The irony of Hillary Clinton’s campaign impugning the patriotism of Donald Trump and others who object to a new Cold War with Russia is that President George H.W. Bush employed similar smear tactics against Bill Clinton in 1992 by suggesting that the Arkansas governor was a Kremlin mole.
Back then, Bill Clinton countered that smear by accusing the elder President Bush of stooping to tactics reminiscent of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the infamous Red-baiter from the 1950s. But today’s Democrats apparently feel little shame in whipping up an anti-Russian hysteria and then using it to discredit Trump and other Americans who won’t join this latest “group think.”
As the 1992 campaign entered its final weeks, Bush – a much more ruthless political operative than his elder-statesman image of today would suggest – unleashed his subordinates to dig up whatever dirt they could to impugn Bill Clinton’s loyalty to his country.
Some of Bush’s political appointees rifled through Clinton’s passport file looking for an apocryphal letter from his student days in which Clinton supposedly sought to renounce his citizenship. They also looked for derogatory information about his student trips to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.
The assault on Clinton’s patriotism moved into high gear on the night of Sept. 30, 1992, when Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Tamposi – under pressure from the White House – ordered three aides to pore through Clinton’s passport files at the National Archives in Suitland, Maryland.
Though no letter renouncing his citizenship was found, Tamposi still injected the suspicions into the campaign by citing a small tear in the corner of Clinton’s passport application as evidence that someone might have tampered with the file, presumably to remove the supposed letter. She fashioned that speculation into a criminal referral to the FBI.
Within hours, someone from the Bush camp leaked word about the confidential FBI investigation to reporters at Newsweek magazine. The Newsweek story about the tampering investigation hit the newsstands on Oct. 4, 1992. The article suggested that a Clinton backer might have removed incriminating material from Clinton’s passport file, precisely the spin that the Bush people wanted.
Immediately, President George H.W. Bush took to the offensive, using the press frenzy over the criminal referral to attack Clinton’s patriotism on a variety of fronts, including his student trip to the Soviet Union in 1970.
Bush allies put out another suspicion, that Clinton might have been a KGB “agent of influence.” Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times headlined that allegation on Oct. 5, 1992, a story that attracted President Bush’s personal interest. “Now there are stories that Clinton … may have gone to Moscow as [a] guest of the KGB,” Bush wrote in his diary that day.
With his patriotism challenged, Clinton saw his once-formidable lead shrink. Panic spread through the Clinton campaign. Indeed, the suspicions about Bill Clinton’s patriotism might have doomed his election, except that Spencer Oliver, then chief counsel on the Democratic-controlled House International Affairs Committee, suspected a dirty trick.
“I said you can’t go into someone’s passport file,” Oliver told me in a later interview. “That’s a violation of the law, only in pursuit of a criminal indictment or something. But without his permission, you can’t examine his passport file. It’s a violation of the Privacy Act.”
After consulting with House committee chairman Dante Fascell, D-Florida, and a colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Oliver dispatched a couple of investigators to the Archives warehouse in Suitland. The brief congressional check discovered that State Department political appointees had gone to the Archives at night to search through Clinton’s records and those of his mother.
Oliver’s assistants also found that the administration’s tampering allegation rested on a very weak premise, the slight tear in the passport application. The circumstances of the late-night search soon found their way into an article in The Washington Post, causing embarrassment to the Bush campaign.
Yet still sensing that the loyalty theme could hurt Clinton, President Bush kept stoking the fire. On CNN’s Larry King Live on Oct. 7, 1992, Bush suggested anew that there was something sinister about a possible Clinton friend allegedly tampering with Clinton’s passport file.
“Why in the world would anybody want to tamper with his files, you know, to support the man?” Bush wondered before a national TV audience. “I mean, I don’t understand that. What would exonerate him – put it that way – in the files?”
The next day in his diary, Bush ruminated suspiciously about Clinton’s Moscow trip: “All kinds of rumors as to who his hosts were in Russia, something he can’t remember anything about.”
But the GOP attack on Clinton’s loyalty prompted some Democrats to liken Bush to Sen. Joe McCarthy, who built a political career in the early days of the Cold War challenging people’s loyalties without offering proof.
On Oct. 9, the FBI further complicated Bush’s strategy by rejecting the criminal referral. The FBI concluded that there was no evidence that anyone had removed anything from Clinton’s passport file.
