What Happens in the Campaign Stays in the Campaign

The 2012 presidential race is entering what might be called the “full public colonoscopy” phase, when the press really begins digging into every nook and cranny of the leading candidates’ public and private lives looking for scandal material. Rick Perry, the new guy, has taken the brunt so far, with stories of his unfortunately named hunting camp and the surfacing of past investigations into his business and political dealings. Romney, the veteran, got a bit of the treatment when he ran in 2008 (remember how he once strapped the family dog to the roof of a car on a road trip?). This time, as front-runner, Romney can expect much deeper probing into, among other things, his private equity deals.

These ritual friskings occur in every presidential cycle. 2008 exposed Obama’s relationships with Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, and Bill Ayers. 2000 gave us tales of George W. Bush’s struggles with alcohol and the failed oil ventures that ended with him getting bailed out by his father’s friends. But in the annals of primary campaign feeding frenzies, nothing compares to 1992. That year began with allegations about Bill Clinton’s relationship with the nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers. Then came revelations about his efforts to avoid the draft. By spring, hordes of reporters were camped out in Little Rock, chasing down any and every hint of potential impropriety.

I was one of those journalists who parachuted into Arkansas during that time, and like many others soon found myself in the office of Sheffield Nelson, a Republican former gas company CEO who had lost the 1990 gubernatorial race to Clinton. Nelson was one of the chief purveyors of rumor and innuendo about the governor, part of a loose network of semiprofessional Clinton antagonists. He gave me a tip: he’d heard that Hillary Clinton didn’t do a lick of work at the prominent local law firm where she was a partner, but was paid handsomely anyway because she was married to the governor.

I spent a week chasing down this charge before confirming that it wasn’t true. After drilling one or two more dry holes on the suggestion of Nelson and others in his network, I concluded that they were too untrustworthy to be useful sources.

Other reporters saw things differently. That spring, Nelson put the New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth in contact with James McDougal, a former associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton with whom the couple had invested in a failed real estate venture McDougal had put together called Whitewater. The resulting front-page article in the Times, though opaque, suggested that the investment was a sweetheart deal for the Clintons, who put up little money but stood to profit handsomely. More alarmingly, it implied that Bill Clinton had used state power to shield a savings-and-loan run by McDougal—and legally represented by Hillary—from getting shut down.

As it turned out, neither of these things was true. The Clintons lost tens of thousands of dollars in the deal. And Clinton’s handpicked state regulator, who did not have the power to unilaterally shut down McDougal’s S&L, had asked the feds to do so. The regulator made all of these facts clear to Gerth in twenty pages of memoranda she gave to him before he wrote his article, as Joe Conason and Gene Lyons detail in their book The Hunting of the President.

A decade and a half later, Gerth would admit that the story contained errors, which he blamed on his editors. Readers at the time, however, didn’t know that, and because the piece ran on the front page of the prestigious New York Times, nearly everyone in the journalistic and political world presumed here had to be something to it.

What Gerth got wrong set the stage for years of senseless investigations. His article inspired a mid-level functionary with the Resolution Trust Corporation, a temporary federal agency that oversaw the liquidation of failing S&Ls, to formally ask the FBI to open a criminal case. The FBI, finding the referral highly dubious, declined. But when the referral was later leaked to the Washington Post—ten months into Clinton’s presidency—it not only reignited the Whitewater story but gave respectable Washington license to take seriously conspiratorial charges that right-wing operatives had been pushing for months (Did Vince Foster, a partner in Hillary’s law firm, kill himself because he knew something damaging about her representation of McDougal’s S&L? Was David Hale, an indicted municipal judge in Arkansas, telling the truth when, to avoid prosecution, he claimed that Bill Clinton had muscled him into providing a loan to McDougal’s S&L?).

Over the following months, demands for the appointment of a special prosecutor for Whitewater came not only from the Republicans and the right wing, but from both the editorial pages at the Times and the Post. Eventually Clinton, much to his subsequent regret, relented. The rest—Ken Starr, Monica Lewinsky, impeachment—is history.

We’ve really never seen anything like this, before or since. Normally, scandals dug up during the course of a campaign season stay in the campaign season—the unwritten rule being that since the voters, knowing the candidate’s flaws, have spoken, re-litigating the scandal is undemocratic. But with Clinton, a campaign scandal—and a profoundly phony one at that—was allowed to disrupt nearly two terms of a presidency.

One reason for this, I think, is that key members of the elite press became so deeply invested in a belief that the Clintons were conniving, manipulative, amoral people capable of anything that they allowed themselves to be used by conniving, manipulative, amoral Clinton haters. These journalists included not only journeyman investigators like Gerth, but taste-making writers like Maureen Dowd and the late Michael Kelly. And when news outlets with a history of integrity like the Times (publisher of the Pentagon Papers) and the Post (breaker of the Watergate scandal) announced that Whitewater was a scandal in need of further investigation, their readers naturally believed them.

A related reason is that once the mainstream press bought into the scandal, the truth had no real means of getting out. The only alternative media of any size were conservative outlets like talk radio shows and Christian broadcasters like Jerry Falwell, and they were busy egging the scandal on. What we think of now as the progressive media—liberal blogs, the evening hours of MSNBC—did not yet exist. Indeed, parts of that progressive media “infrastructure” came into being as a reaction to the Clinton impeachment.

The good news is that phony scandals are considerably less likely to take root and grow today. That’s partly because mainstream reporters feel burned by Whitewater, but more importantly because partisan media outlets now exist on both sides of the aisle. Outrageous claims about Barack Obama and his administration have been floated repeatedly by GOP lawmakers and conservative media outlets. But because the charges have been picked apart in the liberal blogosphere before the mainstream press has felt obliged to weigh in, none has metastasized into a true scandal, as Jonathan Alter writes in his cover story in this issue (see “Scandal in the Age of Obama”“).

Aggressive campaign journalism, even of a sordid nature, has its place. During the 2008 campaign, reporters were so reluctant to dig into obvious clues that John Edwards not only had a mistress, but a child by her—facts reported by the National Enquirer before the Iowa caucus—that the news didn’t hit the mainstream press until weeks before the Democratic National Convention in August, by which time he could have already been the nominee.

I rather look forward to the full-body scans that Romney, Perry, and the GOP field ought to receive from the media. The press needs to do its job. But then it should let the voters do theirs.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.