Smears Unlimited

Former G-man's sleazy White House memoir raises questions -- again -- about the book industry's sloppy standards

By Dwight Garner
Published July 1, 1996 4:17PM (UTC)
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Are facts stubborn things -- or are they stupid things? Depends on
whether you're perusing the collected sayings of John Adams or Ronald Reagan.

In the book industry, however, facts are sometimes both, as the
mushrooming controversy over former FBI agent Gary Aldrich's tattle-tale book "Unlimited Access" proves yet again. As many of Aldrich's claims about the Clinton White House begin to unravel, and as the author's apparent links to the Dole campaign start to emerge, media watchers are asking hard questions about why publishing houses don't feel compelled to fact-check the nonfiction books they issue as closely as magazines do their articles.


A second question looms as well: Why are newspaper and magazine journalists so eager to repeat (without independent verification) the unsubstantiated allegations in books like "Unlimited Access"?

Regnery Publishing, the house that issued Aldrich's book, isn't exactly revered for either its impartiality or its rigorous
standards; it's a small right-wing publisher, based in Washington D.C., that issues only a few books a year. As one New York magazine editor, who asked not to be named in this article, put it: "If a bad left-wing writer has a book turned down at all the major publishing houses, he takes it to the Carol Publishing Group. If a bad right-wing writer has a book turned down everywhere, he takes it to Regnery. It's a dumping ground."

But questions about the veracity of nonfiction books aren't limited to
smaller publishers. Simon & Schuster was taken to task in 1988 for the sloppy reporting and fact-checking in Kitty Kelly's biography of Nancy Reagan, a book that leered about, among other things, the First Lady's long "lunches" with Frank Sinatra. (Soon after, Maureen Dowd was dressed down by her New York Times editors for writing an article that was deemed to be less-than-skeptical about Kelly's research.) And more recently, St. Martin's Press nearly published a biography of Joseph Goebbels by Nazi-sympathizer David Irving without performing even the most rudimentary fact-checking.


But books like these -- and like "Unlimited Access" -- do perform a
service: They remind us once again that a few of the millions of dollars publishing houses pour into advertising might be better spent hiring a few $12-per-hour fact checkers. "Publishers do tend to place an enormous amount of trust in their writers," says John Glusman, an executive editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "We simply don't have the same kind of time and resources that magazines have. They are dealing with fact-checking a few thousand words.
With a book, you are talking about several hundred thousand words."

Farrar, Straus & Giroux tends to review its books more closely
than most houses -- and to publish authors with proven track records. Before publishing Laurie Garrett's book "The Coming Plague," for example, FSG submitted it to several experts in several fields in a kind of informal peer review. And such practices aren't uncommon at the more careful publishing houses.

Still, many insiders remain skeptical about the overall level of
fact-checking. "If you've worked at both publishing houses and magazines," says Dan Max, an editor at Harper's Bazaar, "you know the standards are very different. Publishers expect authors to check their own facts, which authors don't always do."


At most publishing houses, Max says, the biggest hurdle a nonfiction
book has to clear is often simply what he calls "the smell test."
On some levels, Aldrich's "Unlimited Access" passes such a test. It's
not hard to believe that George Stephanopoulus litters potato chips around his office; that some young White House staffers prefer to wear all black ("Has Agent Aldrich ever been to Manhattan?" as Maureen Dowd quipped on Sunday), or that gays and lesbians are more welcome at the White House than they were in the past . What's shocking is that anyone would be shocked at such "revelations."

But when Aldrich moves on to more significant matters, he's on shakier ground. The former G-man merrily reports that President Clinton slips away from the White House for late-night sex breaks -- a rumor passed on to him by conservative hit man David Brock. Brock, whose assertions about Anita Hill and Clinton's alleged "Troopergate" scandal have raised questions about his own objectivity, told George Will that he was "appalled" to see the unverified rumor show up in hard cover.


The flap over "Unlimited Access" is far from over. But one is quickly
getting the sense that if Regnery had bothered to check some of the
book's more outlandish claims, the publisher might have instead stamped some parts of Aldrich's manuscript with the words: "Access Denied."

