Last year, when the sound and fury of the anti-Clinton movement was cresting with every White House revelation, no group reveled more gleefully in the president's troubles than the habitues of Free Republic, a raucous conservative Web site where Clinton bashers vied to top each others' harangues and posted press clips bolstering their views.
The "Freepers" turned their cyberspace coffee klatch into the liveliest, if not the biggest, right-wing Web site on the net.
But Free Republic was more than just a Web site where red-meat conservatives could interact, as opposed to merely read. Freep sponsored anti-Clinton Washington rallies. It took out newspaper ads. It gave a dinner for the congressional managers of the impeachment drive. Freep clubs sprang up in some cities. Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent and catalyst of Monicagate, joined the party, and Web Wunderkind Matt Drudge helped it out with publicity and links. Free Republic became the main soundstage for the anti-Clinton bandwagon, with its "latest posts" page drawing 50,000 individual visits per day.
What a difference a year makes.
Drudge, Goldberg and several other Free Republic stars have left; visits are reportedly down to less than half what they were a year ago; Free Republic's founding guru, Jim Robinson, has been sued by the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times; and a swelling number of haters have turned up the volume of death threats, gay-bashing, name-calling and conspiracy theories tying the father of Republican front-runner George W. Bush to drug-dealing by the CIA.
To be fair, Free Republic has always been a home for pugilistic far-right zealots, and its recent traffic decline is probably due to the passing of impeachment as an issue, not just dissent over the crusade against Bush. But disaffected Freep stalwarts say that in recent months Robinson "let all the Y2K, gun-nut, Jew-baiting crazies take over and flame the plain-old conservatives," in the words of Goldberg.
"Well, this is a fine kettle of fish!" wrote one Freep regular in May, echoing the angst of a score of regulars. "I leave for a few weeks to remodel my kitchen, and when I come back everything is falling apart!"
"This site has become loaded with crazies and that's a damn shame," wrote another in an abject letter of resignation, one of a steady stream of Freepers to head for the exits in May, when impeachment was long gone as an issue and an army of conspiracy-minded extremists seemed to float to the top of the message boards.
The top extremist, in the estimate of the disenchanted, is its founder, Robinson, a wheelchair-bound Navy veteran of the Vietnam War who operates the site with his son and an unpaid helper from his home in Fresno, Calif. When Robinson unleashed a windy jeremiad linking Texas Gov. Bush with alleged CIA-connected drug-running under his father, a former CIA director (1975-77), vice president (1981-89) and president of the United States (1989-93), all cyber-hell broke loose.
Untold thousands of conservatives, desperate for the front-running Republican "Dubya" to oust the Democrats from the White House, left, leaving the playing field to the loons. Sources with access to Free Republic's traffic data say visitors and page views are down by at least half from their peak a year ago.
The most prominent defectors are Drudge and Goldberg. The site was thrown into a tizzy for days after their departure in May, with hundreds of anxious posts. One regular said it was "like being in the middle of a huge dysfunctional family dispute."
"Come off it," a regular begged Goldberg, known as "Trixie" on the site. "These little explosions have happened before. This is still the best conservative Web site in existence, especially when people don't get too tired and wired to cope. This will blow over as the others have. Please stay."
But it hasn't blown over.
"He's a mean shit," says Goldberg of Robinson, once her partner in exposing Clinton crimes. She launched her own Web site, Lucianne.com, taking "2,000" Freepers with her, she says. "I am not anti-abortion, I am not Y2K either. I'm not a homophobe, I'm not an anti-Semite -- Christ ... I have a Jewish husband ... I have four people who work for me and half of them are gay. I mean, this is ridiculous."
"A stinking mackerel in the garbage can of truth," says Ken Giles about Robinson. Giles, a onetime Free Republic star contributor, charges that Robinson allowed the site to become "a hate group open to all sorts of off-the-wall stuff -- conspiracy theories that really come from the left."
Freep loyalists, of course, beg to differ.
"I do hope you will be fair enough to note that by a wide, wide margin the amount of serious debate on serious topics of public interest far outweighs the amount of kook/nut stuff," says Brian L. Buckley, Free Republic's attorney. "Its dominant population is conservative/libertarian thinkers who are passionate about politics. OK, obsessed maybe. What's wrong with that?"
"We won't kick the nuts out," Buckley continued, "although if racism or bigotry or hatred is expressed we will ... Free Republic is not ashamed of that accommodation any more than the ACLU is ashamed of accommodating skinheads marching through Skokie."
An unbowed Robinson, meanwhile, says he wishes Goldberg and the other defectors well, and is looking forward to Freep's July 24 "Treason is the Reason" rally in Lafayette Park across from the White House. The gathering will feature the political odd couple of Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr and left-wing Clinton-loathing columnist and Salon News contributor Christopher Hitchens.
"I said I would speak at their dinner," Hitchens said via e-mail. "I didn't know the rally was called Treason is the Reason: Sounds a bit overwrought to me. In general I'll speak to any anti-Clinton outfit and make my own points."
Meanwhile, Robinson says he'll continue to make his own points about the Bush-CIA past.
"The theories of the CIA's involvement with drug runners and terrorists in Southeast Asia and Central and South America are well known and have been around for many years," he answered a query from Salon News. "And many of the stories we've heard are probably true or at least are grounded in fact and I, for one, would like to get to the bottom of it and put a stop to it."
He added, "There are some in Lucianne's group who do not want to touch these issues because they might lead back to George Bush as leader of the CIA, vice president and then president, and these discussions might damage G.W.'s chances of winning the nomination."
"Shame on you," one disaffected Freeper responded, "for blaming the son for the father's sins."
