A dubiously sourced anti-Semitic slur supposedly uttered by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1974 has been transformed by the New York Post almost overnight into the hottest issue of the Senate campaign. Yet if the first lady is shocked by this assault, that is only a sign that she is new in town. For New Yorkers who have observed the Post's patented perversion of political journalism over the past two decades, the "Jew bastard" affair evokes a depressing sense of dij` vu.
From the beginning, the current controversy has been a Rupert Murdoch operation. The allegation that Hillary Clinton used ethnic invective against a campaign worker appears in a book published by HarperCollins, one of the many enterprises in the right-wing press lord's News Corp. conglomerate. (Earlier this year, HarperCollins also published and heavily promoted Peggy Noonan's hardcover screed, "The Case Against Hillary Clinton," placing enormous posters strategically in bookstores around the state.) The alleged ethnic slur first surfaced as a "world exclusive" in the Drudge Report, but was almost instantly picked up and headlined on Page 1 by the Post. In that awful moment, the Murdoch technique crystallized perfectly for the first time in this campaign.
It wasn't the first instance when the Post had attacked the Democratic nominee with a slanted front-page headline, of course. Just a few weeks ago, the paper drew its own tendentious conclusions from the Travel Office report issued by the Office of Independent Counsel (which had grudgingly exonerated her) -- and summarized them opposite a suitably unflattering photograph of Hillary Clinton in 3-inch tabloid type: GOOD LIAR. That bold-faced epithet was relatively mild compared to the daily descriptions of the first lady in the Post over the past six years as a witch, a Lady Macbeth, a unindicted felon, a probable conspirator in the death of her friend Vince Foster and a horse thief.
But a truly effective Post political offensive always extends past mere bias into the ethnic inflammation that Murdoch long ago adopted as a circulation booster and ideological weapon. As Thomas Kiernan explained years ago in his classic biography "Citizen Murdoch," the Post has historically employed racial rhetoric and imagery in its coverage not only to sell papers but to promote its political viewpoint.
"Murdochism thrived on overt appeals to ethnic biases in the journalistic prosecution of its right-wing ideology," wrote Kiernan, who knew Murdoch well. While it seems darkly amusing that the Post editors now pose as outraged defenders of decency, that is the sort of contradiction that has never fazed the tabloid's owner or his eager minions.
So what else is new? Only the increasingly easy penetration of other media by Murdoch's stratagems, assisted as they now are by additional properties such as the Fox News Channel. His lame competitors at the New York Daily News took the bait right away, and played into his plan by promoting the "Jew bastard" story -- which might otherwise have disappeared after a single day.
Most news outlets had taken a pass on the story initially, signaling their own doubts about its Murdochian provenance. There were ample reasons for doubt. As is so typical of the various terrible tales emerging from the Clintons' Arkansas past, this one is rife with changing testimony, accusers of doubtful repute and sheer implausibility.
Her accuser Paul Fray, the man whom she allegedly vilified as a "fucking Jew bastard" during an election-night blowup in 1974, is in fact a Southern Baptist who has variously claimed that his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and grandmother were Jews.
Fray suffered a cerebral hemorrhage some years ago which his wife admits affected his memory (and led to the loss of his law license when he committed various improprieties). He, his wife Mary Lee and their friend Neal McDonald have all told various versions of what happened that night to as many as seven different authors -- apparently without mentioning the anti-Jewish slur until now.
And when Hillary Clinton emerged from her suburban Westchester residence to dispute the charges Sunday, her campaign distributed a maudlin, handwritten letter of apology sent to her almost exactly three years ago by Fray. That strange document deserves to be quoted at length (rather than the few truncated sentences that the Post mentioned parenthetically deep inside the paper):
This letter has taken me some 23 years to come to the point that I must apologize for my actions toward you ... Now, just in the last three years, as a result of a number of interviews have I concluded that I am wrong, that I was wrong and that I have wronged you; I ask for your forgiveness because I did say things against you, and called you names not only to your face -- but behind your back ... At one time in my life I would say things without thinking, without factual foundation and without rhyme or remedy unless it furthered my own agenda ...
[My wife] has met with the FBI and some of the Independent Counsel's investigators and ... she always makes it quite clear that you are a person of the most high integrity."
In an even more jarring postscript, Fray recalls how she once read to his now-grown son Robbie, who now has a son of his own and wants Hillary to read to him. "Robbie has told me for years to write you and bear [sic] my heart and now I have done it because I want you to know that I do it out of my love for you ... Thank you Hillary for being Hillary."
It seems fair to draw an inference concerning credibility from this bizarre, scrawled and rather recent note. And it does seem both bizarre and incredible that its author's shifting recollections -- filtered through a journalism without standards -- have suddenly seized universal media attention. But such is the power of tabloid melodrama in an American political culture whose agenda can be set by the likes of Rupert Murdoch.