The Birth of the Right's Shameless, Nasty Smear Machine
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After the first call, Nixon sounded genuinely touched that Clinton had reached out. “He was very respectful but with no sickening bullshit,” Nixon told Crowley. “It was the best conversation with a president I’ve had since I was president.”
Six days later, Nixon traveled to Washington for an announced public meeting with Clinton in the White House, an honor that Nixon had not received from Clinton’s Republican predecessors who had snuck Nixon in the back door for unannounced private meetings. Again, Nixon seemed sincerely moved by Clinton’s gesture.
“Clinton is very earthy,” Nixon told Crowley. “He cursed — ‘asshole,’ ‘son of a bitch,’ ‘bastard’ — you know. He’s a very straightforward conversationalist.” Nixon also acknowledged, in an edgy tone, that the formal White House meeting with Clinton “was more than either Reagan or Bush ever gave me.”
But typical of Nixon, he was soon scheming to undo the Democratic president who had reached out to him. Nixon exploited his personal knowledge of Clinton to offer back-channel political advice to Sen. Bob Dole, whom Nixon correctly considered to be the likely Republican nominee in 1996.
Nixon also privately hoped that the Clintons’ troubled Whitewater investment would turn into a second Watergate that would humiliate both Clinton and his wife — and somehow settle an old score Nixon felt toward Democrats and anti-war demonstrators.
In one such comment on April 13, 1994, four days before the stroke that led to his death, Nixon called Crowley and chortled about the surging Whitewater scandal. “Clinton should pay the price,” Nixon declared. “Our people shouldn’t let this issue go down. They mustn’t let it sink.”
Nixon said he had even called Dole to make sure that aggressive questioners were put on the Whitewater committee.
Later that month, at Nixon’s funeral, Clinton paid tribute to the Republican president. “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close,” Clinton wished, apparently not knowing what that full-scale assessment would reveal.
In the succeeding months, the Republican strategy of pummeling Clinton over Whitewater and other personal indiscretions dominated the headlines. Clinton was driven deep into debt over lawyer fees and was left little choice but to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to save his political life. Not surprisingly, that fundraising merged into the larger flow of “Clinton scandals.”
The endless string of “Clinton scandals” helped Republicans win control of Congress in 1994, with Limbaugh made an honorary member of the House GOP majority as thanks for his relentless assaults, three hours a day, against Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Eventually, after the Whitewater probe expanded to include disclosures about Clinton’s sexual indiscretions with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, House Republicans voted to impeach Clinton during a lame-duck session in 1998, representing payback for the Democrats pressuring Nixon to resign 24 years earlier.
After a humiliating trial in the U.S. Senate, Clinton survived to finish his term. But the right-wing attack machine that arose to prevent “another Watergate” and came of age by exploiting the “Whitewater scandal” was now a permanent part of the American political landscape.