Hunting For the Truth

The war on Bill Clinton and the war on everything else


Maybe Joe Conason should start developing a complex.

A little more than a year ago, the New York Observer and Salon writer came out with Big Lies,, one of the first of what would become an onslaught of Bush-bashing/anti-right wing critiques. What happened? It sold well, but was eclipsed by the similarly- titled/similarly-themed, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look At the Right (a book given an unexpected boost when Fox News—urged on by house star Bill O'Reilly—sued author Al Franken).

So now Conason's earlier book, The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton, co-written with Arkansas columnist Gene Lyons, has been turned into a film by long-time Clinton pal Harry Thomason (he directed "The Man From Hope," the short that introduced Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention). What happens? The 90-minute documentary premieres—in the middle of a publicity blitz of not only Clinton's 900-page autobiography, My Life, but Michael Moore's over-the-top Fahrenheit 9/11! Well, Conason shouldn't feel too put out: Clinton popped up at the New York premiere last week.

Despite this confluence, the Conason-Lyons-Thomason work shouldn't be overlooked. It mixes interviews of various characters (several obscure up until now) in the Clinton battles—heavily focused on the Arkansas aspect of the saga—with stock footage from various black-and-white movies and television shows to give the production comedic and dramatic effect. The only national Clinton critic to receive much face time is Rev. Jerry Falwell (the filmmakers note at the end the many foes who declined to be interviewed.).

The Hunting of the President shows pretty vividly how the political wars of the Nineties helped shape the divided Red/Blue nation that emerged out of the 2000 election. Existing as an almost Bizarro-world analysis of what went on during the 1990's, the documentary will be stunningly unfamiliar to many who followed the basic headlines of the Clinton "scandals."

Thus, the national mainstream media emerges as much the villain of the piece as independent counsel Ken Starr, conservative lawyers, or the Arkansas blood enemies of Bill Clinton. The creators clearly believe that the media didn't do their jobs as neutral observers, instead becoming co-opted by home-grown and national Clinton-haters. Oddly though, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which staked out an early position as a foe of the Clinton administration, isn't mentioned at all.

Also not mentioned are issues such as Travelgate. For those who forget, the Clintons fired long-time White House Travel Office employees and replaced them with their own aides. In itself, that was no big deal; but the White House charged the dismissed staffers with malfeasance, only to see them quickly exonerated by a jury. Nor is Filegate mentioned—nearly 800 raw FBI files of former White House political appointees (nearly all Republican) were released "accidentally." Or Kathleen Willey, a woman who complained of being harassed for coming forward to say that Clinton behaved inappropriately with her.

Obviously, those stories are not the point of Hunting. However, it's important to keep in mind that Susan McDougal (who certainly comes off as a sympathetic figure) is not the only "innocent victim" caught in the crossfire of the Clinton Wars. It's also important to note that not all the shots fired were from the anti-Clinton side of the battle lines.

Furthermore, when Bill Clinton admits in an interview pushing his autobiography that he went after Monica Lewinsky, "because I could," it does not exactly engender sympathy for the former president.

In that context, Hunting is not necessarily going to change many minds about Bill Clinton. However, there is a cautionary lesson for civil libertarians and other believers in constitutional checks and balances.

Ever since Lawrence Walsh and the Iran-contra investigation, conservatives worked to get rid of the independent counsel statute. Not until Ken Starr did the left begin to see the virtues in the conservative critique of the danger presented by a prosecutor with virtually unlimited power having an ever-changing mandate to investigate the executive branch. In other words, it wasn't until the Democrats' ox was gored that they saw the constitutional light (to mix a metaphor or three).

Will the same happen to Republicans?

Hunting comes out just weeks after Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ashcroft refused multiple Democrat requests to turn over a 50-page memo in which, The Wall Street Journal claimed, a Justice lawyer asserted a right "inherent in the president" to set aside laws. Specifically, the memo was directed toward Guantanamo detainees and the issue of torture. Yet, such a general principle, supposedly, would also hold for someone deemed by the executive as an "enemy combatant" such as Jose Padilla, held for two years without officially being charged with a crime and given access to a lawyer only recently. (Pace The Hunting For The President, don't be surprised if Clinton partisans start referring to Susan McDougal as having been a political prisoner.)

In refusing to turn the full memo over to the Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft stated: "We are at war. And for us to begin to discuss all the legal ramifications of the war is not in our best interest, and it never has been in times of war."

What does this assertion of propriety during an actual war have to do with the political wars of the Nineties? Well, it demonstrates the inability to stop a machine once it has started.

Consider that Ken Starr was appointed to examine a land deal involving Bill Clinton before he became president (in itself something of a deviation from the original use of the independent counsel statute). Over the course of his multi-year task, he then was asked to examine the death of Vince Foster, the aforementioned Filegate/Travelgate episodes and then, finally, Monica Lewinsky. Even ignoring all the charges of conflict-of-interest that partisans raise about Starr and the three-judge panel that selected him, the "moving target" aspect of the investigation is disturbing.

But if a "moving target" judicial investigation is problematic, what about a "moving target" war?

After 9/11, Osama bin Laden was "Wanted: Dead or Alive." As the Iraq War developed, Saddam Hussein became the Ace of Spades in the terror card deck. Now, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi has become the new face of evil. Even so, according to the Bush administration, the war does not end with bin Laden's capture or death. It continues until…until…until when, exactly?

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee rushed to defend Ashcroft's assertion that he didn't have to disclose his private "advice" to the president. But the major questions remained unasked, not to mention unanswered: Can a president's extra-constitutional wartime powers continue ad infinitum? Does the executive not have to answer questions about these powers as long as the country remains "at war"? For that matter, how long does an unofficially declared war against a tactic (terror)—as opposed to a defined nation or foe—continue?

It took Kenneth Starr to be appointed before the Democrats understood exactly how devastating the unlimited powers of an independent counsel could be.

What will it take for Republicans to consider the ramifications of the unlimited wartime powers that the Justice Department and the current attorney general are intimating? President John Kerry? President Hillary Rodham Clinton?

For those questions alone, The Hunting of the President makes for interesting viewing.