The Hunted on the vast right-wing conspiracy

Published June 17, 2004 9:19PM (EDT)

At the end of the New York premiere showing of The Hunting of the President last night (sponsored by The Week magazine), the lights came up in the house, and striding out onto the stage, microphone in hand, was the Hunted himself. After watching the documentary based on Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' bestselling book about the decade-long right-wing campaign to discredit him, Bill Clinton said: "You either have to believe one of two things." Either God just doesn't like him very much, or, Clinton's more plausible explanation: Kenneth Starr was not "an independent renegade," but "the instrument of a grand design. Starr just did what he was hired to do."

Indeed, the Hunting chronicles what Hillary Clinton said years ago to much consternation and ridicule: That the Clintons were the targets of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." The day his wife made that famous statement, she came home and asked Clinton what he thought of it. "Hillary was hooted and derided," but Clinton told her he only took issue with her use of the word "conspiracy." A conspiracy is something that happens in secret, he said. "They're not even trying to cover it up."

Still, Clinton says he doesn't wake up in the morning hating Kenneth Starr. "I wake up in the morning feeling sorry for people who think they know the whole truth and that it justifies the trampling of other people."

"I think it's a mistake to treat them the way they treated us. If we do, they own us," he said. The Clinton haters made anyone in their path -- like Susan McDougal, the real star of the Hunting -- "non-persons," Clinton said. "It was crazy. You should stand against it not by responding in kind but by exposing what was going on here."

Exposing what was really going on was the responsibility of the media, of course, and the Hunting refreshes our memories about how the nation's most reputable news outlets ran with leaks from Starr's office and led their broadcasts and newspapers with sensational reporting that often relied on anonymous sources -- or none at all. The Hunting features some prominent investigative reporters, including Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, describing newsroom atmospherics that demanded scintillating scandal copy even when the facts just weren't there, or didn't deserve such prominent play. Interestingly, some of the Lewinsky-era reporters were in the audience last night, including Chris Vlasto, the ABC News producer of the network's stories on Monica's stained blue dress.

Of course, Clinton wasn't innocent of everything -- and he last night admitted "stupid, personal, wrong mistakes." This wasn't enough for Randal Archibold, the New York Times reporter who covered the premiere, who wrote today: "[Clinton] referred only obliquely to his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky  Instead, he seemed determined to gloss over any failings and cast the period in a sympathetic light, saying he was a 'naove fool' for insisting, despite the advice of aides, on the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater."

How much more do we need to hear from Clinton than an admission of error -- that his mistakes were stupid, personal, and wrong? For those demanding a Clinton confessional, there's more to come on Sunday in his Dan Rather interview on 60 Minutes -- the transcript says he calls the Monica affair "a terrible moral error." His atoning may not be enough to satisfy everyone. But as the Bush administration's abuses of power -- from misleading its way into a bloody war to blatantly discarding the Geneva Conventions -- continue to reveal themselves, the Clinton-era focus on his personal failings just seem that much more surreal.

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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