It is almost eerie how closely Hillary Clinton’s current “email scandal” parallels the beginnings of the Whitewater fiasco that ensnared her and her husband almost 20 years ago. Both began with tendentious, somewhat misleading stories published by The New York Times; both stoked highly exaggerated suspicions of wrongdoing; both were exploited by Republican partisans, whose own records were altogether worse; and both resulted in shrill, sustained explosions of outrage from reporters and commentators who could never be bothered to learn actual facts.
Fortunately for Secretary Clinton and the nation, she won’t be subjected to another fruitless $70 million investigation by a less-than-independent counsel like Kenneth Starr. The chances that the innocuous email flap will damage her nascent presidential campaign seems very small, according to the latest polling data.
Yet the reaction of the Washington media to these allegations renews the same old questions about fairness. In this instance, the behavior of Republican officials whose use of private email accounts closely resembles what Secretary Clinton did at the State Department has been largely ignored – even though some of those officials might also seek the presidency.
Recently Jeb Bush released a large volume of emails from the personal – i.e., non-governmental – email account that he routinely used as Florida governor, and then praised his own transparency with self-serving extravagance. The only problem is that those released emails represent only 10 percent of the total. The rest he has simply withheld, without any public review.
When Scott Walker served as Milwaukee county executive, before he was elected Wisconsin governor, he and his staff used a secret email system for unlawful campaign work on public time; that system emerged as part of an investigation that ultimately sent one of his aides to prison (another was immunized by prosecutors). Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has used a personal email account for government business, as has former Texas governor Rick Perry. So have Florida senator Marco Rubio, and various congressmembers who have been heard to spout off about Clinton’s emails, such as Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
Those examples epitomize hypocrisy, of course — yet none compares with the truly monumental email scandal of the Bush years, when millions of emails went missing from White House servers – and many more were never archived, as required since 1978 by the Presidential Records Act. Dozens of Bush White House staff used a series of private email accounts provided by the Republican National Committee (whose loud-talking chairman Reince Priebus now mocks Clinton as the “Secretary of Secrecy”). The RNC’s White House email clients most notably included scandal-ridden Bush advisor Karl Rove, who used the party accounts for an estimated 95 percent of his electronic messaging, and by Rove’s staff.
Among many other dubious activities, Rove aide Susan Ralston used her private RNC email to discuss Interior Department appointments with the office of crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who wanted to influence the department on behalf of gambling interests. According to Abramoff associate Kevin Ring, another White House official explained to him that “it is better not to put this stuff in their email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc…” While Rove was forced to surrender some emails involving his notorious exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame, he retained the capacity to delete thousands of emails.
Various investigations and lawsuits uncovered the astonishing breadth of the Bush White House email fiasco, such as the “recycling” of backup tapes for all of its emails between Inauguration Day 2001 and sometime in 2003. This evidently meant that vast troves of messages pertaining to the 9/11 terrorist attack went missing, of course – along with whatever Rove and his aides might have communicated on that topic, or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or countless other topics of public concern.
And former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose office was also involved in both the Plame and WMD scandals, admitted recently that he used private emails in office – but that he turned over and retained none of them – zero. (Powell’s successor Condoleezza Rice claims she didn’t use email at all.) By contrast, Clinton has turned over tens of thousands of her emails to the State Department.
Thanks to a federal lawsuit filed by two nonprofit watchdog groups, the National Security Archive at George Washington University and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a small proportion of the missing Bush White House emails were eventually restored – but only when the Obama administration finally settled the case in 2009. Those strict Obama rules for preserving emails (which Clinton stands accused of ignoring) resulted directly from the new administration’s determination to avoid the mess engendered by the deceptive and unlawful preservation practices of the Bush White House.
Now if Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account is so shocking to the Beltway media, why did they barely notice (and care even less) when millions of emails disappeared during the Bush years?
The current hysteria may reflect the intense press prejudice against Clinton that several well-placed Washington journalists confessed during a brief moment of introspection following the disgraceful coverage of her 2008 campaign. And it should serve to warn voters that what Arkansas columnist and author Gene Lyons famously calls “the Clinton rules” – which encouraged inaccuracy, bias, and other forms of journalistic failure in the 1990s – are back in all their malignant effrontery.
Photo: Ripon College via Flickr