Sep 1 1995

Hast Seen the Whitewater Whale?

The Journal's Quest for Conspiracy

“Above all it is about hypocrisy,” the Wall Street Journal editorial page explained (3/21/94) in one of its dozens of commentaries on the Whitewater scandal.

Robert Bartley and his conservative editorial crew meant the “hypocrisy” of President Clinton who denounced the 1980s as “a Gilded Age of greed and selfishness” while himself trying to get a piece of the action. Without doubt, the Journal is right that Bill and Hillary Clinton deserve a margin calls’ worth of grief for profiting–or even trying to profit–from their political connections and insider commodities advice.

But Bartley and his writers are living in a very large glass house when they throw rocks at others for “hypocrisy.” While demanding that every thin wall be razed around Clinton’s Arkansas crowd, these same editorialists labored, trowel in hand, with the Reagan/Bush team to mortar a vast stone wall around the far morecorrupt Iran-Contra operations. In aiding and abetting those Reagan/Bush cover-ups, the Journal editorial page routinely maligned investigators, witnesses and other journalists.

The Walsh Obsession

Even while demanding a thorough investigation of Clinton’s Whitewater troubles, the Journal continued to denigrate Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. “When Democrats in Congress lost their showdown with Ollie North in public hearings, they tried to criminalize their differences via Lawrence Walsh,” the Journal declared in one typical comment (1/11/94).

But the Journal charge was false on a number of counts. Most obviously, Walsh was on the Iran-Contra case a full half year before North’s congressional testimony, which occurred in July 1987. He was appointed not by Democrats but by a Republican-dominated three-judge panel in December 1986, with a separate, back-up appointment by Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

Walsh is a lifelong Republican so trusted in GOP circles that he was Richard Nixon’s first choice for Watergate special prosecutor in 1973, though Walsh didn’t get the job because he had worked for ITT (as noted in The Haldeman Diaries). More fundamentally, there has not been a shred of evidence that Democrats conspired with Walsh to “criminalize” the already criminal Iran-Contra affair.

Still, the Journal has long perpetuated this myth, echoed by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative voices, that Iran-Contra was no crime, only politics. But at minimum, the Iran-Contra affair was a misappropriation of millions of dollars from the sale of U.S. military equipment, much of which was never recovered.

Walsh also exposed the shocking scope of the Iran-Contra cover-up. He exploded President Bush’s “out of the loop” lie and established that nearly every senior Reagan administration official had misled Congress, including Secretary of State George Shultz, who had prefaced his false testimony with the motto: “Trust is the coin ofthe realm.” (See Walsh Report, p. 372.)

The Whitewater Whale

Yet on the Journal editorial page (8/8/94), Walsh was just an obsessed old man on an “Ahab-like quest for the Iran-Contra whale.” Ironically, the Journal continued criticizing Walsh for excessive investigative zeal even while faulting him for failing to dig deeply enough into another little-reported part of the Iran-Contra scandal: contra drug trafficking, which implicated North’s operation, the CIA and Reagan’s Justice Department. The Journal‘s curiosity, however, was piqued only by a suspicion that Bill Clinton might be linked to one site of contra-related drugs-for-guns smuggling located in Mena, Arkansas.

On the Journal editorial page (6/29/94), staff writer Micah Morrison reported that Walsh had received a letter in 1991 from the Arkansas attorney general outlining “credible evidence of gun-running, illegal drug-smuggling, money laundering and the government cover-up and possibly a criminal conspiracy in connection with the Mena Airport.” A separate Journal editorial (7/19/94) acknowledged “evidence that Mena was…the site of CIA operations in support of the Nicaraguan contras.”

But if the Mena story is credible–if drug smugglers flew tons of cocaine into the United States and were protected by theReagan/Bush administrations–then logic would demand that the Journal finally admit that Iran-Contra was a serious criminal conspiracy, not some mythical white whale.

Logic, however, could not overcome the Journal‘s animus toward Walsh. Indeed, Morrison’s article criticized Walsh for responding perfunctorily to the Arkansas attorney general with “a letter saying without explanation that he had closed his investigation.” After years of depicting Walsh as some obsessed Ahab, the Journal was now faulting him for returning his investigative ship to port too soon.

Conspiracy Fever

The Journal‘s editorial pages showed the same consistency in attacking investigators who examined other crimes from the Reagan/Bush era. Frequent Journal columnist Steven Emerson (best known as the “terrorism expert” who fingers the wrong people for terrorist bombings) wrote an op-ed in the days before the 1992 election (10/28/92) to ridicule the “conspiracy fever” of President Bush’s critics.

