BuzzFlash Inteview, Gene Lyons
Recently BuzzFlash was delighted to interview one of our journalist heroes, Gene Lyons, co-author of "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Campaign," which documented the decade-long right wing campaign to undermine democracy by removing a duly elected president. (The book, co-written by Joe Conason, will shortly be made into a film.) Lyons is also a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where, despite the name of the newspaper, he is apparently the token dissenter in a generally Republican booster club.
Although you have to register with the Democrat-Gazette to read Lyons' columns, it is well-worth the effort. This a man who takes no prisoners among Republican officials and hypocrites. Fortunately, for him, it's pretty much a 2-for-1 proposition, given the current leadership of the Grand Hypocrisy Party (GHP)in Arkansas and elsewhere in the country. Lyons has been known to point out the shortcomings of a Democrat or two, but usually it's for their timidity, not their hypocrisy.
BUZZFLASH: First of all, it's an honor to talk to you.
GENE LYONS: Oh, come on.
BUZZFLASH: No, I'm not kidding. BuzzFlash has read "Hunting of the President." We swear by it. Now, let's hypothetically say Gore was elected president in 1992. Would we have seen the same vendetta against the sitting Democratic president? Or do you believe it was something intrinsically about Clinton, which seemed to develop a pathological obsession in the right wing in the Republican Party?
GENE LYONS: Hypothetically, had Gore been elected, the right wing would have tried to do many of the same things to him as they did to Clinton. The specifics would have been different, but the means would have been the same. Now in the last election, I don't think Gore ran a very good campaign, and one of the things that was wrong with it was he failed to react to this ceaseless barrage of personal abuse from the right: That he didn't know who he was, that he was a congenital liar, that he made up this or he lied about that, et cetera.
Just to go all the way back to the beginning of the Clinton years, there was a tsunami of scandal generating. I think it's clear to anybody who's conversant with BUZZFLASH or any of the websites that are keeping the candle lit in the great dark of contemporary journalism, the right took effective control of the Washington media apparatus at some point during the Reagan and Bush years. The right worked very hard to do it after Watergate. The way to make a name for yourself as a media celebrity in the press is to be a right winger, because there are lots of millionaires throwing money around.
That's another thing that happened: cable TV made celebrities of these same people. And with celebrity status came the ability to get much more money than was ever available to reporters before. And I think the right has controlled that machinery for some time. They run most of the little money-losing magazines that stir up all the trouble. They furnish, through these phony think tanks financed by characters like Richard Mellon-Scaife, writers and pundits like the late Barbara Olson, who seem to have nothing to do but go on television and scream at Democrats. I don't know if people know this but persons like me, who are often dragged on to argue with them, you don't get paid by TV, so somebody else has got to be footing the bill. The right does that. It has a very elaborate mechanism for disseminating its opinions. Hence it's always on the attack, thus able to control the media spin, and they do it very well.
BUZZFLASH: Do you think that the Republican right wing really cares about "morality" or are they just opportunistic in destroying Democrats?
GENE LYONS: The right wing looks for any opportunity to destroy someone. The most unique thing about Clinton, which really scared them, was his sheer political talent. He has a rare combination of great intelligence, empathy, and the ability to communicate it-partly because the empathy is real. If he solicits your views on an issue, he not only has the ability to explain your point of view better than you can do it yourself, he also knows how you feel about it, and why it's important to you. I could tell stories all day about things that Clinton has done that nobody knows about-jetting to Arkansas from halfway around the world to attend the funerals of "nobodies," that kind of thing.
People always ask me, why do people hate Clinton so much? In Arkansas, you have to start with who else they hate. If you talk about the strongest Clinton-haters, you're often talking about people who are one step away from Klansmen. And they became angrier and angrier, and more and more bitter, because after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1964, it became impossible to win an election in Arkansas if you wrote off the black vote, which is about eighteen percent. If you're gonna beat eighteen percent of the people, who tended to vote mostly Democratic - or mostly liberal, anyway - you got to get 62, 63 percent of the white vote. And you couldn't do it with a racist campaign. For a generation, the right simply couldn't do the arithmetic. And the more elections they lost, the angrier they got. And the bitterness and the hatred to Clinton and everything progressive that came out of Arkansas, and then was leached into the nation, started back here in the fifties in the wake of the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis.
