In 1999, I published a book describing my experiences as White House special counsel in dealing mostly with the various campaign finance accusations against the 1996 Clinton presidential campaign during my tenure at the White House, from 1996-1998. I recalled all the bogus controversies revved up by Republican congressional committees and described as “scandals” by the media, from Travelgate to Filegate and even one involving the Clintons’ Christmas card list (I am not making that up).
But we may have forgotten the biggest phony “scandal” story of all: the Clintons’ investment in a 20-year-old land deal called Whitewater.
The story began with a front-page article in March 1992 in The New York Times. For the next eight years, two independent counsels spent more than $50 million to end up with the conclusion, in September 2000, that there was “insufficient evidence” President Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton had committed any crimes. Five years before, a conservative Republican former U.S. attorney, Jay Stevens, had gone even further and exonerated the Clintons from all the charges of serious wrongdoing.
Did the same media calling for full disclosure own up to getting Whitewater all wrong? You know the answer.
Unfortunately for me and my fellow Democrats, the tendency to exploit the media’s penchant for over-hyping “scandal” is not limited to Republicans. Let’s not forget what we Democrats did to former President Reagan’s first secretary of Labor, Raymond Donovan. Three independent counsel investigations pressed by Democrats went nowhere. I remember thinking, where there is smoke, there is fire, so Donovan must be a crook. I was wrong. After Donovan was acquitted of fraud in a criminal case brought by a Bronx N.Y. Democratic district attorney, he turned to those who congratulated him and uttered the now famous comment reflecting the worst flotsam of the scandal machine: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
Here is what I wrote at the end of my book acknowledging how unfortunately bipartisan this awful media-political-legal destructive scandal complex had become:
“So, it was now clear to me, the disease in today’s scandal culture is systemic. It is not about one particular party being more partisan or more willing to misuse congressional investigations than the other. It is not about an ideological press corps out to get one political party or the other. The political and journalistic focus on scandal, and the willingness of politicians to take advantage of the destructive power of that focus for their political advantage, are now deeply embedded within the body politic. All of us in the process — Democrats and Republicans, journalists and lawyers, not to mention a public ready to assume the worst about politicians — have combined to produce rot, horrible rot.
There are no clean hands here — certainly not mine.”
So where do we go from here? The scandal machine described in my book has started up again — more accurately, it continues.
Recently we had the hype over Hillary Clinton’s emails, with The New York Times suggesting the former secretary of State “may” have done something illegal. Several days later, the top lawyer the Times quoted in its story told CNN’s Michael Smerconish on the air that Clinton had done nothing illegal. The Times had not included such a statement in its breaking story.
Just recently The Washington Post ran a long story quoting from some of the emails former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had written using his own private email address and his own server during his eight years in office. The story reported some instances in which Bush had helped some friends and donors on projects of interest to them. Shocking! The fact that his decisions could have been (and, as far as I am concerned, were) based on what he thought was right and in the public interest was easy to overlook amid the heavy innuendo of impropriety in the article.
The bottom line: This scandal machinery and the politics of personal destruction will continue so long as we voters provide a receptive audience, welcoming the scandal headlines and negative campaign ads when they are about those in the opposite party but denouncing them when they are applied to our party’s favorite candidates.
Maybe it is naive to hope that it can be different.
Isn’t it time for all of us in both parties who care about decency and truth and a better politics in our country to say, “Enough”?
Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, LEVICK. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).