• U.S.

Anatomy of a Smear

5 minute read
John Greenwald

IN THE LATE 1930S A HARVARD STUDENT TRAVELED TO Europe to see its brutal dictatorships firsthand. He visited Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany. Writing in his diary, the young man confided that he had come “to the decision that Facism ((sic)) is the thing for Germany and Italy, Communism for Russia and Democracy for America and England.” But when he ran for President in 1960, John F. Kennedy never had to explain that isolationist view. Nor would raising the issue have made much sense, because the mature Kennedy had long since outgrown the jottings of his impressionable youth.

Bill Clinton has had a harder time exorcising the ghosts of his past. Earlier in the campaign, those phantoms popped up in the form of Gennifer Flowers, marijuana use and questions about the draft. Last week the poltergeists were back on center stage, as an increasingly desperate George Bush attacked Clinton for protesting the Vietnam War while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in 1969 and for visiting Moscow in early 1970 during a school break. In terms that recalled the red-baiting tactics of the McCarthy era, Bush told CNN talk-show host Larry King that Clinton should “level with the American people on the draft, on whether he went to Moscow, how many demonstrations he led against his country from a foreign soil.”

Describing his Moscow trip and antiwar activities a day later, Clinton charged that the campaign had “sunk to a new level.” Clinton has never denied his opposition to the fighting in Vietnam. While in England, he said, he “helped to put together a teach-in at the University of London” and also joined a group of American antiwar protesters outside the U.S. embassy in London.

As for Clinton’s trip to Moscow, he said he paid his own way and “was mostly just a tourist.” Clinton had plenty of company: 40,000 Americans visited the Soviet Union in 1970 as detente was becoming a popular word.

Bush’s comments marked the crescendo of a well-orchestrated campaign of rumors, leaks and innuendos. They ranged from wild suggestions of KGB links, to reports that Clinton had held multiple passports under different names while at Oxford, to dark hints that the young Arkansan may even have been planning to renounce his citizenship to avoid the draft. If Bush did have evidence for such charges that Clinton could not explain away, the results could be devastating. But so far no shadow of proof was forthcoming.

Amid the furious swirl of rumors, State Department staffers suspected that someone may have tampered with Clinton’s passport records. They informed the FBI, which launched a hurried investigation of the file. Meanwhile, a Bush Administration official leaked word of the investigation to the press. The FBI investigators, however, ended the probe without finding anything amiss.

The red-baiting gambit had been launched by Robert Dornan, the flamboyant right-wing Congressman who is co-chairman of the Bush campaign in California. Dornan last month got hold of a 1989 front-page article in the Arkansas Gazette that discussed Clinton’s Moscow trip. He then began railing against Clinton in late-night House speeches, often delivered to an empty chamber, but nonetheless carried on C-SPAN. Besides suggesting that Clinton may have been a dupe of the KGB, Dornan heatedly attacked the Democrat’s draft record and antiwar views.

Few people were paying attention — except George Bush. In daily meetings with his top political advisers, the President pushed staffers to find ways to exploit Dornan’s charges. Most of his advisers, deterred by Dornan’s loose- cannon reputation and lack of proof, at first shied away from the allegations. But Bush just “wouldn’t let go,” says a top adviser, adding that the charges played on the President’s aversion to anything he considers unpatriotic — “like the flag-burning thing.”

Thus when Dornan and three other right-wing Congressmen called on Bush and Baker in the White House at 8 a.m. last Tuesday, they found a most attentive listener in the President. One of the Congressmen claimed the Moscow and antiwar issues could “kill Clinton.” The very next day Bush was on the King show demanding that his opponent come clean about his trip to the U.S.S.R. In a phrase heavy with innuendo, the President added, “I don’t want to tell you what I really think, because I don’t have the facts . . . but to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, not remember who you saw . . . I really think the answer is, level with the American people.”

Sharply criticized in the press, and even by some prominent Republicans, Bush promptly backed off his unsubstantiated criticisms of the Moscow trip. But he redoubled his attacks on the Democrat’s antiwar record. Coming on the eve of the crucial first debate, the apparent aim of the Bush strategy was to sow new doubts about Clinton’s trustworthiness and rattle the Democrat into making fresh gaffes. But the ploy, smacking as it does of dirty tricks, could well backfire. “This kind of attack makes Bush look more strident and less presidential,” says Ed Rollins, a former Republican strategist. “Unless Bush does something that suddenly convinces voters he would be a different President in his second term, Clinton could win with a landslide.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com