July 25, 2002
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
BuzzFlash is honored to interview one of its media heroes, Joe Conason. Conason currently writes commentary for the New York Observer and Salon. He earned his stripes penning articles from around the globe for the Village Voice.
Conason was the co-author, along with Gene Lyons, of the seminal book on the vast right-wing conspiracy, "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton."
Conason and Lyons write in the preface to "The Hunting of the President":
Currently, Conason and Lyons are working on a documentary of their book.
"The Hunting of the President" is available as a BuzzFlash Premium at http://www.buzzflash.com/premiums/Hunting_of_the_President.html.
NOTE: At the end of this interview you can also find a link to Joe Conason's web log on Salon. It's definitely worth seeing.
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BuzzFlash: How did you come to write The Hunting of the President with Gene Lyons?
Joe Conason: I started to become skeptical of Starr not too long after he was appointed, but I didn't start to write about him in any kind of sustained way for a couple of years. A writer named Murray Waas and I did a big piece about Starr in The Nation. Sometime after that, I became intensely interested in Whitewater. I had heard about this guy Gene Lyons in Arkansas, who knew a lot about it. So I started to talk to Gene on the phone, and we became sort of phone-calling pals. Within a year or so it occurred to me that there was a book in this subject, and I think Gene probably had the same thought. We decided that it would be better to do one book together than to do two similar, competing books. This was back in 1997.
BuzzFlash: You and Gene are working on a documentary that covers the same ground as the book. How is that going?
Joe Conason: I was in Arkansas several weeks ago, doing some interviews. I thought they went exceptionally well. We have talked to well over sixty people, and we're near the end of the principal photography phase of the project. In fact, editing has begun already.
BuzzFlash: Is there going to be a narrator? Have you chosen that person?
Joe Conason: There are some very fine candidates for that job -- brilliant actors who have expressed interest in the narration. I think people would be very excited to hear those names, but that's Hollywood. We'll see what happens.
BuzzFlash: Is the film coming out through standard commercial distribution?
Joe Conason: We are fortunate enough to have an agreement with an excellent distributor, Regent Entertainment, so it will be in theatres.
Joe Conason: We hope before the end of the year.
BuzzFlash: You wrote The Hunting of the President, in which you argued that there was indeed a vast right-wing conspiracy to bring down President Clinton. Is that vast right-wing conspiracy -- if you'll accept that phrase -- running the government right now?
Joe Conason: I don't really believe there was one big conspiracy. I actually think there were a few tightly knit conspiracies that connected to each other in different ways, and that they took place both consecutively and concurrently over a period of years. We preferred to call this a "network." And there was a network, and it certainly has continuities. One of the continuities is that a lot of the people are involved at various levels of the present Federal government. David Brock, who knew a lot of these people, deals with this in his book Blinded by the Right. One day, he woke up and saw that there was a Bush administration with a lot of the people he had worked with to try to bring down Clinton.
They go all the way up to Ted Olson in the Solicitor General's office. As I'm sure you know, he was a key figure at The American Spectator and involved in the Arkansas Project against Clinton. There's a raft of these people who came in through the conservative Federalist Society, which Ted Olson chaired in Washington. Several of those members were involved at one level or another in the effort to bring down the Clinton. The list is quite long. So the short answer is yes. And there is no question that, in many ways, from the beginning, the anti-Clinton operation sprang from the Bush Senior campaign in 1992.
In 1992, there was an effort in the Bush campaign to search for an early Whitewater prosecution, but they dropped that because they found that some of the bureaucrats in the Resolution Trust Corporation were not particularly receptive. There was an obstinately honest U.S. Attorney in Little Rock appointed by President Bush himself, and they couldn't get the case going. And I think they were also worried that they had their own liabilities on the S & L side that were much worse -- notably President Bush's son Neil Bush. So they dropped that. But that was the genesis of what later became the anti-Clinton crusade. The right-wing conspiracy against Clinton started out in the Bush campaign of 1992. So there's a complete continuity that goes back for a decade.
BuzzFlash: We've talked with Gene Lyons and David Brock, and want to talk with you, about one of the little details that gets lost in the memory of the average person. There are probably only a few hundred people in the U.S. that can recall this, but it's in your book and David Brock's book. We're talking about the moment when former Senator Faircloth of North Carolina and Jesse Helms met with David Sentelle.
What happened? Why was this such a critical moment in the effort to bring down the President? To us, it symbolizes that the right-wing and the Republican Party would stop at nothing to unseat a duly elected president, including using their judiciary pals to try to achieve that effort.
