Hillary's First Big Lie
The congressional hearings on Benghazi last week led me to question just when it was that public integrity ceased to matter. After some research, I came to an unexpectedly specific answer -- January 26, 1992, the day America first met Hillary Clinton.
Earlier that month, Arkansas state employee Gennifer Flowers confessed to a tabloid that she and Bill Clinton had engaged in a 12-year affair. In a desperate attempt to save Bill's candidacy for president, the Clintons agreed to be interviewed by Steve Kroft on CBS's 60 Minutes.
Upon watching this interview, I was struck by how forcefully Kroft stuck it to the Clintons. I had all but forgotten that in days gone by news people expected the truth from public officials, even Democratic front-runners for the presidency. Starting with this interview, the Clintons would dramatically lower that expectation.
When Kroft asked Bill if he had an affair with Flowers, he answered, "That allegation is false." Hillary, her hands lovingly intertwined with Bill's, nodded in affirmation. Of course, they were both lying, Bill with much greater skill. Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey would later immortalize Bill as "an unusually good liar."
At this point in the interview, Hillary tried to explain how these allegations emerged. "When this woman [Flowers] first got caught up in these charges," she said, "I felt as I've felt about all of these women: that they had just been minding their own business and they got hit by a meteor, and it was no fault of their own."
It was Hillary's next thought that caused me to hit the pause button and replay the video. "We reached out to them," said Hillary. "I met with two of them to reassure them they were friends of ours." This was the only sentence for which I marked the time -- roughly 3:28 in the video clip -- and wrote down the quote verbatim.
Something provocative, perhaps historic, had caught my attention. No, it was not the use of "friends of ours," mob shorthand for "made guys." Rather, it was that on no other occasion had Hillary admitted an active role in silencing Bill's women. She continued, "I felt terrible about what was happening to them."
Hillary had reason to feel terrible. Among the people the Clintons reached out to that year -- in this case, through a proxy -- was Sally Perdue, a former Miss Arkansas and Clinton paramour. "[The proxy] said that there were people in high places who were anxious about me and they wanted me to know that keeping my mouth shut would be worthwhile," Perdue would later relate. "Worthwhile" meant a GS-11 or higher job with the federal government. If she turned down the offer and talked to the media, "He couldn't guarantee what would happen to my pretty little legs."
Perdue was the least of the Clintons' problems in 1992. More potentially troublesome were the women that Clinton had criminally assaulted or humiliated -- Juanita Broaddrick, Elizabeth Ward Gracen, and Paula Jones among others. Jones, though not raped like Broaddrick or attacked like Gracen, would prove Bill Clinton's undoing.
Later in the 60 Minutes interview, Bill swore, "I have absolutely leveled with the American people." Of course, he did no such thing, and Kroft knew it. Skeptically, Kroft asked Bill if he thought the interview would help quiet the furor. Clinton answered, "That's up to the American people and to some extent up to the press. This will test the character of the press. It is not only my character that has been tested."
By Clinton standards, the media would pass the test, ace it even, and at their prompting, so would the public. Clinton had given the media just enough cover to "move on." This was their turning point. After twelve years of Reagan and Bush, they embraced their inner liberal and abandoned their role as watchdogs. America has always had scoundrels, but never before had the media collectively championed them.
For the next six years, and more recklessly still after the disastrous 1994 mid-terms, Hillary lied as necessary to protect the Clinton brand. At every turn, her co-dependents in the major media enabled her. Appalled by her performance, William Safire famously designated Hillary "a congenital liar" in a 1996 New York Times op-ed, but Hillary was just learning the art of the lie.
In 1998, she had plenty of opportunity to hone her craft. That year the story of Bill's sordid sexual history broke into public view despite the major media's best efforts to conceal it. The intrepid reporting of the American Spectator and the emergence of the Internet, the Drudge Report in particular, made containment impossible.
Unwilling to abandon the Clintons, the major media savaged the truth tellers -- the whistleblowers, the prosecutors, the "bimbos" that erupted -- and shifted their protective embrace to Hillary as the future progressive torchbearer. Almost to a person, in ways big and small, they helped her survive this ordeal.
Six years and a day after she lied on 60 Minutes to protect Bill's candidacy, Hillary lied on the Today Show to protect his presidency. "There isn't any fire," she told Matt Lauer about the "smoke" surrounding her husband, and unlike Steve Kroft in 1992, Lauer allowed her to lie.
He shifted his inquiry from whether Bill had a sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky to whether independent counsel Ken Starr's "thirty million dollar" investigation had unfairly targeted the president. This set-up allowed Hillary to establish the media narrative going forward. ''The great story here," she said for the ages, "is this vast right-wing conspiracy that been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."
The media helped in less obvious ways as well. In 1998, the Washington Post ran an historical series on Bill's sexual misadventures. One day the Post included a transcript of the 1992 60 Minutes interview. What follows is an excerpt from that transcript.
[These women] had just been minding their own business and they got hit by a meteor . . . . I felt terrible about what was happening to them.
The ellipsis conceals from the reader the most significant quote in the interview: "We reached out to them. I met with two of them to reassure them they were friends of ours." This was the only passage of any substance edited out of the transcript. In 1998, there was no YouTube. Readers relied on transcripts. By this time, much of the public was aware that the outreach to "these women" had not been at all friendly. A Post editor had chosen to scrub Hillary's sordid role in that outreach from the record.
Hillary would later claim to have learned about Bill's affair with Monica just before his August 1998 grand jury testimony. In fact, however, it was Hillary, working through her acolytes, who had Monica booted from the White House before the story went public and branded as a stalker after it did. The media chose not to know. They allowed the smartest woman in the world to play innocent victim, and this improbable role immunized her from scandal and burnished her political star.
By 2012, the major media had become so comfortable with Clinton lies that not a single one among them pointed out the grotesque irony of having an unrepentant sexual predator keynote a Democratic Convention whose theme was the "Republican war on women."
So accustomed had Hillary grown to having her lies glossed over that she grew increasingly indignant even at the timid questions Congress threw her way at last week's Benghazi hearing. When asked by Senator Ron Johnson about her version of events, Hillary exploded in an outburst destined to be at least as famous as her "vast right wing conspiracy" jeremiad.
Said Hillary, summing up the state of public integrity in 2013, "What difference at this point does it make?" Say what you will, but today, that is a legitimate question.