At that point, Bush began backpedaling: “If he’s told all there is to tell on Moscow, fine,” Bush said on ABC’s Good Morning America. “I’m not suggesting that there’s anything unpatriotic about that. A lot of people went to Moscow, and so that’s the end of that one.”
But documents that I obtained years later at the Archives revealed that, privately, Bush was not so ready to surrender the disloyalty theme. The day before the first presidential debate on Oct. 11, 1992, Bush prepped himself with one-liners designed to spotlight doubts about Clinton’s loyalty if an opening presented itself.
“It’s hard to visit foreign countries with a torn-up passport,” read one of the scripted lines. Another zinger read: “Contrary to what the Governor’s been saying, most young men his age did not try to duck the draft. … A few did go to Canada. A couple went to England. Only one I know went to Russia.”
If Clinton had criticized Bush’s use of a Houston hotel room as a legal residence, Bush was ready to hit back with another Russian reference: “Where is your legal residence, Little Rock or Leningrad?”
But the Oct. 11 presidential debate – which also involved Reform Party candidate Ross Perot – did not go as Bush had hoped. Bush did raise the loyalty issue in response to an early question about character, but the incumbent’s message was lost in a cascade of inarticulate sentence fragments.
“I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I question – I’ll put it this way, I think it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil,” Bush said.
“I just think it’s wrong. I – that – maybe – they say, ‘well, it was a youthful indiscretion.’ I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and – I’m sorry but demonstrating – it’s not a question of patriotism, it’s a question of character and judgment.”
Clinton countered by challenging Bush directly. “You have questioned my patriotism,” the Democrat shot back.
Clinton then unloaded his own zinger: “When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong, and a senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism.”
Many observers rated Clinton’s negative comparison of Bush to his father as Bush’s worst moment in the debate. An unsettled Bush didn’t regain the initiative for the remainder of the evening.
Czech-ing on Bill
Still, the Republicans didn’t give up on the idea of smearing Clinton by highlighting his association with college friends in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, both communist countries in 1970.
More than a year into Clinton’s presidency, in January 1994, the Czech news media reported that the Czech secret police, the Federal Security and Information Service (FBIS), had collaborated with the Bush reelection campaign to dig up dirt on Clinton’s student trip to Prague. The centrist newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes reported that during the 1992 campaign, FBIS gave the Republicans internal data about Clinton’s Moscow-Prague trips and supplied background material about Clinton’s “connections” inside Czechoslovakia.
In fall 1992, the Bush administration’s nighttime search of Clinton’s passport file had other repercussions. The State Department’s inspector general sought a special prosecutor investigation for a scandal that became known as Passportgate, which wasn’t resolved until after Bush lost to Clinton.
In the end, George H.W. Bush escaped any legal consequences from the passport gambit in large part because a Republican attorney, Joseph diGenova, was named to serve as special prosecutor. DiGenova’s investigation cleared Bush and his administration of any wrongdoing, saying the probe “found no evidence that President Bush was involved in this matter.”
FBI documents that I reviewed at the Archives, however, presented a more complicated picture. Speaking to diGenova and his investigators in fall 1993, former President George H.W. Bush said he had encouraged then-White House chief of staff James Baker and other aides to investigate Clinton and to make sure the information got out.
“Although he [Bush] did not recall tasking Baker to research any particular matter, he may have asked why the campaign did not know more about Clinton’s demonstrating,” said the FBI interview report, dated Oct. 23, 1993.
“The President [Bush] advised that … he probably would have said, ‘Hooray, somebody’s going to finally do something about this.’ If he had learned that the Washington Times was planning to publish an article, he would have said, ‘That’s good, it’s about time.’ …
“Based on his ‘depth of feeling’ on this issue, President Bush responded to a hypothetical question that he would have recommended getting the truth out if it were legal,” the FBI wrote in summarizing Bush’s statements. “The President added that he would not have been concerned over the legality of the issue but just the facts and what was in the files.”
Bush also said he understood how his impassioned comments about Clinton’s loyalty might have led some members of his staff to conclude that he had “a one-track mind” on the issue. He also expressed disappointment that the Clinton passport search uncovered so little.