Joe Conason: What happened was very interesting, because it shows how determined the Republicans can be, and how far-sighted they often are when they're protecting their partisan interest. David Sentelle was put in the position to run the Special Division, which is a special court empowered under the Independent Counsel Act to select independent counsels and to oversee their work. Sentelle was a relatively inexperienced federal judge from North Carolina with extreme right-wing views, brought to power by Jesse Helms. He had been a big fundraiser for Ronald Reagan, which was a principal reason why he was appointed to the bench in the first place. Then he was chosen to run the Special Division by William Rehnquist, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Under the guidelines of the Independent Counsel Act, Rehnquist was supposed to select somebody of senior status, a very experienced judge. But the Act did not require him to do that. And David Sentelle was reliably right-wing. That was the only reason that Rehnquist picked Judge Sentelle, and Judge Sentelle proceeded to behave exactly as I think Rehnquist must have expected him to.
But before the Independent Counsel Act was reinstated by Congress and President Clinton, Robert Fiske had been chosen by Janet Reno to serve as the Whitewater special counsel in January 1994.
BuzzFlash: He was a Republican from New York with integrity.
Joe Conason: He was a U.S. Attorney of spotless integrity, one praised by Republicans when he was chosen. Then he functioned for about six months as the special counsel examining Whitewater. Of course, he basically found very little -- if anything -- to prosecute. I think he was going to prosecute Webb Hubbell. Other than that, there was very little for him to do, and he was wrapping it up. He had wrapped up the Foster investigation and had found that Foster committed suicide. But the right-wing decided that they were very unhappy with this Republican prosecutor's results in the Whitewater investigation, and started a campaign in the newspapers to get rid of him, particularly in William Safire's column for the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal editorial columns. There were really vicious attacks on him.
BuzzFlash: So they demanded a special counsel and a special counsel was appointed. But they didn't like the fact that Fiske was about to close up shop and say there's nothing here.
Joe Conason: They didn't like the investigation of somebody they had endorsed, who was from their party, of total integrity -- he had prosecuted Democrats and Republicans as U.S. Attorney. They didn't like the results, so they started a press campaign to get rid of him and get a different prosecutor in there who would get better results -- from their point of view. So what happened? When the Independent Counsel Act was reinstated by Congress in the summer of '94 -- and the President made the mistake of signing it -- Sentelle was suddenly re-empowered. Instead of re-appointing Fiske, he fired Fiske. After meeting with Senators Helms and Faircloth, the two right-wing Republican senators from his home state of North Carolina, Sentelle appointed Ken Starr.
When they were asked about this inappropriate luncheon, the judge and two senators first claimed that all they had talked about was their prostates and cowboy boots. But later, Judge Sentelle admitted under oath that they might have talked a little bit about the independent counsel, though he wasn't sure exactly what had been said. Naturally this was considered an extremely suspicious set of circumstances by anybody who had the faintest powers of observation.
What happened after the meeting with Helms and Faircloth was that David Sentelle picked Ken Starr. This was a very curious choice because Ken Starr had no prosecutorial experience -- none whatsoever. He was an appellate attorney for big corporations. He had been Bush Sr.'s Solicitor General, but he had no experience in criminal prosecution at all. What he did have going for him was that he was a politically reliable, right-wing Republican with a good reputation in the Washington press.
BuzzFlash: And a member of the Federalist Society.
Joe Conason: A leading member and supporter of the Federalist Society, a Bush loyalist, and a very partisan Republican. Not too long before that, Starr had thought of running for the Senate in Virginia as a Republican. He had also recently gotten himself involved in the Paula Jones cases as an informal advisor to Paula Jones' attorneys. Then he was asked to assist Jones by the Independent Women's Forum, which is a Scaife-funded political organization for conservative women. So we went from a professional prosecutor -- probably one of the best in the country -- to a lawyer with no prosecutorial qualifications whatsoever, but a strong partisan who'll behave that way.
BuzzFlash: This symbolizes to BuzzFlash the intersection between the political objectives of the Republican Party and how they use the judiciary. The judiciary nominations are generally below the radar screen of the public and the press. Yet it's been so important to the Bush White House to get their people on the courts. That's because their people, with a wink of an eye, tend to be people that can be relied upon when it comes to decisions that can politically affect the interests of the Republican Party. It seems to BuzzFlash that the David Sentelle appointment of Ken Starr was a pivotal moment. The results consumed the nation for four years, including an impeachment trial -- the judiciary was used to secure someone who was willing to try to entrap the President of the United States and lead to an impeachment trial.
