Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy

Chris Lehane

Vast right-wing conspiracy‘ was a theory advanced by then First Lady of the United States Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998 in defense of her husband, President Bill Clinton, and his administration during the Lewinsky scandal, characterizing the Lewinsky charges as the latest in a long, organized, collaborative series of charges by Clinton’s political enemies. While popularized by Mrs. Clinton in her 1998 interview, the phrase did not originate with her.

In 1991 the ‘Detroit News’ wrote: ‘Thatcher-era Britain produced its own crop of paranoid left-liberal films. … All posited a vast right-wing conspiracy propping up a reactionary government ruthlessly crushing all efforts at opposition under the guise of parliamentary democracy.’ An AP story in 1995 also used the phrase, relating an official’s guess that the Oklahoma City bombing was the work of ‘maybe five malcontents’ and not ‘some kind of vast right-wing conspiracy.’

In response to ongoing accusations surrounding the Clintons’ investment in a real estate development known as Whitewater in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno had appointed an independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, to investigate those accusations in 1994. Starr’s investigation began to branch out into a variety of unrelated issues, from Filegate to Travelgate to allegations that Bill Clinton had an affair with Paula Jones prior to his presidency. White House intern Monica Lewinsky signed an affidavit that she had not had a relationship with Clinton, but Lewinsky’s confidant Linda Tripp had been recording their phone conversations and offered Starr tapes of Lewinsky describing her feelings for, and alleging encounters with, the president. The president was asked to give a deposition, and accusations that he lied about an affair under oath first made national headlines in 1998, when the story was picked up by the conservative e-mail newsletter ‘The Drudge Report.’ Despite swift denials from President Clinton, the media attention grew.

Hillary appeared on NBC’s ‘The Today Show.’ Matt Lauer asked: ‘You have said, I understand, to some close friends, that this is the last great battle, and that one side or the other is going down here.’ Hillary responded: ‘Well, I don’t know if I’ve been that dramatic. That would sound like a good line from a movie. But I do believe that this is a battle. I mean, look at the very people who are involved in this — they have popped up in other settings. This is — the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.’ Clinton elaborated by decrying the tactics ‘and the kind of intense political agenda at work here.’ Bob Woodward recounts in his book ‘The Agenda’ (1994) that the then-first lady recalled that when her husband was making his decision to run for the presidency in 1991, he reported receiving ‘a direct threat from someone in the Bush White House, warning that if he ran, the Republicans would go after him. ‘We will do everything we can to destroy you personally,’ she recalled that the Bush White House man had said.’

David Brock, a conservative-turned-liberal pundit, has said he was once a part of an effort to dredge up a scandal against Clinton. In 1993 Brock, then of the ‘American Spectator,’ was the first to report Paula Jones’ claims. After learning more about the events and conservative payments surrounding Paula Jones he personally apologized to the Clintons. He documented his experience in ‘Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative,’ wherein he alleged that Arkansas state troopers had taken money in exchange for testimony against Clinton which Brock had published in a previous book. Adam Curtis also discusses the concept in his documentary series ‘The Power of Nightmares.’ Brock has confirmed Clinton’s claim that there was a ‘Right wing conspiracy’ to smear her husband, quibbling only with the characterization of it as ‘vast,’ since Brock contends that it was orchestrated mainly by a few powerful people.

MSNBC also described the comment as once-ridiculed but now taken more seriously by ‘many Democrats’ who point ‘to the well-documented efforts by conservative financier Richard Mellon Scaife to fund a network of anti-Clinton investigations.’ Scaife played a major role in funding the Arkansas Project investigating President Clinton; former Clinton White House Counsel Lanny Davis claimed Scaife was using his money ‘to destroy a president of the United States.’ Scaife claims to be public about his political spending. CNN stated in a study the news outlet conducted on Scaife, ‘If it’s a conspiracy, it’s a pretty open one.’ Hillary Clinton said in her 2003 autobiography that, ‘Looking back, I see that I might have phrased my point more artfully, but I stand by the characterization of Starr’s investigation [regardless of the truth about Lewinsky].’ By 2007 her experiences caused Clinton to say in presidential campaign appearances that the vast right-wing conspiracy was back, citing such cases as the 2002 New Hampshire Senate election phone jamming scandal. On the stump for Al Franken’s 2008 Senate campaign, Clinton acknowledged his Air America Radio show by quipping that he had been taking on the ‘vast right wing conspiracy before others even acknowledged that it existed.’

Former President Clinton, when asked on ‘Meet the Press’ in 2009 whether the vast right wing conspiracy was involved in the attacks on President Barack Obama, said ‘Oh, you bet. Sure it is. It’s not as strong as it was, because America’s changed demographically, but it’s as virulent as it was … when they accused me of murder and all that stuff.’ Two other figures who have used the phrase are Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman and Journalist Joe Conason. Conason, in an article called ‘The vast right-wing conspiracy is back,’ refers the National Republican Trust PAC and Newsmax Media, which are run by former foes of Bill Clinton who are now making less-than-fact-based attacks on President Barack Obama. The National Republican Trust PAC sponsored a campaign of commercials against Obama in 2008 which described as ‘one of the sleaziest false TV ads of the campaign.’ One of Newsmax Media owners ‘was among the most insistent endorsers of the Obama birth certificate myth’ and a popularizer of the canard that Bill Clinton’s White House counsel Vince Foster did not commit suicide — as determined by five official investigations — but was murdered.

In some of his books, Krugman has used the phrase (‘Yes, Virginia, there is a vast right-wing conspiracy’) to refer not to a conservative Republican-leaning campaign against anti-Clinton (or Obama), but more generally to ‘an interlocking set of institutions ultimately answering to a small group of people that collectively reward loyalists and punish dissenters’ in the service of ‘movement conservatism.’ The network of institutions provide: ‘obedient politicians with the resources to win elections, safe havens in the event of defeat, and lucrative career opportunities after they leave office. They guarantee favorable news coverage to politicians who follow the party line, while harassing and undermining opponents. And they support a large standing army of party intellectuals and activists.’ In Krugman’s view, the network of foundations that fund conservative scholarship, the national and regional think tanks and advocacy groups, talk radio media outlets, and conservative law firms through which they pushed their agenda to move the Republican Party to the right, far surpass in funding, size, inter-connectedness or influence anything the Democratic Party or the American liberal movement have at their disposal.

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