Reliving History

The right is trying to rewrite history -- Watergate and the Clinton era -- to control the future. Unsurprisingly, the press gets the assist.
This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.

Though the event took place more than a week ago, it's worth taking a moment to remark upon the May 27 acquittal of David Rosen, the fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign who'd been charged in a New Orleans federal court with hiding about $800,000 worth of costs for a gala Los Angeles event thrown for the then-first lady during her campaign.

Why is it worth remarking upon? For two reasons. First, in the weeks leading up to the jury's decision, one could hear the galloping accelerando of wing-nut anticipation; FOX, for example, did more than a dozen segments devoted mostly or partly to Rosen's fate in the three months leading up to the acquittal.

Walking point on this matter, of course, was Dick Morris. He wrote in his New York Post column nine days before the acquittal that the case against Rosen was "getting stronger, increasing the odds the aide will start cooperating with the government"; about a week earlier, he had appeared on a Hannity & Colmes segment -- titled "Are Hillary's Presidential Chances Over?" -- outright accusing Clinton of having known about the underreporting of the event's costs. I'd love to see the memos that were going around FOX during the trial planning the on-air party in the event of conviction.

But ho! The party was canceled, and, thus, the second reason for pointing out Rosen's acquittal: It's not exactly as if everyone has. FOX, after all the buildup, has mentioned Rosen's acquittal just twice, and both times as quickly and grudgingly as if being forced to report that global warming really did exist. MSNBC, which discussed Rosen five times in the months leading up to the acquittal, has not mentioned him since. (Most of those five were on Chris Matthews' Hardball; gosh, do you think Matthews would have been silent on the matter if the jury had found the other way?) In addition, the viewers of NBC News and the listeners of National Public Radio, if each group relied only on that source for its view of world, would not know of Rosen's acquittal, according to databases. And Matt Drudge, according to his archives, did not mention the acquittal.

Now watch over the course of the next week or two, as Ed Klein, known most recently for sniffing around the tombstone of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, unveils his new Hillary "book." You'll be reading a lot about Klein's "Pulitzer Prize," which refers to the bauble won by The New York Times Magazine for an article on toxic-shock syndrome that appeared while Klein was indeed its editor. I'd imagine you'll be hearing far less about the plagiarism episode that took place under his tenure, when a young reporter named Christopher Jones fabricated scenes from purported travels with Khmer Rouge guerillas, stealing them from Andre Malraux, of all people (Alexander Cockburn -- at the time, he was a widely read press critic for The Village Voice, probably the most popular columnist in New York -- recognized the lifted passage).

Wanna bet that the cable shows will be a little more enthusiastic about Klein's news than they were about Rosen's?

But enough on that. My subject is not Hillary. My subject is history. The Klein book, like Morris' recent Rewriting History, is produced in the first instance to damage Hillary Clinton in the short term. (Well, actually, point No. 1 is to make money; hurting Clinton is a close second.) But there is another reason these anti-Clinton tomes still appear with regularity, and liberals who criticize the Clintons from the left need to recognize it: The right knows that if its historical interpretation of Clintonism can prevail, liberalism as a project can be killed for decades. That is, if they can convince America over the next few crucial years (crucial because historical interpretations of Clintonism are just really beginning) that the Clinton era was not one of prosperity, peace, and a demonstration that government can deliver common goods but was, instead, one of corruption, turpitude, and a fat and happy people discarding moral values for the sake of higher mutual-fund values, they will have won an extremely important argument with serious long-term ramifications.

The past week should remind us just how seriously those on the right take their historical interpretation -- and the outlandish things they'll say to get their point across. The Wall Street Journal's editorial on the legacy of Mark Felt was a jaw-dropper. What sort of audacity did it take for the Journal, of all organs, to write, "In their zeal to be the next Woodstein, many in the press have developed a 'gotcha' model of reporting that always assumes the worst about public officials"?

The Journal?!? I guess it's not counting Vince Foster as a public official. What shameless, debauched people.

Also came Peggy Noonan on the same subject, directing our attention toward the same Cambodia that once figured into Ed Klein's ignominy: "What Mr. Felt helped produce was a weakened president who was a serious president at a serious time. ... Is it terrible when an American president lies and surrounds himself by dirty tricksters? Yes, it is. How about the butchering of children in the South China Sea. Is that worse? Yes. Infinitely, unforgettably and forever."

La Margaret was trying to imply here that Felt, by ratting out Richard Nixon and assisting in his downfall, is partly responsible for "a cascade of catastrophic events," including the rise of Pol Pot. Actually, she didn't imply it. She said it.

Um, for the record. Nixon, that serious president, quite seriously and secretly bombed Cambodia in direct contravention of international law and the rules of war. This created a massive refugee crisis (in addition to creating a bunch of innocent, dead Cambodians).

The crisis was too much for the government of Lon Nol, a repressive and corrupt potentate whose repression and corruption were very much backed by Nixon and Gerald Ford. The heavy U.S. bombardment of the country, and Lon Nol's collaboration with the United States, sent recruits running into Pol Pot's arms; his forces had grown to number 700,000 men (10 percent of the entire population) by the time of his takeover in 1975. Neither Mark Felt nor Bob Woodward nor Carl Bernstein nor John Sirica had a thing to do with it.

Noonan presumably knows all about this, because the White House for which she scribbled, Ronald Reagan's, backed the Khmer Rouge in the early 1980s, after the regime had completed its murderous rampage and the facts were well-known. This support -- which included voting to seat a Khmer Rouge official as Cambodia's representative at the United Nations -- continued until 1985, when the administration finally changed course. The change came after a House foreign-affairs subcommittee -- in Democratic hands at the time, remember -- pushed for the change and voted to send aid to anti-Khmer Rouge forces.

That is the factual history. Thank goodness they haven't yet managed to rewrite Watergate except in the pages of their own sheets. But they're rewriting the 1990s, and they're working overtime to ensure that they will control how the history of the current administration is written. Young people who don't care about Mark Felt should at least be moved, one hopes, to care that history remains history and is not subverted into propaganda. The future depends on it.

This article is available on The American Prospect website.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's executive editor. Copyright © 2005 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Michael Tomasky, "Reliving History", The American Prospect Online, Jun 6, 2005. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to [email protected].