansas.” Porter concluded ominously, “We’ll spend whatever we have to spend to get whoever we have to get to say whatever they have to say to take you out. And we’ll do it early.”

In his memoirs, Clinton says that Porter’s threats actually made him more likely to run. But he also makes it clear that he believes Republicans made good on Porter’s promise, aided by a willing press corps. “In the campaign and for eight years afterward,” Clinton writes, “the Republicans would make good on theirs [threats] and as Roger Porter had predicted, they got lots of help from some members of the press.” As Clinton suggested to Zakaria – the Whitewater real estate scandal, which led to the appointment of the independent prosecutor, which led to Monica Lewinsky and impeachment – all of it can be traced back to Porter’s phone call.

Not surprisingly, Clinton’s story raised more than a few eyebrows when it was published back in 2004. Porter instantly denied it. Here’s an account of their back-and-forth, as published in the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper.  For what it is worth, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward investigated this story years ago when he was writing The Agenda, his account of the first years of the Clinton presidency. Contacted on Monday by Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty, Woodward called Clinton’s tale “preposterous.”

But the Big Dawg is standing by his story. And, if he is to be believed, the current media focus on Hillary’s emails is simply a reprise of the Republican-driven smear tactics used against him during his presidential campaign and while in the White House. Not surprisingly, after Zakaria’s interview aired Porter was contacted yesterday and once again he denied Clinton’s account, reminding the reporter that Clinton’s “association with the truth is often a really tenuous one.” He also joked that if the Bush administration was going to send a message of this type to Clinton, they wouldn’t have sent the famously low-key Porter to do the job.

Obviously, either Clinton or Porter is “misremembering” what happened, although both claim this is not the type of conversation either would forget. I have no independent evidence to add that might help choose between the contradictory stories. But I will say that I co-taught the American Presidency course at Harvard with Porter for many years, and I find it completely unbelievable that Porter would ever say the word “crap” even if he was sitting in a pile of it. It’s not in his vocabulary. Indeed, I find it extremely hard to believe that Porter, a famously buttoned-down, “mild mannered” person (as Tumulty describes him), would be the one chosen by the Bush White House to send a message threatening to break Clinton’s knee caps. It seems entirely out of character for the man I knew from sharing a classroom with for so many years. You might as well tell me Mother Theresa beat her dog and cheated at church bingo.

On the other hand, the man accusing Porter of making the threats also is famous for declaring…..well, see for yourself.

 

Of course, that adamant denial was followed by this:

Is this proof that the Big Dawg is lying about what Porter told him? No, but I can tell you which person’s version I’m more willing to believe!

The bigger issue, however, is not which man is telling the truth about an event that purportedly happened in 1991. It’s whether Clinton’s decision to resurrect this controversial story from his own campaign, and with it the specter of the infamous “vast right wing conspiracy” touted by his wife during the Big Dawg’s Lewinsky scandal, is really the best strategy for helping her campaign. It’s true that the email story has probably made Hillary seem less trustworthy to many potential voters. But as I’ve noted in a previous post, the whole trustworthy issue is being overplayed; history suggests it’s not likely to have much of an impact on her electoral support. Still, this doesn’t mean it makes sense to resurrect a story that is certain to feed into the media frame that the Clintons’ always have something to hide.

This is not the first time that Bill’s effort to protect his wife may have backfired. In the 2008 Democratic nomination fight, he infamously attacked press coverage of Barack Obama as a giant “fairy tale” and later, heading into the South Carolina primary, noted that Jesse Jackson had won that state’s primary twice, which many critics interpreted as a thinly-veiled insinuation that Obama would do well there because of his race.  At this point it’s too early to know if Clinton’s latest remarks will trigger a similar negative fallout.  It will be interesting to see if some of Sanders’ surrogates pick up on the story and how much media play it gets.  Certainly Hillary was very careful, when asked on Sunday’s Meet the Press about the Big Dawg’s comments, not to blame her email woes on the press or the opposition party.

Zakaria may be right that Bill Clinton is the most skilled student of politics in America. But somehow I can’t help but notice that those skills often seemed far more useful in furthering his own political career than they have in helping his wife’s.

8 comments

  1. Perhaps the campaign feels it needs to push back more publicly in order to appease donors and democratic-leaning opinion makers? You have spent much time discussing the invisible primary and how it explains a good deal of what we observe in this democratic primary race. This may be more about making a strategically significant ‘signal’ to the mentioned groups (to demonstrate that the campaign is ‘addressing issues’ rather than ‘undergoing them passively’) than about convincing voters of Hillary Rodham’s ‘bona fides’…

    Still, irrespective of the Porter story, which sounds bogus, there is compelling evidence that mid-90s media were fed – and readily consumed – a series of stories produced for political purposes, from Whitewater to Vince Foster and the drug smuggling in between.

    Not necessarily for political reasons, but the Lewinsky Affair also occurred in a particularly unfortunate timeframe from Clinton’s perspective. 30 years before, no large medium would have reported it (re: JFK) and 20 years later, few people would think that adultery amounts to an impeachable offence. Given the immense impact it had on Clinton’s personal life as well as his ability to direct the cabinet and shape policy (he was distracted almost full-time by this issue as Rubin’s autonomy during the Asian financial crises shows), it is understandable that he may perceive the media landscape as particularly canted against him and his associates.

