Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
They Said It:
Last October, Prudential Securities, the brokerage arm of Prudential Financial fired its highly popular conservative political analyst, Mark Melcher, because his opinions didn’t match up with those of the company brass. . . Melcher’s erudite commentary often calls on the likes of Cicero, Carlyle, Hayek and Weber to support his contention that what he viewed as the amoral political antics of the Clinton White House threatened the societal glue that binds our democracy and economy. . . A recurrent Melcher theme is that moral deficits have severe economic consequences in that they facilitate the spread of corruption. As such, he argued that Wall Street and its investors have a responsibility to reverse what he considers to be the leftward drift from moral norms and capitalism, not just in Washington, but in universities, the mass media and churches. Such views, however, apparently displeased John Strangfeld, who took over as head of Prudential Securities in October, the same month Melcher was forced to step down. . . . Melcher’s firing coincided with the departure of long-time Prudential Securities chief executive Stanwick “Wick” Simmons . . . A Melcher friend suggests that Simmons had long protected the economist from Prudential Financial’s chairman, Arthur Ryan, and senior vice president, Harold Davis, who were taking heat from liberals both in- and outside the firm. Indeed, even as Melcher was blasting Clinton, Ryan was hobnobbing with the President aboard Air Force One, boasting of Newark, New Jersey-based Pru’s work with inner-city children.
Jim McTague, “Might Quashes Right,” Barron’s Financial Investment News, July 2, 2001.
THE VAST RIGHT-WING CONSPIRACY AND ITS SAD SUCCESSOR.
In 1995, a White House staffer named Chris Lehane penned a memo for his bosses in the Clinton administration that, in his opinion, detailed the nature of the burgeoning right-leaning media threat to the presidency. Lehane, for those of you don’t know, was one of Bill Clinton’s “Masters of Disaster,” which is to say that he was one of the two men (the other being Mark Fabiani) on whom the President and Mrs. Clinton relied to put out their political fires, which just so happened to pop up and burn with alarming regularity.
Lehane went on to become the press secretary for Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. He is credited, by Karl Rove among others, with being the source of the leak of George W. Bush’s drunk driving arrest record the weekend before the election, which nearly cost Bush the election that he seemed, at the time, likely to win comfortably. Lehane is also credited with destroying the presidential hopes of the former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. At the time, Lehane was working for the retired General Wesley Clark and was unrelenting in his attacks on Dean. Many people considered Dean the frontrunner and the likely nominee, until Lehane got ahold of him, that is. It’s not for nothing, in other words, that the New York Times once called Lehane a “Master of the Political Dark Arts.”
Lehane’s 1995 memo was titled the “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce” and became the foundation for one of the best-known and most ridiculed charges ever leveled by high-ranking American political official. On January 27, 1998 – a few days after Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story that the Washington-Post-owned-Newsweek wouldn’t – Hillary Clinton appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” and spewed forth the condensed version of Lehane’s argument. She and Bill were innocent and dedicated public servants, you see, who just happened to have the misfortune of being set upon by a nasty, well-funded, and merciless horde of reactionary meanies who would stop at nothing to destroy him (and, by extension, her). “The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it,” Mrs. Clinton told Matt Lauer, “is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
Just over three years ago, the entire “VRWC” memo was released by the Clinton Presidential Library. In its introduction, Lehane explained how it all worked:
The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce refers to the mode of communication employed by the right wing to convey their fringe stories into legitimate subjects of coverage by the mainstream media. This is how the stream works. Well funded right wing think tanks and individuals underwrite conservative newsletters and newspapers such as the Western Journalism Center, the American Spectator and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Next, the stories are re-printed on the internet where they are bounced all over the world. From the internet, the stories are bounced into the mainstream media through one of two ways: 1) The story will be picked up by the British tabloids and covered as a major story, from which the American right-of-center mainstream media (i.e. the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and New York Post) will then pick the story up; or 2) The story will be bounced directly from the internet to the right-of-center mainstream American media. After the mainstream right-of-center media covers the story, Congressional committees will look into the story. After Congress looks into the story, the story now has the legitimacy to be covered by the remainder of the American mainstream press as a “real” story.