“The President described himself as being indignant over the fact that the campaign did not find out what Clinton was doing” as a student studying abroad, the FBI report said.
Bush’s comments seem to suggest that he had pushed his subordinates into a violation of Clinton’s privacy rights. But diGenova, who had worked for the Reagan-Bush Justice Department, already had signaled to Bush that the probe was going nowhere.
At the start of the Oct. 23, 1993, interview, which took place at Bush’s office in Houston, diGenova assured Bush that the investigation’s staff lawyers were “all seasoned prof[essional] prosecutors who know what a real crime looks like,” according to FBI notes of the meeting. “[This is] not a gen[eral] probe of pol[itics] in Amer[ica] or dirty tricks, etc., or a general license to rummage in people’s personal lives.”
As the interview ended, two of diGenova’s assistants – Lisa Rich and Laura Laughlin – asked Bush for autographs, according to the FBI’s notes on the meeting. [For the fullest account of the 1992 Passportgate case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
But the ugly history of Red-baiting American citizens, including Bill Clinton, has not deterred Hillary Clinton and her Democratic backers from using similar tactics. In the hard-fought 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, then-Sen. Clinton sought to discredit Obama with McCarthy-style guilt by association.
In an April 16, 2008, debate, Hillary Clinton pounced when her husband’s former adviser, George Stephanopoulos, asked one of her campaign’s long-plotted attack lines – raising a tenuous association between Obama and an aging Vietnam-era radical William Ayers.
In his role as an ABC News debate moderator, Stephanopoulos — and Clinton — also injected a false suggestion that Ayers had either hailed the 9/11 attacks or had used the occasion as a grotesque opportunity to call for more bombings. (In reality, an earlier interview about Ayers’s memoir was coincidently published by the New York Times in its Sept. 11, 2001, edition, which went to press on Sept. 10, before the attacks. But Stephanopoulos and Clinton left the impression with the public that Ayers’s comments represented a ghoulish reaction to the 9/11 attacks.)
In another guilt-by-association moment, Hillary Clinton linked Obama, via his former church pastor Jeremiah Wright, to Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan and a Hamas representative who had been allowed to publish an essay in the church’s newsletter. “You know, these are problems, and they raise questions in people’s minds,” Clinton said. “And so this is a legitimate area, as everything is when we run for office, for people to be exploring and trying to find answers.”
Now, Clinton’s 2016 campaign is back wallowing in similar muck, both hyping animosity toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin – and portraying Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as some kind of Manchurian candidate secretly under the control of the Kremlin.
While lacking any verifiable proof, Clinton’s campaign and its allied mainstream media have blamed Russian intelligence for hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s emails and then publicizing them through Wikileaks. This conspiracy theory holds that Putin is trying to influence the U.S. election to put his secret agent, Donald Trump, into the White House.
The parallels to George H.W. Bush’s 1992 smear of Bill Clinton are striking. In both cases, fairly innocuous activities – whether Clinton’s student trip to Moscow in 1970 or Trump’s hosting a beauty pageant there in 2013 – are given a nasty twist with the suggestion that something sinister occurred behind the scenes.
In neither case is any actual evidence presented, just innuendo and suspicion. The burden presumably falls on the victim of the smear to somehow prove his innocence, which, of course, can’t really be done because it’s impossible to prove a negative. It’s like the old tactic of calling someone a child molester and watching the accused flail around trying to remove the stain.
Similar accusations of “Moscow stooge” and “Putin apologist” have been leveled at others of us who have questioned the anti-Russian “group think” pervading Official Washington’s neoconservative-dominated foreign policy establishment and the mainstream news media. But it is noteworthy that the Democrats, who have often been the victim of this sort of smear tactic, are now relishing in its use against a Republican.
The Hillary Clinton campaign might recall the calumnies hurled at Bill Clinton as well as how things ended for Sen. Joe McCarthy after he questioned the loyalty of a young Army lawyer. The bullying senator was famously rebuked by Joseph Welch, the Army’s chief legal representative: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (McCarthy was ultimately censured by the Senate and died in disgrace.)
As her campaign sinks into its own anti-Russian mud pile of guilt-by-association, Hillary Clinton and her supporters may ask themselves how far are they prepared to go – and whether their ambitions have overwhelmed any “sense of decency”.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).