BUZZFLASH: In the book you and Joe Conason wrote, "The Hunting of the President," you lay out a very persuasive case that there was this organized, multi-layered effort to, in essence, undermine the legitimacy of the President of the United States, ultimately leading to his impeachment.
GENE LYONS: There have been people who have made purely rhetorical attacks on our book, but I don't know of anybody who said, well, this significant fact is wrong and that's also false, therefore the whole argument is wrong. They haven't been able to do that, because it's a careful work of traditional journalism.
BUZZFLASH: For people who feel that we do live in a democracy, what can be done to counter this? Because you basically have a well-oiled machine that, as you identify, includes millionaire right-wing financiers, includes the Federalist Society, and the likes of Ken Starr, who will stop at nothing, in essence, to undermine the credibility of a duly-elected president of the United States.
GENE LYONS: To put it in perspective, just imagine if almost any of the actions that were taken against Clinton were taken against Bush today. Let's imagine that somebody with a whole bunch of money hired a journalist to go down to Texas and use paid sources to dig up dirt on George Bush's intimate life. Just as it happened in the Troopergate story. Let's say they found some Houston "barfly," to use the term Barbara Olson applied to Clinton's mother, to say Bush raped her 20 years ago, or paid for her abortion. They would be talking about treason, wouldn't they? The Republicans are all talking about civility now. Of course, what they mean by civility is you can't say anything bad about Bush. But in my view it was equally objectionable the first time around.
BUZZFLASH: And how can that dynamic be changed?
GENE LYONS: I think what you're doing is valuable. I think the Internet's being used very creatively. You know the antidote for bad speech is good speech. I think that the Democrats are going to have to learn to fight fire with fire. First of all, they have to understand what's done to them.
BUZZFLASH: The right wing first tried to remove the President of the United States. Then you have an election where there is a large part of the population that thinks Bush, who is sitting in the White House, didn't win. What is clear is that the election was determined by the Supreme Court of the United States. I think many Americans are just personally unable to comprehend the extent of the assault on democracy. You're probably familiar with an October 7th Washington Post article by John Harris claiming the Sept. 11th attacks were Clinton's fault.
GENE LYONS: Well, they're determined to make that stick. I don't think that'll work, but they're going to try.
BUZZFLASH: But what is this obsession, it seems, that these are people who cannot get on with their lives - that they are gonna be tied to Bill Clinton like a dead mule to a cart.
GENE LYONS: Yeah, sometimes it does seem that there's a mass delusional system in which all these people just can't get over it. As Swift wrote about religious zealots in 'The Tale of a Tub.' When someone is seized by a strong conviction, very often the first proselyte you make is yourself. And once you've convinced yourself, the difficulty in bringing people over to your point of view is much easier. A good propagandist is often his own first victim. Take the pundit Andrew Sullivan, who's been ranting about Clinton's sex life for years, and then we come to find out his own is revealed to be far more bizarre and disorderly than anything Clinton ever thought of. (Note: Sullivan, who is openly gay and HIV-positive, openly advertised for male partners to participate in "bareback" sex (sex without a condom).)
And then after he's achieved a national celebrity by sermonizing about Clinton's shame, like Cotton Mather, his own dirty little secrets are exposed and he starts blaming "sexual McCarthyism. " And then, in the next breath, he's back at Clinton. There really is something compulsive about that. If you depicted such behavior in a novel, people would properly call it a crude caricature.
