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01.30.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Richard Phibbs
Hillary: The Candidate: A highly biased new documentary of Clinton spins the New York senator as a cross between Machiavelli and Lady Macbeth.

Propaganda 101

As a new film reminds, bringing back the Clintons also means bringing back all those who mean to do them wrong

By Stephanie Mencimer


H illary Clinton has what pollsters call "high negatives," which essentially means that lots of people really don't like her and never will. But her supporters have long argued that she is a formidable candidate despite these negatives because those numbers aren't likely to go any higher. As the theory goes, Americans are already well-acquainted with the Clintons' dirty laundry—Whitewater, Monica, etc.—and as a result, any more mud slung at Hillary isn't likely to stick. Unlike the less-seasoned presidential contenders, she's been through the mill and is still standing. But the recent Washington premiere of Hillary: The Movie is any indication, this particular case for Clinton the candidate is wishful thinking.

Created by the conservative political group Citizens United, the anti-Hillary movie makes the Democratic primary season look like a polite college-debate tournament. Moreover, it doesn't simply recycle the old anti-Hillary stuff; it raises a slew of new charges to spin the New York senator as a cross between Machiavelli and Lady Macbeth. The movie offers a preview of what the general election could look like should Clinton become the Democratic nominee.

Hillary dips briefly into some of the old Clinton scandals, including Bill's well-documented skirt chasing. An alleged victim of the former president's sexual advances, Kathleen Willey appears in the film a decade after her moment on the national stage, reprising some of the material from her recent book, Target: Caught in the Crosshairs of Bill and Hillary Clinton. In a taut-lipped interview, she suggests that after her name surfaced in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton, the Clintons arranged to have her kitty assassinated. She says a private investigator tipped her off that the White House was having her investigated. (The investigator, a pockmarked Jared Stern, also appears in the film like some sort of Deep Throat, interviewed in a parking garage.)

To great effect, the film also digs into the tale of Billy Dale, the former longtime head of the White House travel office who was allegedly sacked on Hillary's orders so that she could staff the office with cronies boasting Hollywood connections. According to the movie spin, the White House falsely accused Dale of embezzling thousands of dollars from the travel office as justification for the firing. He was prosecuted and acquitted by a jury in two hours.

Of course, unsaid in the film is that there was substantial evidence in his trial that Dale had mismanaged the travel office; that he was getting freebies—like sporting-event tickets—from contractors; that he had diverted $54,000 in refund checks into his own bank account; and lost track of $14,000 in petty cash. All solid reasons to fire the guy.

But the movie's producers smartly skip over most of the ancient history from the Clinton administration and stick to fresher material, much of which will be unfamiliar to the average viewer (or voter). The fundraising scandals alone provide a mountain of fodder, and Hillary makes great use of the video footage from the 2000 "Hollywood Farewell Gala Salute to William Jefferson Clinton." The star-studded event was organized and paid for by Peter F. Paul, a repeat felon and con artist who had cozied up to the Clintons in the waning days of the administration. Aiding him was Aaron Tonken, another con man who was later convicted of defrauding charities, and who helpfully provides an interview from prison.

Paul, who is interviewed extensively in the movie, paid $1.2 million to put on the gala, which raised money for Hillary Clinton's Senate race. Her Senate campaign, however, reported to the Federal Election Commission that the event only cost $523,000. (In-kind donations such as hosting a party count toward candidate spending limits.) The FEC eventually fined Clinton's campaign $35,000 for underreporting the cost of the party. Hillary Clinton's finance director was tried and acquitted for his role in reporting the event cost.

After the Washington Post reported on Paul's criminal history, which includes drug charges and all sorts of financial shenanigans (even defrauding Cuba, if you can imagine the level of criminal ingenuity that would entail), Clinton distanced herself from him. But Hillary showcases lots of footage and chummy photos of the former first lady with Paul, even a video of a conference call she made to him. All this suggests a close relationship that's going to be tough to avoid addressing if she ends up facing off with a Republican next fall.

The criminal past that makes Paul a problem for Clinton also makes him a problem for the filmmakers. To address this issue, Citizens United hired a professional polygrapher to administer a lie-detector test to Paul on film, which of course he passes. It's a laughable scene, and it's tempting to dismiss the guy's story, except that a lot of it is true. The Clintons have still never explained how they hooked up with him. You don't need to be James Carville to see how the episode may play out in campaign ads next summer.

The film, however, goes overboard on conspiracy theories about how the Clintons have tried to suppress information that Bill Clinton failed to kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance. The documents Berger destroyed, Hillary suggests, were part of that effort. But the fact that Berger is now advising Hillary's presidential campaign is a legitimate issue that can't be brushed off as right-wing propaganda.

And, finally, you can already see the making of the campaign ads in the film's segment on Bill Clinton's pardoning of 16 members of the Puerto Rican terrorist group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, which the film lays at the feet of Hillary. The film tries to jerk some tears by interviewing Joseph Connor, whose father was killed in a Fuerzas Armadas bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in New York City in 1975, when Joseph was nine years old. There's lots of lip-biting, and overkill is the operative word, especially given that none of the people Clinton pardoned were personally responsible for the tavern bombing.

The conservative chattering class are all here: Bay Buchanan, Tony Blankley, an utterly vicious Dick Morris, Robert Novak, Michael Barone, Larry Kudlow, as well as such luminaries as Indiana congressman Dan Burton, for whom Citizens United president David Bossie worked in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich and Buzz Patterson, a retired lieutenant colonel who carried the "nuclear football" as the senior military aide to Clinton but who has since churned out a host of books attacking his former boss for wrecking the military.

The odd man out in all this is former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth. In contrast to everyone else in the film, Gerth's comments are measured and mostly refer to the research from the book he recently co-authored, Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton. His biggest knocks on Clinton are that not one of the 200 speeches he reviewed addressed counterterrorism, and that she is constantly wrestling with her own identity. But Gerth's appearance in the film will bolster suspicions among those in the Clinton camp that the reporter was in cahoots with the vast right-wing conspiracy to bring down Bill with his reporting on Whitewater.

Whether anyone outside the Free Republic universe will actually see the film is another matter. While it will be screened in theaters across the country, federal election law has prevented Citizens United from advertising the film on the grounds that it is a campaign ad. Bossie has sued the FEC, arguing that it should be protected commercial speech and thus exempt from the campaign laws, which would require the group to disclose its donors, something it clearly doesn't want to do. A panel of federal judges recently heard arguments in the case, but no decision has yet been made. For now, Bossie will have to rely on Sean Hannity and word of mouth for promotion, which in a way is too bad.

Democratic primary voters ought to watch it, just to make sure that they fully understand that a vote for Hillary is also a vote to bring back the people behind this film. The Clinton-haters are alive and well, and in fighting form. It's clear that the American public won't be able to have one without the other.


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