Emerson mocked writers Murray Waas and Craig Unger for a “Byzantine conspiracy theory” that appeared in the New Yorker (11/2/92) detailing Bush’s secret help to Saddam Hussein during the Iran/Iraq War. Earlier this year, however, former Reagan national security aide Howard Teicher signed a federal court affidavit corroborating the key points of the New Yorker piece (In These Times, 3/6/95; Extra!, 5-6/95).

But by the time of the Waas/Unger vindication, two years into the Clinton presidency, the Journal itself had become a leading carrier of “conspiracy fever.” The Journal suffered its worst bouts over theories surrounding Vincent Foster’s suicide. After a torn-up note in Foster’s briefcase complained that “the WSJ editors lie without consequence,” the Journal‘s editors questioned the suicide rulings of the Park Police and a Virginia coroner.

“Until the Foster death is seriously studied, a Banquo’s ghost will stalk…the Clinton administration,” one long editorial warned (1/14/94). Apparently suspicious that First Lady Hillary Clinton was Lady Macbeth, the editorial then recounted her precise movements before Foster’s death. The First Family had been in Hawaii, the Journal noted, but on July 20, 1993, President Clinton returned to Washington while Mrs. Clinton detoured to Little Rock.

“Mrs. Clinton’s plane landed on July 20 at 7:30 p.m., Central time, or shortly after Mr. Foster’s body was discovered at Fort Marcy,” the editorial noted. And if that wasn’t suspicious enough, the Journal added: “The [First Lady’s] visit was something of a surprise.”

Bumps in the Night

When other conservatives caught the Foster fever, the Journal praised them. The Journal‘s editorial page’s assistant features editor Erich Eichman (3/21/94) expressed “a debt of gratitude” for the New York Post‘s speculation that Foster’s gun had been put in his hand after his death and the body was moved to the spot where it was found in Fort Marcy Park.

Two days later, the Journal was spreading other conspiracy infections. An editorial entitled “Censored in Arkansas” (3/23/94) alleged that while investigating Whitewater, New Republic writer L.J. Davis had been knocked unconscious in his hotel room in Little Rock and awoke several hours later with a lump on his head.

“The room door was shut and locked,” the editorial reported in the style of a bad mystery novel. “Nothing was missing except four ‘significant’ pages of his notebook that included a list of his sources in Little Rock.”

After concluding that Arkansas must be “a congenitally violent place,” the Journal announced new standards for journalism: “The respectable press is spending too much time adjudicating what the reader has a right to know, and too little time with the old spirit of ‘stop the presses.'”

But the Journal‘s suggestion that President Clinton might be running some Arkansas goon squad brought more serious journalists to the story. They promptly discovered that eyewitnesses and bar tabs placed Davis in the hotel bar downing martinis hours after the time of the supposed mugging in his room. Davis told reporter Richard Fricker that the Journal also had falsely claimed that pages were removed from his notebook. No pages–“significant” or otherwise–were missing, Davis said (New York Observer, 4/4/94).


Two months later, the Foster conspiracy notions met an untimely demise of their own. An interim Whitewater report described the Foster suicide in excruciating detail, enough that the Journal‘s editors (7/5/94) finally accepted the suicide explanations as “persuasive.” “Banquo’s ghost” proved to be a phantom, but the Journal editors still congratulated themselves for instigating the “questions-stilling probe.”

The Foster and Davis fiascoes gave the Journal editors no pause, however. Soon (7/19/94) they were back elbow-deep in Whitewater scandal-mongering, promoting a bizarre videotape called The Clinton Chronicles. Hawked by the Rev. Jerry Falwell on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the “documentary” repeated all the discredited conspiracy theories, including the stories about Foster’s death and the Davis “mugging.” The videotape even tossed in a thoroughly unsupported allegation that President Clinton was somehow behind the gangland murder of an Arkansas private investigator.

After printing the “800” number for ordering the videotape, the Journal wrote, impishly, that “finding no real evidence of a Clinton connection [to the murder], and feeling the president of the United States is entitled to a presumption of innocence, we decline in the name of responsibility to print what we’ve heard.”

The Journal editorial page, of course, was not alone in missing or misreporting aspects of Iran-Contra-connected investigations, nor in exaggerating the Whitewater affair. But the Journal‘s editorial page stands out as a master of journalistic hypocrisy in the two controversies. On Iran-Contra, the Journal exploited its national influence to hamper and harass investigators and journalists examining serious crimes, including–by the Journal‘s own belated admission–drug-trafficking, money-laundering and obstruction of justice. On Whitewater, conversely, the editorial page has served as the principal sounding board for baseless rumors.

Robert Parry, who has covered Washington since 1977, is the author of Fooling America and Trick or Treason: The October Surprise Mystery.