The epic battles between the Clintons and their tormentors on the right have shaped American politics for nearly a quarter century.
But there was a moment early on when the toxic course of that history might have been changed, had it not been for Hillary Clinton’s impulses toward secrecy.
It came one weekend near the end of Bill Clinton’s first year as president, and pitted the first lady against her husband’s advisers.
“If a genie offered me the chance to turn back time and undo a single decision from my White House tenure, I’d head straight to the Oval Office dining room on Saturday morning, December 11, 1993,” ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, then a top aide to the president, wrote in his memoir “All Too Human.”
There was an urgent meeting that day to discuss a request by The Washington Post for documents relating to the Whitewater Development Corp., a failed Arkansas real estate investment the Clintons had made.
Whitewater had been an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign. More recently, questions had arisen whether the land deal and the Clintons might be linked to the collapse of a savings and loan.
Stephanopoulos and David Gergen, another senior adviser, were internal rivals at the time, who agreed on almost nothing. But both argued for full disclosure of the records. After a few days of rough coverage, they confidently predicted, the story would go away as the press corps discovered there was nothing sinister to the land deal and turned its attention elsewhere.
The president would not budge – and both of them knew why.
“Hillary Clinton is a woman of many strengths and virtues, but like all of us, she also has some blind spots,” Gergen said in a recent interview. “She does not see the world in the same way that others do, when it comes to transparency and accountability.”
She was not in the room, but the aides felt her presence.
“You could usually tell when Clinton was making Hillary’s argument: Even if he was yelling, his voice had a flat quality, as if he were a high school debater speeding through a series of memorized facts,” Stephanopoulos wrote. “Gergen and I didn’t know what was in the Whitewater documents, but whatever it was, Hillary didn’t want it out – and she had a veto.”
The fallout from that decision to stonewall would be enormous. Pressure built for the appointment of a prosecutor, first Robert Fiske, and then Kenneth Starr, who had been solicitor general under former president George Bush.
Starr’s far-ranging investigation ultimately uncovered Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which led to his impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, would have the dark distinction of becoming the only first lady in history ever called before a federal grand jury. In 1996, she testified for four hours, mostly to answer questions about subpoenaed Whitewater-related documents that had vanished and then suddenly reappeared in the White House living quarters.
Gergen, Stephanopoulos and other top Clinton aides from that era – some of whom ended up with huge legal bills of their own – contend that none of this might have happened, had Hillary Clinton been more open in the first place.
“I believe that decision against disclosure was the decisive turning point. If they had turned over the Whitewater documents to The Washington Post in December 1993, their seven-year-old land deal would have soon disappeared as an issue and the story of the next seven years would have been entirely different,” Gergen wrote in his book about his time working for four presidents, from Nixon to Clinton.
As he has watched the controversies that have beset her current presidential campaign, particularly the one over her private emails, Gergen has been struck by parallels to that pivotal moment in 1993.
“She has built a protective shield around herself,” Gergen added. “Her first response is, when people come after me, I’m going to have my guard up and be suspicious of what their motives are.”
Clinton drew the opposite lesson from those early Whitewater experiences – one that also shapes how she operates today.
Her view was that she should have thrown up more resistance.
In a conference call on Jan. 11, 1994, exactly one month after the meeting where Stephanopoulos and Gergen had been overruled, the president’s aides convinced the Clintons that they should request an independent investigation to quell the growing media furor.
“We will never know if Congress would eventually have forced an independent counsel on us. And we will never know whether releasing an inevitably incomplete set of personal documents to The Washington Post would have averted a special prosecutor,” she wrote. “With the wisdom of hindsight, I wish I had fought harder.”
The real problem, Clinton argued, was that “we were being swept up in what legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin later described as the politicization of the criminal justice system and the criminalization of the political system.”
Since then, an entire industry has grown up around Clinton scandals, pseudo scandals and conspiracy theories.
Countless millions have been raised and spent, both by their adversaries and their defenders. Republican-led congressional investigations have been launched, and lawsuits filed by conservative watchdog groups. The two sides wage constant war on the Internet, talk radio and cable news channels.
