Hunting of the President, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/24/05 14:33:12

"Clearly biased, but an excellent introduction to the subject."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"The Hunting of the President", another in the rapidly expanding series of partisan, political documentaries released in 2004, chronicles the decade-long campaign to discredit (and later impeach) former President William J. Clinton. Written and directed by Harry Thomason and Nicholas Perry (from the book sharing the same title and written by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons), [I]The Hunting of the President[/I] unfortunately proves that some subjects, especially subjects involving complex, interlocking political and social issues, not to mention a multitude of major and minor players, are best left to either the non-fiction book format or a long-form documentary program that can be viewed across multiple nights. Harry Thomason and Nicholas Perry also make some obvious mistakes that indicate their unfamiliarity of the limits of the documentary format (e.g., an unclear and uncertain chronology of events, and the idiosyncratic insertion of newsreel and fictional film footage to underscore at times arguments and positions).

The Hunting of the President opens and closes with video footage of former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers on the U.S. Senate floor in January 1999, decrying the then ongoing impeachment proceedings that eventually resulted in acquittal and, in some respects, vindication for former President Clinton. The documentary then flashes back in time, to Clinton’s multiple terms as governor of Arkansas, and the concerted efforts by right-wing conservatives to undermine his political career. One shadowy group, the Alliance for the Rebirth of an Independent America, founded by Ed Hand, attempted to discredit Bill and Hillary Clinton, with negligible effects, at least while Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Their focus on Clinton’s private life, however, bore fruit, especially after he decided to run for president of the United States. Two men associated with that group, Larry Case and Larry Nichols, obtained large sums of money from the tabloid (and later mainstream) press for sexual allegations tied to Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs. For example, Star Magazine paid Larry Case $50,000 for circumstantial evidence of Clinton’s affairs. Gennifer Flowers, a down-on-her-luck performer, received $150,000 in exchange for exclusive rights to details about her long-term affair with Clinton (Clinton at first denied the allegations, but later, under oath in the Paula Jones case, admitted to the relationship with Flowers).

The allegations of sexual impropriety, however, quickly found themselves in the mainstream media (allegations that pursued Clinton through eight years of office). The American Spectator, a right-wing conservative journal published by Richard Mellon-Scaife sent a young reporter, David Brock (a self-described convert to the Democrat Party and founder of the liberal media watchdog group, Media Matters) describes his dubious involvement in what was then called “Troopergate.” Two former Arkansas state troopers revealed that they assisted and witnessed Clinton’s extramarital affairs while he was governor of Arkansas. There was, of course, another exchange of money for exclusive rights to their story. According to Brock, the troopers were motivated by potential financial gain and revenge (they were apparently promised jobs in Washington, D.C. which never materialized). Most damaging for Clinton, however, were allegations of sexual harassment by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones. Clinton’s testimony on an unrelated matter in the Paula Jones suit several years later would come back to haunt him.

The allegations of sexual impropriety and sexual harassment, however, were mere prelude to larger, more complex allegations of financial misconduct in a little-known land deal known as Whitewater. During his term as Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary purchased some undeveloped land with some friends, Susan and Jim McDougal (the Clintons lost money on the land deal). What seemed like a routine business transaction, however, turned into calls for a special prosecutor by the mainstream press (as well as Senate and House Republicans) when a little known municipal judge, David Hale (himself under indictment for embezzlement) claimed that he helped Susan McDougal acquire a $300,000 loan illegally from the Small Business Administration at the behest of then governor Clinton. Although Hale’s claims were unsupported by corroborating testimony or documentary evidence, the calls for an independent, unbiased investigation grew in Washington, D.C. Contrary to the advice from his legal and political advisors, Clinton agreed to appoint a special prosecutor, expecting to be exonerated of financial misconduct. As the law was written, however, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, a Republican appointee, appointed a special three-judge panel, also composed of Republican appointees, which in turn appointed the special prosecutor.

The first special prosecutor, Robert J. Fiske, on the verge of concluding the Whitewater investigation and exonerating the Clintons, was unceremoniously removed and replaced by Kenneth Starr, a former federal appellate judge and former Solicitor General under George H.W. Bush. Superficially, Starr appeared to have the professional credentials necessary to thoroughly investigate the allegations of financial misconduct in the Whitewater deal. Unfortunately, Starr’s partisanship resulted in a multi-year, multi-million dollar investigation costing U.S. taxpayers more than $80 million dollars that, while ultimately finding insufficient grounds for prosecuting the Clintons for financial misconduct, uncovered Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with a young White House intern, Monika Lewinsky. Starr used Clinton’s testimony under oath during the Paula Jones deposition, where Clinton categorically rejected the existence of an extramarital affair with Lewinsky, and later Clinton’s attempt to obtain Lewinsky’s silence in exchange for employment. Clinton’s mistakes were two-fold: by lying under oath and “obstructing justice,” he could be subject to criminal prosecution, and those charges, stemming from an illicit affair, could be then used in impeachment hearings. Clinton apparently misjudged the opposition to both his administration in general and him personally. Either he expected not to be caught lying under oath (likely) and/or he expected that no criminal charges, let alone impeachment hearings, would be brought against him. He was, of course, wrong. The U.S. Senate voted to hold impeachment hearings, but after rancorous prolonged debate between Republicans and Democrats, the impeachment charges were dismissed.

Kenneth Starr’s investigation was, to most neutral observers, an extraordinary abuse of power. Given the broad language of the special prosecutor law, however, there were few legal limitations on what and where Kenneth Starr could investigate. Kenneth Starr could and did investigate matters unconnected to his original mandate. The Whitewater investigation became the springboard to use federal resources to investigate every aspect of the Clinton’s professional and personal life, as well as the professional and personal lives of many people only tangentially connected to the Clintons in Arkansas. It should come as no surprise then that Congress allowed the special prosecutor law to lapse when it came up for renewal.

Thomason and Perry (and, of course, Conason and Lyons in their book) also examine the role of the mainstream media in the Whitewater investigations (there were multiple, including one conducted by a San Francisco law firm, Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, that exonerated the Clintons in late 1995 that received scant media attention). The mainstream media, in hard pursuit of a story comparable to Watergate (i.e., an abuse of power exposed by the media and the making of journalistic reputations), failed to fulfill its responsibilities as the Fourth Estate, dedicated to high journalistic standards and the search for objective, verifiable truth. By pursuing the story first and foremost, often without credible witnesses or corroborating documentation, the mainstream media played easily into coordinated, large-scale conservative efforts to damage Clinton’s personal and political reputation, and thus damaging his ability to act as an effective president.

The “vast right-wing conspiracy,” to use Hilary Clinton’s much-maligned phrase, may not have been vast, nor even a conspiracy (given that it was, for the most part, public knowledge), but Clinton’s personal flaws, and the conduct that resulted from those flaws (not the illicit affair, but the lying to a federal grand jury, as well as his attempts to obstruct justice) should also not be excused. If his conservative opponents wanted to damage Clinton’s presidency, they found an all-too-willing accomplice in Clinton himself, who because of egotism or other reasons, discounted the possibility that his personal failings could be used in an attempt to remove him from power. The right-wing conservatives in Congress and elsewhere in public life didn’t succeed in removing Clinton as president, but they did manage to damage the Democratic Party's credibility, which in turn contributed to the Republican Party’s successful, if highly controversial, bid for the White House in 2000.

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