Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve a Free Pass From the Media

David Brock is wrong—the nation and her prospective campaign will be better off if journalists investigate her worst tendencies.
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Joe Marquette/Associated Press

The media loves conversion stories. So when David Brock, who once rummaged through Little Rock in pursuit of Bill Clinton’s dirty laundry, returned to the city yesterday to speak at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, both The New York Times and Politico took notice. Brock, Politico reported, came to Little Rock to “explain his transformation” from Clinton-hater to Clinton-defender. But his speech inadvertently did something else. It showed that in his approach to politics, David Brock hasn’t changed much at all.

Brock’s core argument was that as we approach 2016, mainstream journalists must stay far away from the anti-Clinton attack journalism peddled by the partisan right. In explaining why, Brock cited his own work in the early 1990s for the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded “Arkansas Project,” in which he dug up “a kitchen-sink-full of preposterous allegations,” many of which entered mainstream publications, but “almost none” of which “turned out to be true.”

Really? Many of the Arkansas Project allegations—that the Clintons oversaw a cocaine-smuggling ring, that they ordered the murder of Vince Foster—were of course preposterous. But Brock also uncovered a woman named “Paula,” who later alleged that while working as an Arkansas state employee, she was escorted by Governor Clinton’s bodyguard to his hotel room. There, she claims, Clinton exposed himself and demanded sex. When Paula Jones leveled her allegations, mainstream reporters like The Washington Post’s Michael Isikoff and The American Lawyer’s Stuart Taylor did exactly what Brock now says the media should not: They looked into it. And they concluded that—although Jones was clearly being used by Clinton’s political enemies—her story had merit. (If you doubt that, read Taylor’s summary in Slate of his much-longer American Lawyer investigation into what likely transpired between Clinton and Jones on May 8, 1991. It’s horrifying).

Clinton ultimately settled Jones’ sexual-harassment case for the entire amount she requested. U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright found him in civil contempt of court for “intentionally false” testimony, which led to the suspension of his Arkansas law license. Despite this, Media Matters, the journalism watchdog organization that Brock founded in 2004, after his ideological conversion, still occasionally savages Isikoff and Taylor for the reporting they did.

The lesson for journalists covering 2016, Brock told the Little Rock crowd, is that “Clinton-hating had nothing to do with what the Clintons did or did not do.” If only it were that simple. The truth is that while conservative outlets like the Scaife-funded American Spectator and the Wall Street Journal editorial page were wildly dishonest in their effort to gin up scandals that would sink Bill Clinton’s presidency, and although Republicans should, to this day, be ashamed for having tried to impeach him, Clinton’s behavior wasn’t irrelevant. He used the powers of his office—both as governor and president—to solicit sex and cover it up. He lied under oath and he urged others to lie. That’s far worse than sexting, which destroyed Anthony Weiner’s career.

Of course, Bill Clinton won’t be on the ballot in 2016. But not everything Clinton-haters said about Hillary was wrong either. Yes, the “Whitewater” investigation into the Clintons' Arkansas real-estate investments—to which Senate Republicans devoted 300 hours of committee hearings over 13 months—turned out to be a colossal waste of time. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, despite being appointed to investigate Whitewater, barely even mentioned it in his final report. Yes, “Travelgate”—in which the first lady influenced the decision to fire seven employees of the White House Travel Office—received far more attention than it ever deserved. Yes, some of the attacks on her reeked of sexism. Some still do.

But even when it comes to Hillary, it’s untrue that “Clinton-hating had nothing to do with what the Clintons did or did not do.” As Carl Bernstein details in his generally positive biography, A Woman in Charge, Clinton’s us-versus-them approach to politics not only outraged her opponents but alienated some on her ideological side. Had she not overruled advisers David Gergen and George Stephanopoulos, who wanted to release Whitewater-related documents when the press initially requested them, Bernstein suggests, Attorney General Janet Reno might never have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the matter, which ultimately led to Starr poking into Bill Clinton’s sex life.

Hillary Clinton’s suspicions of outsiders also undermined her effort on healthcare. Her health task force, Bernstein notes, operated with “military-like secrecy unprecedented for a peacetime domestic program.” Xeroxing documents under discussion was not allowed. At many task-force meetings, outsiders were forbidden from even bringing in pens. Controlling the process so tightly not only drove Clinton’s adversaries wild, it kept her from making the adjustments necessary to win over congressional moderates who might have supported reform.

Her “if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us” attitude even infuriated some congressional liberals. “You don’t tell members of the Senate you are going to demonize them” if they disagree with you, declared New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley, who accused Hillary of working on “the assumption that people with questions are enemies.” Lawrence O’Donnell, then a key aide to New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said that Hillary’s threat to “demonize” health care opponents “colored [Moynihan’s] perception of Hillary, and how she operated, for the rest of his life.”

In explaining his ideological transformation, Brock said on Tuesday, “I came to see what Hillary Clinton’s admirers saw in her… a steadfast commitment to public service and a deep desire to affirm the good and virtuous in politics.” I agree. Hillary Clinton is an unusually capable, hard-working, idealistic politician. Her husband was one of the best presidents America has ever had. But in the 1990s, both wounded themselves by assuming that because they were pursuing virtuous ends, they could employ dishonest (mostly him) and destructive (mostly her) means.

That tendency continued into 2008, when Hillary Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn penned a memo declaring that since Barack Obama “is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values,” every Clinton “speech should contain the line that you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century.”

And it lives on today with David Brock, who now sits near the epicenter of the pro-Hillary effort in 2016. And who near the end of his Little Rock speech attacked Rand Paul for “setting the rules of the game in such a way that a candidate is responsible for the behavior of those closest them”—and then did exactly the same thing by slamming Paul for the neo-confederate views of his aides.

Between now and 2016, Brock will keep pressuring journalists—especially liberal ones—to view every criticism of Hillary Clinton through a partisan lens, to bury their qualms so as to avoid complicity with the Fox News slime machine. Let’s hope he fails. Clinton is a gifted, well-meaning politician whose Manichean tendencies can get her, and the country, in trouble. The 2016 race will be a better campaign, and she’ll be a better president, if the press bears that in mind.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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