'Tis best to weigh the enemy more mighty than he seems - William Shakespeare, "King Henry V"
Remember when first lady (now U.S. Sen.) Hillary Rodham Clinton was ridiculed for suggesting the existence of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" determined to undermine the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton?
It turned out her description of the forces aligned against them was deadly accurate, as Gene Lyons and Joe Conason demonstrated in their best-selling 2000 book "The Hunting of the President." Now the real-life drama will be brought to the big screen by Arkansas native Harry Thomason, who has produced a documentary film that explains how various personalities, motivations, and resources combined to create the anti-Clinton effort of the 1990s. The film, also called "The Hunting of the President," premieres in Arkansas on Tuesday, June 15, at a benefit screening sponsored by the Arkansas Times.
This is what Hillary Rodham Clinton actually said during an interview on NBC's "Today" show on Jan. 27, 1998:
"Look at the very people who are involved in this. They have popped up in other settings. The great story here for anybody willing to find it, write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."
"The Hunting of the President" does an effective job of telling "the great story," although it is unfortunate that the full picture is coming to light only after the destructive juggernaut was allowed to run its course. Nevertheless, the film is not only useful as a historical record and lesson for the future. Many of the key players remain in positions of power and influence throughout politics and the media, and the movie shows how they continue to apply their guerrilla tactics in situations like the 2000 Florida recount, the 2003 recall of California Gov. Gray Davis, and this year's unprecedented mid-cycle congressional redistricting in Texas.
Telling the great story
It is not a simple thing to weave together a story line that begins with an investigation into an old failed land deal, broadens to include allegations of sexual improprieties and questions about the death of an administration official, and concludes with the impeachment of a public official over lying about a personal indiscretion that occurred after the inquiry was launched.
It took Independent Counsel Ken Starr more than five years and $70 million to do just that. Thomason had a smaller budget and arguably a more difficult task in documenting it, because he also had to illustrate the finer threads underlying the tableau, and do so in a way that is entertaining and easily comprehensible.
"It is a terribly complicated story, involving so many people interconnected over decades," Thomason said. "It was difficult to make it coherent."
The film uses former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers' speech at President Clinton's impeachment proceedings as bookends for the story, employing his useful question, "How did we come to be here?" As much as the story can be told chronologically, it begins with Clinton's inauguration as president in 1993, which fused the interests of longtime Clinton-haters with those of the right-wing conservative establishment who were determined to thwart his progressive agenda.
The action quickly comes to Arkansas, where various characters suddenly found deep-pocketed conservative backers willing to bankroll their efforts to discredit Clinton, and big-time national journalists willing to take their claims seriously. One of the more humorous elements of the movie is first-person testimony by private investigator Larry Case, who found an easy market for the sleaze stories he was peddling. You can't be certain if he is talking about an eager right-wing ideologue or an ambitious journalist when he says, "I pulled him in like a trophy trout."
The book's co-author Lyons underscores this point.
"It was just astonishing to see these people with Ivy League degrees and Gucci briefcases getting taken to the cleaners by a bunch of junior college dropouts from Arkansas," Lyons says in the movie.
The Arkansas hunt leads initially to a couple of former state troopers accusing Clinton of inappropriate sexual conduct while he was governor. In the movie we learn that the troopers had an axe to grind because they felt they were promised jobs with the Clinton administration that never materialized.
From the trooper accounts came the name Paula Jones, who becomes the first test case of a coordinated approach perfected by political opponents of Clinton. Here is how it worked, in brief:
Paula Jones brought charges of sexual harassment, claiming that Clinton asked for sexual favors when he was governor and she was a state employee.
The American Spectator magazine, a right-wing publication, led the media charge on the case.
Susan Carpenter-McMillan, a right-wing activist, became Jones' public spokesperson.
The Federalist Society, a group of right-wing lawyers, got involved and replaced Jones' attorneys (who were focused strictly on her interests) with attorneys who could more effectively use the case to get to Clinton. This is the infamous "perjury trap."
Finally, the Rutherford Institute, a right-wing think tank, stepped in to provide financial support.
This model of right-wing coordination would be employed over and over again, in the Whitewater investigation, the re-opening of the Vince Foster suicide inquiry and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Just the facts
Through its extensive use of interviews with key players from all sides of the events in question, "The Hunting of the President" avoids being a pro-Clinton polemic. David Brock, the former American Spectator reporter, discusses how the "Arkansas Project" was conceived and bankrolled by conservative magnate Richard Mellon Scaife to find and promote information that could be used against Clinton. Susan McDougal talks about the tactics used by Ken Starr and his staff to intimidate and manipulate her and her former husband, Jim McDougal. Journalist Dan Moldea, who wrote a book about the Vince Foster case, says that several right-wing figures tried to convince him to say Foster was murdered by the Clintons. Another reporter, John Camp of CNN, explains that the national press corps was pressured to report all of the anti-Clinton charges, even if there was scant evidence, lest they be labeled "Clinton apologists." Even evangelist Jerry Falwell sits for an interview in the film, talking about the famous anti-Clinton video he touted. In an amazing bit of back-peddling, he disavows his role in promoting an anti-Clinton conspiracy with the video, saying he didn't know anything about the "truthfulness or lack of truthfulness" in the video and that he "never personally made such charges."
That said, Thomason's film definitely has a point of view, and it will probably find more fans among those who support Clinton. Still, it is difficult to argue with the facts. The chain of events, the money trail, the connections among the right-wing conservative establishment, and the first-person accounts add up to a convincing portrayal of a focused effort to remove Clinton from the White House by any means.
That Clinton delivered his enemies a gift in the form of his dalliance with Lewinsky is acknowledged very directly in the movie. Betsey Wright, Clinton's gubernatorial chief of staff, says she was "furious" with him, and former White House advisor Paul Begala remembers being so angry that he didn't care what happened to Clinton. But Begala goes on to say that he ultimately decided that he had a "moral obligation" to fight Clinton's impeachment, because using a personal indiscretion as a justification for removing a public official from office was equivalent to a coup d'etat. Had Clinton resigned, Thomason says, those responsible for his overthrow "might as well have used bullets."
That, in the end, is the message of "The Hunting of the President." As Hillary Rodham Clinton said, a right-wing conspiracy was determined to topple President Clinton, and they almost succeeded. In fact, they may have been emboldened to continue the use of personal attacks, activist conservative judges, legal intimidation, and an extensive media network to expand their power and realize their goals. The result is a more polarized political system that is dividing the nation further along economic, racial, and cultural lines.