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Saturday, December 10, 2016

By hard pundit law, nonstop media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign begins on the morning after the 2014 congressional elections — approximately 18 months before normal Americans want to hear about it.

However, like the “countdown” to major sporting events, it’s also a cable TV ratings booster. With politicians and pundits eager to score TV face time, it’s also cheap and easy to produce.

So ready or not, here comes Campaign 2016.

For a monthly magazine like Harper’s to jump the gun by two weeks requires considerable enterprise. “STOP HILLARY,” the magazine’s November 2014 cover insists. “Vote No to a Clinton Dynasty.”

First, a quibble about terminology. A dynasty, properly speaking, is a multi-generational, inherited thing. In an American context, it’s legitimate to speak of the Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushes as dynastic families parlaying inherited wealth into political power.

As author Doug Henwood sniffishly points out, however, Bill and Hillary Clinton are what French aristocrats call “arrivistes”—nobodies from nowhere who climbed the power ladder through what he calls the “neoliberal” strategy of “nonstop self-promotion.”

That this cavil would apply to virtually all American politicians seems not to have occurred to Henwood, whose loathing of the couple transcends such mundane considerations. To him, the whole case for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy “boils down to this: She has experience, she’s a woman, and it’s her turn. It’s hard to find any substantive political argument in her favor.”

Maybe so, maybe not. But then Henwood, writing from the left, seems not to have looked very hard. His essay begins and ends with the appraisals of Dick Morris, perhaps America’s least credible political prognosticator. Indeed, the author acknowledges in a footnote that Morris’s “pronouncements on both Bill and Hillary should be taken with a substantial grain of salt.”

Even Fox News let Morris go after his forecast of a Mitt Romney landslide went awry. So why feature the man at all?

For that matter, why am I bothering with Henwood ?

Two reasons. First, personal disappointment that such slipshod work could appear in Harper’s. Twenty years ago, the magazine stuck its journalistic neck out to publish my article and book Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater.

Second, because Henwood’s piece signals the inevitable return of what I call the “Clinton Rules.” Particularly when it comes to the couple’s background in darkest Arkansas, no allegation of wrongdoing, regardless of how conclusively disproved, has ever disappeared from the national news media.

That such shoddy standards have become well-nigh universal in American political journalism is no excuse. Because everybody involved back in 1996 understood that calling out The New York Times — which originated and sustained the Whitewater hoax — was a serious business, Harper’s actually dispatched a fact checker to Little Rock, where we spent several days bulletproofing the manuscript.

Clearly, no such effort went into Henwood’s essay.

Basically, the author has performed a simple trick: putting leftward spin on GOP talking points from the 1990s. Because everybody’s either forgotten the details or never knew them, it’s possible to make long discredited charges of corruption against both Clintons sound plausible again.

Whitewater, Henwood assures readers, definitely “was not nothing.”

What it may have been, however, he appears to have no clue. The most basic facts elude him. No, the late Jim McDougal’s doomed Madison Guaranty savings and loan did not finance the Clintons’ real estate investment. They were never “investors in McDougal’s [other] schemes.”

Maybe Henwood would better understand the Clintons’ surprising “escape from the Whitewater morass” if he grasped that they were basically the victims, not the perps.

Here’s how Kenneth Starr’s prosecutor Ray Jahn put it in his closing argument at poor, mentally ill Jim McDougal’s trial:

“Why isn’t the President of the United States on trial?…Because he didn’t set up any phony corporations to get employees to sign for loans that were basically worthless…The president didn’t backdate any leases. He didn’t backdate any documents. He didn’t come up with any phony reasons not to repay the property. He didn’t lie to any examiners. He didn’t lie to any investors.”

As for Susan McDougal, yes, it’s true she served 18 months for civil contempt after refusing to testify to a Whitewater grand jury in what she saw as a partisan perjury trap. However, it’s also true — if seemingly unknown to Henwood — that after Starr’s prosecutors charged her with criminal contempt, she testified for several days in open court, and was acquitted.

Ancient history, yes. But history. The Ray Jahn quote, for example, comes directly from Joe Conason’s and my book The Hunting of the President.

Regarding Henwood’s pronouncement that it’s “ideologically dubious” of Hillary Clinton to “make friends with her Republican colleagues,” readers can judge for themselves.

However, a journalist who chooses to question a presidential candidate’s character by dragging up 20-year-old controversies owes it to readers to know two or three things about them.

AFP Photo/Oliver Lang

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