A-hunting we will go

A-hunting we will go

Boylan, James

The original blood sport was hunting, and the blood sport that underlies James B. Stewart’s chronicle of the Whitewater troubles is a hunt as well. The theme is set forth tersely in two sentences from the torn-up note found in Vincent Foster’s briefcase after his suicide: “I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.”

The sport to which Foster referred has proved deadly indeed. He did not live to see the firestorm that engulfed the Clinton administration in the second half of 1993, the “unending succession of scandalous allegations” ranging from purported Whitewater peculations and cover-ups and criminal referrals through Hillary Clinton’s commodities trading, Troopergate, Paula Jones, and Foster’s death itself. His suicide occupies a central role in Stewart’s narrative, not only as a focus of controversy but as a symbol, a reminder that real blood, real lives are at its heart.

When Stewart was initially invited by an associate of the Clintons to undertake this task, he was promised the cooperation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, but that promise faded away, and the voices that dominate are those of more forthcoming interviewees, particularly Jim and Susan McDougal, the Clintons’ partners in the Whitewater development, and Bernard Nussbaum, former counsel to the president.

These interviewees, and Stewart’s research, provide revelations, but they are tepid – for example, the sincechallenged assertion that the Clintons overstated the value of their Whitewater holdings on financial statements now a decade old. Clearly, the book is aimed less at creating or reviving scandals than at measuring the human wreckage left in the wake of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s route from Arkansas to Washington. Whether the Clintons were responsible for the wreckage — whether, in Maureen Dowd’s comparison, they were spiritual siblings of Tom and Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby, who broke things — or were to an extent victims themselves, is best decided by the individual reader. Presumably any rise to power leaves disorder in its wake, but the record presented here — indictments, jail terms, bankruptcies, damaged lives, a suicide — is extraordinary in breadth and in the apparent inability of the principals to understand why they are in trouble.

Beneath the main narrative, almost like an undertow, is an account of the players of the blood sport — the pursuers – at work toppling reputations and, conceivably, administrations as well. The Whitewater chase has attracted a variety of participants, unacknowledged teammates, strange bedfellows. The scandals have been stimulated by the efforts both of extreme partisans and purportedly disinterested mainstream media — the former openly seeking political advantage, the latter operating on the principle, apparently, that the airing of allegations of sin is good for the body politic.

In the cast of roughly one hundred that Stewart lists at the start, twentyone qualify as hunters. Most notable among them is Jeff Gerth of The New York Times, whose somewhat flawed story on Whitewater during the 1992 primary campaign is recognized as the seed from which the scandal sprouted, and who (with Stephen Labaton and Dean Baquet) later unveiled the story of Hillary Clinton’s commodities trading. There is also Christopher Ruddy, then at the New York Post, who made a full-time specialty of conspiracy theories about Foster’s death. And David Brock, whose lurid version of Troopergate for The American Spectator overshadowed the more sober account in the Los Angeles Times. And David N. Bossie, field scout and merchandiser for the antiClinton scandal factory Citizens United. (See “Churning Whitewater,” CJR, May/June 1994.)

Within mainstream news organizations, Stewart shows, investigative reporters eager to be at the cutting edge often had to struggle against the doubts of higherups. Gerth himself had two stories killed by the Times high command — one during the campaign based on allegations by Jim McDougal, the other (written with Stephen Engelberg) in 1993 on the accusations by the rogue judge David Hale. In these cases, according to Stewart, the Times editors preferred the word of the candidate/president over that of “a manic-depressive failed S&L operator” or an “about-to-be-indicted person.”

Similarly, Bill Rempel and Douglas Frantz of the Los Angeles Times had to undergo uncomfortable contortions before they got the trooper story into print. Initially, they were cautioned by national editors not to tell Jack Nelson, head of the Washington bureau, about the investigation, lest he leak to the White House. When they brought in their story, the editors danced around it so long – and let Brock and The American Spectator get so far ahead — that Frantz was so infuriated that he eventually quit and moved to The New York Times.

Among the most fascinating aspects of the media story was the degree of cooperation between Ira Silverman, a producer for NBC News, and Bossie, including joint trips to sources and sites in Arkansas. At one point, Silverman even left an interviewee believing that Bossie was an NBC journalist. A Washington Post reporter, Sue Schmidt, tipped off Jim Leach, who was pushing the Republican effort in the House to investigate Whitewater, to an important piece of material, hoping for a comparable favor. The Los Angeles Times trooper investigation was stage-managed by Cliff Jackson, an avowed Enemy of Bill. With the same targets in their sights, partisan and nonpartisan sometimes became all but indistinguishable.

Although Stewart uses such terms as “media explosion” (for the reaction to disclosure of the removal of files from Foster’s office) and “press frenzy” (Treasury Secretary Bentsen’s term), he fails to capture the full mania and obsessiveness of press behavior in late 1993 and early 1994. True, he notes the ferocious editorial-page campaign of Howell Raines of The New York Times, but lets The Wall Street Journal off too easy. Sophisticated Washington readers, he proposes, brushed off the Journal’s attacks — the notorious “Who Is . . . ?” series — on the new Arkansans in the capital “with varying degrees of indignation and amusement.” Only the victims failed to be amused. Oddly, while Raines is prominent in the media cast, his Journal counterpart, Robert L. Bartley, is not listed, or mentioned, at all.

In a book that is not long on interpretation in the first place, Stewart does not pass judgment directly on the news media’s role in creating and maintaining the Whitewater scandals. But in his prologue, he suggests that partisans kept the scandals alive, “all but forcing the mainstream media to devote resources, print space, and airtime to exploring the most unsavory questions surrounding the Clinton presidency.” This is a familiar enough thesis, a twist on the truism that scandal eventually leaks from the sensational to the conventional media. But the proposition suggests a reluctance on the part of the mainstream media that they failed to demonstrate; indeed, they often led the way into the Whitewater quagmire, or at least plunged in at the same time as the partisans.

The exposure of corruption in high places is a grand tradition of American journalism. But the media behavior portrayed by Stewart is only marginally in that tradition. The investigative journalism of the 1990s, as glimpsed here, is willing to enter into dubious alliances and to let allegations substitute for conclusive findings in its impatient pursuit of quarry. At the same time, its frantic efforts have failed to persuade a majority of the public that any issue of importance is at stake. Indeed, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows more than two-thirds of those questioned wish that the media would give Whitewater a rest. For whose benefit, then, is this deadly game being played?

James Boylan was CJR’S founding editor. His previous analysis of Whitewater coverage appeared in the January/February 1995 issue of CJR.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism May/Jun 1996

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