Now, on the one hand, Mrs. Clinton was (is, and ever shall be) completely and totally out of her mind, as were her and Bill’s enablers, people like Chris Lehane. Bill and Hillary Clinton are among the most transparently corrupt AND paranoid politicians in American political history. Hillary hid her secret email server – the SECRETARY OF STATE’S email server – in the bathroom, after all, for fear that her recipes and yoga-routine emails would be purloined by the press and used to damage her otherwise stellar political reputation. Or something like that.
Hillary still believes that her cattle futures windfall was of interest only to weirdoes and stalkers. She thinks that Whitewater was ginned up by Republican nuts, despite the fact that it resulted in both of her and Bill’s business partners going to jail; in the Governor of Arkansas Jim Guy Tucker being convicted of felony fraud and removed from office; and in Hillary’s law partner and the Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell being convicted of embezzlement and fraud and forced to resign. Moreover, as we noted above, in her infamous “Today Show” appearance, she actually tried to blame the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy for the circulation of false rumors about her husband’s affair with a young White House intern, an affair which everyone – even Mrs. Clinton herself – now knows and concedes actually took place.
Hillary Clinton would have been better off and equally accurate blaming her and her husband’s problems on little green men from Mars or underwear gnomes than on the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Nobody conspired to make Bill cheat on her – with Monica, Gennifer Flowers, or any of the scores of other “conquests.” And nobody conspired to force Bill lie about it under oath. He did that all by himself and her attempts to deflect from and justify his behavior help explain, in large part, why he carried on like he did in the first place.
On the other hand, the communications “stream” discussed in Chris Lehane’s memo is not necessarily totally inaccurate. We were there, recall. We weren’t part of the “communications stream,” exactly, but we were friends with a number of the biggest players. A few weeks ago, we mentioned that we were friends with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the London Telegraph’s Washington bureau chief who accounted for much of Lehane’s “British tabloid” anxieties. We were also friends with Chris Ruddy, who wrote for The New York Post and then for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, the latter of which was owned by Lehane’s central conspirator, Richard Mellon Scaife. We knew R. Emmett (Bob) Tyrell Jr. of the American Spectator and some of the members of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board as well. In short, we understood what was happening, and knew why it was happening. And while Lehane kinda, sorta had the mechanism right, he completely missed – as paranoid, conspiracy mongers are wont to do – on the motivation.
It’s hard to remember all of this now, nearly a quarter-century and the rise-and-fall of Fox News Channel later, but back in the early days of the Clinton presidency, the “conservative media” consisted of Rush Limbaugh and . . . well . . . Rush was it. The Washington Times was, more or less, a local paper, dismissed by critics as a rag owned and operated by “the Moonies” (i.e. the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church). The Weekly Standard didn’t even exist until late in 1995. National Review didn’t go “online” until Jonah Goldberg was tasked with that undertaking, AFTER the Lewinsky scandal. Fox News didn’t go on the air until about a month before Bill’s RE-election, and even then, it was available only to a few million subscribers at first, and wasn’t even carried in the New York or Los Angeles markets. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal was conservative, of course, but the paper itself and especially its news division were NOT.
What this meant was that the people who were doing real, honest-to-goodness investigative reporting; the people who were following the developments of cases in the D.C. and Arkansas courts; the people who were paying attention to the Independent Counsel investigations (that’s PLURAL); the people who were chasing down the rumors, interviewing witnesses, following-up with state troopers and the like; often found themselves shouting into the emptiness of space. They’d write something fantastic about an important development in the Whitewater case in Little Rock, and no one outside of their papers’ handful of subscribers would have any idea that anything happened, much less what it was. If the mainstream press didn’t care – and for the most part, it didn’t – the story might as well not exist. It didn’t really happen unless people knew about it. And no one knew about any of it.
It’s important to remember here that when guys like Lehane blamed the “internet” for their bosses’ problems in 1995, they were simply looking for scapegoats. The internet as we know it today didn’t exist in 1995. A few thousand people in the country had dial-up modems and waited forEVER for pages to load. When we tried to do our part to disseminate important news stories of the day – Clinton scandal stories, in particular – we communicated with clients via a blast fax (“The Whitewater Report”). Many people didn’t have email. Those who did, likely didn’t have it at home. When Lehane wrote about how stories/conspiracies were disseminated on the internet, he wasn’t talking about a massive operation, where news aggregator sites get a billion hits per month. He was talking about a new and primitive technology, one in which many of the right-leaning media didn’t even participate. It wasn’t until well into Bill Clinton’s second term, for example, that the Washington Times even HAD a web site. And in the early days of that site (and others) you couldn’t access it unless you were a print subscriber as well, which limited the reach of the whole operation.
