How the right smeared Clinton and Gore on China

Racism helped the president's enemies link fundraising scandals to accusations of espionage, with almost no evidence.

By Joe Conason

Published June 7, 2000 7:01PM (EDT)

Ever since the Senate investigation into questionable fundraising during the 1996 presidential campaign, conservative commentators and some Republican politicians have suggested a nefarious connection between money that flowed into Democratic accounts from Asian and Asian-American contributors and Clinton administration decisions concerning technology transfers to China. In their greed for Chinese gold and their zeal for reelection, according to this theory, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have invited a future nuclear attack on their native land by the commissars of Beijing.

Nobody has been able to explain credibly how all the disparate elements of this traitorous conspiracy to arm the Beijing regime fit together, but somehow the vice president's appearance at a Buddhist temple in California, Wen Ho Lee's security breach at Los Alamos, Charlie Trie's donations to the president's legal expense trust, illegal fundraising by John Huang and Loral Space's satellite contract are all linked in a sinister web of intrigue. If these shrill accusations have usually been murky when it comes to details, the broader theme has been clear enough, and it sounds a lot like treason.

Spreading that smear (and stirring anti-Asian nativism) for political advantage is the aim of continuing Republican japes about the Buddhist temple incident. Whether the accusation is articulated or merely insinuated, we are supposed to believe that Clinton, Gore and all the other Americans suspected of wrongdoing in these affairs are guilty of intentionally betraying the security of the United States -- a far worse offense, of course, than allegedly lying under oath about sex, for which the president was impeached.

Unfortunately, such ugly suspicions have been encouraged not only by conservative propagandists, but by sloppy journalism that never quite seems to catch up with the facts. Ordinary citizens have little way of knowing that one by one, the premises underlying the so-called China scandal have collapsed almost entirely.

Just a few weeks ago, American Lawyer magazine's Roger Parloff published an exhaustive analysis of the Buddhist temple affair that stripped away the rhetoric to show how weak the case against Gore really is. Going through the evidence that emerged in congressional hearings and in the successful prosecution of Democratic fundraiser Maria Hsia, Parloff showed that the entire affair was at worst a screwup by Clinton-Gore campaign staffers; Gore almost certainly knew nothing about money being raised from Buddhist nuns. Not surprisingly, alas, Parloff's compelling article received little notice from media outlets and commentators who have tried to hang a felony on Gore for the past three years.

And during the last week of May yet another prop of the China scandal fell. The latest to go is the case against Bernard Schwartz, the chairman of Loral Aerospace and a lifelong Democratic maverick in the mostly Republican aerospace industry. During the Clinton years, Schwartz has been among the largest contributors of "soft money" to the Democratic National Committee, while his company sought and received permission to assist the Chinese government in launching a communications satellite.

That coincidence alone might have raised misgivings, but the Republicans went ballistic after the New York Times reported in April 1998 that the Department of Justice was investigating allegations that Loral had illegally transferred missile guidance technology to Chinese engineers. They demanded an independent prosecutor to investigate whether Schwartz had bribed the president so that Loral could leak American military secrets to a Communist regime with impunity.

Those lurid charges never made sense, but they generated sensational headlines across the country. Now we know that they were entirely groundless, thanks to a report in the May 23 Los Angeles Times that, again, has received little attention in the national media. According to Times reporters William C. Rempel and Alan Miller, who obtained internal Justice Department documents, the chief prosecutor in charge of probing the Clinton-Gore campaign-finance scandal found "not a scintilla of evidence -- or information -- that the president was corruptly influenced by Bernard Schwartz."

The prosecutor who reached that conclusion is none other than Charles LaBella, who has since left Justice and whose criticism of some aspects of the campaign-finance probe has been widely publicized by Republicans in Congress. LaBella considered the investigation of Loral to be unwarranted, and he reportedly regarded Schwartz himself as "a victim of Justice Department overreaching."

Nevertheless, he had advised Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to take over the case -- not because he thought there was a prosecutable crime, but simply so that she would not appear partisan in dismissing the case entirely. Although the law arguably required Reno to name an independent counsel even in such a weak case, she declined to do so. LaBella disagreed with that decision, but not because he thought there was any evidence of wrongdoing. (Whether Loral unlawfully gave sensitive technical information to the Chinese is a separate matter that remains under investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.)

All those exculpatory facts were known to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., the inveterate grandstanding phony, but they didn't dissuade him from attempting to resuscitate the same old slanders against Loral and the White House during a May 2 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter brazenly attempted to transform Reno's rejection of LaBella's bureaucratic recommendation into evidence of a top-level coverup.

"Specter ... omitted any reference to LaBella's debunking of the merits of the Schwartz investigation," the L.A. Times account noted, and thus "prompted misleading stories and headlines about LaBella's failed efforts to get an outside prosecutor to investigate Schwartz and the president." Misleading the press, of course, was exactly what Specter intended to do -- even at the cost of further injury to Schwarz's reputation.

Of course, if conservatives really believe their own "sellout to China" mythology, they should be demanding the impeachment of the president and vice president for high treason and have rejected the establishment of permanent trading benefits for Beijing. They probably don't believe a word of it -- but they obviously hope that we will.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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