The "conservative Ralph Nader"

A look at the unorthodox views of a self-described "conservative Ralph Nader" who is suing the White House over Filegate and believes that former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown did not die accidentally.

By Joshua Micah Marshall
May 26, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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Have you ever heard of Larry Klayman? If you read last week's Newsweek, you'd learn that he has sued his own mother. If you are a reader of Salon, you would know that he recently subpoenaed two of its reporters. And if you've followed any of the Clinton scandal coverage of the past months, you've probably seen him holding forth on TV or quoted in the papers.

Klayman is the chairman and general counsel of Judicial Watch, a conservative "watchdog" group that has had an amazing knack for insinuating itself into the investigations of numerous White House scandals. Klayman's suit against the Commerce Department in connection with alleged campaign finance irregularities, for instance, has allowed him to depose numerous Clinton administration officials.


In addition, Klayman filed a multimillion-dollar class action civil suit against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the White House and the FBI, among others, on behalf of former Reagan and Bush employees whose FBI files were found at the White House. (In connection with that suit, he recently subpoenaed two Salon reporters, along with their notes and records. Klayman has since put the subpoenas on hold, although he is continuing with a similar subpoena against reporter Jane Mayer of the New Yorker.)

Klayman calls himself "a conservative Ralph Nader," but television viewers perhaps know him best as a fixture on the political chat-show circuit, with his appearances on shows such as "Crossfire," "Internight," "Rivera Live," "Talkback Live," "PrimeTime Live," "Charles Grodin," "Inside Politics," "Equal Time" and "The Big Show." Given his ubiquitous presence and reasonable demeanor, you might not realize that Klayman is also a peddler of some of the most outlandish accusations made against the Clinton administration.

Take the case of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died in April 1996 when the Air Force jet he was flying in crashed in the mountains of Croatia. Klayman doesn't find that explanation convincing. While careful never to level a direct accusation, Klayman has floated the theory that Brown may actually have been murdered to keep him quiet about the White House's alleged campaign-finance shenanigans.


In fact, Klayman has petitioned a federal three-judge panel that appoints independent counsels to order not only an investigation into Brown's death but also into the death of another Commerce Department employee, Barbara Wise. According to Klayman, Wise "worked in the same section" as the notorious Democratic Party fund-raiser John Huang and died under suspicious circumstances in her Commerce Department office. (The Commerce Department says that Wise -- who was found dead in her office on Nov. 29, 1996 -- died from natural causes.)

It's not as if Klayman's "unconventional" views are hidden from public view. Far from it. All the examples I've described in this article are conveniently posted in press releases and legal pleadings at the Judicial Watch Web site. And when I spoke to Klayman late last month he was more than happy to walk me through what he regards as evidence that there was more to Brown's death than met the eye.

In Klayman's version of events, there had been an uneasy confrontation between Brown and Clinton when he told the president that he would tell all unless Clinton shut down the independent counsel's investigation of the commerce secretary. Then Brown was unexpectedly asked to travel to Croatia. Klayman contends that Brown's body was in "near-perfect condition" after the crash -- except for a mysterious hole found in Brown's skull, which Klayman says may have been a gunshot wound from a .45 caliber pistol. Indicative of a possible cover-up, says Klayman, is the fact that no autopsy was performed. (For the record, the initial examination of Brown's body concluded that he -- along with the other 34 passengers -- died from the impact of the crash; a follow-up internal military review confirmed that conclusion.)


Klayman is suspicious. He told me that he is currently pursuing a Freedom of Information Act request for government documents that he believes will show that there may have been multiple survivors of the crash. "He [Brown] could have been one of those survivors," Klayman told me. Suggesting that some people were sent to finish the job, Klayman adds: "Then the issue arises: Was he shot on the ground?"

Perhaps the bigger mystery is why viewers of the Clinton-scandal talk shows aren't given a better idea of who they are listening to. Few of the producers I spoke with were eager to talk about it. Three separate producers at MSNBC's "Internight" and "The Big Show," for instance, declined comment. After all, as one producer for "The Big Show" told me, "We've only had him on once."


Rick Davis, the senior executive producer of "Crossfire," was more forthcoming. "If we made points or clarifications about every guest on the show," Davis told me, "we'd get in the way of the 22 minutes of debate." Davis reasons that "Crossfire" is an adversarial environment. Every guest faces hostile questioning from one of the hosts or the guests, and viewers can make up their minds about who is credible and who is not. Davis doesn't think it's a problem to have a guest on to talk about a particular topic who also has far-fetched ideas on "other matters that are unrelated." In any case, Davis insisted, Klayman has "done his homework." "Klayman has on any number of issues moved the ball forward -- on issues like John Huang, Filegate and others."

But it's hard to figure how Klayman's willingness to believe that the White House may have had one of its own cabinet secretaries murdered is "unrelated" to his credibility on whether the White House used FBI files for political espionage. And there is a larger issue. Klayman is only one of a large cast of talk show guests who are allowed -- even encouraged -- to cross the line separating legitimate criticism of presidential misdeeds from the most feverish and extreme speculation.

In a New York Times editorial last December, Anthony Lewis made a similar point about the line being crossed. "In the old days," he wrote, "people who invented such tales were dismissed as the lunatic fringe. Nowadays they have the power of money to circulate their lies." Indeed. The political right has done a splendid job building up a network of think tanks, advocacy groups and media outlets that propagate these charges.


But Lewis also misses an important element of the story. These political chat shows increasingly launder beyond-the-pale accusations from the fringe into the mainstream of political dialogue. It's not that Klayman shouldn't be on TV just because he has unconventional views. Perhaps it's fine if chat-show producers want to have him serve up opinions on the campaign-finance scandal or what the White House was up to with those 900 FBI files. But in the interests of informing the public, they perhaps should also let us know that the expert guest also believes the White House may have had a senior U.S. government official killed on a hilltop in Croatia.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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