BUZZFLASH: Do you think that Democrats retreat once they're attacked, because they just don't like all the shouting and name-calling? It's as if they say "this isn't my style, I'm not going to respond to it. "
GENE LYONS: Metaphorically speaking, Democrats have become the women's party and the Republicans are the man's party. That's certainly true in the South. I mean, being a Republican, for most men, is a matter of "are you a real man?" You don't have to go any further than gun control for an example. It's got to do with being a masculine, decisive, forceful. It's almost as if we've now recreated the war between the sexes in political terms. The Democrats are the party of "let's be reasonable about this, can we agree, let's talk this out, maybe we should try counseling. " The Republicans are the party of shout and scream, and break things, and get their way or else.
If you're willing to take it all the way to the bottom, Democrats won't go there - most Democrats won't. I thought that was what was so entertaining about Larry Flynt.
BUZZFLASH: In what way?
GENE LYONS: Well, he was willing to be as low-down and dirty as they were, except without the pretense of morality.
BUZZFLASH: And do you think that impacted American politics.
GENE LYONS: He did with much less subtlety what the right wing had done themselves. Flynt went out and said, "Look, I want to hurt these people. If you can prove that you have their dirty little secrets, I will pay you for them. And then we'll put them on TV. " And boy, it went fast. And it worked. And it scared the fool out of the right wingers. But most Democrats wouldn't do that. And most of them were sort of appalled. I was appalled on one level, although I must say I laughed at it. Is there any sight more diverting than a puritan with his pants around his ankles?
BUZZFLASH: You were appalled by what?
GENE LYONS: I was appalled by what Flynt did. At the same time, Flynt did exactly what Clinton's enemies did. He did it more honestly. He said, "I'm going to pay people to expose these people and their hypocrisy. And we'll see if they want to keep this fight up after their own dirty secrets have been dragged out of the closet."
BUZZFLASH: Let me ask you about the Bush spin doctor's allegations that the Clinton's vandalized and stole property from the White House and Air Force One. Within two days of the accusation, BUZZFLASH had denounced the claim as contrived and ridiculous, merely based on the fact that no photographers or television cameras were allowed to view the alleged damage.
GENE LYONS: Right. What's the evidence? I remember you doing good work with that.
BUZZFLASH: Rep. Bob Barr (GA) requested a GAO report, which concluded that they found no evidence of vandalism or theft. Bush's spin doctors backed off Air Force One because the person who was sort of in charge -- I don't know if you want to call the concierge or the main steward -- said there was no theft or vandalism. But how can you explain the fact that for two to three months the Washington press corps swallowed this story hook, line and sinker with no request for substantiation and completely went along with the assertions, and totally trashed Clinton and Gore without any evidence whatsoever offered to them.
GENE LYONS: Right. I can't help you. I don't know. Except to say that what I call the Washington press clique has become now so decadent and so servile that they don't do their jobs as journalists. One person, even if it's Drudge or the Washington Times, reports it, and then the rest report that somebody else reported it. Sometimes it feels as if they country's being run by the same bunch that ran your junior high school.
I had a similar reaction to the phony story about Air Force One being threatened on September 11th. I read my friend and colleague Joe Conason's column about it. He was the only columnist that I saw that put the thing in the right perspective. What if the United States were under attack, and Bill Clinton had flown from Florida to Nebraska and went into hiding. Supposing he was gone the whole day, nobody knew where he was and he issued some sort of furtive remarks. And then came back and said, "Oh, my God. We've really screwed up. What are we gonna do? Well, let's tell them Air Force One and the White House were under attack." And then the story blew up. What would they do? I mean, my God there would be a typhoon. He would almost have to resign. And yet Bush did it. The Bush White House pulled it off. They were forced to admit that it was not true, and nothing happened.
Bush could have said, look we didn't know where these attacks were coming from. And we didn't know who was responsible, and we thought the best thing was to lay low for awhile. Most people would have accepted that.
BUZZFLASH: What is your take on the impact of corporate ownership of the media?