  2. Peter,

    Good observations, and I agree with all of them. My basic point in the post is that if you are going to make the case that you (or your wife, or both) is the subject of an ongoing conservative smear campaign (and I realize we can quibble about what constitutes “smear” vs. valid criticism), you probably don’t want to detract from your claim by referencing a story that, on its face, raises questions about your credibility as a source. It arguably deflects attention from the broader point you are trying to make, if not casting that point in doubt.

  3. Shelly – They have been unusually critical of her campaign, haven’t they? Not sure what explains their negative coverage, but you make a good observation about whether the conspiracy is entirely “right wing”!

  4. I think there’s a number of things going on here. The press, including the New York Times, likes a contest. A candidate who appears to be walking away with the nomination makes for boring copy, creating an incentive to dig up controversy. Then there’s the e-mail story, which entails many aspects that sound important but that most people really aren’t familiar with: allusions to national security; assumptions that “a private e-mail server” must be more vulnerable to hacking than a government e-mail server (as I understand it, the major distinction about state.gov is that it doesn’t work very well, especially when e-mailing outside the department); and assumptions that there’s an agreed and meaningful definition of what constitutes ‘classified information” (one of the two e-mails now deemed top secret was a copy of a New York Times article about the CIA drone program in Pakistan; and the State Department says that the other was publicly available information as well). All of this will be played up by the other party, whether there’s a planned conspiracy or not, and today’s GOP has a penchant for playing fast and loose with the facts (witness Chaffetz’s Planned Parenthood graph is which 300,000 appears to be much more than 900,000). Yet none of that really precludes the possibility of conspiracy as well. After all, Richard Mellon Scaife paid out a lot of money for people to dig up dirt in the 1990s, and David Brock did a lot of the digging before switching sides and becoming a pro-Clinton hack. Then there’s the Benghazi Committee, which amounts to a taxpayer-financed opposition research operation allegedly investigating an incident that about nine other Democratic- and Republican-run committees have already investigated, all reaching the same conclusions. While technically pursuing Congress’s valid right to hold the administration accountable, doesn’t it comes awfully close to conspiracy?

  5. Scott,

    You make several important observations, some of which I’ve also made in previous posts, particularly re: the media’s need to create the semblance of a competitive nomination fight even if one doesn’t exist. As for conspiracies, there’s no doubt that Scaife and others were shelling out the bucks in order to find dirt on the Clintons in the 1990’s. It’s also true that Bill’s decision to cheat on his wife and lie about the circumstances gave his enemies a club they were only too glad to use. You and I and others can debate the meaning of “conspiracy” – I think I probably stop short of calling the Benghazi investigation a conspiracy since it’s all taking place in the open – but I think we can all agree that there’s lots of organized interests out there that have targeted Hillary’s campaign. The point of my post, which evidently I didn’t make very well, is not to deny the existence of individuals and groups who are targeting Clinton’s campaign – some of which perhaps can reasonably be defined as part of a “conspiracy”. It’s to say that dredging up a dubious incident like the Porter (alleged) phone call that happened more than two decades ago to highlight a current campaign against his wife, as Bill did in the Zakaria interview, is probably not the best way to bring attention to the conspiracy. Indeed, the fact that the incident he cites probably didn’t happen once again focuses attention on Bill, and his past record of…er…dissembling, rather than on the current “conspiracy” he’s trying to highlight. You don’t need to take my word for this – just scan the stories that covered the Clinton-Zakaria interview – I cited Tumulty’s, but there are other ones out there that make it clear he stepped on his own storyline. Nor is this the first time that Bill’s effort to defend his wife didn’t seem to help her.

    Does this make any more sense?

  6. Yes, I went off on a bit of a tangent, but, hey, it’s a free country. I guess I didn’t address your main point because i didn’t have a problem with it, not because it wasn’t clear. Your point about the meaning of conspiracy is a good one, and that’s got me commenting again. (Another tangent, sorry.) Actually, I started wondering about it as soon as I clicked the “Post Comment” button. To the extent that conspiracy is both secretive and aimed at illegal pursuits, then of course the Benghazi Committee is not a conspiracy for it is neither of those (dishonest perhaps, although that depends on what the members really believe, but certainly not illegal and not secretive). That raises the question of whether “digging up dirt” constitutes a conspiracy. Is slander sufficiently illegal to fit the definition? As you say, Clinton really did behave inappropriately with Monica Lewinski, but that wasn’t the full extent of the allegations. I seriously doubt that he shot Vince Foster, for instance. Was Lewinski the lucky shot that happened to hit a target? Does a lucky shot legitimate the overall effort? Perhaps I need a better word than conspiracy. Oh, well, food for thought.

  7. Scott – First, let’s be clear. Hillary had Foster killed, not Bill. I think the conspiracy theorists on the right agree on that much. 🙂

    Second – tangents are fine – I learn a lot from tangents (as do readers, I suspect)! As for whether Gowdy’s Select Committee on Benghazi is part of a conspiracy – I’m guessing we’d get a range of answers to that question. Even if not part of a conspiracy, it may be that it’s a huge waste of taxpayer’s money. But even here I think people will disagree based in part on their partisan inclinations, but also based on whether the seemingly endless bit of new information that seems to arise re: Clinton’s emails on a weekly basis justifies official investigation into this one incident. I happen to believe that her emails are much ado about nothing. But Gowdy may yet prove me wrong. It’s quite possible to conduct an investigation for purely partisan reasons and still uncover something useful.

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