Sunday :: Mar 30, 2008

The Most Secretive Politicians in History

by eriposte

I mentioned this in passing in a previous post, but the article by Joe Conason at - "Some Free Advice for Obama" - is worth going back to, so I'm going to post some passages from it here and add some comments that go beyond the secrecy topic and address a broader issue - Clinton Derangement Syndrome (CDS).

Conason says (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

Rather than address those concerns fully, however, the Illinois senator has dithered and dodged, according to reporters in Chicago. Now Obama and his aides persistently deflect attention by pointing an accusing finger at the Clintons, complaining that they haven't revealed their tax returns or named all the donors to the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Presidential Library, while occasionally alluding to the ancient Whitewater "scandal."

While the Clintons have many faults -- including the arrogant and sometimes offensive way they have conducted this campaign -- the scandal tactic won't vanquish them. Hillary Clinton's advertising may inflate her national security experience, but when she claims to have been tested by partisan fire on her way from Arkansas to the Senate, she isn't just blowing smoke. There is no politician in America whose personal and financial affairs have been subjected to similar scrutiny except her husband, and he is retired.

I've made this very point before, so I'm glad that Conason, co-author of one of the best investigative books in politics - "The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton" - made this same point.

So if Obama expects a devastating revelation to leap from the pages of the Clinton tax returns when they are released to the press next month, he is more than likely to be disappointed. Chances are that she hasn't yet released her 2007 return because the paperwork isn't ready -- and she probably doesn't know what it will say when it is complete. Like most wealthy senators (and alas, most senators are wealthy), she doesn't spend much time poring over her own finances. Other people are hired to do that, and besides, she's been fairly busy for the past year or so.

Observers with short memories should be reminded that the independent counsel probe led by Kenneth Starr did not merely examine all of the Clintons' bank statements, mortgage documents, legal records and tax returns over a period stretching back to the '80s, but dragged many of their friends, associates and employees before a grand jury to interrogate them under oath about the Clintons. Following six years of intense investigation, the partisan prosecutor had little to show beyond that stained blue dress -- and nothing that plausibly implicated Hillary Clinton in any significant wrongdoing. Starr and his staff wanted to send her to jail, and spent more than $50 million searching for the evidence to support an indictment. That doesn't include the Senate Whitewater Committee, led by Alfonse D'Amato, which wasted plenty of money and time to find ... nothing.

Naturally, for Clinton critics that isn't enough because "WHERE'S HER LATEST TAX RETURN?????!!!!!! SHE'S THE MOST SECRETIVE POLITICIAN EVAH!!!!". Conason says:

Of course, those episodes concluded almost a decade ago. But the same investigations continued in a different form, conducted by the reporters who were hired to write expensive Hillary Clinton biographies for big publishers. But again, despite the strong incentive to produce dirt, the recent books by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta and by Carl Bernstein revealed little that was even unflattering, let alone incriminating, aside from the usual recycled gossip. Those Pulitzer-winning professionals, eager to expose whatever scandal might exist, no matter how minor, likewise discovered nothing.

As for the Clinton Foundation, the heavy-breathing insinuations about "secret" donors seem overblown. The role of Frank Giustra, for example, the wealthy mining investor whose huge contributions to the foundation have created controversy because of his company's uranium deal in Kazakhstan, was never secret. Or at least the Clinton Foundation staff didn't think so when they told me and other reporters about him three years ago.

When I went to Africa with Bill Clinton in July 2005 to work on a cover profile of the former president for Esquire, we traveled from South Africa to Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda on Giustra's plane, a fact known to all the journalists on the trip, including Jennifer Senior of New York magazine and CNN's Sanjay Gupta. While I was reporting the story, foundation officials told me that Giustra had also provided the plane that took him and Clinton to Kazakhstan, China and other destinations later that summer. Donations and sponsorships from a wide assortment of other sources -- including Bill Gates, numerous investment banks, industrial companies, foreign governments and wealthy individuals -- have been made public on the foundation Web site.

Not only that:

Moreover, the Obama campaign would do well to not draw excessive attention to the Clinton Foundation, since it would only succeed in speeding the rehabilitation of Bill Clinton. His efforts currently provide HIV/AIDS medication to as many as 1.5 million poor people in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia who would otherwise be abandoned to die. (If Obama doesn't believe me he can ask Nelson Mandela, who challenged Clinton to deal with the crisis.) That humanitarian achievement demanded both audacity and hope, but it also required money. Whatever the former president has done to raise funds from his billionaire friends -- and he appears to have done nothing unethical at all -- there is not a shred of evidence that he relied upon any influence wielded in the Senate by his wife. Indeed, her policy stance toward the foundation's friends in places like Dubai and Kazakhstan is critical and unyielding.

