Anatomy of a Sleaze

December 23, 1993|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- David Brock's dishonesty announces itself in his very first paragraph. Mr. Brock's would-be expose in the American Spectator, ''Living With the Clintons,'' alleges a variety of adulteries by Bill Clinton while governor of Arkansas, continuing through the 1992 election and into 1993. It begins:

''In a remarkable but little noticed article buried inside the Sunday Washington Post four months before the 1992 presidential election, top Clinton campaign aide Betsey Wright said she had been spending the better part of her time since the Democratic National Convention trying to quell potential 'bimbo eruptions.' ''

Little noticed? The implication is that Mr. Brock has picked up some overlooked piece of evidence. In fact, Ms. Wright's remark about ''bimbo eruptions'' was widely noticed. Nexis, the electronic media data base, reports no fewer than 324 subsequent references to ''bimbo eruptions.'' And the original Post article contained no suggestion by Ms. Wright that she had spent ''the better part of her time'' since the convention on this matter. Mr. Brock just made that up.

So that's the first paragraph. In the second paragraph, Mr. Brock writes: ''The extensive effort to short-circuit such stories, Ms. Wright said, included the campaign's hiring of a private investigator to obtain information damaging to the credibility of the women involved, which was then used, presumably, to persuade them to stay quiet.'' The implication is that the stories were true and Ms. Wright was admitting trying to hush them up. Mr. Brock later refers to ''the strong-arm tactics acknowledged by Ms. Wright.''

But Ms. Wright acknowledged no strong-arm tactics. The clear point of her remarks was that she was investigating the bimbo stories in order to prove them false. This may have been a fool's errand, or Ms. Wright may have been lying, but that doesn't give Mr. Brock the right to utterly misrepresent her.

So those are the first two paragraphs. Judge the ensuing paragraphs on that basis. These minor matters don't prove the untruth of Mr. Brock's major accusations. But they prove his bad faith.

His stories come from four Arkansas state troopers (two of whom wouldn't be quoted). He raises, ritualistically, the possibility that the troopers might be motivated by dislike of President Clinton ,, or hopes to get rich off a book. Then he proceeds as if this disclaimer relieves him of any duty not to be credulous.

Are the troopers believable? Small matters leap out to the honest reader -- though not, apparently, to Mr. Brock. These little things don't disprove the more spectacular accusations, but they establish that the troopers are enthusiastic embroiderers whose uncorroborated word is worth little.

Mr. Brock reports one trooper's alleged memories of the governor's anger at Michael Dukakis after Mr. Clinton's embarrassingly long speech nominating Mr. Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic convention. Mr. Brock concludes: ''Then he [Mr. Clinton] refused to endorse him [Mr. Dukakis] until a few weeks before the election,'' Patterson [the trooper] recounted.'' Refused to endorse? Mr. Clinton had just nominated Mr. Dukakis! Furthermore, a Nexis search reveals (no surprise) a string of later public expressions of support by Mr. Clinton for Mr. Dukakis, beginning just two days after the speech.

Do you believe that Mr. Clinton ever ''chuckled privately that he 'never met a tax he didn't like' ''? I don't. Do you believe that the Clintons ''wouldn't go out to dinner with friends the way you or I would?'' Whatever moral failings the Clintons may have, a refusal to go out to dinner with friends is not one of them. From news

reports, they do it all the time.

Some of the troopers' stories undoubtedly are true. But the testimony of these patently unreliable sources doesn't make the stories any more likely to be true.

Mr. Clinton more or less conceded some previous philandering in his famous February 1992 ''Sixty Minutes'' interview. By talking vaguely about problems in his marriage while denying a ''12 year'' affair with Gennifer Flowers -- as opposed to an affair of some other duration -- he cagily managed to stay just this side of lying (though he slipped up later on ''Nightline'' with an uncautious reference to ''a woman I didn't sleep with'').

I'm not one who holds that the private lives of politicians are nobody else's business. It would bother me greatly if Mr. Clinton was still messing around after the ''60 Minutes'' interview -- let alone after the election. That would reveal a brutal willingness to deceive the public -- way beyond the normal politicians' cynicism -- as well as a frightening lack of self-control. If Mr. Clinton tried to bribe a trooper to keep quiet, that's obviously very bad too.

But I don't believe it, at least on the evidence offered.

What is going on here? In some conservative quarters, resentment of the fact that there is a Democrat in the White House again -- in violation of all the seeming laws of history -- has become simply pathological. That's part of it. But how did all the rest of us get sucked in?

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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