GENE LYONS: I didn't used to worry about it. And maybe that's because I have had at least one comfortable job in the corporate media myself. I worked for Newsweek for a number of years. And I thought that they functioned by some kind of consensus of what sensible people worked out, more than by any kind of from-the-top corporate propagandizing. As a consumer of news now, I'm different from the average Joe only in that I simply pay more attention than most people. It's painfully clear with something like the Fox News Network and a few others that the spectrum of permissible opinion is getting narrower all the time. And what's covered is driven not so much by ideology but the bottom line.
I don't know if there's ever going to be serious investigation to find out how this terrorist thing happened. How come nobody saw it coming? How come it was so catastrophic? I don't know if that's ever gonna happen. I'm not sure I think it should. But if it does, nobody in the media will be in a position to point any fingers when we spent the whole summer of 2001, talking 24-7, about Chandra Levy. And if you read between the lines on the stories that came out, it was all dictated by profit and by the bottom line. People were tuning in because it was about everyone's favorite subject, sex. And, of course, previous to that, we had an impeachment, which was also about everyone's favorite subject. People loved to turn on the TV and hear talk about oral sex. During the Lewinsky follies I liked to point out that the whole thing was a godsend for the cable news networks. The number one show on cable was pro-wrestling. Number two, Jerry Springer. The Lewinsky extravaganza was kind of a combination of both. Right now, we've got "America's New War" showing on the networks. Viewership is way up. It's clear that now that the war itself has become a profit-making opportunity, and it strikes me as very dangerous
BUZZFLASH: One final question, what impact do you think, regardless of his announcement that he's going deaf, the Rush Limbaughs of the world have in terms of influencing public opinion, particularly in terms of being used by the right wing to help define Democratic leadership?
GENE LYONS: I used to hear people talk about Rush nonstop before the '96 election. It seems to me, he lost a lot. And now he merely preaches to the converted. That's my impression - that he has an audience but he doesn't have very much influence beyond that audience. I myself can't bear to listen to him. I listened for five minutes the other day when I was coming back from the grocery store and his verbal tics had become so mannered and so grandiloquent that he sounded like a parody of himself. He sounded like that old radio character, the Great Guildersleeve, from my childhood. As if he was going out of his way to sound like a pompous, condescending ass. A few days later, it turned out he was going deaf. So maybe that accounted for the bar room know-it-all tone.
Look, Gore won a clear majority in the election. The stuff isn't converting everybody. People like you and me who watch too much and read too much of this stuff, lose perspective. I don't think people are buying it. But I also think that the Democrats need to get serious about taking their message and getting it out there. Websites are good. Clearly dissent and clear thinking are alive, and the web is a tool second only to TV. But I don't think the argument's being made on TV. And then your question will be: will corporate ownership allow it to be made? And that I can't answer.
But again, the problem is the Democrats and progressives, I don't know when they've ever been organized. I don't know when they've ever been disciplined and focused. As Will Rogers used to say, "I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat."
I think the Democrats have a tremendous opportunity at this point to show that they're not unpatriotic, which, of course, they never have been. This is going to be a paradigm-changing event. And I suspect that some of the obsessive people we talked about earlier will not be able to change, precisely because they are obsessed. I mean, how can you explain someone like Michael Kelly except to say he's still fighting the wars of the sixties, he's still attacking hippies, writing columns excoriating 'pacifists,' none of whom he troubled himself to name. And the continual attacks on Clinton will fail again because every time he does get in front of the people, he transcends his attackers. Whatever else you can say about Clinton, he never would hate his enemies. He never was petty enough to get down and dirty with them. Clinton goes on TV, and Bush's people call the stations and protest the interview. Childish. And what does Clinton do when he's on? He urges people to support Bush. I think as a figure, his unwillingness to publicly get down in the dirt with them has always served him well. But I guess my bottom line is I'm not as generous a person as he is. I think Democrats have got to fight back.
BUZZFLASH: Well it's great to hear your thoughts. It's been wonderful.
GENE LYONS: Thank you Buzz.
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