As it turned out, then, people who wanted information about stories the mainstream media didn’t cover were mostly out of luck. One of us here at The Political Forum was initially hired by the other one specifically to manage and organize the latter’s “library” of books, newspapers, and periodicals that constituted his compilation of information and data cited in his weekly columns. As impossible as it may sound, sometimes people didn’t believe the things we wrote about Bill and Hillary. Given the general veil of darkness that existed with respect to much of the corruption and scandal in Washington, very few people knew the truth, and we were sometimes challenged on the veracity of the claims we made about the Clinton crowd. As a result, we had to keep the print material on which we based those claims. And we had to have it readily accessible, if for no other reason than to protect ourselves against the charge that we had made something up.
As for everyone else in the country, they weren’t as lucky as we were. And they didn’t know most of what was going on in Bill Clinton’s dirty little mind and dirty little Oval Office. Given all of this, is it any wonder that every once in a while a crazy-sounding story made its way into this “communications stream?” Is it any wonder that the stories that were real and verifiable were repeated endlessly, by different publications, on different continents, and then pushed as hard as possible into mainstream-ish outlets? You see, if it weren’t for the efforts of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, the mainstream press – people like Time magazine’s Nina Burleigh, who wanted to switch places with Monica to thank him for “keeping abortion legal” – would likely have succeeded in protecting the creepy and priapic Bill Clinton as well they did the equally creepy and priapic (as well as drug-addled) Jack Kennedy.
Sometimes the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy lost its way and prattled on about how Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s plane crash was the result of intentional sabotage. More often than not, however, the VRWC performed the task that the obsequious mainstream press would never dream of doing: holding the first Baby Boomer president accountable.
Now, on the off chance you haven’t figured it out yet, we bring all of this up today for a specific reason (rather than just to reminisce about the good old days), namely to compare and contrast the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy of yesteryear with the new Vast Conspiracy (of left and Right-Wingers alike). Of course, this conspiracy is, even as we write, trying its damnedest to undermine the presidency of Donald Trump.
By way of introduction, we should note that much of what Trump does, has done, and will do is his own fault. He sometimes says and does foolish things at foolish times. No one can deny that. Nevertheless, there is an active, galvanizing force trying desperately to destroy his presidency and, thereby, to destroy the populist counter-revolution against the Washington “elites.” Last week, Vox.com, an unlikely source if ever there was one, identified the characteristics of this poorly hidden conspiracy. As you read this, remember that the people at Vox are young lefties, Hillary Clinton fans, and Trump haters. Yet even they recognize that what is going on in the media today is borderline insane. To wit:
President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitor for refusing to investigate Trump’s Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.
These are all claims you can find made on a new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals, something I’ve dubbed the Russiasphere. The mirror image of Breitbart and InfoWars on the right, it focuses nearly exclusively on real and imagined connections between Trump and Russia. The tone is breathless: full of unnamed intelligence sources, certainty that Trump will soon be imprisoned, and fever dream factual assertions that no reputable media outlet has managed to confirm.
Twitter is the Russiasphere’s native habitat. Louise Mensch, a former right-wing British parliamentarian and romance novelist, spreads the newest, punchiest, and often most unfounded Russia gossip to her 283,000 followers on Twitter. Mensch is backed up by a handful of allies, including former NSA spook John Schindler (226,000 followers) and DC-area photographer Claude Taylor (159,000 followers) . . . .
Beyond the numbers, the unfounded left-wing claims, like those on the right, are already seeping into the mainstream discourse. In March, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mensch instructing members of Congress as to how they should proceed with the Russia investigation (“I have some relevant experience,” she wrote). Two months prior to that, Mensch had penned a lengthy letter to Vladimir Putin titled “Dear Mr. Putin, Let’s Play Chess” — in which she claims to have discovered that Edward Snowden was part of a years-in-the-making Russian plot to discredit Hillary Clinton.
Last Thursday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) was forced to apologize for spreading a false claim that a New York grand jury was investigating Trump and Russia. His sources, according to the Guardian’s Jon Swaine, were Mensch and Palmer.
