Welcome back, the ’90s.
With news this week that longtime anti-Clinton conspiracy theorist David Bossie is joining the Trump campaign, and that longtime Clinton defender Joe Conason is publishing another book in their defense, it feels, more than ever, like that decade never ended.
So pull on your plaid flannel shirt, fluff up your Rachel haircut and pop a Cobain CD into your Discman while we review.
Hillary and Bill. Our flashback begins with our main characters, the former president, whose critics called him Slick Willie, and his wife, whom Donald Trump now calls Crooked Hillary. Bill was heavier back then, Hillary was thinner, but their basic temperaments were already in place. He loved everyone (which made him a talented politician and a cheating husband). She was less voluble and more cautious, never wanting to apologize, and distrusting the press (so much so that as first lady she tried to get the press corps moved out of the White House and into an adjoining building).
All these years later, he is the kind of glad-hander who would have a quick visit on the tarmac with an attorney general who is investigating his wife, and she is a candidate who has held no press conferences for more than 270 days.
Donald Trump. The ’90s were not his best decade, either. By the time the Clintons moved into the White House, Trump was divorced from his first wife, Ivana, and by the time they left, he’d divorced second wife Marla Maples as well. On the financial front, he fought bankruptcy during this stretch, restructuring billions in debt in 1990, selling the Trump Shuttle airline and the Trump Princess yacht in 1991, and seeking business (although not personal) bankruptcy protection for his casinos in 1992. Hillary Clinton brings that history up often now on the campaign trail, saying, “We should … make sure he never has the chance to bankrupt America the way he bankrupted his businesses.”
At the time, though, the Trump business failures weren’t a national story. Trump didn’t have a lot of people paying attention to his every move back then. Which brings us back to the Clintons, who did.
The Scandals. There was no email to speak of during the Clinton presidency (Bill himself sent only two over eight years) so there were no emails to be deleted. But there were documents. And they did go missing. One of the first congressional investigations of the Clintons was over documents chronicling the couple’s participation in a real estate project called Whitewater, in which they turned an investment of $1,000 into $100,000. Some of those papers disappeared from official files and were mysteriously found in the White House residence. (She testified before Congress for four hours about those missing papers — the first time a first lady did so; in retrospect, it was a warmup for the 11 hours she spent testifying last October about Benghazi… and her missing emails.)
There were other kinds of investigations too, which the press or the couple’s political enemies elevated to gatehood (a trope dating back to the 1972 Watergate scandal): Filegate, Travelgate, Troopergate. In all, $80 million was spent on congressional probes into the Clinton administration, and while none of them resulted in criminal charges against the couple, they did provide lots of accusations that still come up 30 years later. Vince Foster, for instance. A White House counsel, he killed himself during the Whitewater affair, and while five separate investigations found it to be suicide, Clinton conspiracy buffs say otherwise. “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide,” Donald Trump said earlier this year. “I will say, there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely murder.”
Speaking of which…
Think the birther stuff is wacky? Or the Trump-is-a-Putin-plant theory? Or the Hillary-is-dying meme? Those kinds of theories hark back to the ’90s too. As David Corn wrote in Mother Jones: “During the 1992 campaign, some right-wingers whispered that Bill Clinton was a Manchurian candidate who had been brainwashed by the Russians when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and took a student trip to Moscow. Others circulated fliers — this was before the Internet hit big — claiming he had fathered the son of an African American prostitute. And there were claims that the Clintons were connected to a major drug-running operation that had been based in Arkansas and tied to a series of murders. Yes, murders. Dozens of murders.”
All of this led Hillary in 1998 to vent against what she labeled “a vast right-wing conspiracy” out to bring down her husband, and, by extension, herself. Thirty years later many of those same names are still in the anti-Clinton business, leading the Washington Post to headline a story on Thursday “How Hillary Clinton helped create what she later called the vast right-wing conspiracy.”
The news that day was that Trump had hired David Bossie as deputy campaign manager. Bossie and the Clintons go way back, to when Bossie was a staffer on the special committee investigating Whitewater. Then-Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who Bossie worked for, took it upon himself to test his Vince Foster suicide theory by shooting up a watermelon in his backyard, which should give an idea of how zealous he was on the subject. But Bossie’s ways were too extreme even for Burton, and Bossie was fired in 1998 for allegedly doctoring hearing transcripts. He went on to lead Citizens United (he has taken a leave to join the campaign) and to found the super-PAC “Defeat Crooked Hillary.” His job, as described by the Washington Post, will include returning to the past, by “crafting attacks against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton” and “mining past controversies involving her and former president Bill Clinton.”
He will be working alongside others from back in the day. His boss in the campaign, Steve Bannon, previously ran Breitbart.com, a site whose founder got his own start working with Matthew Drudge at the Drudge Report back when it was first covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and who then helped Arianna Huffington found the Huffington Post, back when she was still a conservative Republican calling for Bill Clinton’s impeachment. (You got that? You might have to read that sentence twice.)
Newly revealed to be on Team Trump is Gennifer Flowers, who emerged during the 1992 campaign to say she’d had a longtime affair with Bill Clinton, (which he denied at the time but later, under oath in 1998, conceded was a one-time thing). Earlier this week she reemerged, telling Politico she now considers herself a “Trumpette” in a story you really have to read to believe.
Also out on the 2016 playing field is David Brock, who was an investigative reporter for the American Spectator in the early ’90s and wrote a story about how Arkansas state troopers assigned to protect then-Gov. Bill Clinton had procured women for him instead. But Brock has switched allegiances since then. In 2002 he wrote a book, “Blinded by the Right,” saying he has come to think that the troopers were lying to him, and now he works for the Clintons, pushing back against the kinds of stories he used to write.
Which brings us to…
The Clinton Team.
It is not just the anti-Clinton players who have resurfaced for another go-around. The Clinton team, and the news organizations covering the campaign, are staffed by throwbacks as well.
Among the familiar names doing familiar things are Sidney Blumenthal, who is credited for coining the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” in the first place and whose name is back in the news because he seems to have been her most frequent email correspondent, at least among those emails that have been released. John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, is chairman of Hillary’s campaign. Paul Begala, a chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, is now a CNN commentator. Lanny Davis, a Clinton White House counsel, now appears regularly on Fox News.
For full circle, one might also look to the bookshelf. There you’ll find Joe Conason, a longtime journalist whose first book, “The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton,” has a title that speaks for itself, and whose latest book, “Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton,” made news last week with the assertion that Hillary Clinton relied on Colin Powell’s advice when setting up her private email server. (Powell has disputed the account.)
The book comes out next week. At nearly 500 pages, it’s a long read. But maybe if you kick off your platform shoes and turn off your brick-size cellphone, you can burrow in and give the ’90s another go.