If you, as a reader, were at the receiving end of one of the most offensive, personal, purely politicial and costly investigations into your personal life - based on entirely cooked up accusations - by multiple groups (an Independent Counsel, a hyper-partisan Republican Congress, a vast corporate media that hated you), and you came out almost entirely unscathed, you are not going to be inclined to keep producing every little document that your enemies or critics keep asking for, just so that they can continue to distort, mislead and take false potshots at you again and again. I just shake my head sadly everytime I see progressives (and I include people here who do not have CDS but may just have a strong view on this particular topic) robotically repeat the unmitigated BS that originally came from the GOP - that the Clintons are the "most secretive" - when in fact their life has for a long time been an almost completely open book - much more open a book when compared to any other politician in modern history. I do wonder whether these people have even read the mountain of garbage produced based on the Clintons' personal records, tax returns, documents and so on - in the dozens and dozens of books and thousands of web pages that are freely available? You want to know who the most secretive people in history really are? George Bush, Dick Cheney and several Republicans. So, if I were in the Clintons' shoes, I would not have the same level of tolerance they have for these ignorant critics who fall for the BS that the GOP introduced as yet another means to tarnish the Clintons.

I've written a few posts previously chronicling the entirely false accusations against Sen. Clinton and President Clinton regarding their papers from the Clinton presidency (not to mention Whitewater). Those false claims in the media - that were advanced by the Obama campaign - were often the basis for the "secretive" claim about the Clintons. What I've devoted little attention to is the lack of information about Sen. Obama's own history on many such matters (see the Clinton campaign's "FACT CHECK: Sen. Obama and Disclosure"). There's a reason why I haven't. This stuff is the basis for the misleading or false "gotcha" politics that the Republicans have always played against the Clintons and other Democrats. The sole aim of this crap is to discover a needle - one or two mildly embarrassing facts about a candidate's past (who doesn't have some?) - in a haystack (the entire history of the candidate's past dealings) and blow it out of proportion using the ever-compliant traditional/corporate media (and increasingly the so-called "netroots") in order to push false generalizations about the candidate. Believe me, I could have written post after post after post going after Sen. Obama on a number of things - whether it is his missing State Senate records, his poor judgement and dealings with Tony Rezko, his not having revealed his pre-2007 tax returns (until recently), and on and on - but I haven't and I don't plan to. At the end of the day, there are more important things to me than discovering that a progressive candidate is not perfect. There are more important things to me than nonsensical "gotcha" politics. If a Democratic candidate has a serious problem that makes him or her patently unfit for office, I am confident that the GOP-friendly traditional media will be sure to expose it.

This topic is near and dear to my heart because I see people who I thought were progressives, cavalierly or even gleefully joining in the character assassination campaign against a Democrat named Hillary Clinton - whose record in Congress is clearly imperfect but broadly speaking, very similar to Sen. Obama's (and in some cases better than his - on some economic issues). I have been trying to understand this phenomenon for a few months now and I don't have all the answers yet. But there are some insights to be gained reading a few posts by blogger Anglachel. Back in February, Anglachel wrote a very interesting post "Netroots: Liberal Democrats and Jacobins" that is worth reading in its entirety. I don't agree with all of it, but here are some key portions that in my view are more correct than not:

Movement conservatism at its core denies the legitimacy of liberal democracy because it will not accept that there can be any acceptable position other than what it desires. The Bush/Cheney administration is a two-term repudiation of the founding principles of the nation. One of the chief accomplishments of movement conservatism is to delegitimize the act of evaluation, attempting to force all questions of policy and statecraft into false dichotomies in which their end of the pole is always the right one with the ultimate goal of deconstructing the institutions that limit their desires. It is an effective political strategy because living in ambiguity is difficult. You want decisions done with, final, that’s it. You want certainty and solidity. Sometimes, you simply want what you want and to hell with fairness. The battle of good vs. evil is great box-office. It appeals to the sanctimonious dictator dwelling in all our hearts.

Movement conservatism has seized on issues where there is legitimate contesting interests and has reduced them to yes/no. Taxes and abortion are their two most effective memes, with racism and nativism hot on their heels. The key to making an effective dichotomy is to imbue it with a personal emotion, reduce it to false equivalency (taxes = theft, abortion = murder) that removes the space for judgment, then pump up the volume on the outrage such that it is illegitimate to voice a contrary position without hedging, apologizing, equivocating and so forth. Taxes come from my wallet, who doesn’t love little helpless babies, and then there is the ever present fear of the dark skinned, funny talking other.