As you see, in its explainer, Vox compares Mensch et al. to Breitbart and the like. But the comparison is a bad one, one that we suspect stems from the fact that the Voxers probably aren’t old enough to remember the real analogy. Mensch and her crowd are the originators of countless nutty stories that have no basis in truth but that nevertheless work their way into the mainstream press by virtue of the fact that the mainstreamers are desperate for “stories” to spread about Trump. This mimics the pattern – though not necessarily the motivation, the accuracy, or the need – of the VRWC. The Obama conspiracies, such as they were, were almost always treated as kooky by the mainstream press. The Trump stories, by contrast, are not.
Back in 1994, ‘95, ‘96, and so on, the mainstream press had no interest whatsoever in covering Clinton scandals. And so those of us who believed that the scandals mattered had a very difficult time getting anyone anywhere to share our concern. THAT is why the VRWC – or at least elements of it – were necessary then. The new conspiracy, by contrast, exists for an entirely different reason. It exists because the mainstreamers still cling to the façade of their impartiality. They still believe, at least in theory, that they have to “source” their stories to someone other than the lunatics living in their fevered imaginations. They have to pretend, at least, that what they are doing is impartial.
But it’s not.
Consider the New York Times’ big “scoop” last week about the purportedly contemporaneous “memos” written by then-FBI Director James Comey after his discussions with President Trump. According to the Times’ breathless reporting, Trump tried to influence the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.
Now, we have no idea whether these memos exist. We, like countless others, understand Mr. Comey to be a scrupulous note-keeper, which suggests that such memos may well exist and may well say precisely what the Times claims they do. But rather than cite the memo itself or a named spokesman for Mr. Comey, the Times instead broke a purportedly HUGE story based on a phone interview in which an unnamed source “read” its reporters parts of Mr. Comey’s memo. To date, no one at the Times has seen the memo or can describe any part of it other than what was read over the phone. This is, to put it mildly, insane. Certainly, it’s not the type of sourcing the Times would have required for a similar scoop about, say, Barack Obama.
More to the point, the Times’ reporting here reflects the unsourced and unverified brain-droppings first put forth in the anti-Trump conspiro-sphere. In short, the Times is simply playing its role in Vast Conspiracy.
Of course, as we said, the “communications stream” today bears some similarities to the stream identified twenty-two years ago by Chris Lehane, but it is nevertheless radically different. The Times doesn’t need to traffic in unnamed sources and unseen memos like the Right-wingers had to years ago. It is the nation’s “newspaper of record,” after all, which is to say that it is mainstreamiest of mainstream news sources on the planet. It has the resources, access, and audience that the old Right-wingers could only have dreamed of. Nevertheless, the Times CHOOSES – consciously and repeatedly – to engage the conspiracy theories, not out of need, but out of convenience or, worse yet, antipathy to the Trump presidency. Following the “communications stream” is a great deal easier, quicker, and more dramatic than engaging in good, old-fashioned journalism. And it results in bigger and more jaw-dropping “blockbusters.”
Does this mean that the Times is necessarily wrong about the information it reported? No. Of course not. But it is to say that the likelihood of false or errant reporting is greater. Poorly sourced “scoops” tend, over time, to necessitate corrections that no one reads. And in the meantime, the potentially “fake news” contained in the scoop reverberates around the world, repeated by countless print, TV, and internet news providers who need no more reliable sourcing than the Times itself. And so, in time, these scoops, inaccurate and poorly sourced though they may be, harden into accepted “fact.” Thus, the new conspiracy works its magic.
Last week, we read probably twenty different takes on the effects that this new conspiracy is having on the Trump presidency and on the tenor of American politics more generally. One evening alone, we read three stories that purported to expose as well as bemoan the “silent coup” against the President and the American republic. Victor Davis Hanson, the noted historian and classicist, told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that “What we’re seeing here, I don’t want to be too dramatic, it’s sort of, historically, a slow-motion coup where you have a nexus of celebrities, academics, the Democratic and progressive parties, and then you have the media, and they feel they can delegitimize a president with a thousand nicks, none of them significant in themselves, but they coalesced to build a narrative that Trump is inexperienced, that he is uncouth, that he’s crude, that is reckless.” Camille Paglia, the noted feminist theorist, stated that “I am appalled at the behavior of the media . . . Democrats are doing this in collusion with the media obviously, because they just want to create chaos. . . . They want to completely obliterate any sense that the Trump administration is making any progress on anything.” Even Bob Woodward, the star of the Left’s journalist-hero myth, warned that “I think it’s time to dial back a little bit because there are people around [in the media] . . . who are kind of binge drinking the anti-Trump Kool-Aid.”
