Despite its superficial appeal, right-wing conspiracy theory won't fly

January 30, 1998|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- At the most superficial level, the White House campaign to attribute President Clinton's problems to what Hillary Rodham Clinton calls "a vast right-wing conspiracy" seems to make some political sense.

At the least, it provides a rationale of sorts for those who want to defend the president against the charges he had an affair with a 21-year-old White House intern and then coached her to lie about it. But in the long run, learning who, if anyone, is responsible for Mr. Clinton's troubles is far less important than learning the truth about what he did or did not do.

There is always a market for a conspiracy theory, and this case is no exception. The latest CNN/Gallup Poll found that 44 percent of Americans believe the controversy is "mostly a result of" a right-wing conspiracy, compared with 46 percent who believe it is "mostly a result" of Mr. Clinton's own behavior.

Frequent rebroadcasts

That survey was made immediately after Mrs. Clinton's frequently rebroadcast appearance on the network morning television news program in which she made the charges. And polling experts will tell you that people are remarkably impressionable and often inclined to feed back to polls the latest thing they have heard. But the number is still impressive.

In this case, Mrs. Clinton's accusation gains some weight because the woods are indeed full of right-wing extremists who have been ranting and raving against her husband for more than five years now.

They are all over talk radio and television and they are allied in a half-dozen organizations with conservative agendas.

Foster, Arkansas allegations

These include the folks who insisted for three years that deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. was murdered rather than committed suicide. And these are the people who have accused Mr. Clinton himself of a wide range of crimes in Arkansas and since he took office.

Some of these groups also have become involved in the cases now on the front burner. Paula Corbin Jones appeared at a conservative conference here to publicly make her case that she had been sexually harassed by Mr. Clinton when he was governor.

Another conservative group, the Rutherford Institute, has been financing Ms. Jones' civil suit against the president.

No evidence of links

But the point is that there is no evidence any of these groups originated either the Jones or the Monica Lewinsky affairs. Instead, they have been injecting themselves into a highly visible situation that, not incidentally, can pay huge dividends in their own fund raising.

On the surface, the White House conspiracy charge also appears more credible because of the history of special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr. He is a conservative Republican who was appointed to the federal bench in the Reagan administration, served as solicitor general in the Bush administration and considered but finally decided against running for the Senate from Virginia in 1994.

The circumstances of his selection also raise questions. He was chosen by a three-judge panel only after the chief of that panel, Judge David B. Sentelle, shared a much-publicized lunch with Sens. Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, two vocal and aggressive critics of Mr. Clinton and both heroes of the right wing.

Given that background, it is not surprising that people wonder how an independent counsel looking at a land deal in Arkansas almost a decade ago ends up investigating whether the president is guilty of sexual misconduct and suborning perjury.

But the notion that this is part of some carefully crafted conspiracy is blown out of the water by the fact that Mr. Starr was given the new portfolio with the specific approval of Attorney General Janet Reno.

The bottom line is that the White House and Mrs. Clinton can make a case that seems to have a certain elemental logic, but one that cannot prevail over the long haul.

Mr. Clinton has denied a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, the former intern, but he has not explained the nature of a relationship that clearly was out of the ordinary. And whatever else they may have done, the right-wingers can hardly be blamed for that.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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