In less than 24 hours, Barack Obama will be inaugurated. Painters, carpenters, and cleaning crews have gone through the White House preparing for the new administration. Undoubtedly the place will be a bit trashed, with Bush staffers following in a long tradition of leaving a few "pranks" for their successors. We can understand that. But I don't foresee any of the orchestrated caterwauling from Obama officials that we heard eight years ago this month from Ari Fleischer and a gang of carefully unidentified Bush slime mavens. Let's take a quick look back, shall we? (Note: I'm basing this on a series of about 20 entries I did for the History Commons over the long weekend. They haven't been approved for final publication yet, so you won't see them for a few days. If you're looking for a list of sources, just put "Clinton vandal scandal" into Google. Salon has a particularly comprehensive set of articles on the whole tawdry subject. I'll include links to sources as we go, but some of them are on Highbeam, which everyone doesn't have access to.)
Why do this, Max? Aren't we interested in moving forward, letting bygones be bygones, and all that good Kumbaya stuff? Well, yes, we are, but I'm a firm believer in the old saying, "Those who fail to learn from their mistakes get head-slapped by those same mistakes in the future."
Anyway. On January 23, 2001, three days after the Bush occupation of the White House begins, the Washington Post's Lloyd Grove publishes a gossipy little piece about some of the WH's computer keyboards having their W's removed. Ah, those wags in the Clinton administration left their mark. Al Gore's press secretary, Chris Lehane, laughingly tells the Post, "I think the missing W's can be explained by the vast left-wing conspiracy now at work." But, somewhere in the bowels of the White House, plans are forming. Someone decides to use the Grove piece to construct an entire structure of bullshit with the express purpose of tearing down the Clintons to enable the press to contrast them to the "noble, positive, forward-looking" Bush administration.
The next day, Rick Galen, a former Republican strategist with connections in the White House, writes that the White House was vandalized far worse than anything Grove reported, to the extent that Tipper Gore called Lynne Cheney to apologize. Surprise, surprise, Galen is a liar, but that doesn't come out for a good while. The story starts to snowball.
The next day, Ari Fleischer demonstrates just what a good little gossipmonger he really is. In a bravura performance (the first of many) Fleischer simultaneously tells reporters that the Bush White House is determined not to get caught up in this mess of allegations--"Whatever may have been done, we are going to just put our heads down and look ahead," he says, with all that statement implies--and hinting that terrible depredations were carried out by those Clinton vandals--"I don’t think that the people who were professionals, who make their business to go in and prepare a White House for new arrivals, would cut wires." My favorite of Ari's double-bladed declamations comes when he is asked to detail the destruction: "I choose not to. I choose not to describe what acts were done that we found upon arrival because I think that’s part of changing the tone in Washington." Reporters are giddy at the prospect of those trailer-trash Clintons and their hayseed staffers running rampant through the White House like the Bumpus's dogs ravaging the Parkers' kitchen and making off with the Christmas turkey. Reporters, led by the Post's Mike Allen and NBC's Andrea Mitchell, let fly with every rumor and unsubstantiated allegation they can collect from anonymous White House sources, and the White House press corps says game on!
What a Difference #1: Anyone think Obama would let aides spread bullshit lies throughout the Washington press corps without restraint? Although there's no indication that Bush authorized this gaggle of crap, he sure didn't lift a finger to slow it down or stop it, either. One aside--"Ari, quit trying to light this up"--would have done the trick. Didn't happen.
The same day, stories of a "looted and vandalized" Air Force One hit the press. Woo-hoo! Champagne glasses! Pillows! Blankets! Dishes! Salt shakers! Toothpaste, for Chrissake! Anything and everything that might have a presidential seal on it, and wasn't bolted to the fuselage. Our pal Kate O'Beirne even tells CNN viewers that Clinton staffers not only "stripped [Air Force One] bare," but "posted [them] for auction online." In a question that should rightfully be turned back upon herself, she asks, "Why not make a final buck off the White House? Outrageous, but not surprising."
