CORN: Revisiting Big GOP Lies
Here we go again. The ideological warriors of Washington are clashing once more over ancient history -- this time, the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill confrontation of ten years ago.
That's because David Brock, a journalist whose vicious assault upon Hill was embraced by the rightwing, is coming out with a new book -- excerpted in Talk magazine -- in which he confesses he falsified his case against Hill in order to win fame and favor as a conservative partisan. It's to the parapets, for the talking heads and professionals of the opinion class.
I suppose part of the public looks on and says, "Yuck -- who wants to go through that nasty episode again?" But digging in the muck of old is not always a bad thing.
Granted, it is easy for ideologues to become stuck in the quicksand of the past. (Leftists obsessed over the Rosenbergs for too long; rightists today are obsessed with proving Ronald Reagan the greatest president since Washington.) But it's often worthwhile to revisit a controversy that has faded. Time, the cliché goes, brings perspective, and, occasionally, new facts.
Look at my most latest obsession -- the case of Elliott Abrams. In the 1980s, he was an assistant secretary of state for the Reagan Administration and a point-man on its Central America and human rights policies. President Bush has appointed him to the National Security Council as -- ugh! -- the senior director for human rights, democracy, and international organizations. Now here's a tussle that warrants a revival.
Two decades ago, Abrams led the political forces that were so consumed with beating back the Soviet Union and any left-of-center band in Latin America that they eagerly made alliances with thuggish governments and brutal militaries that abused human rights. At the same time, they covered up the abuses of their comrades-in-arms.
So throughout the Reagan years, there was an ongoing debate over whether US-funded governments and armies in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were human rights violators. Human rights advocates and administration critics would charge a US partner with this or that abuse -- a massacre here, a massacre there -- and Administration officials, including Abrams, would say, never happened, no big deal, that's just commie propaganda. Back and forth it went for years in the 1980s, a bitter face-off.
Then the Soviet Union dissipated. The controversy dissolved. Few people cared about Central America. Yet shouldn't it matter whether Reaganites lied or wheedled to protect murderers and human rights violators? Especially now that Abrams -- who pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-contra affair -- is being handed the human rights portfolio at the White House? Let's have that left-right confrontation replayed.
Since Reagan and Abrams left office, much information has become available -- through forensic investigations, through truth-commission inquiries, through declassified government records -- that proves the Reaganites collaborated with folks they knew to be the worst thugs. For instance, in 1982, when reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post uncovered a massacre of 800 or so civilians by the US-supported El Salvador military, Abrams and the Reagan gang denied these reports and denigrated the reporters. But post-Cold War investigations have established beyond any doubt that this massacre at El Mozote did occur. It took years for the truth to prevail, and by then the headline writers no longer gave a damn. At a recent press briefing, Bush's press-spinner Ari Fleischer said that Abrams record as an Iran-contra liar and a denier of human rights abuses was "a matter of the past." Yet Bush's selection of Abrams should prompt a new round in an old debate.
Vietnam -- it was decades before a controversial notion that once split the nation (that the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations routinely misled the public about the war) became widely accepted. Reporters (like myself) who in the 1980s wrote about connections between the Reagan-backed contra rebels in Nicaragua and drug traffickersand had our stories dismissed by the mainstream media and maligned by contra supporters -- and had to wait ten years for undeniable confirmation, which came in the form of CIA study that acknowledged the agency had knowingly worked with suspected drug-runners in order to assist the contras.
Truth can take time. But with David Brock, it's tough to determine if now we're getting the real story. As an admitted liar, he has no credibility. Which is unfortunate, for he does offer a couple of good tales.
He claims that Clarence Thomas passed him negative personal information about Kaye Savage, a pro-Anita Hill witness, and that he (Brock) used this material to blackmail Savage into recanting her assertion that Thomas had been obsessed with pornography (as Hill had suggested). That's quite a charge against Thomas.
But who knows? When I appeared on a shouting-head TV show with rightwing commentator and corporate lobbyist Barbara Olson (who is also married to Solicitor General Ted Olson, whose credibility Brock challenged during his testy confirmation hearings), Olson proclaimed, "That is not true." How could she be sure? She did not say. Olson noted that the supposed middle-man between Brock and Thomas -- a Republican operative named Mark Paoletta -- has denied Brock's account. But Savage says that she was forced by Brock to change her story and that the personal information he used against her must have come from either Thomas or Hill. (Since she was supporting Hill, logic suggests the culprit.) Even though Brock is damaged goods, there may be something to this serious allegation. But it's unusable material.
Regardless of the veracity of this specific charge, Brock's magazine piece -- the book won't be available for several weeks -- serves a purpose by reminding us how the rightwing community reacted to his underhanded anti-Hill crusade. His original hit on her, published in The American Spectator, derided Hill as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty."
The use of this a line by Brock -- who had no reputation as an investigative journalist at the time -- should have been a tip-off. Wasn't such perjorative and loathsome language an indication that he could not be trusted? That he was more interested in name-calling than truth-seeking?
Not for the right. He was hailed. Rush Limbaugh read his article on the air practically non-stop. (Circulation of The American Spectator tripled. But what goes around, comes around -- these days the magazine is in serious decline.) And when Brock's follow-up book on Anita Hill was published, the high-and-mighty of conservative circles -- Judges Robert Bork, David Sentelle and Larry Silberman, Irving and Bill Kristol, Senator John Danforth, Arnaud de Borchgrave, Boyden Gray, Charles Krauthammer, Britt Hume and Laura Ingraham -- flocked to a party for the boy-wonder.
Brock duped the right -- and the right was eager to be duped. He claims that aides to Republican senators handed him previously unreleased Senate depositions, FBI interviews and "all the filthy rumors" they had received pertaining to Hill, and he ran with it all. Fortunately for Brock then, The American Spectator did not submit his piece -- or any other articles -- to factchecking. And he found an oh-so-willing audience for his swill. (He has since apologized to Hill.)
Will any of the champions of Brock's anti-Hill work -- which Fred Barnes once called "devestating" -- now defend it? The conservative mudwrestlers are standing by Thomas and questioning Brock's motives, but they are not rushing to reaffirm the "facts" in Brock's anti-Hill corpus. They are not concerned now -- nor were they ever -- with the possibility that Republican leaked gossip and innuendo. And they are hardly enthusiastic about excavating the Thomas-Hill episode. (After all, they did win that one.)
"They should just leave Justice Thomas alone," says talk-show host and Thomas pal Armstrong Williams, adding, "Let that man rest in peace." But Thomas is not dead -- and the same can be said of what Brock calls the "right-wing Big Lie Machine."
Thomas sits on the bench, Abrams is moving into the White House. The dramatic battles in which they starred have receded in public memory -- but many of the issues kicked up during these ugly controversies deserve to be remembered and fought over again.