What compelled television producer James Retter to spend more than a year investigating the so-called vast right-wing conspiracy to topple President Clinton? Two words: Rush Limbaugh. After years of listening to the flamboyant right-wing host's vitriol and inaccuracy-laden rhetoric, Retter says he was "driven over the edge." So he decided to fight back -- with facts.
A longtime Democrat, Retter claims he didn't know what he was expecting to find, that all he was after was the truth. Since he didn't see many journalists investigating the right-wing connections to pivotal Clinton bashers such as the Arkansas troopers, Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, he did it himself. The result is a new book, "Anatomy of a Scandal: An Investigation into the Campaign to Undermine the Clinton Presidency" (General Publishing Group).
The most compelling of Retter's discoveries is his painstaking reconstruction of the events of May 8, 1991, the day Paula Jones claims she was propositioned by then-Gov. Clinton in an Arkansas hotel room. Retter concludes that due to the governor's schedule that day, it is nearly impossible that he met Jones in the early afternoon, as she has claimed in court filings. Clinton had indeed been at the Excelsior Hotel in the morning delivering a speech but had returned to the governor's mansion for a luncheon by the time he allegedly harassed Jones.
Because the Paula Jones sexual harassment case (which was dismissed several months ago, an action Jones is appealing) was the catalyst for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Retter's claims are highly relevant today. Salon spoke with Retter about his findings and asked him why his discoveries are receiving very little media attention.
Your critics could discount you as just another Clinton loyalist trying to discount his detractors.
I started with a blank page. I would start with a topic and approach it with honest scrutiny and some skepticism. And it went where it went. I did not practice what I think is really appalling journalism these days where you discount things you don't like and include things that support you. When I was writing about Richard Mellon Scaife, for example, I credited him with being a philanthropist who supports good causes such as the Salvation Army. And with Limbaugh, I really tried to leave out salacious personal attacks that have nothing to do with the issues that the person is raising. I have bent over backwards to document and source what I have found. It stands up because it is based on fact.
For your book, you interviewed Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, who was a critical figure in both the Jones and Lewinsky stories.
I came up with things that were unknown to Michael Isikoff that had they been reported earlier would have cast doubt on Paula Jones and her case.
What did you find that Isikoff and others did not?
The early involvement of the right wing in the Jones case, specifically the involvement of Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. At that time, Pritchard was the Washington correspondent for the (London) Sunday Telegraph. The week that Paula filed her lawsuit he reported that he had a dozen conversations with her. We know that there was a claim by Larry Nichols [a disgruntled former Arkansas state employee who has waged a relentless campaign against Clinton ever since the then-governor fired him from an Arkansas state agency for malfeasance in 1987]. He said there was an English newspaper offering half a million dollars to anyone who would come forward with a claim. All I'm saying is there was money and there was early involvement with the right wing. In an interview with me, Michael Isikoff said he was unaware of this involvement. He and others had said, "Paula only went to the right wing because the mainstream press ignored her." When in fact the right wing was involved early on.
You also found discrepancies in the time line of events on the day the
president allegedly harassed Paula Jones.
Yes, It's quite remarkable. I found what appeared to be an
irreconcilable discrepancy in the time line. It has to do with Paula's
claim in two legal filings. She said what occurred in the hotel room
happened at 2:30 in the afternoon. I found out that the president was
at the Excelsior Hotel in the morning, gave opening remarks at the third
annual Governor's Quality Control Conference, lingered in the hotel and
then left to go to the governor's mansion for an official function.
And you verified this how?
I verified this by looking at logs, by talking to people including the
then-press secretary for Gov. Clinton and found that this was in fact the
way things happened.
So presumably this undermines Jones' claim?
This puts the Jones people in the position of having to account for Bill
Clinton's going back to the hotel. Since they never bothered to examine
Bill Clinton's schedule for the day, this came as a surprise to them. And
their answer was, he simply went back -- that he left the function, a
luncheon on the mansion lawn, and went back to the hotel.
Does the Jones team have any witnesses who saw Clinton go from the
luncheon back to the hotel?
It came as a total surprise to the Jones team that the president was not
at the hotel for a luncheon -- they thought he had been there for lunch and
had simply lingered. The significance of this is enormous because Paula's
claim is for emotional distress. She claims that what happened in the hotel
room caused her to flee the room shaking, run downstairs and tell her
co-worker what happened, then leave work early. Had this happened in the
morning, before lunch, there would have been scores of people who could
have attested to the fact that they had seen her.
Why isn't the Clinton camp seizing this information, bringing it to
You'd have to ask the Clinton camp. There is a gag order and the
president's lawyers are not the kind to go out and give a lot of
information. In other words, if the Clinton camp brought up the time line earlier,
the Jones camp might have adjusted it accordingly. They would have room to be
vague. Now they are locked in at 2:30.
Again, if this information is true, why haven't we heard about it?
Paula Jones has a constitutional right to make her claim and make her
filings that will work their way to trial. What we rely on in the interim
is reporters to tell us what's going on. And it seems to me that has not
happened in the Paula Jones case because the question turns at some point
from why didn't Clinton's lawyers bring this out to why didn't the
media know this? The second question is, is it true? If it is true, then
what does it say about Paula Jones and her lawsuit? If she was lying about
the time, I think her whole case --
But wait, you just said you had evidence to prove it is true,
that the alleged harassment, if it occurred at all, would have had to have
taken place in the morning?
I've had two meetings with [former Jones advisor] Susan Carpenter-McMillan
and in the first one she
denied that Paula ever gave a time line. The second time she
said that Paula did give a time but it wasn't 2:30, it was 3:30. So up to
this point she is no longer contesting that Clinton was there in the
morning and left, she is saying that he came back in the afternoon. She
says what could have happened is that because the governor's mansion is
only six blocks from the Excelsior Hotel, he could have walked.
Well, what has been lost in all of this is Danny Ferguson [Clinton's then-body guard].
Can you explain the role Ferguson plays here?
Well, imagine Bill Clinton walking back to the hotel unnoticed. He would
have had to have been with Danny Ferguson. Paula's claim is that Danny Ferguson
was the conduit up to the
hotel room in the first place. He must be there.
Did you talk to Ferguson?
He's under a gag order. What I have determined is that Ferguson will say,
when these papers are released, that all this happened in the morning. And
if it happened in the morning than Paula's whole claim of emotional
distress collapses. There is no way with all the detail Paula Jones has
brought to the events of that day that she could have possibly forgotten if
the alleged harassment happened before or after lunch. If she is saying
that it happened after lunch, she is saying it because she has to support a
claim of emotional distress. To allow her to flee a room, go down and
tell a friend and leave work early. That sequence does not work in the
Everything you're saying could bring down her whole case, which in turn
could complicate the Lewinsky matter. What happens next?
Good question. It seems to me that when the Jones papers are released,
which seems to be imminent, contained within them will be a bombshell that
will either support what I've said or not. And it will have to do with
Danny Ferguson's claims. In his legal filings he does not give a specific
time that things took place other than to say "after the governor's
speech." Well I've now demonstrated that the governor's speech was in the
morning. I am convinced that he will be asked specifically for a time, and
if he says it was in the morning, not in the afternoon, Paula Jones' claim
of emotional distress collapses.