Joe Conason: Well, I think that's right. I think these judicial appointments can't be underestimated. The judiciary is supposed to protect freedoms from corrupt political leaders. The judiciary is supposed to be a bulwark of freedom, and, in this case, it proved to be the opposite of that. The judiciary was used from the very highest judicial position in the land, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to make political attacks on the opposition or on the duly elected President. This was how the judiciary was misused. It's one of the grossest abuses of judicial authority we've ever seen. And Rehnquist got away with it.
BuzzFlash: How do you reflect upon the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court to install Bush as President? Particularly that unbelievably frank injunction that Scalia issued to stop the recount, saying the recount might be harmful to the eventual winner of the election, George W. Bush -- that it might damage the reputation of his presidency?
Joe Conason: I think this was the end result of a long series of unchecked abuses by partisan conservative members of the Supreme Court. And we may not have seen the last of it. What's disturbing now is you look at a Court like that and you wonder about challenges to civil liberties -- whether the support will stand up for them or not. I have grave doubts.
BuzzFlash: BuzzFlash had a link to an Associated Press article in which Chief Justice Rehnquist recently said that in the time of war, the courts and the Supreme Court generally give deference to the government in terms of issues like civil liberties and secrecy.
Joe Conason: I was here in New York on September 11th, and I'm not particularly dove-ish about this situation. There are cases where the Supreme Court and all the courts have got to defer to the interests of national security, but that doesn't mean they should always do that. And it doesn't mean that in every case, the government is right and the defendants are wrong.
I mean, look at the case of Jose Padilla, who's an American citizen now
being held without being charged. The government says it intends to bring
no charges against him -- it's just going to hold him. That is a place
where the courts need to assert themselves and say we have to do something
about this. Holding an American citizen without charging him is a violation
not just of the Constitution and the rights that everybody has under the
Constitution, but of rights that date back before the Constitution under
English common law. They're not supposed to be able to do this. They either
have to explain themselves or act in this case. And that's the kind of
thing you count on the courts to remedy, even in times like these.
Joe Conason: Actually stretching back into the election period 2000, the Republicans got away with a tremendous amount. The Bush administration understandably felt that they could sell almost any idea they want. That is changing now, with the corporate crime wave that inevitably raised questions about the careers of both Bush and Cheney, and many others in this administration.
But until very recently, they had carte blanche from most of the media. I'll give you an example. If you look at the PowerPoint presentation that Karl Rove's assistant misplaced, there are several maps in there that show places that the GOP is worried about. According to those maps, they're concerned about both the governor's race and the Senate race in Texas. There are fairly strong Democratic candidates for both of those jobs. Much to their surprise, Texas Republicans are worried, and so is the White House, because it would be very embarrassing for the President if they lost a statewide race in Texas.
As far as I'm concerned, this casts a new light on the decision of Karen Hughes to go back to Texas, because, of course, she ran Bush's two highly successful campaigns for governor. Somebody has to go back and take care of business in Texas. Now this was suggested in a couple of almost-ignored press stories in the last couple of weeks. But the first story about Karen Hughes going back was a family values story. It was all about how her husband and her son didn't like Washington and wanted to move back to Texas, and she was making this wonderful decision to put her family above her ambitions and move back to Austin so that her son would be happy. There may well be some truth in that. One cannot really know her inner motivations. But certainly it looks now as if there was another motivation -- for her to go back there and try to help the Bush Republicans hang on to their base. The press completely bought the family values story.
BuzzFlash: The White House seems to feel complete confidence now, in resubmitting Bush not as a homespun man, but as a philosopher-king, that they have complete control of the press, even though they feel they might have gone over the top a bit. It seems the mainstream press pretty much buys what the White House sells them.
Joe Conason: It depends. I think the New York Times and the Washington Post - the print media - are somewhat more skeptical. If you read everything that appears in the daily newspaper, you can get a fairly neutral take on that. There will be stories that do buy into a lot of their nonsense, but then there will be other pieces that are more skeptical. Television is a different matter. Television is largely in their grasp, particularly cable TV. And I think it's very hard for anybody who's watching television, if they're at all conscious of what's happened, not to feel that they're being very heavily propagandized. There are reporters on TV who are very good. John King of CNN is one. Terry Moran of ABC News is another one. Crossfire is obviously an exception. But by and large, particularly on the chat shows, there's a tremendous amount of just straight propaganda from the administration.