On the left, the rigid mind flourishes quite well, too, even if it is not as prevalent as on the right. It participates in the same sanctimonious moralism as their rightwing counterparts, and both engage in a rhetoric of purity, but with extremely dangerous results for the left. On the right, it is us against them and serves to unify otherwise incompatible interest groups. On the left, it is me against the machine and sets up dynamics that create canyons out of small differences. On the right, it is the beloved community of true believers fighting against the sullied world. On the left, it is the pure hearted citizen rooting out the corruption of power.

It is a Jacobin tendency on the left to always already consider the kinds of powerful institutional and public processes that are necessary to perform the people’s business to be inherently dangerous to the fantasized prelapsarian condition that The People would live in were they not led away from the straight and the good by the politicians and power brokers. The problem, of course, as Arendt points out in numerous ways, is that you need very strong institutions to defend the space for evaluation of claims and distribution of social goods. Or, as Winston Churchill is alleged to have said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

The deep problem of Jacobinism is that it ends up both endangering the ordinary institutions and structures of power and also creating boundary dissolving movements of persecution, both done in the name of preserving the “true” or “pure” will of The People. It destabilizes the attempt to found effective institutions for harnessing political power in its single-minded pursuit of purified power outside the bounds of city hall and the legislature, imagining that if only the deal-making, rule-breaking and interminable palaver of these place could be replaced with wisdom and justice (freedom? Not so much…) for all the deserving. Like the right, its enemy is the evaluation of claims and compromise on distribution of social goods, which is the core of liberal democracy.


These tendencies are why we get utter f***-ups like Ralph Nader running for President. He knows he wants what is right and true and good, and he will be above all the dirt and filth of the government machine and will pass good laws and The People will hail their modern Solon. It is a compelling fantasy, that of the good philosopher king who will be above “mere politics” and will bring justice and order from the mire merely by pronouncing the law. Every significant election, from local mayor to President, has at least one of these types running, sometimes several. A good liberal democrat knows this is nonsense.

What the right understands is that politics is power and the relationships that generate conditions in which power can be seized, deployed, and increased. They know that the best way to disempower the left (which Paul Krugman covers in great detail in The Conscience of a Liberal) is to disrupt the formation of the political relationships on the left which create points of contact between potential rivals and facilitate discovery of and agreement upon common issues. They do this through politics of fear and division in mass politics, and through smearing and trashing individuals who exhibit leadership in inside-the-beltway politics. One of their sure-fire tactics is to tarnish the reputations of such leaders with the Jacobins. Every politician on the left who has attempted anything of consequence has something in their record to earn the opprobrium of the moralists, left and right, and their “failures” are amplified into crimes against the nation. The netroots attacks the same Democrats that the right attacks, and in nearly identical language and levels of hysteria. The most pure case of this was the hatchet job they did on Al Gore in 2000, effective to the point that even today after all the Bush/Cheney ghouls have done, people on the left sneer at Gore as a hypocrite, a phony, an “establishment” candidate, a “corporatist” and quite a variety of unpleasant names.

The key here is that the netroots, more than any other part of the so-called left, is exquisitely susceptible to the Jacobin impulse, tearing down people and institutions in the name of ending corruption and hypocrisy. And, in this way, it amplifies the efforts of the right to dissolve the structures that place limits upon desires. As there is no end to the ways in which ordinary human beings can screw up or fail to do their best, there is no end to the hunt for the guilty, the punishment of the innocent and the promotion of the non-participants. It also results in candidate promotion that is simply unrealistic coupled with an unwillingness to accept that most of the rest of the political world just wants its goodies and really doesn’t care about Saint So-and-So who will lead us to the Promised Land. The stance of absolutes is inherently a minority position.


This is not a defense of the status quo (though Jacobins will consider it such), but a diagnosis of the fault line that runs through the political left. There is a reason that politics splits (and splinters) the way it does in the US, and why the left has such difficulty building and preserving popular, egalitarian institutions. It is hard to keep the extremes of a liberal democratic coalition attached in order to retain a sufficiently powerful electoral majority. The left must take an object lesson from the effectiveness of the movement conservatives on how to drag politics towards its own interests, but it also has to be keenly aware of the way in which the tactics of purity politics are corrosive to the practice of liberal democracy. It unnerves me when the answer of both the extreme left and the extreme right to the problems of government are to destroy the Democratic Party and everything attached to it.

