During a break Saturday in the meeting of the South Carolina Chapter of the Free Republic near Charleston, one of my pleasantly bourgeois luncheon companions told me that 75 percent of my tax money goes to pay the interest on the federal debt. I might have quickly swallowed my mesclun and quibbled with that figure if he hadn't stunned me into silence with his next solemn assertion: The debt wasn't run up to orbital heights in the '80s by Reagan's deficit spending, but by the Federal Reserve Bank, deliberately, so that "12 international bankers" could make gobs of money at our expense.
Apparently the tax burden this evil internationalist scheme has laid upon my acquaintance made it impossible for him to live his life to the fullest, even in his particularly upscale subdivision of my own overpriced Charleston suburb. Did I know, he asked, that Kennedy was shot because he was planning to dissolve the Fed, and that conditions in this country today parallel those which led to the rise of Hitler?
Welcome to Freeper World.
My neighbor's astonishing take on history and economics was just one of the bizarre views from the day, ending in an emotional evening banquet to raise funds for Linda Tripp's legal team. Tripp, speaking publicly for the first time since impeachment (which she set in motion by surreptitiously recording the anguished ditherings of presidential fellateuse Monica Lewinsky) and just days after criminal wire-tapping charges from the Monica tapes were dropped against her in Maryland, promised to continue her fight against the Demon Spawn, aka the Clintons. They had made such a shambles of her life, Tripp said, that she would never recover, economically or emotionally.
Yet she seemed remarkably cheerful Saturday, freshly face-lifted and looking forward with optimistic glee to getting more Clinton depositions on videotape in the course of her irony-impaired civil suit against the White House for -- yes -- invasion of privacy.
Free Republic is a loose, grass-roots style organization founded in 1996 by Jim Robinson, a Fresno, Calif., conservative. Its mission, as explained by Bob Johnson, the slender, well-spoken head of the fledgling activist arm of the organization, is to "reverse the trend of unconstitutional government expansion" and bring about "a restoration of our constitutional republic." Specific, long-range goals include the repeal of the 16th Amendment, which established the IRS, and the complete withdrawal from the United Nations. Intermediate goals include the rollback of gun control laws, dissolution of "unconstitutional" government departments, renunciation of many international treaties and repeal of regulations on business. However, according to Johnson, these ambitious efforts won't succeed if the organization fails to reach its primary goal of "ending liberalism as a significant cultural influence." In pursuit of that aim, it is bent on "leveling the playing field" in the media, and "balancing" the media's supposed 80-20 slant in favor of liberalism.
Johnson also plans to hit the "Achilles heel of the left": funding. Most left-wing organizations are not only generously supported by government money, Johnson claims, but by private entities who hand out grants, matching funds and other bennies to liberal causes. "Why," Johnson asked the assembled Freepers, "do we buy products from an organization that is giving money to our enemies?" He thinks those corporations should be induced to stop the handouts, or to give right-wing entities an equal amount.
Finally, Johnson said, the right needs to "retake our institutions," such as education, and higher education in particular, which is "dominated by liberals, fascists, communists, Marxists and other assorted luminaries." Young people these days come out of college with a "headful of mush," Johnson claims, and it takes them at least 10 years to "solidify all that Jell-O in their brains."
To quicken the congealing of liberal minds from rubbery picnic desserts into more respectable concrete blocks, Free Republic's busy Web site offers article reprints and media archives, as well as a lively -- some would say virulent -- forum for public discussion and "critical analysis" of current news and political issues. Free Republic has vociferously supported Tripp from the beginning of the impeachment crisis, calling her a "Hero and Patriot," and leading the effort to fund her legal defense. It's no wonder she felt comfortable making her first speech to the Freepers, because, as her lawyer Joe Murtha told us, she was sure what she said before these fiercely loyal partisans would not be criticized or harshly judged.
Not that criticisms and harsh judgments of other players in the impeachment drama are in short supply at Free Republic. One of the most startling aspects of their rhetoric is their poisonous, personalized, visceral hatred of the Clintons, particularly the hysterical expressions of outraged horror and disgust they direct toward Hillary Clinton. The aggression aimed at the president, supposedly the greatest criminal mind to ever occupy the White House, is almost jocose in comparison.
