The anatomy of a virtual conspiracy

Unable to defeat him at the polls, President Clinton's foes use the press to spread rumors, allegations, speculations and lies


Peter J. Ognibene
May 18, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

The first lady is right, as Salon and others have suggested: There is a conspiracy to bring down President Clinton. But this is no ordinary conspiracy. Not a tiny cabal like the one that met in Mary Surratt's boardinghouse to plot the assassination of Abraham Lincoln nor the scenario of a wigged-out novelist or film director. It is something quite different -- indeed, unprecedented in our history -- a "virtual conspiracy."

In a traditional conspiracy, individuals come together one at a time, each carefully testing the others, until all are in accord on tactics and target. Secrecy is essential. When they finally move, they do so swiftly. All is won or lost in a single act. In feudal societies, if the group deposed the king and his barons, his realm and their lands passed to the chief conspirator and his vassals. Conspirators who failed paid with their heads.

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A virtual conspiracy has the same objective -- to depose a leader -- but the means are different. A virtual conspiracy starts in the open and requires publicity to flourish and gain adherents. Virtual conspirators test-fly stratagems, tactics and rumors. They do not meet in secret until they have discerned what will advance their undertaking and what will not. Moreover, by making their initial moves in the open, they attract others to their cause and to one another.

Instantaneous communication is critical to a virtual conspiracy. So, too, is freedom of expression. Though there are laws against making false accusations, virtual conspirators who channel charges, allegations and rumors through the press or spread them on the Internet gain the protection of the First Amendment. Most thrusts fail, but some wound, making the hated target more vulnerable the next time around.

Sound far-fetched? Consider:

  • Did the president or first lady have a hand in the death of Vincent Foster? A virtual conspirator couldn't care less if there's any basis to ask the question. The objective is to get the media to float the idea of the Clintons as murderers, see if it resonates with the public and then hope that someone will come forth with proof. The evidence indicates Foster committed suicide.

  • Did the president lurk in the back of a limousine and sneak out of the White House for sexual trysts at the local Marriott? There was no reason to believe he did, but that didn't stop an author from scripting the scenario -- and his publisher from promoting it -- to push the book toward bestseller status.

  • Did the Clinton administration allocate grave sites at Arlington National Cemetery for political supporters? The far right jumped with righteous glee on that one because it sounded too good not to be true. And who knows? A sergeant in Graves Registration might have stepped forward with a treasure trove of documents and transmuted the brass of speculation into the gold of truth. No one did.

  • Did Clinton rape a woman in Arkansas when he was attorney general in his home state? His opponents recently leaked that tale, which the press printed, even though the alleged victim denied such an attack ever took place.

Four provocative questions, each answered in the negative, yet each somehow wormed its way into "the news." How did these fabrications gain such wide dissemination? Who peddled them to the press? Of course, the reporters in the best position to answer have sources to protect.

Here, then, is the wonderful thing about being a virtual conspirator: You can spread rumors, speculation and lies against your enemy and not be called to account. The reporter you conned into retailing a falsehood may cuss you out, but that reporter is not going to expose you. The president you've maligned won't sue because he's already so heavily in debt to his lawyers. Moreover, as a public figure, he would need to demonstrate actual malice to win a judgment -- assuming his attorneys could determine who to sue in the first place. Besides, an angry denial generates yet more coverage of the charge itself.

Because it encourages freelance attacks on the flimsiest of pretexts, a virtual conspiracy can misfire and produce some measure of sympathy for the president -- and polls suggest it is doing just that. However, the piling on of unsavory allegations inevitably exacts a toll, adding to public skepticism about Clinton and laying the groundwork for some future revelation that could suddenly puncture his cushion of popularity.

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How do virtual conspirators go after a president they can't defeat at the polls? They turn, naturally, to the two great corrupters of humankind: money and sex.

For urban or suburban politicians, the typical lure is unmarked cash or overseas bank accounts from building contractors who need help with zoning permits or bids to pave highways. Their rural counterparts get caught up in land deals, playing silent partner and leveraging a minuscule investment into a windfall when the shopping center, subdivision or resort goes up.

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The temptations of the flesh require no elaboration. You can read about them in the Bible or browse them on the Internet. King David was neither the first national leader nor the last to make a move on the wrong woman.

