WASHINGTON — Forty years ago this autumn I began my professional life as an innocent procreator of wisecracks by founding The American Spectator, a magazine that I suppose is taking its place in American literature as one extended wisecrack. At the Spectator we have always seen a joke lurking where the humorless and smug perceive a sacred cow or a golden opportunity. This week it became clear that a joke is a dangerous thing — the humorless and the smug are in the ascendancy.
My most famous wisecrack has denied my fellow Americans the services of a lawyer who would surely be acclaimed in American history as one of our finest attorneys general, Ted Olson. Perhaps I should take a vow against ever again uttering a flippant or sardonic remark. From now on I may growl like the Hon. Patrick Leahy or snarl like the Hon. Harry Reid. In a moment of levity I referred to series of Spectator news stories that were always factual and remain irrefragable as “the Arkansas Project,” and though my friends laughed Democrats under the Clintons’ weird spell cowered and envisaged images of McCarthyism and The Red Scare. For a decade I have witnessed my harmless flippancy enter the history books as a political hate crime. This was not my intention.
Early in the Clinton Administration, when the scandal-prone Forty-Second President of the United States was sweating somewhere between her Travelgate and her Filegate en route to his Monicagate, I decided that investigative journalists were going to have a field day as long as the Clintons held high office, testing the rule of law and attracting the attention of what are called the authorities. Thus I raised funds to improve the investigative reporting of the Spectator. What now sends hysteria through polite society as the Arkansas Project was initially labeled Expanded Editorial and Reporting. It was funded not unlike the funding of National Public Broadcasting’s “Frontline,” save for our superior record of accuracy.
Olson, having been on the Spectator’s board of directors during the 1990s, has been twice implicated in the Arkansas Project by the likes of Leahy and Reid, once during his successful confirmation hearings for solicitor general and now while being considered as a nominee to head the Justice Department. As the project was an effort at reportage, and Olson is — merely to quote the Wall Street Journal — “one of America’s finest lawyers,” you can be sure he had no journalistic or editorial involvement in it. He may have given some legal advice, but it would have been minimal. We broke no laws. We did not even skirt the law. All we did was report what turned out to be the Clintons’ misbehavior, misbehavior that is now on the historical record. Thus far in this era of the smug and humorless, it is not illegal to report the news. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized in defense of Olson, “committing journalism is not a crime. The Arkansas Project was never accused of breaking any laws, although the Clinton Justice Department did investigate the magazine over the campaign, which strikes us as a much creepier sort of partisanship than exercising one’s First Amendment rights.”
Actually there were charges. The American Spectator was accused of threatening violence and of witness tampering — both felonies — by the Clintons, their pliant attorney general, Janet Reno, and her collaborator, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. After reviewing these charges with the assistance of a grand jury, the government’s special counsel concluded the accusations were “unsubstantiated or, in some cases, untrue.” That has not stopped the ex-Boy President from repeating the witness tampering charge in his memoirs and on the walls of his dubious presidential library. Thus does the Arkansas Project continue, not as a wisecrack but as a “dark episode” in American history.
The general complaint against Olson has been partisanship. But he would never be so partisan as to harass a small magazine for “committing journalism.” One of his ripostes to his attackers last week was to note that Pulitzer Prizes are given for investigative journalism not jail sentences, at least not in this country. Well, I expect no Pulitzer Prize, and after the Clintons’ last round of attacks I received no jail sentence; but if I had, so what? Call me narcissistic if you will, but I have never been able to comprehend what is so unpleasant about solitary confinement.