Hillary's e-mails: the return of a 'vast right-wing conspiracy'?

This is not the first time that Bill Clinton's effort to protect his wife may have backfired.

Lynne Sladky/AP
A supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton wears a shirt reading 'Bill for First Lady' before a speech by Clinton during a campaign event at Broward College, on Oct. 2, 2015, in Davie, Fla.

We probably should have seen this coming. As Hillary Clinton’s e-mail troubles continue to dominate her news coverage, her faithful husband Bill, aka The Big Dawg, has jumped into the fray to fight back against what he believes is unfair media coverage. In this interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sept. 25, Clinton resurrected the specter of the “vast right conspiracy” as an explanation for the media’s fixation on his wife’s e-mails. In so doing, however, it’s not clear whether the Big Dawg has really helped his wife, or instead has reopened old wounds dating back to Clinton’s struggles with the press during his own run for the presidency. Here’s the interview with Zakaria. As you can see at the start of it, when Zakaria asks Clinton, whom Zakaria suggests is “the most skilled student of politics” in the US, about the roots of Hillary’s current struggles, Clinton references an incident dating back to his own run for president in 1991. 

As it turns out, that unnamed member of the George H. W. Bush White House that Clinton references at the start of his interview with Zakaria is Roger Porter, Bush’s chief domestic adviser. We know this because Clinton told this story in much greater detail in his lengthy (almost 1,000 page!) 2004 memoir "My Life" (and on several other occasions). As Clinton recounts the story, he received a phone call from Porter in 1991, at a time when Clinton had not yet committed to a presidential run. Porter, according to Clinton, called to see whether the Arkansas governor had made up his mind whether to throw his hat in the presidential ring. After a few minutes of conversation during which Clinton discussed issues that concerned him, Porter reportedly interjected, “Cut the crap, governor.” A startled Clinton then listened as Porter told him that because Clinton was viewed by the Bush White House as the strongest potential Democratic candidate, “they would have to destroy me personally.” As Clinton remembers, Porter lectured him, saying “Here’s how Washington works …The press has to have somebody in every election, and we’re going to give them you.” Porter went on to describe the press as “elitists” who could be easily duped into believing tales “about backwater Arkansas.” Porter concluded ominously, “We’ll spend whatever we have to spend to get whoever we have to get to say whatever they have to say to take you out. And we’ll do it early.”

In his memoirs, Clinton says that Porter’s threats actually made him more likely to run. But he also makes it clear that he believes Republicans made good on Porter’s promise, aided by a willing press corps. “In the campaign and for eight years afterward,” Clinton writes, “the Republicans would make good on theirs [threats] and as Roger Porter had predicted, they got lots of help from some members of the press.” As Clinton suggested to Zakaria – the Whitewater real estate scandal, which led to the appointment of the independent prosecutor, which led to Monica Lewinsky and impeachment – all of it can be traced back to Porter’s phone call.

Not surprisingly, Clinton’s story raised more than a few eyebrows when it was published back in 2004. Porter instantly denied it. Here’s an account of their back-and-forth, as published in the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper. For what it is worth, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward investigated this story years ago when he was writing "The Agenda," his account of the first years of the Clinton presidency. Contacted last week by Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty, Woodward called Clinton’s tale “preposterous.”

But the Big Dawg is standing by his story. And, if he is to be believed, the current media focus on Hillary’s e-mails is simply a reprise of the Republican-driven smear tactics used against him during his presidential campaign and while in the White House. Not surprisingly, after Zakaria’s interview aired, Porter once again he denied Clinton’s account, reminding the reporter that Clinton’s “association with the truth is often a really tenuous one.” He also joked that if the Bush administration was going to send a message of this type to Clinton, they wouldn’t have sent the famously low-key Porter to do the job.

Obviously, either Clinton or Porter is “misremembering” what happened, although both claim this is not the type of conversation either would forget. I have no independent evidence to add that might help choose between the contradictory stories. But I will say that I co-taught the American Presidency course at Harvard with Porter for many years, and I find it completely unbelievable that Porter would ever say the word “crap,” even if he was sitting in a pile of it. It’s not in his vocabulary. Indeed, I find it extremely hard to believe that Porter, a famously buttoned-down, “mild mannered” person (as Tumulty describes him), would be the one chosen by the Bush White House to send a message threatening to break Clinton’s knee caps. It seems entirely out of character for the man I knew from sharing a classroom with for so many years. You might as well tell me Mother Theresa beat her dog and cheated at church bingo.

On the other hand, the man accusing Porter of making the threats also is famous for declaring…..well, see for yourself.

Of course, that adamant denial was followed by this:

Is this proof that the Big Dawg is lying about what Porter told him? No, but I can tell you which person’s version I’m more willing to believe!

The bigger issue, however, is not which man is telling the truth about an event that purportedly happened in 1991. It’s whether Clinton’s decision to resurrect this controversial story from his own campaign, and with it the specter of the infamous “vast right wing conspiracy” touted by his wife during the Big Dawg’s Lewinsky scandal, is really the best strategy for helping her campaign. It’s true that the e-mail story has probably made Hillary seem less trustworthy to many potential voters. But as I’ve noted in a previous post, the whole trustworthy issue is being overplayed; history suggests it’s not likely to have much of an impact on her electoral support. Still, this doesn’t mean it makes sense to resurrect a story that is certain to feed into the media frame that the Clintons always have something to hide.

This is not the first time that Bill’s effort to protect his wife may have backfired. In the 2008 Democratic nomination fight, he infamously attacked press coverage of Barack Obama as a giant “fairy tale” and later, heading into the South Carolina primary, noted that Jesse Jackson had won that state’s primary twice, which many critics interpreted as a thinly veiled insinuation that Obama would do well there because of his race. At this point it’s too early to know if Clinton’s latest remarks will trigger a similar negative fallout.  It will be interesting to see if some of Sanders’ surrogates pick up on the story and how much media play it gets. Certainly Hillary was very careful, when asked on "Meet the Press" about the Big Dawg’s comments, not to blame her e-mail woes on the press or the opposition party.

Zakaria may be right that Bill Clinton is the most skilled student of politics in America. But somehow I can’t help but notice that those skills often seemed far more useful in furthering his own political career than they have in helping his wife’s.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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