What a Difference #2: By this point, had rogue Obama staffers gotten the story this far, it's a dead certainty that Obama would have reined in his staff and had someone, probably Fleischer's 2009 counterpart Robert Gibbs, tell the press in no uncertain terms that the stories were false and the rumormongers were being leashed as we speak.
Instead, the press goes on a slash-and-burn reporting spree. Matt Drudge says that Clinton staffers left "porn bombs" throughout the White House. (Apparently Drudge knows something about porn that I don't; no one knows quite what he's alleging, though it might have something to do with the allegations--possibly true--that Clinton staffers left obscene messages on answering machines and pornographic images inserted inside stacks of blank printer paper.) Both the White House and the Executive Office Building were apparently ravaged from end to end. Furniture was either upended or smashed, or stolen entirely. Computer and phone wires were slashed. Desks were glued shut. The New York Daily News reports, "The destruction was so vast that a telecommunications staffer with more than a quarter-century of service was seen sobbing near his office one night last week." (Who exactly saw this person weeping and tearing his hair? Hmmm.) NewsMax cites an anonymous GAO official saying that the damage estimate tops $250,000. From the reporting, it seems that the Clinton hillbillies subjected the White House to the worst damage since the British burned it in 1814. The conservatives weigh in with stalwart, all-American outrage: Hannity the Manatee tells Fox viewers that over $200,000 in furniture was stolen, Fox TV warrior Oliver North calls the Clinton staffers "white trash," Billo accuses the Clintons of either committing or abetting "a felony," and a Billo guest, Tom Schatz says, "They turned it into Animal House." We always knew the Deltas were running things. Tony Snow, who was such a paragon of probity that he became Bush's press secretary, gives a litany of allegations, writing that Air Force One
"looked as if it had been stripped by a skilled band of thieves--or perhaps wrecked by a trailer park twister," and accuses the Clintons of "wanton desecration" of one of the country's most cherished structures. Clinton staffers admit to some prankish behavior, such as removing the Ws from keyboards (though probably not "hundreds," as claimed by those famous anonymous Bush officials) and putting up signs on doors reading "Office of Strategery," but deny the charges of wholesale vandalism and looting. Bush himself takes the high road, telling a reporter, "There might have been a prank or two, maybe somebody put a cartoon on the wall, but that's okay. It’s time now to move forward."
What a Difference #3: Funny how no one in the press or in the White House actually listen to Bush's advice about "moving forward."
And then there's Mike Allen. Now he's giving us the benefit of his right-wing slant on all things Washington at Politico, but at the time he was trying his level best to bring the Washington Post down to the level of the Washington Times. I don't know who he talked to at the White House, but this piece of badinage is so classic, let's set it off in blockquote:
"Some GOP officials are portraying the damage as a sordid coda to the Clinton years. A Bush campaign official said the White House staff and Secret Service agents welcomed the Bush entourage especially warmly on Saturday. Some of the kitchen staff hugged members of the Bush family, the official said, adding, 'You could sense an attitude like, "Thank God you're here."'"
Are you kidding me? What nitwit actually passed that along for publication without some authentication? If it's my newspaper printing such noblesse oblige swill, I want to at least hang a name on that quote. Later, Salon takes a jaundiced view of Allen's little homage, writing, "As if the portrait of Clinton’s staff members loading their pickups with White House valuables wasn’t enough, readers were treated to the heartwarming image of a service staff grateful that their rightful rulers had returned." But that Salon article won't see print until May. Meanwhile, the beat goes on.
On January 30, the press receives a virtual clop in the chops that gives its members a hint that something might not be altogether right about this orgy of unsubstantiated allegations: Clinton himself asks his aides to look into the stories, and offers to make renumerations if the stories can be documented. Key bit there: documentation. Clinton aides ask to view the damage for themselves, and Bush officials tell them, "Nope, can't come in, nothing you want to see here, just take our word for it. Besides, all that vandalism and looting is really just" (and this is a real quote as passed along by a Clinton staffer) "isolated incidents." Isolated incidents? I expected crime-scene tape to wrap around the entire White House from the stories we heard just a few days before. Now it's just "isolated incidents?"