BuzzFlash: Let's focus on one issue. The President had been briefed and received a memo in August 2001 about the potential for a disastrous attack on the United States by terrorists. Condoleezza Rice was sent out to spin this and said, in essence, "well, this just warned of a conventional terrorist hijacking. And we weren't warned that they might fly something into the World Trade Center." BuzzFlash wrote a piece saying that if your teenager came home after being drunk and driving a car into the window of a bank, and you said, "We told you not to drink and drive; you might get in an accident." And the teenager said, "Well, you just said I might get in an accident with another car. You didn't say I might drive into the bank window." No parent would accept this as anything short of a child's effort to avoid responsibility. But in the press, as far as we could see, the administration got away with that.
Joe Conason: She came under some criticism for that -- not nearly enough, in my opinion. The most glaring example of why that was a bad answer from Condi Rice, was that the President received that memo in early August of 2001. He had gone to Genoa, Italy for the G-8 Summit in late July. And they had had warnings before that summit, as they prepared the security arrangements, that Al-Qaeda might try to fly an airplane packed with explosives into the Summit and kill all these heads of state. The CIA took that quite seriously. This was information from Egyptian and Italian intelligence, and other intelligence services in Europe and in the Arab world. This was taken so seriously that a whole series of anti-aircraft batteries was set up around the city of Genoa. The President himself was kept on an aircraft carrier, rather than staying on a luxury cruise liner where the rest of the heads of state were housed during the Summit. And two weeks later, they supposedly had never heard of this idea of an airplane being crashed as a weapon. It's absurd. They all knew about it. The very day Bush got that memo, he had just recently returned from Genoa where this kind of plane-crashing attack was considered a major threat. So I guess either Condoleezza Rice didn't remember that herself, or she thought we wouldn't.
BuzzFlash: You mentioned Karl Rove earlier in terms of the disk that was allegedly found in Lafayette Park. Let's get your take on Karl Rove's influence on the administration and his overall impact on the White House, Bush and the country. How important is he?
Joe Conason: Karl Rove is exceptionally important. He's becoming more and more important because, as the administration becomes more political in the sense of getting closer to elections that will affect its fate, Rove's power to influence decisions has grown. And this has become very obvious in the last few months, where the administration has completely abandoned principle on several important domestic issues in order to take care of what are called, in that purloined Rove memo, the "states of special concern."
In Rove's PowerPoint memo, he shows that there are certain coal, steel, and farm states that were very close in the last election. They're quite worried about them for 2004. Some of them are places where they have concerns about winning Senate and House races this year. And the upshot of it was that, instead of following the advice of his economists or his supporters in the Congress, the President signed the Farm Bill which they had opposed for ideological reasons. They said it wasn't a free market bill -- it was a subsidy bill. And it has implications for our international position, as well as for what the Republicans supposedly believe in, in terms of the economy. He signed that bill after the White House had opposed it for a long time because they're worried about places like Iowa and Missouri.
And Bush likewise signed steel tariffs that are a complete abandonment of their ideology. It's very upsetting to a lot of his supporters and to many economists on both sides of the spectrum because of the effect that it's likely to have on the international trade regime. And Bush did this solely because they're concerned about West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and the steel and coal states. He broke his promise to do something about carbon dioxide pollution and air pollution in general. Again, that was kind of a sop to the coal industry because West Virginia is a state that Bush unexpectedly won in 2000. And had he not won West Virginia, the election would have gone the other way. It wouldn't have mattered what happened in Florida.
Bush has done this over and over again. This year, right now, he's quite worried about his brother's prospects in Florida, even though Jeb is ahead in polls. Florida is considered to be in play for the governor's race. They're obviously concerned about winning it or having it handed to them in some fashion in 2004. So the President has proposed to hold up offshore oil drilling at the same time that they're insisting that we have to drill off California, and we have to drill in the Alaskan wildlife preserve. Why? Well, it's because the oil leases in Florida are very unpopular. Over and over again, these kinds of decisions have been made where political expediency has trumped what are alleged to be their own deeply held ideological principles.
BuzzFlash: What sort of role does Rove have in the image-making of the President?
Joe Conason: I think Rove's portfolio is very broad. He has influence over policy. He has tremendous control over communications. Now that Karen Hughes is on her way out of the White House, he will have unchallenged authority over the President's message they send out. And I think he has tremendous power over politics. He just recently kicked somebody off of the Republican National Committee in California because he didn't like the guy and thought he was interfering with Rove's program. So I think his authority is quite wide-ranging.
BuzzFlash: Joe, thank you so much for your time.
Joe Conason: Thank you Buzz.
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Read more of Joe Conason's columns at Salon by visiting: http://dir.salon.com/topics/joe_conason/index.html
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Get a copy today of The Hunting of the President by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons!
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