Hypocrisy and cant infect the political spectrum from end to end, especially when the subject is sexual morality. But rarely has there been a display of indignation as phony and self-serving as the recent campaign by Matt Drudge, Lucianne Goldberg and their cronies to suppress "The Insane Clown Posse," a book by New York writer John Connolly that threatened to expose titillating secrets of various figures on the Clinton-hating right.
Until Talk Miramax Books canceled Connolly's contract just over a week ago, there was a deep sense of foreboding reflected in Drudge's dispatches about the unfinished manuscript he had somehow obtained. How desperate were Drudge and company to stop Connolly from publishing his still-unfinished work? Evidently desperate enough to willingly embarrass Kenneth Starr, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and author Christopher Buckley by posting canards about them that allegedly appear in the manuscript.
Not having examined that purloined document, I have no way of judging whether it should be published. Nor can I say whether the information Connolly was pursuing deserves to be publicized, or represents instead an unwarranted inquisition into matters that ought to remain private. But what remains striking about this episode is how quickly the freewheeling 'wingers mutated into defenders of absolute privacy when their own peccadilloes faced exposure.
What did stand exposed were the flexible ethics of a few conservative activists and commentators. Even Drudge's own rather nihilistic notion of press freedom gave way to his urge to protect his cronies. Not since Larry Flynt offered a $1 million reward for proof of adultery by Republican lawmakers have we seen such deep yearning on the right for a return to old-fashioned civility and journalistic responsibility. (That mood quickly passed, of course, and we were back to dirty business as usual.)
Coincidentally, just a few days before Drudge posted his first item about the Connolly book, I listened to Lucianne Goldberg express her own very casual attitude toward truth and consequences. We were discussing the question of privacy and journalistic standards in the Internet era on a panel at the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newspapers, where I insisted that Net media ought to be held to the strict reporting and libel standards of print and broadcast journalism.
Goldberg demurred at any such strictures, cheerfully admitting that she had quite recently published an unchecked, damaging and, as it turned out, wholly false rumor on her Web site about someone she dislikes. She wanted it to be true, so she posted it. After all, she explained, her false item had been based on a "true rumor," meaning that someone had said it somewhere at some time. In short, she had perpetrated a gross smear, which later showed up in the pages of the New York Post.
Such are the moral habits acquired by the hard-bitten literary agent over the years, ever since her brief employment in 1972 as a snitch for the Nixon White House, spying on reporters, Secret Service agents and others aboard George McGovern's campaign plane and turning in daily reports about alleged sexual affairs and drug use. If she honors any limits whatsoever in political warfare, it isn't obvious what those limits might be.
Flash forward to the blitz against Connolly, who apparently was tracking down dozens of "true rumors" (and perhaps even some true facts) about Goldberg, Drudge, Ann Coulter and others of the same anti-Clinton ilk. Although he hadn't published anything yet, they were all outraged that he dared to research or even discuss their private behavior -- rumored, alleged or possibly true.
Somehow the subjects of Connolly's scrutiny regarded his project as different from their own assaults on the president, his family and friends during the past eight years. That was patriotic duty while this was "slash and trash," a "sex witch hunt" and "defamatory slander" reeking of "scorched earth." They were especially enraged about Connolly's employment of a private detective to assist him in his research.
Scorched-earth tactics and sexual witch hunts are always deplorable, of course. Yet this time it wasn't easy to sympathize with the scandal-singed complainants, if only because they've all been spreading inflammatory material and playing with matches themselves for so many years.
Consider the unappetizing example of David Bossie, the right-wing researcher who worked on both the Senate Whitewater Committee and the Dan Burton-led Government Reform and Oversight Committee in the House. According to Drudge, Bossie was distressed because Connolly had supposedly promoted rumors that he is gay. This is the same Bossie whose debut in national politics involved promoting a patently fake story that Bill Clinton had impregnated an Arkansas student who then committed suicide -- with the added insinuation that she might not have killed herself.
That smear dated back to 1992, when Clinton was first running for president and Bossie was working for Citizens United, a conservative outfit that wanted to defeat the Democratic nominee by any means necessary. Not only did Citizens United try to promote this particular lie, but Bossie and a private detective actually harassed the dead woman's bereaved family so mercilessly that their misconduct was exposed by CBS News, which quoted the Bush campaign excoriating the scuzzy maneuvers of Citizens United.
Equally angry about Connolly's quest was another of his apparent targets, Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund. What Fund seems to have forgotten was his own enthusiasm for precisely the same kind of investigation against Clinton during the summer of 1992, when he and Bossie met in Citizens United's Virginia offices with a Little Rock, Ark., private detective offering to sell them dirt about the Democratic presidential nominee. Although he has denied it, some still suspect Fund of having encouraged the false rumor about Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal abusing his wife, which Drudge published in August 1997.
Another of the furious Connolly subjects quoted by Drudge was an attorney peripherally involved in bringing the Lewinsky case to the attention of the independent counsel. Evidently his private life, too, had become a subject of interest to author Connolly, and he screamed that for such a probe to be funded by Miramax was "unconscionable."
But this same lawyer's conscience didn't trouble him back in 1992 when he joined a group of GOP operatives promoting the bogus story about a "love child" fathered by Clinton with a black prostitute in Little Rock, or when he used promises of money to encourage Clinton's former bodyguards to tell outlandish stories about Hillary Clinton and late White House counsel Vince Foster. That was just politics as usual for the kind of Republican whose notions of fair and appropriate campaigning may be traced back to the late party leader Lee Atwater and that dirtiest of tricksters, Richard Milhous Nixon.
The heirs of Atwater and Nixon like to dish it out but they can't take it. Suddenly, when they found themselves in the spotlight, the most habitual practitioners of the politics of personal destruction were fretting about sleazy tactics and ruined lives. Their pious concern with journalistic standards was directly proportional to their own vulnerability.
Still, the hypocritical outcry against the Connolly book might have had a positive aspect, if it signaled a new attitude of responsibility among the "insane clown posse" themselves. Harsh personal experience sometimes awakens a decent impulse. Certainly American politics would be healthier if everyone realized that the time has come to close the Pandora's box of character assassination.
Don't get your hopes up, though. This may be a new millennium, but it's also an election year.
Full disclosure: Joe Conason is a contributor to Talk magazine. His pending agreement with the magazine was first disclosed Wednesday, after the publication of this column.