Beijing Scissorhands


China sharpens its claws as Hong Kong's handover draws near



The clock ticks down on Hong Kong, literally. Each second in the year remaining until July 1, 1997 is dutifully noted by a giant digital clock above Beijing's Tiananmen Square. For China, it will be a joyous reunion, the long overdue end of colonial humiliation after 155 years of rule as a British Crown Colony. The dream of Da Zhongguo, or Greater China (which is generally thought to include China, Hong Kong and Taiwan), will have come closer to reality. Which is just what so many people in this dynamic entrepot fear so greatly.


Hong Kong's "return to the Motherland," as Beijing propagandists are fond of calling it, is supposed to be tempered by a 50-year transition period -- negotiated by Britain and China -- during which Hong Kong would enjoy a "high degree of autonomy"; the ex-colony and the People's Republic would live in parallel as "one country, two systems." As the seconds tick down, that agreement gets flimsier.

Almost everything officially British is being airbrushed from the scene.
Such august colonial institutions as the Royal Jockey Club and the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club have already undergone name changes. The Hong Kong government, so as not to offend Chinese sensibilities, is spending some $3 million to expunge "royal" emblems on everything from money, stamps, police uniforms, stationery, and chinaware to insignias on government vehicles, buildings and boats. Attempts by the British governor, Chris Patten, to encourage the process of democratization in Hong Kong have been met with almost unremitting hostility by Beijing authorities. "A big dictator" is one of the labels pinned on the governor by a Chinese representative of the SinoBritish Joint Liaison Group, which oversees the transfer of power.

Patten has remained unrepentant, repeatedly infuriating Beijing with his pronouncements. "Hong Kong people treasure their freedoms - and not just their freedom to make money," he recently declared. "That spirit of liberty will survive in Hong Kong - whatever the short term threats or dangers... You can try to trample on institutions, but you can't snuff out the spirit of democracy."
Lu Ping, who heads Beijing's Hong Kong and Macao Office, uses a very different, and more ominous, language. Having once warned against the prospect of Hong Kong being used "as a base of subversion against the Motherland," he now likes to talk about 1997 as "a new dawn." In Hong Kong, he drives around in a limo bearing license plates inscribed "1997." He persistently ignores petitioners and protesters, refusing to truck with anyone who is not ''friendly" to Beijing.
Last year, Beijing appointed 150 members of the Hong Kong establishment to its newly-formed "Preparatory Committee," which was to help lay the groundwork in the months prior to the handover. The committee includes a large quotient of business leaders with commercial ties to China but no members from the Democratic Party, which had just won the most seats in September's election for the city's first fully elected Legislative Council (LegCo). In April, Beijing tightened the screws further, announcing it intended to replace LegCo with a hand-picked Provisional Legislature. It was even suggested that such a body might assume some duties before the actual handover -- an idea that Gov. Patten labeled as "lunatic." Commenting on the acquiescence of the Hong Kong members of the Provisional Legislature, Patten remarked, "They wouldn't be doing it if most of them didn't have foreign passports in their back pockets."

Around the same time, Beijing announced that it would require all senior members of the Hong Kong civil service - hitherto known for its professionalism and detachment from politics - to pledge loyalty to the Provisional Legislature if they wanted to keep their jobs after the takeover. Although Chinese officials later backed off from this somewhat, they also issued a list of ten demands to the British calling, among other things, for a special allotment of airtime over Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) - the colony's government-supported public broadcasting system - so that Beijing could better propagandize its views and policies. "I absolutely believe that our independence will be challenged," declares Daisy Li, a reporter for the Chinese-language Ming Pao and secretary of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. "I mean, do you really imagine that after 1997 RTHK will be able to produce a program critical of the Chinese central government without receiving tremendous pressure?"


