Whatever doubts I might have felt about the current relevance of "The Hunting of the President" -- the new documentary based on the book of the same name by Gene Lyons and me -- were abruptly dispelled last Tuesday evening, after the movie's premiere screening in Little Rock, Ark.
As I was leaving the auditorium, an older gentleman approached to shake my hand and offer his generous compliments.
"I'm a Vietnam veteran," he said. "I served with John Kerry. I'm supporting him for president, I've campaigned for him -- and I want to tell you, they're trying to do the same thing to him that they did to Bill Clinton." He explained that in recent weeks, a private investigator has contacted many of the vets who served on the Navy's swift boats with Kerry. According to him, the investigator asks insinuating and sometimes outlandish questions about the former lieutenant's wounds, decorations and military operations. Exactly who hired the Kerry-bashing detective is not yet clear, but his queries echo accusations promoted by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a Republican-backed band of Kerry-bashing veterans.
To anyone familiar with the hidden history of the Clinton era, such news sounds grimly familiar. From billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife and the American Spectator magazine to the Paula Jones legal team to Kenneth Starr's Office of Independent Counsel, all of Clinton's most determined enemies employed squads of private investigators to delve into the president's financial and personal affairs. They were determined to prove that the Clintons were at the apex of a criminal syndicate involved in every kind of corruption from drug trafficking to murder. What they eventually discovered was the far more mundane story of a middle-aged man's adultery.
Between 1994 and 1998, the Arkansas Project spent $2.4 million on the excavation of ancient and mostly mythical Clinton dirt, much of which ended up in the bank account of a former Mississippi state police officer named Rex Armistead (whose exploits were first chronicled by Murray Waas in Salon). Armistead was hardly alone in his dubious sleuthings. In 1997, many months before the Lewinsky scandal broke, the Washington Post reported that Starr's office had hired private detectives to probe Clinton's sex life. The ostensible purpose of this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition was to find women to whom the president might once have whispered pillow talk about his money-losing Whitewater land deal.
And as Little Rock private detective Larry Case explains quite comically in "The Hunting of the President," the gamy digging began much earlier. Case fondly recalls how he was wined and dined by journalists who parachuted into Arkansas during the 1992 presidential campaign, searching desperately for "spicy" tales about the Democratic nominee.
The first attempt to slather such sexual innuendo onto Kerry fell flat earlier this year, although hardly for want of effort. Allegations of an illicit affair between the Massachusetts senator and a young woman named Alexandra Polier turned out to be nothing more than an embarrassment for those who trumpeted the story. As the Polier episode proved, the politics of personal destruction could and would instantly erupt again with the White House at stake. While the media mantra tells us "everything has changed" since 9/11, some things haven't changed at all.
Even before the bogus "Kerry intern" story surfaced, some media outlets fell for a classic dirty trick reminiscent of the Clinton saga. Back then Clinton's adversaries would circulate blurry photographs and fuzzy tapes that supposedly revealed him in compromising circumstances with women or drugs. Pursued with zeal by the same right-wing operatives who now attack Kerry, those photos turned out to be fakes or myths. This year's model -- an old news photo showing a youthful Kerry next to "Hanoi Jane" Fonda -- was more successful. It was even mentioned in the New York Times before professional analysts proved the "incriminating" picture was in fact a computer-generated fraud.
With George W. Bush struggling to preserve his presidency, we can expect more of the same and worse from angry, threatened conservatives. The same forces that once hunted Clinton have turned their sights on Kerry. Fortunately they have no "independent counsel" to assist them this time -- not yet, anyway -- but their habits and scruples clearly have not improved.
That's why the "Hunting" movie, which documents many of the seamier aspects of the anti-Clinton campaign as well as the complicity of the press, is more than just an exercise in negative nostalgia. Audiences and reviewers will have diverse opinions about the movie, its producers and its political perspective. (Gene Lyons and I discuss our own views about it in detail here.) But it will be hard to dismiss the story it tells as old news, because the tactics and attitudes that marred American politics during that scoundrel decade already have returned, with a vengeance.