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.