On this and other disputes, both current and ex-Freepers begin to sound more like high schoolers in a cafeteria food fight, cackling louder with every splat.
"It's the whack-jobs that are scaring people off," says Goldberg. "The remaining freepers are still talking about Vince Foster, for crissake."
"If you leave, you're an enemy of the Web site," says Giles, a movie-industry Web architect in Santa Barbara, Calif. "Is that ludicrous or what? An enemy of the Web site? How can you be an enemy of a Web site?"
The site still has its supporters, and not only on the far-out right.
"I love the Web site ... Jim Robinson is a genius. It's really well organized," said Dan Moldea, the Washington organized-crime reporter and author. "It's the belly of the beast," he adds.
Moldea, who's been a target of Freepers since last year, when he surfaced as Larry Flynt's chief investigator of Republican sexcapades on Capitol Hill, relishes the political combat, but says: "These people are fanatical. They never admit they are wrong."
Moldea recently experienced a twist in a Freep practice that's gotten the site in trouble. He found an article about Clinton with his byline on it, headlined "The Mob President," posted at Free Republic. Since Moldea, an avid Clinton supporter, did not author the piece, he poked around on the Internet and found that the article had been lifted from another anti-Clinton tabloid and then falsely attributed to him at Free Republic.
Lifting articles got Robinson and Free Republic in hot water with the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, which last October sued the site for violating the "fair use" doctrine on reprints. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, said Robinson was violating the law by posting, archiving and allowing his visitors to post, the full text of Post and Times articles instead of just summaries and links, causing the publishers to lose money. (Full disclosure: Salon has complained to the site's webmaster about posting the full text of Salon articles.)
At the time, Robinson shot back that he was being singled out for his politics and vowed, "I will not back down." This week, however, he referred questions on the suit to his attorney, Buckley, who expressed confidence that the little Free Republic would prevail against the media giants.
In a telephone interview from his Los Angeles office, Buckley said the plaintiffs had been "stonewalling" his requests for internal data from their Web sites demonstrating that the duplication of Times and Post material at Freep actually generated traffic back to their Web sites.
Katharine Scully, associate counsel for the Washington Post Co., "categorically" denied Buckley's allegation of foot-dragging in the suit, saying Free Republic was "searching for information we simply do not have," and that the Web site had failed to provide its own documentation to show it had generated visits to the Post's online pages.
Critics trace Free Republic's decline to last February, when the drive to impeach Clinton sputtered and Robinson and his followers began attacking Bush. Spring also marked the arrival at Freep's Fresno headquarters of one Connie Hair, a former Paramount Studios secretary and bit-role actress ("Death Wish 5") who found her political legs online at Free Republic.
Hair was soon anointed Freep's director of media relations and event planning. Her critics say she encouraged Robinson's desire to turn Free Republic from a mere Web site into a political organization.
"She turned it into a power position," said Giles. Expanding from Free Republic, Hair became a paid consultant to conservative Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes as well as Larry Klayman, the Washington activist whose Judicial Watch has peppered the White House and its supporters with lawsuits.
Hair refused to comment on her role at Free Republic.
Robinson has also been accused of raising funds online and not accounting for how he's used them. He appealed for funds to stage Free Republic political events, such as last fall's "Judgment Day" rally in Washington, touted in a Freep-paid advertisement in the anti-Clinton Washington Times newspaper. According to his critics, some donors gave "tens of thousands" of dollars to the cause, while others donated with the hopes of making some money back by selling Freep T-shirts, bumper stickers, pins and so forth.
Around the same time, Free Republic began supplying material to TalkSpot, a now-defunct Internet venture that featured streaming talk radio and videos. He acknowledges that he received a consulting fee for the material. That triggered criticism that Robinson was receiving "six-figure" fees from TalkSpot while crying poverty on the site and begging for donations. No one beyond Robinson really knows how much money has been taken in or spent. He refuses to release a financial statement, and declined any comment to Salon News on his finances.
It's the hate mail and death threats sprinkled through the site, however, that some of Free Republic's former supporters believe demonstrate the decline of the site.
Samples about the Clintons: "Somehow, genital herpes just isn't enough for this duo ... 357 seems more on the mark (it may take a village to whack you, you sullen bitch!)
"Hey billzo, fondled any chicks on a rope line lately? Criss, have you noticed that these two assholes, the pres and his bitch, need about four layers of protection just to walk around in public? They know that everybody hates them, and wants them to be dead! Senator? yea-sure, c'mon, bitch, I got yer senator rite heayre! ..."
And this regarding gays: "I was once told that 50 grains injected behind the ear cures both AIDS and homosexuality," posted another Freeper with the screen name of D. Rider. "That's '50 grains' of lead."
"The FBI went around and rapped on his trailer," said Goldberg of one regular hate mailer. She doesn't take the rants seriously. "They were written in kind of a tough-guy vernacular, bully talk. That doesn't mean they're going to literally go kill [the Clintons]. But it was ugly stuff."
T.J. Walker, an online columnist who dug up a passel of ominous posts on the Clintons in the past few months (another sample: "People, we are going to have to go to Washington, and kill this horrible bastard ourselves!"), claimed that Free Republic's "political influence is rising even as death threats occur more frequently on its message boards." As evidence, he cited the upcoming "Treason is the Reason" rally that, in addition to featuring Barr and Hitchens, is also touting speeches by Rep. James Rogan, R-Calif., another failed House impeachment manager.
As usual, democracy probably has little to fear. As one of Free Republic's regulars wrote about all the howling on the site: "Take a Valium and mellow out."