Freepers will, as they actually did Saturday, stand en masse and bellow in unison, making a bullhorn of their hands: "Bill Clinton! We have you surrounded! Drop the cigar, step away from the intern, and come out with your pants up!" But when it comes to Hillary, the humor takes on a seriously hostile edge. She is "Queen Hillary the First," the moral equivalent of Hitler and Stalin, and, it seems, the worst thing that ever happened to the United States of America.
Yet only liberals assume the worst about their fellow human beings, says Van Jenerette, a candidate for the Republican nomination in South Carolina's First Congressional District. In the course of a rousing stump-style lesson on the "divinely inspired" Constitution, Jenerette floated a common Freeper concept of the philosophical differences between left and right. Conservatives, he said, are self-disciplined people who follow rules, have a conscience, uphold a moral code and assume that other people are just like them, and therefore don't need to be supervised. Liberals, on the other hand, have no internal mechanisms of belief, no value structures ("William Jefferson Clinton is an example of that"), and because they assume that others are immoral ghouls like themselves, they naturally think people need to be watched and "micro-managed."
I was confused. Conservatives might not think people need to be supervised, but they demonstrate an alarming propensity to declare that liberals need to be controlled. (The inescapable conclusion, of course, is that they don't think liberals are really people.) It is also a truism of political science -- or at least it was when I used to teach it -- that conservatives think human nature is inherently selfish and naughty (remember Original Sin?), and it's the fuzzy-headed liberals who think people are naturally good. Jenerette's speech made my head spin.
Before Linda Tripp arrived at the banquet that night, one of the people at my table described the "disguise" he'd seen Linda wearing as she passed by him earlier in the evening. She'd looked like a "scarecrow," he said, wearing a funny black straw hat and a black trench coat. I thought that was peculiar indeed, given that the day's glaring, Deep South heat would cause anyone wearing a black coat to melt down into a puddle of saline and rendered lard.
She must be desperate not to be recognized, I thought (as I added to my own ample stock of lard with the marvelous dinner featuring Southern classics like pork barbecue, fried chicken, coleslaw and corn custard), but surely such a get-up in this climate would only call attention to her.
When Tripp entered the room some time later (greeted with a standing ovation and a chant of "Linda! Linda! Linda!") she was wearing the black hat, perched on the back of what looked like a varicolored ash-blond wig that curved curiously around her narrow, heavily made-up face. One of the reporters I talked to at a table in the back assured me that the thick, too-shiny lankosity on her head was her real hair. He was a man, though, and perhaps a Linda partisan (he made some friendly remarks to her later), so I took his opinion with a grain of salt. Not that I would accuse a fellow journalist of pulling my leg or anything.
Tripp had on a black coat-dress incongruously belted with a wide, studded cummerbund of brown leather, like a fancy weight-lifter's back support. The delicate skin under her eyes was still stretched and sunburned-looking from the surgery, but leaving aside the makeup and the clothes, she looked good: pleased at the adulation she was receiving, a little sweaty with excitement and quite self-assured, like an aging movie star surrounded by fans.
(The minor news note in the evening was that Tripp and her lawyers only recently discovered, on May 25, that the Department of Defense inspector general had determined that Tripp's Pentagon bosses, Ken Bacon and Clifford Bernath, had violated the provisions of the Privacy Act in telling New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer that Tripp had not reported a youthful arrest on her application for employment. In spite of the IG's determination, the DOD Office of General Counsel asked the Department of Justice to authorize private counsel for Bernath at government expense to fight Tripp's civil suit, as his error had been made in the course of his official duties. Tripp's civil lawyers, David Colapinto and Stephen and Michael Kohn, wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno on Saturday, requesting that the authorization for private counsel be denied, and any money that had already been spent on Bernath's defense be returned.)
The surprising thing about the Freepers, given the surreal quality of their rhetoric and their alarming obsession with the Clinton Reign of Terror, is that they seem, on the whole, to be Very Nice People. They are not twitching freaks. You don't have to wear cloves of garlic or pack heat to feel safe among them. They are friendly, verbally accomplished and for the most part apparently intelligent people. Skewing generally older and more prosperous than the general population, they have sparkling eyes, good senses of humor and engaging smiles. They display emotion as freely as Miss America contestants, weeping with joy, weeping with anger, weeping with deeply felt patriotic reverence for the sacrifices of our forefathers and Linda Tripp's unspeakable sufferings.