Lu Ping and the Preparatory Committee tried to calm things down by holding what they billed as "consultations," and announced they would "welcome opinions and proposals from people of all circles in Hong Kong, on matters concerning the smooth transition of Hong Kong." The organizers allowed the local bar association and the Hong Kong Federation of Students -- both of whom had expressed reservations about replacing LegCo -- to send representatives. But no other critical groups were invited, on the grounds that they were "confrontational." When two students from the Federation showed up wearing Tshirts inscribed with the words "Phony Consultations," they were promptly ejected. Outside, several thousand angry demonstrators tried to jump over police barricades to get in. One demonstrator burned a tire and jostled Chen Ziying, the deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, as he came out of the meeting, calling him "a turtle with his head in the sand." Other protesters marched on the New China News Agency -- known colloquially here as Beijing's "embassy" -- bearing placards reading "Democracy Rapist" and carrying bird cages as emblems of their refusal ''to sing for the Chinese."

Others who didn't take to the streets were just as fearful of being trapped. A recent survey of youths between the ages of 16 and 24 revealed an overwhelming desire to emigrate before 1997. Fearing a loss of jobs, of law and order, of political honesty, and of freedom, they jammed the British-run Immigration Department in April to obtain British-issued travel documents, referred to bluntly as "an insurance policy." On the final deadline day, 52,000 applications were received, 17,500 more than had been received the entire previous year.

More startling perhaps is the seeming tranquility -- even giddy optimism -- of Hong Kong's business community through all this. Take Liam Lambert, general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel: "They (the Chinese) are now market socialists," he says, "and in the next five or six years they'll become as capitalist and avaricious as any other nation." A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey last year showed that 97 percent of 553 American businessmen considered their Hong Kong operations to have "good" or "satisfactory" prospects.

Myopic or merely pragmatic? "Maybe the tycoons have no choice but to be bullish since their assets are tied up in Hong Kong and China property," wrote the Financial Times' Hong Kong correspondent. "They can't take their capital out, so they may as well be optimistic and hope for a self-fulfilling prophecy." It is also true that Hong Kong's commercial interests are increasingly centered around China. Since the 1980s, over 80 percent of the colony's manufacturing activity has moved across the border. Almost 65 percent of China's total direct investment and one third of its foreign exchange earnings comes through Hong Kong. Every businessman here understands that China is a titanic economic engine -- the mother of all markets for their products. Hong Kong's GDP is expected to rise this year by about five percent, while inflation remains stable at about 8 percent. The Hang Seng, the colony's stock market, remains strong and exports are up almost 14 percent over last year.


Despite the Marxist-Leninist tone of frequent Beijing proclamations, there is a strong belief among local businessmen that (commercial) common sense will prevail. "I may be dumb or simpleminded, but I've put my money and my passport right here in Hong Kong," David Chu, Head of Wah Tak Fung Holdings and member of LegCo and the Preparatory Committee told me. "Hong Kong is going back to China and China will want to be involved in Hong Kong's affairs, but I'm not scared because of the enormous common interest China shares with Hong Kong. They may inadvertently do things wrong, but if they do, it hurts them, too. So there's a self-righting mechanism based on shared interest built into the arrangement."

Can Hong Kong's business elite forever remain inured to the political changes after July 1, 1997? "I think there will come a time when politics will affect business," says George Shen, editor of the Hong Kong Economic Daily. "The old generation of leaders in Beijing were molded by a Communist philosophy that's quite different from what people in Hong Kong were raised with. When there's no conflict, Hong Kongers and mainlanders can say, 'Well, we're all Chinese,' and work together.

"But there are bound to be clashes. It's just a difference in world view, and the Chinese government's basic view is that politics come first. Of course, they now want to free the economy, and they are able to keep their hands off somewhat as long as things remain in their control and go all right. However, as soon as things start going a little awry, then authority steps in. Such use of authority is central in Chinese culture and Leninism, whether in the family or politics. When authority speaks, one has no choice but to shut up and toe the party line -- and this is quite different from what Hong Kong people were raised on."

Quote of the day


Auditioning for a home

"I know the kids have to be circulated, but I have a name for it. I'm calling it a cattle call."
--Tonie Washington, searching for a child to adopt at an "adoption picnic" at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

"I came with a lot of hope, but also I was really scared. I didn't know there was going to be anyone who wanted me because I figured I was too old."

--Autumnrose Swento, 14, who was adopted at the "picnic" last year. (From an Associated Press story, "Adoption Picnics -- Linking Hearts," in Monday's San Francisco Chronicle)

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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