A search of Amazon.com finds more than 40 anti-Hillary books, with titles like “American Evita” and “Can She Be Stopped?” At the moment, three of the top 10 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list are volumes bashing the Clintons.
So Hillary Clinton had it right when she made her famous declaration that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was out to get her and her husband. The opposition was and is passionate. It is well financed. It sees dark – sometimes preposterous – motives in nearly everything the Clintons do.
By the time Barack Obama took office, what she had called a conspiracy had grown into a permanent institution. On an ideological and political level, it fought Obama’s expansive view of government through legislation, lawsuits and grass-roots movements like the tea party. In its darker corners, it spread sinister rumors about his patriotism, his religious beliefs and even his citizenship.
But through it all, Hillary Clinton has remained a target for a particularly intense kind of vehemence.
“Over time, some on the far right have made her into a boogie-woman to instill fear and raise money,” said GOP strategist John Weaver. “Is she the devil incarnate? No. These critics can’t even explain why they hate her. It’s unhealthy for our politics.”
The Clintons’ aversion to transparency, as well as their tendency to skirt the rules and play close to the legal and ethical line, have made it easier for their enemies.
Their defensiveness seems to have deepened, which worries some longtime friends and advisers.
“I think she’s much more of that bent than he is. He sees the sunnier side, rather than the darker side,” said one former top aide who has known both Clintons for decades, and who agreed to talk about them if he would not be identified. “It’s grown worse over the years, and it’s now built up into, ‘They are out to get us.’ They’re not wrong, but did part of this come from their secretiveness, and unwillingness to make a clean breast of things?”
Hillary Clinton cannot shake continuing questions over her use of a private email account when she was secretary of state and the Clinton Foundation’s omnivorous appetite for contributions from donors who have government business.
Polls consistently show strong majorities of voters do not consider her honest or trustworthy.
That is because the perceptions have had a long time to settle. There are many through-lines from the controversies of the 1990s to the ones dogging the Clintons today.
When the existence of her private email account became public last year, Hillary Clinton initially claimed that she had set it up for convenience. It later became clear that she did it in part because she wanted to have the power to keep her records outside the realm of public discovery – just as she had hoped to do with the Whitewater documents.
A State Department inspector general’s report noted that when the agency’s deputy chief of staff for operations suggested in 2010 that she set up a government account, the secretary responded: “Let’s get separate address or device but I don’t want any risk of the personal being accessible.” She would delete more than 30,000 emails from her personal server before turning over the remainder in response to a State Department demand.
Similarly, the current questions of whether donors to the Clinton Foundation received special State Department access are an echo of the campaign finance scandals that erupted during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
The evidence thus far does not confirm any “pay to play” operation. But it does indicate that some who wrote big foundation checks saw those gifts as a means of opening doors at Foggy Bottom.
On Aug. 27, the conservative group Citizens United released emails obtained as part of a public records lawsuit. They showed that Clinton Foundation official Doug Band had pressed Clinton aide Huma Abedin to invite three donors, who had given millions to the foundation, to a 2011 State Department lunch with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Emails made public earlier showed, among other things, a sports executive using his foundation connections to press for a visa for a soccer player, and the crown prince of Bahrain going the same route to ask for a last-minute meeting with the secretary of state after “normal channels” failed.
“You can’t tell where the Clinton Foundation ends and the State Department begins. Big donors get all the access, and that’s what this is about,” said David Bossie, who until this week was president of Citizens United. On Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump named Bossie his deputy campaign manager.
Bossie and other Clinton critics say there is precedent in arrangements made during the 1990s.
Six-figure contributors to the Democratic National Committee were offered sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom and invited to coffees in the White House Map Room where regulators with oversight of their industries were present.
Sometimes, the fundraising touched the tripwire between the unseemly and the illegal. Bundler Johnny Chung made at least 49 visits to the Clinton White House, including one where he dropped off a $50,000 check at the first lady’s office. Two days after that, he was allowed to bring a group of Chinese businessmen to watch the president’s radio address, where they had their pictures taken with Bill Clinton.
