The "Rezko" game

Just as they did for a full decade with "Whitewater," reporters are now tossing around "Rezko" to imply wrongdoing without having any idea what it means.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published March 5, 2008 1:39PM (EST)

(updated below)

Throughout the 1990s, the word "Whitewater" was the weapon used continuously by the Limbaugh Right and the establishment press to cast innuendo on the Clintons' financial lives. The word was just tossed around as slippery shorthand for corrupt dealings. It never had any substance. No specific allegations of wrongdoing were ever made about the original "Whitewater" transactions by those throwing the term around. And after $73 million was spent on an endless investigation, no wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons was found.

One could read literally thousands of news accounts about the "Whitewater scandal" and never encounter a single, specific charge of impropriety. The word simply stood for a series of confusing, complex, boring financial transactions that were combined with dark and vague innuendo which, repeated enough, led to a "where-there's-smoke- there's-fire" presumption of guilt. Slothful journalists could not get enough of the tactic because tossing "Whitewater" around required no real work, active investigation or critical thought -- the mortal enemies of most establishment reporters -- but instead was just a cheap and easy way to imply that they were pursuing some sort of scandal.

"Rezko" is the Whitewater of the Obama campaign. It's almost impossible now to find an article or news account about Obama that doesn't include some dark reference to the "Rezko" affair, always with the suggestion or even overt claim that it's reflective of some serious vulnerability, some suggestion of wrongdoing and corruption. But what is it? The reporters throwing the word around quite plainly have no idea.

Having paid only casual attention to it in the past, I spent several hours yesterday morning reading every "Rezko" article I could find in an attempt to understand as much as possible about the allegations. The point isn't that there is no credible evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Obama, although that's unquestionably true. It's far beyond that. There aren't even any theoretical allegations or suggestions as to what he might have done wrong at all. The person who is accused of wrongdoing is Tony Rezko, in matters inarguably having nothing to do with Obama. Nobody claims otherwise (although many try to imply otherwise).

The only substantive connections Obama and Rezko have is that the latter was a contributor to Obama's campaign and was a partner in a standard residential real-estate purchase which nobody suggests, at least in terms of Obama's conduct, was anything but above-board. But Rezko himself has a sinister-sounding, villain-like last name and is of Syrian origin, which, for multiple reasons, helps build the shallow media drama.

But Obama isn't even accused of -- let alone proven to have engaged in -- any wrongdoing at all. I spent many years litigating all sorts of civil cases involving financial transactions like these. Few things are easier than concocting some nefarious angle to innocuous real estate transactions, yet they can't even do that here. Despite that, the "Rezko" innuendo lurks and grows and clearly isn't going anywhere.

Yesterday, Digby -- citing a post she wrote more than a year ago on this specialized GOP template for manufacturing media scandals out of pedestrian though boring financial transactions -- described exactly how this process works:

Over a year ago I took one of my periodic trips down memory lane and roughly outlines the press treatment of the Whitewater story. At the time, the Rezko story was just starting to bubble up out of Chicago, and I explained how these stories are used to degrade the reputations of Democrats . . . .
These are patented Whitewater-style "smell test" stories. They are based on complicated details that make the casual reader's eyes glaze over and about which the subject has to issue long confusing explanations in return. They feature colorful and unsavory political characters in some way. They often happened in the past and they tend to be written in such a way as to say that even if they aren't illegal they "look bad" . . .

No single story will bring down a candidate because they have no substance to them. It's the combined effect they are looking for to build a sense overall sleaziness. "Where there's smoke there's fire" right?

Once the original transaction gets solidified in Media World as representing something dark and bad, then it's no longer necessary to bother with anything specific. Tossing around the innuendo becomes the only thing necessary to continue to fuel it. Here's a classic and quite common example of this genre. As Digby wrote:

These stories are very difficult to control once they get going. The MSM gasbags start "analyzing" the whole thing in terms of whether the subject of the inquiry is being forthcoming or if he's "stonewalling" and it snowballs into armchair psychology and novelistic character studies. From what I gather of the Rezko matter so far, we can probably expect this to have the same trajectory. The press conference yesterday was deja vu all over again.

Early in George Bush's term, it was revealed that one of his closest and most loyal supporters, Enron's Ken Lay, committed one of the most massive frauds in American corporate history. The President's own brother, Neil, has been involved in numerous accusations of serious impropriety and yet continues to be paid by multiple sources for virtually nothing other than being George Bush's brother. The central cog for the GOP fundraising machine, Jack Abramoff, is now imprisoned as a serial felon. Led by his involvement in the Keating Five scandal, John McCain has been linked to some of the sleaziest figures around.

Yet somehow, the standard in those cases is that, in the absence of specific allegations of wrongdoing on the part of the political official, merely being linked -- even intimately -- to thieves and felons won't be held against the political official. By rather stark contrast, the multiple former Clinton associates who were convicted of wrongdoing -- the McDougals and Webster Hubbell -- were constantly used to imply that the Clintons themselves had done something corrupt, and now, Tony Rekzo's conduct is being sloppily and dishonestly cast onto Barack Obama without the slightest attempt to actually make the case that Obama has done anything even arguably wrong at all.

One very simple and self-evidently warranted rule ought to be applied: no reporter should toss around "Rezko" innuendo unless they're able to explain what it means specifically when assessing Obama's conduct, what specific allegations of any substance are being made against Obama when the scary specter of "Rezko" is invoked. If they're incapable of articulating even those basics -- and they are -- then the whole exercise is just deceitful and worthless.

It's precisely the empty nature of the "scandal" that makes it impossible to resolve. The more he addresses it, the more he fuels it; conversely, the more he refuses to address it, the more he will be accused of "stonewalling" and not being forthcoming. It's just illusory innuendo that, by design, can never be satisfactorily addressed because nobody can ever apprehend what the substance of the "scandal" is. Substance-free scandal is the only kind that attracts the intense attention of the media hordes.

UPDATE: Here's the headline from an article today by The Politico's Kenneth Vogel, complaining that the Rezko trial isn't getting enough media attention:

And here's the headline from a similar article today from ABC News' Brian Ross:

Can anyone find even a single fact in either of these long, breathless pieces reflective of possible wrongdoing of any kind on Obama's part? Shouldn't such facts be a bare pre-requisite for trying to build something like this up into some sort of scandal?

Glenn Greenwald

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