They struck me as the kind of sweet, well-dressed and peripherally charming crowd you'd find in a suburban Presbyterian church on any given Sunday. These people, in short, don't demonstrate any immediately visible sign that they are -- as we used to say in the Air Force -- "et up" with their own peculiar sense of themselves. But, as with the Presbyterians, once they start talking, you begin to catch on.
Linda Tripp did a lot of talking. She told a piteous tale of being misunderstood and vilified by the press, of how her personal appearance was used against her, her ugliness being emphasized, she claimed, as a means to discredit and demonize her in general. I'll buy that. It was ever thus. Appearances count, and we tend to perceive people we don't like as physically unattractive. It's an old game, and women take a bigger hit.
But it apparently doesn't occur to Tripp that the distaste much of the press felt for her might have been based upon their own genuine feelings about her and her actions. She seems to think that the media's opinion of her as an ugly, perhaps jealous woman who betrayed her pretty young friend was entirely the fault of the "spin" projected from the Clinton White House.
Tripp also shares the Freepers' total disgust for/obsession with Hillary Clinton. "We have all," she said, referring to herself and other Clinton accusers, "been in the cross-hairs of Mrs. Clinton, whose orchestration of [our] destruction is well known in the White House. She calls the shots, she spearheads the strategy, and she ... is ... in ... charge. Please don't ever doubt that." Tripp's main objection to Hillary seems to be that she became a "de facto co-president ... whose power and influence only increased each and every time the president found himself in trouble."
During the question and answer period following her formal talk, she noted in an answer to a question about Al Gore that Hillary had even originally wanted to occupy the vice president's traditional office in the West Wing. Tsk tsk.
Tripp was also queried about her observations of the personal relationship between President and Hillary Clinton. "Did she manhandle him?" the questioner asked, drawing a laugh from the crowd and a loud aside from someone up front, opining that Hillary might "beat him like a rented mule." More hilarity ensued.
Finally Tripp was able to answer the question, outlining the way she was able to observe the first couple from her few months near the Oval Office early in the first administration, and later when she was shuffled to an office nearer Hillary's.
"I saw signs," Tripp said, "that Mrs. Clinton, on some level, loves her husband. I saw no signs, on any level, that Mr. Clinton has any respect or feelings for his wife." No one, Tripp seemed to be implying, could possibly love such a slavering monster as Hillary -- not even her long-term partner in crime.
Speaking of unrequited love, someone asked about Tripp's grand jury testimony that Kathleen Willey had an initially thrilled and smiling reaction to the president's alleged "sexual assault." It was clear that Tripp was choosing her words carefully. "Kathleen and I don't dispute what happened at all," she said. "We dispute, if anything, her reaction to it that day. And I think over time -- and she's had several years to put this in perspective -- I think what she has come to learn is that this wasn't a romantic encounter of any kind. In fact, it was an abusive encounter, and she felt very used."
"So I don't think that we see things so differently when you look at it through the lens of time. Perhaps, as many seem to be, she was flattered by the attentions of the president of the United States. I can't figure out why, but there are women who like that sort of thing." She went on to say that "the bottom line" was that Willey was assaulted, and "no one believed her."
It's interesting that Tripp, with her professed abhorrence of "spin," would deploy such an egregious example of it in order to support Willey today. But it seems that Tripp, too, has "reconsidered" the past. What we want to believe about one thing ("President Clinton is the antichrist") will alter our perception of the truth about something else ("Kathleen Willey is Polly Pureheart"). It's as if both the left and the right are looking into a funhouse mirror warped by their prejudices, and thinking they see the enemy, but really only seeing a distorted version of themselves. It's not unlike my friend at lunch who somehow sees the mad, inflationary Germany of the 1930s reflected in the relatively calm and prosperous present. He doesn't like what he thinks is happening, so evil must be afoot.
Not just some routine political annoyance, a mere swing in the pendulum, but the worst, most fiendish kind of evil. It's interesting that the far left vilifies Clinton almost as fiercely as the right does, because he hasn't been, from their point of view, as politically correct and supinely liberal as he should have been.
I found myself thinking, too, of the all peculiar alliances that have caused the far right and far left to climb into bed with each other, in recent campaigns against things as varied as pornography and Kosovo. My neighbor was taken aback when I said his concept that the media contained nothing but institutionalized, self-serving distortions was amazingly similar to that of a famous "leftist": Noam Chomsky.