• U.S.

Persecuted or Paranoid?

10 minute read
Walter Kirn

It’s said that mortal enemies, in time, come to resemble each other. Perhaps that explains how Hillary Clinton, a staff lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, is sounding a tiny bit like Tricky Dick himself. As she sought to defend her beleaguered husband last week, Mrs. Clinton charged that accusations against him, of adultery and perjury, are the invention of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” determined to undo the results of the past two elections. What’s more, the alleged conspirators–a multitalented cabal including not only Kenneth Starr and Paula Jones but also Senators, judges, publishers, Internet gossips, religious leaders and at least one literary agent angling for a percentage of the action–were thought to have somehow duped the liberal national media.

In a CBS interview, stuttering with fury, James Carville objected to Bryant Gumbel’s skepticism toward Mrs. Clinton’s conspiracy theory. “It’s factual,” said Carville. So what are the facts behind these accusations, and what do they add up to? A conspiracy of Clinton haters directed by some sinister Mr. Big (Jerry Falwell? Jesse Helms? That wizard of interconnectedness, Kevin Bacon?) or merely a gleeful chorus of detractors singing, for once, in perfect harmony? One scholar of conspiracy thinks he knows without even examining the evidence. Says Daniel Pipes, author of Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From: “It fits into a familiar pattern where people in trouble turn to a conspiracy theory.”

Which isn’t to say that paranoids, and the Clintons, don’t have real enemies–or that some of those enemies aren’t linked, sometimes in bizarre, uncanny ways. Consider the couple’s current chief tormentor, independent counsel Starr. Last year, in a decision he later reversed under pressure from Republican lawmakers, Starr announced that he was leaving his job to become dean of the law and public policy schools at California’s Pepperdine University. The chair Starr had set his sights on, as it happened, was endowed by a certain Richard Mellon Scaife, an archconservative Pennsylvania billionaire who also happens to publish the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Tribune-Review, a newspaper whose star reporter, Christopher Ruddy (hang in there; this pays off) is notorious for his own conspiracy theories concerning the death of Clinton officials Vincent Foster and Ron Brown. Interestingly, Scaife’s billions have also bankrolled the American Spectator, the magazine that broke the Troopergate story–the same one that first identified a certain Paula as one of Clinton’s alleged romantic targets.

Could Scaife be Mr. Big? It seems that among most conservatives there are only two degrees of separation from the ubiquitous philanthropist. Those who haven’t taken money from him usually work with someone who has. Washington Post matriarch Katharine Graham writes in her memoir that Nixon wanted Scaife to buy the Post during the Watergate scandal. Scaife has also financed the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a backer of former FBI agent Gary Aldrich’s loosely sourced, Clinton-bashing best seller Unlimited Access, and the Free Congress Foundation, which once set up a toll-free hot line for women who claimed they had been sexually harassed by President Clinton. (Please hold; your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.) Yet another Scaife pet project, the Landmark Legal Foundation, has links to James Moody, the lawyer for Linda Tripp, and–very tangentially–to Starr, who once represented, with Landmark, the State of Wisconsin in a school-choice lawsuit.

When wandering in a labyrinth, especially one whose walls are hung with mirrors, it’s difficult to follow a single thread. The field of right-wing publishing alone offers dozens of them. Consider Lucianne Goldberg, the smoky-voiced New York City literary agent and Bea Arthur act-alike who represents, among others, one Mark Fuhrman, the infamous O.J. detective. Not only did Goldberg serve in her youth as an undercover agent for Nixon during the 1972 election, and not only did she suggest that Tripp tape-record Lewinsky, but she has also been a tipster for Star, which broke the Gennifer Flowers story. According to Phil Bunton, Star’s editor in chief, Goldberg came to him last fall with a sketchy version of the sex-with-an-intern tale. Star couldn’t crack the story, but when it surfaced elsewhere, Bunton offered Goldberg big money for the tapes. “We made it clear that a million dollars wasn’t out of the question.” She turned him down, he says, demonstrating that some alleged conspirators are in it for fun, not profit.

Tripp may be in it for revenge. Going back to the Foster case, when she publicly questioned furtive comings and goings in the dead man’s White House office, Tripp has played an unwelcome Nancy Drew in several Clinton mysteries. Last August she leaked the story of Kathleen Willey, claiming to have seen Willey emerge all aglow and clothes disheveled from a hands-on briefing with the President. When Clinton attorney Bob Bennett dismissed Tripp as “not to be believed,” she stomped off to Radio Shack and bought herself a tape recorder.