In early February, the Vandal Scandal Express hits some bumpy patches, with the gutsy newpaper chain Knight Ridder actually stepping back and reporting that the stories might not be true. "It was a news story that had a lot going for it, except on-the-record sources and many hard facts." Um, shouldn't we have had that from the outset? Worse, an Andrews Air Force Base spokesman confirms that there was--gasp!--no vandalism whatsoever aboard Air Force One. None. There was an incident on the last flight for the Clintons where, because of turbulence, a tray of glasses broke, but that was documented and verified, not only by the flight crew, but by reporters who saw them break.
What a Difference #4: Well, probably not really a difference, but you would think if reporters were actually on that last flight with all the alleged looting and vandalism, wouldn't they have reported it? You know, eyewitness accounts and all that? Failing that, shouldn't someone in the press put their finger to their nose and gone, "Hey, you know, we had a reporter on that plane. Wonder what he saw of all that looting and vandalism? I got an idea, Fred--let's ask him!" But I doubt the Washington press corps has learned shit in eight years, so not much real difference here.
The whole Air Force One thing comes to a screeching halt on Valentine's Day, when Bush, undoubtedly feeling the love in the air, tells reporters, "I will tell you one thing, just in terms of the former president. All the allegations that they took stuff off of Air Force One is simply not true, for example."
Um, okay. So all of those media outlets that have been airing these allegations are now storming the gates to issue retractions, right? Actually, no. Instead, we get the usual acknowledgements that nothing really happened and the media was dead wrong--silence and "Look! Shark attack! Missing blonde girl! Uh, I have a wart?"
Meanwhile, that Savior of Proper Washington Comportment, Bob Barr, has been after the GAO to investigate the claims of vandalism and looting. In April, the GAO says it would, but gee, no one in the White House seems to have documented anything missing, so it can't conduct a proper investigation. That's funny. Didn't Ari say that the White House was keeping a "detailed catalogue" of damages and missing items? Yes, he did, but apparently the King of Misinformation was, uh, misinformed. Or lying. Instead, Ari says, Bush staffers--or maybe just one staffer--are "keeping track in their heads." (Insert appropriate Jon Stewart reaction here.) Whatever, Ari.
But the GSA is on the case. In May, it issues a report that finds--voila!--not a damn bit of truth was in those allegations. Yes, there were some pranks, some normal wear and tear was found to have taken place, and the place was a bit trashed, according to the GSA, "The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy." To their credit, Fox News is the only mainstream media outlet to immediately acknowledge their part in spreading the bullshit. Yes, Fox News. Even our buddy Tony Snow tells viewers, "The ex-president’s pals have a legitimate beef."
So how does good buddy Ari, who pushed this pile of steaming fuckery onto the press (who themselves couldn't run with it fast enough), react? Well, he didn't do anything! No, no, you people in the press have it all wrong! I was trying to back the White House away from the allegations. I tried to "knock down" those reports. Seriously!
What a Difference #5: Hmmm, if Gibbs had done something along these lines, think he'd still be press secretary? Or would he be manning a White House communications office in Greenland?
In June, House representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and four ex-Clinton staffers demand an apology from the White House. In response, Ari cobbles up a "list" of damages based on Bush staffers' recollections and gives them to our pal Mike Allen. Way to set the tone, Ari! And why would he do such a thing? "The White House will defend itself and the career employees. We tried to be gracious, but the last administration would not take graciousness. By getting the information out, we hope to put an end to this, so everyone can go on with the policy and business of the government." Oh, good one, Ari! I can feel the bipartisan love just swaddling my vandalous ass! So it's all the Clinton officials' fault for keeping this story alive? Now I understand. And by issuing a new report--full of equally lurid and unsubstantiated allegations, including some new ones of theft of presidential seal plaques and antique doorknobs--you're going to make the story disappear?
But look, Ari's got photos! Well, one anyway. Here it is in all its trailer-trash, redneck vandalous glory:
Call the police! Mass arrests! Wait, we're already planning those anyway....
