When future academics study Campaign 2000, they will find fertile ground in this week's flap surrounding an anti-Semitic slur Hillary Rodham Clinton is alleged to have made 26 years ago to someone who's not even Jewish. When this history is written, the pivotal but obscure role of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., should be duly noted.
To recap: Bill Clinton's 1974 congressional campaign manager, Paul Fray, claims the candidate's then-girlfriend, Hillary Rodham, called him a "fucking Jew bastard" after Bill's electoral defeat. Fray has both an axe to grind against Clinton and a medical problem that his wife says has resulted in memory loss. He made the rounds this past week repeating the 26-year-old claims. They are backed up by another campaign staffer and recorded in a forthcoming HarperCollins book by a former National Enquirer writer.
The story then received play in the Drudge Report, the New York Post, the New York Daily News and on Fox News Channel. That HarperCollins, the Post and Fox News Channel are all owned by News Corp., the media conglomerate of conservative Rupert Murdoch, has led some, including Salon's Joe Conason, to note the right-leaning Aussie's fingerprints all over the story's procession through the media food chain.
But it wasn't until Clinton called a hasty press conference on Sunday in which she vehemently denied the charge that the story got play everywhere. And according to a Clinton advisor, that decision wasn't made until two things took place: First, the New York Daily News picked up the story on Saturday, so that it was no longer just conservative media covering it. And second, Lott appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and added fuel to the fire.
Noting that "Clinton is now accused of having uttered anti-Semitic imprecations along the line," "Fox News Sunday" host Tony Snow asked the Senate majority leader, "What's going to happen in that New York Senate race?"
Lott replied that he hoped Clinton's opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., wins the race. "I think he's making a great candidate," Lott said, praising Lazio's enthusiasm and New York roots.
"He's got them all confused," Lott went on. "I mean, he's even getting, what is it, a substantial support of the Jewish vote in New York. And I think that's one of the reasons why Hillary is uttering these anti-Semitic comments, if in fact, she is. So I'm pulling for Rick. Rick's getting support from all over the country." (Emphasis added.)
Lott's answer made it sound as if Clinton's alleged comment was made last week and as a direct result of her inability to break 60 percent among likely Jewish voters in New York. It was only then, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, that Hillary's aides advised their boss to hold a press conference to refute the charge.
When asked about Lott's role in this latest scandal, his spokesman John Czwartacki downplayed Lott's answer. "Lott didn't say if the remarks were true or not," Czwartacki notes. "He was obviously not aware of this very specific allegation."
That Lott was unaware of the particulars of the charge didn't mean that he wouldn't take Snow at his word, however. "He wasn't going to say, 'Tony, you're a liar,' just because he hadn't heard the allegation independently," Czwartacki says. "The statement was a tease to the question 'What's up with New York?' All his information was embedded in the question at the time."
Moreover, Czwartacki said that Lott's office was amused that anything the boss said or did would affect Clinton's campaign strategy. "We're pleased that Mrs. Clinton's campaign is apparently so skittish that it's making knee-jerk decisions based on a single question Lott answered during the most crowded Sunday news hole in ages," he said.
Not surprisingly, allies of Clinton see much more in Lott's remarks than just an innocent misstatement. "Lott made his remark on national television because the Republican Party wanted to make sure that this disinformation was put into play," says a Clinton advisor. Lott, the advisor goes on, wanted to make sure that the story about Clinton's alleged slur "remained a continuing story that more and more of the media had to respond to, thereby building it up into a firestorm."
"Given his own personal membership in a racist organization and his gay-baiting remarks in the past," the advisor continues, "the one thing that can be said about Lott is that he is shameless." Lott has ties to the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, having spoken before the group, met with its leaders in his Senate office and refused to condemn its racist statements. In the summer of 1998, Lott called homosexuality a sin and likened it to alcoholism, kleptomania, and "sex addiction."
Lott spokesman Czwartacki refused to comment on the Clinton confidant's statement. "If they want to make allegations, bring it on, but I'm not going to play that game with them. Sen. Lott answered a question as to the strength of Rick Lazio in New York. This 'Woe is me, we're being attacked' shtick is getting pretty weak."
Regardless of its intent, Lott's remark apparently pushed the story forward, convincing the first lady and her aides that she needed to publicly deny the charge head-on. With the news hook provided by a picture of an angry first lady denouncing the charge, the media dams burst. "I want to state unequivocally that it never happened and very clearly point out that it goes against my entire life," Clinton said Sunday. "In the past I may have called someone a name, but I never used ethnic, racial, anti-Semitic, bigoted, discriminatory, prejudiced accusations against anybody. I've never done it. I've never thought it. So why people are accusing me of this is certainly beyond my understanding."
Lazio aides were "shocked," according to one, that she held the press conference. "After all the scandals, you'd think they'd be good at this by now," sniped a GOP source.
Lazio himself showed some restraint over the weekend, but fanned the flames by commenting about the flap on Monday. "Three people saying Mrs. Clinton said one thing, Mrs. Clinton saying she did not say it," he remarked. "I don't know who to believe, quite frankly."
With President Clinton interrupting the Camp David Middle East peace negotiations to comment on the alleged event to the Daily News on Sunday evening and Lazio commenting on Monday that neither he nor New Yorkers know who to believe, the story became Topic A in New York and, to an extent, in Washington. A Lazio aide said that his boss was not trying to give the story further play, but rather "had to come out against such language and had to respond to the charges of the president that he had some involvement in the story coming to light."
Czwartacki suggested that it was actually a different moment in the same broadcast that alarmed the Clinton campaign. "I suspect what her husband's longtime confidante, Dick Morris, said on the same program spooked them even more."
Morris -- who has worked for both President Clinton and Lott -- called the charge credible, saying that he thought "it did happen."
"I don't think Hillary is an anti-Semite," Morris, who is Jewish, said. Saying that in his dealings with Clinton she "always had a consciousness that she's talking to somebody who's Jewish," Morris commented that one time they "were having an intense, hot and heavy debate over fees," when she "snapped" at him, saying, "'Money, that's all you people care about is money.'"
"I felt very offended by that, and I stiffened and I said, ... 'By you people, I assume you mean political consultants?' And she said, 'Oh yes, yes, of course, that's what I meant.' But it wasn't what I thought she meant. So, I've no difficulty believing it. On the other hand, in her public life, there's been not a slightest notion of anti-Semitism, and probably her mentor through all the years was Bernie Nussbaum, a Jewish lawyer in New York."
Czwartacki insists that his boss wasn't intentionally misspeaking, wasn't purposely stoking the flames. Then he brings my attention to the closing few minutes of the "Fox News Sunday" broadcast. "I suspect they were spooked by 'Fox News Sunday,' but not by Sen. Lott," Czwartacki says, slyly ensuring that the story would get even further play with yet another newish angle.
Funny, it doesn't look newish.