Chung later told federal investigators that $35,000 of the $366,000 he donated to the Democratic Party in 1996 came from the Chinese government. He pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy.
On the other hand, many of the murky conspiracy theories and rumors that have swirled around the Clintons over the years have proven to be groundless – ridiculous, even.
And yet, they persist.
GOP nominee Donald Trump has trafficked in rumors that Clinton has serious health problems, although there is no real evidence, outside of doctored video and out-of-context photos that keep bouncing around the Internet.
Clinton has called that speculation a “paranoid fever dream” on Trump’s part.
Earlier this year, Trump dredged up old speculation that the Clintons may have had a hand in the 1993 death of their close friend, White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster.
“He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide,” Trump said. “I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder.”
There were five official probes into Foster’s death. None found evidence that it was anything but suicide.
All told, seven separate independent counsel investigations of Clinton administration officials were conducted during his years in office. They had cost taxpayers nearly $80 million by the spring of 1999.
Each time a new set of allegations arose, the prediction would come: This is the one that will do them in.
“There seems to be an undying belief that there’s a silver bullet here,” said David Brock, who runs a group of organizations allied with the Clintons, and who has been on both sides of the Clinton wars. When one does not pan out, he said, “another conspiracy theory is hatched.”
In the early 1990s, Brock was an investigative reporter for conservative publications. A story he wrote for the American Spectator claimed that Arkansas state troopers had arranged for trysts for Bill Clinton while he was governor there. One of the women mentioned, Paula Jones, subsequently filed a sexual harassment suit against Clinton that became part of Starr’s investigation and ultimately triggered the perjury charge against him.
Controversies of varying degrees of seriousness tumbled by during Clinton’s eight years in office: Troopergate, Filegate, Travelgate, Chinagate, Pardongate. Even the more trivial ones left an aroma of malfeasance long after details had become a blur.
All of it drew upon a cynicism and suspicion of government officials that harked back to first “gate” – Watergate. Hillary Clinton herself had come to Washington fresh out of law school to work for the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry of Richard M. Nixon.
Watergate produced new levers against corruption. After Nixon’s resignation, the Freedom of Information Act was strengthened. Congress also passed the Ethics in Government Act, which called for more financial disclosure from government officials and set up procedures for independent investigations of those who were accused of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, the media had become more skeptical of government and less willing to take officials at their word.
When Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived in the White House, scalp-hunting had already become part of Washington’s political culture.
The Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal was still a fresh memory. Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991 had turned into epic partisan battles. In 1989, former senator John Tower, R-Texas, failed a confirmation vote as defense secretary because he had a reputation as a heavy drinker, marking the first time in 30 years that a president had been denied a Cabinet pick. Later that year, a tenacious backbench congressman named Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., forced the resignation of House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, over ethics charges.
One of the most dogged groups to pursue the Clintons has been Judicial Watch, a conservative organization founded in 1994. Its current efforts include 18 active lawsuits to force disclosure of public records from Hillary Clinton’s State Department tenure.
“The permanent infrastructure around government corruption began with Watergate. Up until Judicial Watch, [watchdog groups] were all creatures of the left,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “The right is increasingly using the same tools to great effect.”
Among Judicial Watch’s early funders was the late Richard Mellon Scaife, reclusive heir to a banking fortune, who also bankrolled the conservative American Spectator magazine and its “Arkansas project” to examine the Clintons’ past.
Why were the Clintons such an inviting target, and why have they remained one all these years?
As with everything else, the two sides have diametrically different views.
Trump has labeled Clinton “crooked Hillary,” and says she may be “the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.”
The couple had a reputation for shading the truth that began even before they reached the White House. Bill Clinton was known as “Slick Willie” back in Arkansas, and the nickname seemed to fit as he glided through political eruptions over his actions.
He had smoked marijuana at Oxford University, he admitted, but insisted he had not inhaled. He had avoided the Vietnam draft around that time by signing up for ROTC, then reneged on the promise when a high lottery number assured he would not be selected. He steadfastly denied a 1992 tabloid report that he had had a 12-year affair with an Arkansas state government worker and cabaret singer named Gennifer Flowers – only to acknowledge in a deposition six years later that he had had a sexual relationship with her. And while he did not admit to harassing Jones, another Arkansas state employee, he ended up paying $850,000 to settle a lawsuit that originally asked for $700,000.