The fact of the matter is that the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and the new conspiracy are radically different, despite their surface similarities. Back in the 1990s, the conspiracy served to keep the tabs on the powerful men and women in Washington. It may have been a less-than-ideal instrument for doing so, but it was the only one available at the time, given the general sense of generational and ideological conquest that permeated the media and the other cultural institutions.
Today, by contrast, the conspiracy represents the interest of the powerful against the people. Yes, we know that Donald Trump is a billionaire and now the President of the United States. Nevertheless, his election represents the last, desperate attempt by the country class to regain some of its lost power from the self-satisfied and self-absorbed ruling class. Trump has barely been in office for four months, and already the powers that be have decided he must be crushed and, along with him, the country class that desperately seeks his succor.
When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, he embodied the victory of the new, post-modern ethic in American life. No longer would morality be defined by one’s behavior, but rather by one’s intentions. As Bill himself told Tom Brokaw during his reelection campaign, “character,” is demonstrated “most effectively” not by what you do in your personal life but by “what you fight for and for whom you fight.” One’s actions are irrelevant. Character, as traditionally understood, matters not one whit. The morality of an act is not pre-determined, but is situational, defined and mitigated by the actor’s motives.
At its heart, the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy was a reaction to the triumph of this new moral code. It was a rearguard effort to hold the President of the United States accountable to standards which neither he nor his supporters considered relevant.
Of course, here’s the real catch: the conspirators didn’t succeed in holding Bill accountable, in large part because he was merely a symbol of a cultural victory already won. Even if he had been impeached, convicted, and removed from office, the moral code for which he became the poster child would still have triumphed. The decades-long effort to undermine the traditional more code – and along with it, the traditional definition of “character” – would have succeeded with or without Bill Clinton.
The opposite is true in the case of Donald Trump. Trump’s election isn’t the foreordained culmination of decades of cultural change. It is the reaction against that change. It is, as we said, the last stand of those who believe that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Now, there is no guarantee that this last, desperate effort will succeed. Indeed, we tend to think Donald Trump is a rather imperfect vessel to carry out this critical mission. We can say, however, that if Trump fails, if Trump is either beaten by the Leviathan or becomes a part of it, then the forces of reaction, the forces of those who demand to be governed, not ruled, will be scattered and defeated. In 1993, the conspiracy sought to protect tradition. In 2017, it seeks to crush it.
None of this should be taken as an endorsement of Donald Trump personally. Indeed, if anything, Trump’s rise is proof positive of the totality of the victory won by Bill Clinton and the cultural Left. Like Clinton before him, Trump believes his personal behavior has no reflection on the righteousness of the cause he embraces – which is precisely why those who fight to save tradition this time are in such dire straits, despite having “won” the electoral battle.
In the end, we fear that the conspirators this time around are exaggerating both their own importance and Donald Trump’s. They believe that all they need to do is beat him, and their ultimate triumph will be secured. And they think that they can do so quite easily.
But that won’t end the dysfunction. And it certainly won’t quench the Trump constituency’s thirst for liberation from the ruling class. If the last, desperate effort fails, then anarchy emerges as the next logical step. Does anyone believe that the Trumpers will go gently into that good night? Does anyone believe that a nation of men and women who voted for “change” just six short months ago will willingly accept these extraordinary efforts to stifle that change?
We, to name two, don’t believe so. We expect that if such a thing happens, if the conspiracy of the powerful against the people succeeds, then our already ugly and divided nation will get uglier and more divided in a hurry. Last fall, our old friend Angelo Codevilla penned a piece that warned of dark days ahead. As we watch the drama unfold in Washington, we can’t but return to his haunting words time and again:
We have stepped over the threshold of a revolution. It is difficult to imagine how we might step back, and futile to speculate where it will end. Our ruling class’s malfeasance, combined with insult, brought it about. Donald Trump did not cause it and is by no means its ultimate manifestation. Regardless of who wins in 2016, this revolution’s sentiments will grow in volume and intensity, and are sure to empower politicians likely to make Americans nostalgic for Donald Trump’s moderation.
Ah. Donald Trump’s moderation. Mull that over as you close your eyes tonight.