The vast right-wing conspiracy isn't, and never was. But the same people Hillary Clinton tried to blame for turning the Monica Lewinsky mess into a constitutional crisis are at it again, over Attorney General Janet Reno's use of force to return Elian Gonzalez to his father.
All weekend, conservative opponents of Reno's move were fixated on a pair of photographs: the horrifying image of a federal agent with a gun confronting a crying Elian, and a reassuring reunion photo released by Gregory Craig, attorney for Juan Miguel Gonzalez, showing the boy smiling and embracing his father.
The bash-Clinton industry immediately got busy insisting the reunion photo was faked, a claim first made by the Miami relatives and their attorneys. Both Lucianne.com and then the Drudge Report carried the photos side by side, to argue that Elian's hair was longer in the reunion photo, and that baby teeth he was missing in the Associated Press photo taken in Miami were visible in the photo released by Craig.
Because I'd written about the power of the competing images on Saturday, all weekend long my e-mail in box was clogged with messages from conservatives, often attaching the photos, trying to convince me I'd been duped. There were various explanations for the differences between the two pictures, but most people seemed to think Fidel Castro had provided photos taken before the boy left Cuba, and with help from Craig -- President Clinton's impeachment attorney, remember -- managed to pass them off as current.
Suspicion of Castro, Clinton and Craig didn't surprise me. It may even be justified. What's remarkable, though, is how unconvincing the conservatives' claims were when you looked at the two photos side by side. The difference seemed to be literally and figuratively a matter of perspective, and easily explained. For one thing, the reunion photos were taken with a cheap camera, and they're darker and grainier, which created the appearance of more hair on the boy's head. (It's really just darker, not longer.) The matter of the teeth seems like a more willful misrepresentation of fact -- Elian is missing a bottom tooth in the AP photo, but his bottom teeth aren't visible in the reunion shot.
What to make of the campaign to discredit the photos? It's an unsettling reminder of the depth of hatred toward the Clinton administration, a disturbingly widespread belief that the president will do literally anything to advance his agenda -- and will get away with it. It's strong enough to create a mass hallucination, letting the right see what it wants to see even in photographs. But that probably shouldn't be surprising from the crowd that accused Clinton of having a hand in Vince Foster's death, as well as cocaine addiction, fathering children out of wedlock with prostitutes, even killing children in Arkansas.
By Sunday night, Craig had released yet another set of reunion photos, showing the boy still happy to be with his father. The number and quality of those pictures made it hard for the right to claim they were fakes. An AP photo editor examined both sets of reunion photos and pronounced them as near as he could to genuine.
So the Clinton haters shifted their argument to make the case that the reunion photos were forced -- that Elian was coerced into smiling, perhaps by Castro himself, or that he was drugged after being taken from the house Saturday morning. "I saw a little Band-Aid (in the pictures)," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., on CNN Saturday. "I think the drugging has already begun."
And second-day stories shifted attention to the danger that awaits the boy back in Cuba. "Brainwashing in store for boy," warns the headline of Robert Novak's column.
On Capitol Hill Monday it was impeachment dij` vu, when the cast of House Republican leaders who voted for Clinton's removal from office weighed in on the weekend's events in Miami. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who presided over 1998 impeachment hearings, announced that his staff would begin "a preliminary inquiry" into the tactics used to seize Elian. Once again, Rep. Tom DeLay was "outraged," "sickened" and "ashamed." And as if for old time's sake, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., called the actions of the administration "reckless."
The conflict over Elian is yet another striking example of the way the left and the right have traded places in recent years. Just like left-wingers in the 1960s, today's hardline conservatives are convinced they're doing battle with an immoral government whose laws may be ignored in the service of a higher power. The evil that is Cuba trumps a father's right to custody of his son among the family-values crowd, and Reno's raid is transformed into the second coming of Nazi storm troopers, rather than a lamentable but reasonable response to a family that had nine days earlier defied a federal order to hand over the child.
The nation deserves a full accounting of the steps leading to Reno's actions, as we do anytime armed government agents enter a private home. Polls show the American people favor the return of Elian to his father, though they are divided on the question of whether the Justice Department used too much force. But the attempt to demonize the department will fail, as impeachment did before it. The right is too blinded by its hatred of Clinton and Reno to effectively reach people who don't share it. It's in danger of becoming a cult rather than a political movement -- dangerous, perhaps, but ultimately politically ineffectual.