Reader Emal wrote something interesting in a comment thread yesterday:

Not one of them actually refuted or responded directly to what you posted here....they all changed the subject and then went on to complain why [Sen. Clinton] didn't do more or nearly enough for other things that they feel might have proven to them that she was sincere enough in her efforts and doesn't torture puppies or eat babies

The portion I've highlighted in bold is emblematic of the problem that Anglachel writes about. Angry about some of the trashing Sen. Clinton was getting at the hands of those with CDS, Anglachel wrote in another post "Stanley Fish on Hillary Hatred" thusly (I disagree with her broad generalizations, but her comments do get to the core of some of the issues I have seen played out based on my readings and observations):

How inconsiderate of her, indeed. How dare she force the political conditions which make us feel uncomfortable. This gets back to something I have been saying again and again in the last month, where I point out the deep discomfort that the wine-track left and especially the A-List Boyz have with political conflict. They somehow want to have victory without having anyone besmirch their candidate and without having that candidate taint his dainty hands with the crude weilding of power. What Krugman (here and here) and Perlstein both point out is that there are divisions in this nation that run so deep and are so powerful that we have no choice save to fight them tooth and nail, and to understand that we have only our mortal, flawed and always already compromised leaders to rally behind. What these respondents hate the most about Hillary (and also about Bubba) is that they are "unclean".

The greatest crime the Clintons have committed in the eyes of the Left is not being perfect. [...]

Fish raises an eyebrow and gives the respondents another thing to think about. The battering of the Clintons is not just more villification for them, it is at the same time a deliberate campaign strategy of Hillary's [chief] rival. Fish examines the strategy, acknowledges the political savvy as something other than mere opportunism, but ends by pointing out the self-negating gotcha of this type of campaign, which is the gotcha of all such campaigns waged since Adlai Stevenson (my emphasis):

The beneficiary of this she’s-a-victim-so-we-must-expel-her logic is Barack Obama, and some respondents suspected him of fostering the divisiveness he rails against. “When Obama calls Hillary divisive he, of course, is pandering to these crazies Stanley Fish is describing” (dehud, 128). “Barack Obama is working hard to provide fuel to the Hillary haters” (Meryl B, 339). Actually, Obama doesn’t have to work hard at all. The media, as many who wrote in pointed out, are doing it for him. A number of commentators perceived an anti-Hillary bias at work in the op-ed pages of our major newspapers (including this one) and in the remarks made by radio and TV personalities. MSNBC was singled out as a network that has become an extension of the Obama campaign. Chris Matthews, a liberal warhorse, is obviously in love with him. But so is the entire editorial page of the New York Post. On Thursday, Dick Morris, Eileen McGann, and Kirsten Powers wrote mash notes to Obama in the disguise of columns, and the lead editorial warned Democrats not to miss out on the “excitement and promise” Obama brings. Today (Sunday) Peggy Noonan worried that the Democrats might fail to “recognize what they have in this guy.” With unpaid employees on both sides of the media aisle, Obama doesn’t have to do anything but be his usual inspirational self. Unencumbered by the record of achievements and missteps that comes along with political longevity, he can present a clean slate to the electorate. Nothing hazarded equals nothing to be criticized for.

Of course Obama has every right to take advantage of the enmity his opponent has garnered over the years. It is the politically savvy thing to do, just as it is politically savvy for him to insist that the superdelegates follow the voters in their districts, given that a majority of them is known to favor Senator Clinton. But political savvy is perhaps not what Obama wants to claim. His boast–problematic down the road–is that he is not a politician at all.

Obama would be a fool not to try to capitalize on this media and electoral windfall, but what kind of politics does it create in the end? Armando over at TalkLeft is explicit that it may be a tactic that will allow The Golden One to win a campaign, but it is not one that will allow him to govern effectively precisely because the marker of his administration is to be above politics and avoid those battles that must be engaged to turn back the tide of Movement Conservatism. Better to win than to succeed.

Let me end with another observation from yesterday's comment thread, where commenter Jesse had this to say:

Richard Mellon Scaife ...she talked to this monster...really how many excuses are there left to give?

I don't know if Jesse is an Obama supporter, but this is classic CDS. On the one hand you have a candidate - Sen. Obama - whose entire foreign policy pitch is based on having direct talks without pre-conditions with some of America's worst enemies and the worst dictators in the world - in order to bring reconciliation or peace. His entire campaign is based on the pitch of "unity" and bringing people together even if you disagree strongly with them and their tactics. In contrast, here you have the usual suspects getting the vapors over Sen. Clinton giving an interview to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review editorial board (a newspaper that is important in Pennsylvania whether she likes it or not) - where she had no option but to talk to the owner and her longtime nemesis Scaife. These are the slender and completely BS threads upon which Hillary hatred and the Jacobin* impulse are sustained.

P.S. The term Jacobin could mean different things to different people. I use the term in a non-literal sense to denote a tendency to hold ostensibly perfectionist and extreme views, as I suspect Anglachel does.

eriposte :: 10:00 AM :: Comments (22) :: Digg It!