The Smear Factor: Why We Hate Politics

The Smear Factor: Why We Hate Politics

By Carl M. Cannon - June 29, 2014

Late in George H.W. Bush’s presidency, political writer E.J. Dionne wrote “Why Americans Hate Politics,” a book arguing that the nation’s two major political parties offered the country dueling “false choices” regarding the pressing policy issues of the day. In 2004, Dionne updated the book, emphasizing in a new preface his belief that “ideas shape politics far more than most accounts of public life usually allow.”

I hope that’s true. It’s why I live in Washington and write about politics and public policy for a living instead of hanging out in Southern California’s beach towns awaiting the next good surf break and summer thoroughbred racing at Del Mar.

But when the nation’s discourse is dominated by the Democrats’ and Republicans’ bipolar armies of ideologues, special interest groups, and character assassins, it makes one wonder just what the American people really want from their politics.

Last week in these pages, I wrote why I think women voters will rally to Hillary Clinton’s banner in 2016. Aside from the expected responses from readers, of both genders, who have little use for Hillary or her husband, an alarming number of people asked why I hadn’t mentioned that Mrs. Clinton was fired for misconduct when she worked as a staff lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee investigating Richard Nixon during Watergate.

For the record, the reason is that she wasn’t fired from that job. It didn’t happen. I knew where that rumor originated—it’s not a new story—because it first arose in Bill Clinton’s second term, when I covered the White House. But I was curious how it flew around the world so fast. The short answer is Rush Limbaugh. The longer answer is the way Americans communicate with each other these days.

First, a brief recitation of the back story:

It begins in 1973, when a government lawyer named Jerome Zeifman started making entries in his diary. It was a momentous time in his career. Zeifman, a Democrat, was chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. Investigating a sitting president required staffing, and one of those hired was a 27-year-old Yale Law School grad named Hillary Rodham.

At first, he was impressed, but in time Zeifman soured on her. He began, as he wrote in a 1996 book, to suspect her of collaborating with Democratic Senate aides loyal to Ted Kennedy. Their supposed aim was to keep the lid on the Watergate investigation out of fear Nixon would expose the “crimes of Camelot,” a phrase that appears in the book’s title. There are other subplots in his farfetched conspiracy theory, and other conspirators, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino—but little evidence for any of it.

The book reads like a Hollywood intrigue, which apparently occurred to Zeifman’s publisher, who promised on the book jacket to reveal “truths even more startling than those brought out in Oliver Stone’s movies Nixon and JFK.” Those films, remember, were works of fiction.

This titillating tale was reprised in 2008 when Clinton ran for president, thanks to conservative columnist Dan Calabrese, who embellished it a tad, introducing Jerry Zeifman as “the guy who fired Hillary Clinton.” A catchy line, but untrue: Zeifman lacked the authority to terminate her, and it’s a matter of historic record that she wasn’t fired.

Nonetheless, at the height of the 2008 primary season, Rush Limbaugh repeated it to his millions of listeners. Today, with Clinton prepping for another presidential campaign, the old canard is being passed around again, this time in a “viral” email. Viral is the right word: One reader who read my assessment of Clinton’s 2016 chances sent an email asking if I was “going easy” on her “because she donates to your publication.”

My pen pal is a working-class guy, a carpenter by trade, who doesn’t know any better. The same day, however, another missive arrived in my inbox, this one from a multimillion-dollar Democratic Party-affiliated super PAC called American Bridge 21st Century. Its stated mission is sliming Republicans.

The subject line on this email was “Scott Walker: Just Ask My Koch-Crony Judge, I’m Innocent!” That’s a mouthful, but interesting, so I opened the email. I should have known better, because nothing makes the attack dogs at American Bridge foam at the mouth more predictably than Wisconsin’s governor. But casually smearing the reputation of a federal judge is not something you see every day, so I followed the trail.

The background on this case is even more convoluted than the Watergate example, but here’s a shorthand version: Gov. Walker was investigated by Democratic prosecutors in his home state on the grounds he might have violated Wisconsin election law in coordinating with outside groups and GOP bigwigs while fighting the recall campaign Democrats mounted against him. Two judges, one federal and one state, ruled that there wasn’t any evidence Walker coordinated with outsiders—or that such coordination was illegal.

When Walker loyalists pointed this out, American Bridge unleashed the “Koch-Crony Judge” email.

“Yes, Scott Walker has been temporarily cleared of wrongdoing by a federal judge,” it said. “A federal judge who is part of the same shadowy conservative network as Walker, the Koch brothers, and the outside groups that helped flood the Wisconsin recall elections with dark money; and a federal judge who seems extremely eager to make this case go away.”

So who is this Darth Vader-like jurist, and what’s the evidence that he’s a “crony” of conservative moneymen Charles and David Koch?

This is where things quickly gets sketchy. A liberal watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy, revealed that the jurist, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa, “has regularly attended all-expenses paid ‘judicial junkets’ funded by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and other ideological and corporate interests.”

To most Americans, the host of those conferences might be above reproach. It’s the law school of George Mason University, a respected public university in Northern Virginia named after the Framer who wrote the Bill of Rights. But in the fever swamps of modern liberalism, that school is apparently on a watch list: After all, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce donates to it.

“The seminars amount to a privately-funded all-expenses paid trip for judges,” the Center for Media and Democracy adds darkly. “… One seminar Judge Randa attended was in La Jolla, California, a swanky San Diego suburb that is home to both great golfing and Mitt Romney.”

Yes, and Southern California is also where Disneyland’s Goofy resides, and this is where the 21st century progressives’ penchant for guilt by association merges with his overt goofiness. That’s the real reason Americans hate politics. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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