Yet another Tripp-related, Goldberg-haunted subplot involves the small but mighty Regnery Publishing. Based in Washington, the house produces roughly 30 books a year, a disproportionate number of which slime the President in prose. Unlimited Access, the firm’s huge best seller, comes out in paperback this month (lucky timing or evil genius?), fortified with four top-secret new chapters by former G-man Aldrich. Denunciations of the original edition reportedly spurred a sympathetic Tripp to contemplate her own book on the Clinton White House. Had she written it, she would have joined a Regnery stable that includes R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor of the American Spectator; detective Fuhrman, a Goldberg client; and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, England’s premier Clinton hater. Is there an ominous pattern here? No, says Regnery’s associate publisher, Richard Vigilante. “Our primary relationship to conservatives,” he says, “is that we’re gadflies and contrarians.”

Perhaps the loopiest strand in the supposed conspiracy winds through the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case. Jones first made her charges at conservative PAC press conference, and they were soon promoted heavily on religious TV shows like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour. Falwell, of course, is the main promoter of the Clinton Chronicles, a crackpot video documentary that charges the First Couple with drug smuggling and links to a gangland slaying. The Rutherford Institute, which pays Jones’ legal bills, once defended the right of football players at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University to pray in the end zone following touchdowns. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, the institute’s director, John Whitehead, displays in his office a portrait of Bob Dylan. That’s right, Bob Dylan, author of this lyric (from It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding): “But even the President of the United States/Sometimes must have to stand naked.”

If a survey of Clinton’s accusers proves nothing else, it’s that birdbrains of a feather flock together. On the alleged plot’s outer edges stand the mom-and-pop entrepreneurs devoted to peddling anti-Clinton miscellany via at least a dozen Websites. Michael Rivero’s Vincent Foster page invites the visitor to view a video of an actual suicide by gunshot, while the unofficial Bill Clinton home page features a doctored photograph of the President with his pants around his ankles. Then there’s cybergossip Matt Drudge’s controversial Drudge Report, which put the Lewinsky story on the Net days before it ran in print. In a sign that Clinton’s White House, like Nixon’s, takes its adversaries seriously, presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal is currently suing both Drudge and America Online, which runs his column, over a false tale of domestic violence that Drudge retracted the day after it ran.

Though Bill Clinton’s approval ratings soared by the weekend, he owed no thanks to his wife’s blame laying. In a TIME/CNN poll conducted last week, only a third of those surveyed agreed with Mrs. Clinton’s conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, the mainstream media dealt with the vast plot of which it was allegedly a part by rolling its collective eyes. As Mrs. Clinton’s inflammatory sound bite burned its way through the welter of cable-TV shows, Internet forums and talk-radio programs that are to the Lewinsky scandal what the Pony Express was to the Wild West, a quick consensus formed: the White House either believed in the conspiracy (a symptom of Nixonian delusion) or it was engaging in a diversion (a sign of desperation). Janet Reno and the Washington Post, both key players in the current scandal, hardly seem like reactionary schemers. Possibly to disguise his leading role in the cabal, a chuckling Rush Limbaugh offered listeners a Right-Wing Conspiracy coffee mug.

Shared interests, cross-referenced Rolodexes and incestuous employment histories do not, of course, a conspiracy make. Professional wrestlers are probably at least as tight a bunch as the obsessive Clinton haters. Still, there is one place where the vast conspiracy may well exist: in the Clintons’ minds. Remember the hundreds of FBI reports on influential Republicans that mysteriously appeared in the White House in 1996? The cloak of unnecessary secrecy thrown over Mrs. Clinton’s health-care task force? Indeed, so obsessed is this White House with its enemies–real and imagined, great and small–that in July 1995 it prepared a 331-page report exposing their alleged machinations. In the tradition of Spiro Agnew’s nattering nabobs of negativism, the report was titled The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce. It purported to prove that ideological reporters like Ruddy, acting in concert with Internet muckrakers and the British tabloids, were behind every scandal from Nannygate to Filegate.

As the Lewinsky scandal unfolds, however, the blanks in the crossword puzzle are filling up and starting to spell intrigue. Last fall, around the time that Tripp began recording Lewinsky’s anxious chitchat, an anonymous female tipster left three messages on the Rutherford Institute’s answering machine describing an illicit romance between Lewinsky and the President. Asked about the informer’s identity, Goldberg pleads ignorance. “I do not know. And I do not know if it was Tripp,” she says. No, it wasn’t, says Tripp, through lawyer Moody.

One last mystery. How did Moody, a conservative with links to the matrix of blandly named foundations supported by angels like Scaife, come to represent Tripp in the first place? Tripp, remember, portrays herself as an apolitical civil servant and reluctant girl detective. Re-enter matchmaker Goldberg, stage right. She made a call to someone, who in turn made a call to conservative New York lawyer George Conway (a backstage force in Jones’ Supreme Court case), who made a call to yet another someone, who recommended Moody. Why the frenzied, circuitous round robin when Tripp already had a lawyer, chosen for her by the White House? Because she didn’t trust him. Tripp, says Goldberg, was “totally paranoid.” Like the flu and like Starr’s subpoenas, it seems to be going around.

–Reported by Edward Barnes and Andrea Sachs/New York and Jay Branegan/Washington

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