Cross-posted at Daily Kos
Conditioned response is what caused Pavlov’s dog to drool. The great Russian physiologist famously found that he could get his dog to salivate just by ringing a bell, by teaching the dog to associate the sound of the bell with the serving of food.
Since then, the idea of conditioning the public to make desired associations has proven a commercial and political goldmine. Take for example the political value of associating the name Hillary Clinton with such descriptors as “untrustworthy”, “criminal”, etc. Once that conditioned response has been achieved, one has only to mention her name to provoke well-trained audiences to drooling fury.
A phalanx of right-wing organizations has made a career of keeping such associations alive. Sadly, these carefully cultivated cons have taken in some progressives in the process. That’s why it is so important to expose these practitioners and their smear campaigns, which the media – happily mining their propaganda for clickbait – rarely bothers to do.
I began my focus on such groups with a previous diary about the professional Clinton-hunters of Judicial Watch. I continue today with the equally determined anti-Clinton group known as Citizens United.
This group has become best known for the Supreme Court case it inspired, leading to the removal of nearly all constraints on corporate funding of political campaigns. Hillary Clinton has commented that this case was about her – which is true, as it revolved around Citizens United’s determination to air a film smearing her in 2008, “Hillary: the Movie,” in violation of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
In fact, Citizens United has done more to initiate and spread so-called “Clinton scandals” than nearly anyone. Journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons did a superb job documenting the work of the Clinton scandal-mongering industry in their 2001 book, “The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton” (with the parts most relevant to Hillary now condensed into a free e-book, “The Hunting of Hillary.”)
Floyd Brown, the group’s founder, first left his distinctive stain on national politics with the notorious Willie Horton ad he created against Mike Dukakis in 1988 via a group called Americans for Bush. That same year, he founded Citizens United and hired a guy named David Bossie as “chief investigator”. Brown and Bossie banded together starting in 1991 to tar the most promising Democratic challenger to President George H.W. Bush, the young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
While spreading ghastly rumors about a political opponent was hardly an original strategy, Bossie, Brown and their shadowy network of right wing allies – funded by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife and others – turned this technique into a lucrative and politically devastating art form. They were aided by an unscrupulous Republican Congressional establishment and a headline-grubbing news media that tended to treat every rumor and innuendo this cabal dredged up as Holy Scripture.
Hence the 1990s were filled with every manner of well-hyped “Clinton scandals”, often with “-gate” ridiculously appended to them: Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, the death of Vince Foster, etc., etc., etc.
The part that is not as well known is how hard Brown, Bossie and their allies worked to unearth, investigate and spread every possible nasty rumor about the Clintons, often handing out payouts in the tens or thousands of dollars to anyone willing to dish dirt, be it true or absurdly false. Typical of their output was the 1992 book “Slick Willie”, of which Conason and Lyons observe:
“[T]he book charged Clinton with dodging the draft, raising taxes, coddling blacks, chasing women, corrupting state agencies, flip-flopping on abortion, awarding special privileges to gays, promoting secularism (and witchcraft!), wrecking the school system, flirting with socialism, and, in its stirring final chapter, blaspheming the Lord with his campaign slogan of a “New Covenant” between citizens and government.”
Their mode of attack was exemplified by the story of Susann Coleman, an Arkansas woman who committed suicide in 1977. After receiving an anonymous rumor that this woman had been carrying Clinton’s baby, Brown sent Bossie to Arkansas to investigate.
Bossie found Coleman’s mother, tailed her to a hospital where she was visiting her second husband and confronted her on this baseless rumor. Gaining nothing, he also harassed Coleman’s sister with several phone calls in which he tried to shake her down to “confess”. Thankfully, Coleman’s sister recorded his ugly calls and sent the tape to CBS News, which played them and described Citizens United’s “unusually brazen dirty tricks operation.”
But sadly, as the Clinton presidency commenced, the national media found much use for the gutter rats of Citizens United. As a Columbia Journalism Review article of 1994 described in detail, the national media’s coverage of “Whitewater” and other pseudo-scandals often amounted to just repurposing the latest batch of rumors and innuendos from Brown, Bossie and their motley crew:
“[A]n examination of some 200 news stories from the major news outlets aired or published since November shows an eerie similarity between the Citizens United agenda and what has been appearing in the press, not only in terms of specific details but in terms of omissions, spin, and implication.”
The ubiquitous Bossie even served as a media coach to the Clintons’ main accuser on the shaggy dog story known as “Whitewater” – a former judge named David Hale, who, after being indicted of embezzling and defrauding the federal government of $2 million, embraced allegations against Clinton as a life raft to keep himself out of prison. According to Conason and Lyons, as the media became obsessed with Whitewater,
“Shepherding Hale through this sudden journalistic maelstrom was Bossie, who supervised his interviews and appearances. On November 4, for example, Bossie arranged an on-camera session with Hale for NBC producer Ira Silverman at Coleman’s office…’was present throughout the interview, and prompted Hale during the videotaping.'”
Bossie even managed to embed himself in that other great temple of Clinton-haters, the post-1994 Newt Gingrich-led Congress – getting himself hired first by Senator Lauch Faircloth for the Senate Whitewater Committee and then by Congressman Dan Burton for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. In these positions, Bossie contributed Citizen United’s unique brand of rumors and conspiracy theories directly to the GOP propaganda machine – until he was fired in 1998 for too much of a bad thing, i.e., releasing selectively edited transcripts of conversations with Webb Hubbell, Hillary’s former law partner, that gave false impressions designed to smear the Clintons. Returning to Citizens United in 2000 as its president and chairman, Bossie continues to slither through Washington’s darkest alleys.
“Hillary the Movie” is noteworthy for its codification of the meme that Mrs. Clinton is an evil, untrustworthy crook – based on the word of a cast of conservative commentators. It may be worthwhile for today’s young progressives who’ve been taught to repeat all of the smears against Hillary to watch the movie trailer – at least to realize that they’re simply regurgitating the bile of Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich and a host of other right wing mouthpieces.
It’s critical to understand the history here. Citizens United and their allies have for two and a half decades now pounded the media with their slanted version of events, designed to undermine Hillary (and other Democratic targets). They will spend years on a particular phony “scandal”, say the death of Vincent Foster, using their conspiracy theories about events to tarnish her reputation; then, after countless investigations have proven that “scandal” to be utterly baseless, they will simply move on to the next one, finding a new set of allegations to maintain their unchanging message that she is not to be trusted. The fact that all the previous “scandals” were manufactured and trumped up for public consumption does not seem to impact many viewers’ Pavlovian response to her.
The bottom line, wherever you stand politically, is to avoid being taken in by well-marketed caricatures, but rather to learn to look through them to grasp the more nuanced realities that lie beneath. Unlike Pavlov’s dog, we have the capability to unlearn our conditioned responses and replace them with conscious responses based on new, more sophisticated layers of information.
So please take a little time to look into the facts and adjust your preconceptions accordingly. If nothing else, that extra work may help us avoid electing a fascist to be our next president.