Clinton's former press secretary Joe Lockhart isn't so sure: he says the vandalism allegations are part of a failed Bush strategy to "make the new administration look good by comparison to the last one. If anyone did anything that harmed government property, that’s wrong. But to have suggested there was an organized effort that ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage is grossly wrong and misleading." But Ari's not done. It's not just Clinton officials and Congressional Democrats who are at fault for keeping this story alive, even though the Bush White House just wanted it to go away all along, it's the press. "Sometimes, stories just are like water running downhill and you can try to slow down the press, but you can’t stop them," he says, channeling his inner Zen master. "All the White House comments were aimed at moving forward. It was all in the context of drawing reporters back from the story, because that’s what the president wanted."
Based on Ari's new and improved list, the GAO actually opens an investigation. In June 2002, it issues its final report. Guess what? Same as before: some pranks, some minor trashing, but nothing like what Ari and his band of merry liars have been promulgating for over a year. Bush officials and Fox pundits were yammering about a quarter-million in damages: the GAO estimates the cost at closer to $15,000. Here's Salon's Kerry Lauerman:
The GAO report is "a far cry from what was promised by Republicans like... Barr. ... Whatever happened to the looting and trashing Barr said would be documented? The expensive paintings that were supposedly stolen from the White House? The 'cut wires' that White House press secretary Ari Fleischer had publicly referred to? The never-explained 'porn bombs' that anonymous GOP sources had complained about? The presidential seals that were stolen, or the historical doorknobs that had been yanked off for souvenirs?" Why did items like the seal and the antique doorknobs, allegedly stolen, not get reported originally but instead "suddenly showed up on a White House list compiled in June 2001--based on the months-old 'recollections' of staffers--which does not exactly scream reliability"?
Oh, but we're not done yet. Bush counsel Alberto Gonzales wants further investigations. He wants details of exactly what obscene sayings were written on a men's room stalls (just go rent a porn movie, Al) and what posters and signs were taped to walls and doors. Why? "It is vital to include the substance of specific graffiti, messages and signs observed" in order to fully document the acts of vandalism, he says. "The content of a message can--and often does--indicate who wrote the message, and when" and "often provides an insight into the mindset or intention of the person who wrote it." Hmm, I'm sure the FBI has a profiler or two who could look into this for you. Because they have common sense, the GAO turns down Gonzales's request, calling it "unnecessary and inappropriate." (Two words that could describe this whole shitfest.)
Let's have Lauerman, who did such yeoman work in documenting this mess, have the last word in this section:
The White House made 78 staffers available for interviews with the GAO, and clearly spent an enormous amount of energy just to try to stick another scandal to the Clintons. (Gonzales' time alone, billed by the hour, might cost more than the $9,000-plus the GAO blamed on the Clintons.) After 11 months, and an investigation that Democrats told the Washington Post cost $200,000, one somehow expected more. Now that all the facts are in, it seems pretty clear which administration should get the blame for the White House vandal scandal."
Final Lessons from Eight Years Past: First: Republicans are liars. Moreover, they are constantly on the lookout for ways to smear and besmirch Democrats, liberals, intellectuals, environmentalists, gays, blacks, Hispanics, women, guys with glasses, people who eat granola, you name it. It never stops. You have to stay on alert all the time. No letdowns and certainly no trust. Second: the press will enable this process whenever it can. What's that, Obama staffer? You had lunch with Andrea Mitchell last week, and she was so sweet that horseflies hung around her face? Well, remember, she's got a shiny dagger in her purse and you have a big red target right between your shoulder blades. It's like prison with these people--you constantly have to be on the lookout for the shiv.
You would have thought that the press would have learned their lesson by May 2001--Ari Fleischer's a bald-faced liar, Bush officials are bald-faced liars, and we have to treat everything out of their mouths as such. Three days into their administration and they're cooking up this huge compendium of shit to smear the Clintons with. But did they learn? Hmmm, let me think ... 9/11 ... Iraq ... Katrina ... economy ... Cheney task force ... habeas corpus ... wiretapping ... nope, don't think the press figured it out. Or, more aptly, the press knew all along, and was happy to play their little sensationalist, tabloid game.
If Obama, his people, and we readers can learn from this scummy little "vandal scandal," then the next eight years will be a bit smoother and a hell of a lot more productive.