The Arkansas Project wasn't journalism

Ted Olson's defenders say the Clinton-bashing effort was protected by the First Amendment -- and besides, Olson didn't know much about it anyway. They're wrong on both counts.


Joe Conason
May 23, 2001 3:39AM (UTC)

While the nomination of Theodore Olson for solicitor general languishes in the Senate because of doubts concerning his candor about his involvement in the "Arkansas Project," conservative pundits and politicians are mounting a strangely contradictory defense. As if reading from a common script, they all insist that the Arkansas Project was nothing more sinister than hard-hitting journalism, protected by the First Amendment.

And then, often in the same column or statement, they hasten to add that Ted Olson had nothing to do with the Arkansas Project anyway, except to help "shut it down."

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Over the past week or so, this line of argument has been offered by such prominent conservatives as William Safire, Tony Snow, Trent Lott, Kenneth Starr and Robert Novak, among others. Like Olson's own testimony, it raises more questions than it resolves.

If the Arkansas Project was truly just an exercise in political reportage, then why did Olson and his fellow American Spectator board members decide that it should be shut down? And why would the Spectator's own attorney feel such a powerful need to dissociate himself from the magazine's pioneering journalistic endeavors?

The truth -- as Novak and Starr know and as Olson's other defenders probably surmise -- is that the Arkansas Project had very little to do with journalism. Although that was indeed the ostensible purpose of the funding provided by Richard Scaife's foundations, the four-year enterprise produced very few publishable words for $2.4 million.

In fact, according to Wladyslaw Plesczynski, who served as the Spectator's managing editor in those days, the Arkansas Project didn't come up with much that he could use. In a 1997 memo he sent to publisher Ronald Burr, Plesczynski described its activities: "There always seemed to be lots of hush-hush and heavy breathing, but it never amounted to anything concrete enough for a story."

Not quite "never," in fact, but very rarely. So given its meager literary output, what did the Arkansas Project actually accomplish, aside from paying expenses for dinner parties, travel and office supplies?

As reported in Salon and later in "The Hunting of the President" (which I coauthored with Gene Lyons), the project's overseers, Steve Boynton and David Henderson, were mostly concerned with the care, feeding and encouragement of Whitewater witness David Hale. They also spent a lot of time and money supervising a Mississippi private detective named Rex Armistead, who received more than $400,000 in project funds. (Another private detective in Little Rock, Tom Golden, was later hired with Arkansas Project funds by Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.)

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Among the dubious tasks assigned to Armistead was an intimidation campaign against CNN correspondent John Camp, whose skeptical reporting on Whitewater and other Clinton fables had annoyed the president's enemies. That job included contacting Camp's former wife to ask whether she would provide any dirt on the award-winning correspondent. (She wouldn't, and informed Camp immediately about the detective's approach to her.) Somehow, as reported in Salon by Murray Waas, a derogatory report on Camp later turned up in the files of the Republican chairman of the House Banking Committee.

Another Arkansas Project intimidation scheme targeted U.S. District Judge Henry Woods, whose pretrial rulings in Kenneth Starr's prosecution of James and Susan McDougal and Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker had also upset the anti-Clinton camp. The result was a smear campaign against the judge, engineered by the Arkansas segregationist politician "Justice Jim" Johnson and the project's local handyman, Parker Dozhier.

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Their ugly, inaccurate assaults on the character of Woods were fed by Boynton to Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, and eventually showed up in such Clinton-bashing organs as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

In short, the Arkansas Project was a dirty-tricks operation more than a journalistic investigation. It's easy to understand why an attorney of Ted Olson's great reputation would rather say he had no connection with such unsavory people and practices. But is he telling the truth?

The latest item of evidence to the contrary turned up in a dispatch Sunday by the Washington Post's Thomas Edsall. That article noted a curious reference to Olson in "Crossfire," a memoir published two years ago by former Arkansas state trooper L.D. Brown. It recounts at some length his dealings with the American Spectator between 1994 and 1997.

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Salon readers may recall that Brown was the trooper who gained some notoriety for accusing Bill Clinton of complicity in cocaine smuggling at a rural airport in Mena, Ark. That tall tale enthralled Tyrrell, and earned Brown about $10,000 in Arkansas Project payments plus several trips to Washington and dinners at Tyrrell's house.

The ex-trooper was also quoted extensively in Tyrrell's own far-fetched version of the Mena affair, which was featured in the Spectator's August 1995 issue. Plesczynski's 1997 memo refers disparagingly to Tyrrell's 1995 Mena story as "the Arkansas Project's last hurrah."

According to Brown's memoir, he was introduced to Olson by Henderson, who also brought Hale to Olson as a client -- and who is identified in "Crossfire" as "a board member of the American Spectator and liaison to the magazine for Richard Mellon Scaife." (The date of the meeting isn't clear, but it certainly preceded the "shutdown" of the Arkansas Project by the Spectator board.)

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Having left the state police, Brown needed advice about whether he should take a job in England, which he suspected might be connected somehow with the Clinton apparatus.

On Page 202 of "Crossfire," he writes: "Henderson offered to have Olsen (sic) talk with me and give me advice on whether or not to take the job. I traveled to Washington and met with Henderson and Olsen at Ted's office. I laid out the extensive story as Ted listened with interest. Ted is an exceptional lawyer and I trusted his advice explicitly (sic). It was with this opinion that I took what he said to heart."

And so on -- the point being that this little anecdote, if true, indicates yet another contact between Olson and Henderson, and yet another set of connections between the conservative lawyer and the Arkansas Project.

Perhaps L.D. Brown should be added to the Senate Judiciary Committee's witness list so that he can explain his acquaintance with the man who would be solicitor general.

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Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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