Hillary Clinton also became known for telling implausible stories when her back was against the wall. When it came out in 1994 that she had turned a $1,000 investment in cattle futures into nearly $100,000 in a matter of months in the 1970s, the White House initially claimed the novice trader had based her decisions on information she found in the Wall Street Journal.
The Clintons were also the first baby boomers to reach the White House, bringing with them the unresolved debates that had raged between the left and the right since the 1960s.
“They represented a huge cultural shift, not only generationally, but Hillary as the first lady, with her own professional identity and political portfolio. All of that inspired a lot of fear among opponents of that change,” Brock said.
A prominent Clinton ally and former aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, added: “It’s Vietnam, pot, sex – and God knows, Clinton represented all of that.”
Some argue that what really bothered the right was the fact that Bill Clinton was such skillful politician. He had co-opted them on issues they regarded as their own – among them, crime, trade and welfare reform.
“I think the Republicans figured early on they couldn’t take him down politically. He was too adept,” so they found other ways, said the Clinton ally.
Whether that was the calculation or not, his opponents were constantly attacking. They went far beyond raising questions of government impropriety. Right-wing talk radio and the new medium of the Internet, which brought in fresh players like the Drudge Report, spread fantastic theories tying the Clintons to everything from drug-running to murder.
“By 1996, it was in full force. Although we had the White House, Hillary was always very critical of the lack of effectiveness in our response,” the former presidential aide said.
At one point, the Clinton team assembled a 332-page internal report which alleged a “communication stream of conspiracy commerce.”
They came up with a byzantine theory of how it all worked: Unverified stories would originate at right-wing organizations, find their way onto the Internet, be picked up by conservative publications or London tabloids, make their way back into the U.S. media, then trigger congressional inquiries – at which point, they would become legitimate fodder for mainstream news organizations.
Opponents dismissed this view as paranoia. C. Boyden Gray, who had been George H.W. Bush’s White House counsel, called it “kind of goofy,” but conceded that every president feels embattled at some point.
“I think that happens to many White Houses,” Gray told The Washington Post. “But I don’t think any of us would have put that much pen to paper.”
David Brock, whose article about the Arkansas state troopers had sparked the Paula Jones lawsuit, disavowed the anti-Clinton forces in a 1997 Esquire article headlined, “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man.” He followed that up in 2002 with a book, “Blinded by the Right.”
“What interested Democrats about the book was not the personal confessions part of it, but the part that described the largely institutional efforts by the right,” he said.
Early the next year, Brock got a thank-you call from Bill Clinton, whom he had never met. The former president asked Brock what he planned to do next, and Brock described an idea for a liberal organization to push back against news coverage, much as Accuracy in Media had been doing from the right since 1969.
Clinton suggested that Brock create a business plan, which Brock did and sent to him. Bill Clinton shared it with Hillary, who by then was a New York senator.
She invited Brock to present it at meetings with her major donors in the fall of 2003, both in Washington and at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
Their checkbooks opened.
His group, Media Matters, launched in 2004. Brock now runs four other organizations that he says were “built to counter the right-wing machine.”
They are Correct the Record, which describes itself as “a strategic research and rapid response team designed to defend Hillary Clinton from baseless attacks;” American Bridge, which focuses on opposition research; the Franklin Forum, which provides media training, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group he took over in 2014. He also sits on the board of the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action.
Groups on the other side “obviously still have more resources. However, if you look at the last 10 years or so, we’ve been better at the use of new media, social media, than some of the legacy right-wing institutions,” Brock contended. “I feel like the playing field has gotten much more level from the time I started doing this until now.”
He also noted that new, explicitly liberal media players have emerged – among them, the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo.
All of which suggests that, should there be another Clinton presidency, the battles of the last one will continue and escalate. What Bill Clinton once described as the “politics of personal destruction” are now a permanent fixture of our political system, likely to endure long after anyone can remember what started it all.