Living With the Clintons: Bill’s Arkansas bodyguards tell the story the press missed.
In a remarkable but little-noticed article buried inside the Sunday Washington Post four months before the 1992 presidential election, top Clinton campaign aide Betsey Wright said she had been spending the better part of her time since the Democratic National Convention trying to quell potential “bimbo eruptions.”
Through the Little Rock gossip mills, the campaign was tracking nineteen potential allegations that had surfaced in the first week following the convention, in addition to seven others that had appeared earlier in the year, Wright said. The extensive effort to short-circuit such stories, Wright said, included the campaign’s hiring of a private investigator to obtain information damaging to the credibility of the women involved, which was then used, presumably, to persuade them to stay quiet.
Perhaps unintentionally, the phrase “bimbo eruptions” cut two ways. Wright’s choice of the epithet “bimbo” — and a later reference to “gold-digger growth” — was obviously meant to discredit in advance any reports of sexual liaisons between Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and women other than his wife, Hillary. Yet at the same time, Wright also seemed to be conceding, if not promising, that there was more to come — i.e., the imminent appearance of an unspecified number of such women, and a subsequent round of stories raising questions about Clinton’s private life.
Wright was not the first to talk about the campaign’s aggressive efforts to discredit sources and lobby reporters and editors to spike emerging news stories. Writing in the New York Times in March, Gwen Ifill reported:
Even the recently released documentary about the 1992 campaign, The War Room, showed Stephanopoulos on the telephone on the eve of the election, warning a caller not to go public with damaging information about Clinton’s private life.
The campaign had gone on “full alert” when Gennifer Flowers, the former cabaret singer, alleged in an interview with the Star supermarket tabloid that she had carried on a 12-year affair with Clinton (“Mistress Tells All, The Secret Love Tapes That Prove It”). With Hillary at his side, Clinton appeared on “60 Minutes” to deny that he had ever had an affair with Flowers, calling her only “a friendly acquaintance,” but acknowledging unspecified “wrongdoing” and “causing pain in my marriage.”
Flowers’s story was tainted at the outset, when she was reportedly paid $150,000 to cooperate with a publication of no journalistic repute. It was then discovered by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she had misrepresented parts of her educational background and work history. Writing in the New Republic, Sidney Blumenthal described Flowers as “the woman in red, trimmed in black to match the roots of her frosted hair.”
On the other hand, there was direct evidence weighing in favor of Flowers. Though they had some unexplained pauses and ambiguous references, Flowers had tapes of conversations with Clinton, including his instruction that she deny that they had talked about her obtaining a state job (“If they ever ask you if you’ve talked to me about it, you can say no”). She also had corroboration for her story from her mother Mary, as well as from her roommate at the time, Lauren Kirk, who declared in an interview with the New York Post’s Cindy Adams, “There can be no doubt that she and Bill Clinton had sex with one another.” [FOOTNOTE 1: After speaking to the press, Kirk was fired from her job as a realtor in Dallas.] And finally, Clinton never denied the authenticity of the tapes; in fact, he apologized to Mario Cuomo for a taped remark imputing Mafia ties to the New York governor.
Yet with very few exceptions — Phil Donahue and the Washington Monthly’s Charles Peters among them — the press was untroubled by these wrinkles in Clinton’s denial of the Flowers affair and accepted his suggestion that any marital indiscretions were history. Pressed by Donahue, Clinton seemed to assert that any peccadilloes were a thing of the past: “I’ve told you the only facts I think you’re entitled to know. Have I had any problems with my marriage? Yes. Are we in good shape now? Yes.” The contention that any marital infidelity was no longer occurring was crucial to Clinton’s ability to put out the fire. As the New York Times paraphrased Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg at the time, “As long as voters believed the candidate had not lied and that his marriage was ‘real,’ they will not turn on him.”
For the most part, the press coverage quickly devolved into a tortured colloquium on whether or not infidelity was a Legitimate Issue. To the extent that members of the press corps had come to believe that it no longer was, that they had gone too far in destroying Democratic front-runner Gary Hart’s political career by exposing his ties to model Donna Rice in 1987, Clinton may have been treated with kid gloves on the womanizing issue. Though opinion polls showed that 14 percent of the electorate would not vote for an adulterer, the indifferent public response to the Flowers story may have convinced many in the media that the public desire for “change” outweighed any concerns about Clinton’s character. In addition, it was clear that many reporters viewed Clinton as “one of us,” a product of the 1960s not only politically, but on sexual matters as well — a “liberal semi-hip contemporary who seems to share their [reporters’] values,” as the Boston Globe described the candidate. Clinton booster Eleanor Clift of Newsweek candidly stated after the Flowers revelations, “Truth is, the press is willing to cut Clinton some slack because they like him and what he has to say.”
Nonetheless, a competing if minority view among some journalists held that the press must not repeat the slavish self-censorship of the Kennedy days. Surely a number of news organizations continued to scrutinize Clinton’s private life after the Flowers story faded, and even more so following his presidential nomination. Despite Clinton’s tacit admission of infidelity, however, after Flowers no other “bimbos” erupted. [FOOTNOTE 2: Other names surfaced in the tabloids but, unlike Flowers, were never mentioned in the mainstream press. Appearing on the Sally Jesse Raphael show in July 1992, Sally Perdue, a former Miss Arkansas, claimed that she had had an affair with Clinton, but the media generally did not report this. After the appearance, Perdue was fired from her job in the admissions office of a Midwestern university. A second woman had actually surfaced prior to Flowers, in Penthouse. Connie Hamzy of Little Rock said she had been sunbathing by a pool at a hotel in North Little Rock in August 1984 when an aide to Clinton approached her and arranged a sexual encounter with Clinton.]
Having recently spent a good deal of time in Arkansas with people who were close to the Clintons in their Little Rock years, I’m fairly certain that it was less a lack of professional interest in the subject, and more the lack of on-the-record sourcing due to the strong-arm tactics acknowledged by Wright and Stephanopoulos, that kept what could have been one of the biggest political stories of the campaign from seeing the light of day.
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H/T to National Review Online