What of Clinton, erstwhile governor of Arkansas and current president of the United States? Whether you love him or hate him, there's no gainsaying the man's political prowess. Among contemporary politicians, there's Clinton -- and there's everybody else. Since his entrance onto the national stage, the virtual conspiracy has launched at least four major efforts to undo him, using tactics that have succeeded against other politicians.

Gambit No. 1: Extramarital sex

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In times past, a prominent politician who had a sexual affair was finished. The swift rise of Gary Hart to front-runner status for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and even swifter decline after an extramarital affair was revealed was the most recent case in point when Clinton began his run for the White House.

Enter Gennifer Flowers on the eve of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, with claims of a long-standing affair and audiotapes of someone who sounded mighty like the man from Hope. Instead of folding under pressure, Bill and Hillary Clinton faced the cameras together. One year later, they were picking fabric for the family quarters in the White House.

Gambit No. 2: Corrupt land deal

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When extramarital sex didn't sell, the virtual conspirators turned to money. It says something about their desperation that they focused not on a windfall that enriched Clinton but on a money-loser called Whitewater. Four years and $40 million later, an independent counsel has yet to come up with something damning against Clinton -- and not for lack of trying.

Gambit No. 3: Sexual harassment

The provenance of the Paula Jones case, recently thrown out of federal district court in Little Rock, fits perfectly with the concept of a virtual conspiracy. Clinton had gone to Washington and Paula Jones had gotten on with her life when a writer for a right-wing magazine digging into Clinton's past came up with allegations of a spurned advance against someone identified only as Paula.

At the time the article came out, stories of Clinton's amatory adventures down home were as plentiful as tabloid sightings of Elvis. The hard core of Clinton haters in Arkansas regularly regaled visiting scribes with such tales, some of which squirmed their way into print. In short, the contention that someone named Paula, Polly, Patsy or Peggy might have had a fling with Bill was not exactly a thunderbolt. Thereupon, Paula Jones stepped forward and identified herself as that Paula, avowedly to clear her heretofore unsullied, unknown last name. She did so with the very public assistance of a miniphalanx of right-wing lawyers and, later, the support of a well-funded foundation. The virtual conspiracy was now starting to look more and more like the real thing.

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Trotted out in advance of the 1996 election, the Jones gambit tottered but did not quite fall. When the Supreme Court ruled that a sitting president could be compelled to testify in a civil suit, the conspirators suddenly found the ideal vehicle for their next venture.

Gambit No. 4: Turning sex into perjury

News accounts indicate that attorneys for Jones took a deposition from the president in which they interrogated him about alleged extramarital affairs. Would a recent affair between consenting adults be relevant to determining what might have happened in a Little Rock hotel room seven years before? Obviously not. But the court's ruling made it open season on Clinton.

It proved a perfect trap. Think about it: What choice does a husband have when questioned about cheating? If he admits an affair, he risks his wife's divorcing him. If he denies it, he gains another chance to change his ways and save his marriage. Admirable, no -- but altogether human and understandable.

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Most such confrontations occur in private between husbands and wives and are resolved by them, one way or another. Some may get divorced, but none will have family, friends and associates hauled before a grand jury by a prosecutor bent on nailing the individual on charges of perjury or worse. Yet, that is precisely the situation that now mesmerizes the independent counsel, the press, a grand jury and countless millions of us mere voyeurs.

The interrogators had listened to hours of tape-recorded conversations between an anxious young woman and an older confidante motivated by something other than friendship when she clicked the on switch. The lawyers set the strategy, rehearsed their tactics, then launched their attack.

The virtual conspiracy demonstrated it had learned from its mistakes in Gambits No. 1, 2 and 3. The tapes alone would have been useless -- an obvious lesson from Gambit No. 1. But those tapes in the hands of Jones' lawyers and the independent counsel allowed the conspirators to execute Gambit No. 4 in concert and move closer to their ultimate goal: undoing our two most recent presidential elections.

The motivation of the virtual conspirators is transparent: By their deeds, we have come to know them. For some time now, they have been delving into matters financial and sexual, probing for points of vulnerability. In communicating those intentions so openly, they attracted comrades with something to offer: money, attorneys, tape recordings.

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Only one mystery remains: Knowing exactly where he might be vulnerable, why did a politician as smart and wily as Clinton allow himself to be outmaneuvered?


Peter J. Ognibene

Peter J. Ognibene, a former Air Force officer, is a Washington writer.

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