In a democratic society, successful propaganda generally relies on two
elements: the fabrication of a useful,
plausible, specific lie, and the deployment of visible professionals who are willing to repeat it until it’s believed.
Like any other salesman, the resourceful propagandist must also be prepared to get lucky.
Fearful about the potential political impact of Enron, members of the
Republican propaganda corps quickly realized
they should argue that both parties were equally corrupted by the energy firm’s money. Simple mathematics belied this assertion, but simple minds might be persuaded anyway. (There is reportedly a videotape from the autumn of 2000
that shows Kenneth Lay dispelling such illusions, explaining patiently to his employees that Republicans deserve bigger contributions because they’re more compliant with his agenda of deregulating markets and reducing corporate taxes.)
What the G.O.P. really needed was a potent symbol of Democratic complicity
with Enron; a familiar face to replace
the images of the President and the Vice President and all the other administration figures compromised by Kenny Boy;
a sturdy scapegoat to carry the weight of their own sins.
It wasn’t too difficult to guess who that might be.
The search for a scapegoat became a revealing exercise in experimental
psychology and media manipulation.
On Jan. 11, the Drudge Report ran an item purporting to demonstrate that the Clintons, not the Bushes, were the true
tools of Enron. Among the highlights was a replay of past infamy: "[Ken] Lay also played golf with President Bill Clinton
and slept in the Clinton White House." (Proprietor Matt Drudge refuses to say where he came upon this allegation,
replying only that "Lay’s direct ties to Clinton are well documented.")
But the Drudge Report couldn’t make this canard fly without a boost
from the mainstream. Two days later, the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau
produced a story about Enron’s history of bipartisan favor-shopping in
Seeking balance, the Tribune reporters wrote: "Lay was no stranger to the Clinton White House, playing golf with
the president and staying overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom." All the usual suspects quickly appropriated the Trib’s
credibility to promote these familiar tropes and themes.
The very next day, Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes promoted this
bogus claim on the Fox News Channel’s
prime-time broadcast, without contradiction from any of his fellow pundits. Enron wasn’t really a Republican scandal,
declared Mr. Barnes, because "Ken Lay not only played golf with Clinton, he spent a night in the Lincoln Bedroom."
Almost simultaneously that evening, Bush campaign consultant Alex Castellanos told viewers of CNN’s Crossfire
that "Ken Lay slept in the Lincoln bedroom" with Mr. Clinton as his host.
Heeding their unofficial motto–"monkey see, monkey do"–other journalists
quoted the same tale, which reached the
pages of The Washington Times, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Newhouse News Service and other papers.
The tale traveled overseas to Korea, Australia and Britain –where the once-august Times of London virtually reprinted
the Moonie paper’s version. Apparently this is what their Washington correspondents are paid to do.
On Feb. 17, Mr. Castellanos repeated the claim on ABC’s This Week (where
former Clinton aide Paul Begala had the presence of mind to contradict
him). David Bossie, the G.O.P. operative who did so much to promote the
Whitewater scandal, popped up on Greta van Susteren’s Fox News broadcast to reiterate that "Ken Lay spent
the night in Clinton’s Lincoln bedroom."
By then it had become a durable myth, showing up in letters sent by gullible citizens to newspapers around the nation.
The first reporter to expose this outpouring of deception was Gene Lyons,
the Democrat-Gazette columnist
(and my co-author). Unfortunately, few outside Little Rock had an opportunity to read his Feb. 13 column.
Salon.com, DailyHowler.com and Mediawhoresonline.com all have posted excellent analyses since then.
Eventually, thanks to pressure from their astute readers, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times and
Ms. Van Susteren issued corrections or retractions. (Others, according to Nexis, have not.)
So now might be the time for healthy introspection among those who fostered
this falsehood. They might learn
something about themselves from the remarkably candid explanation offered by Frank James, the Chicago Tribune
reporter who put his paper’s imprimatur on it.
Mr. James denies that he picked anything up from the Drudge Report.
Instead, he told me that on a tight deadline
he had mentally "transposed" Bill Clinton’s name into his memory of an article he’d read about another President
who hosted Mr. Lay in the White House. That President was, of course, the father of the current President.
No psychiatric degree is necessary to identify the process by which
an embarrassment to the Bushes is turned
into an attack on the Clintons, without so much as a phone call to check the facts by any of the perpetrators.
It’s called projection, and it is certain to persist until Enron is only an unpleasant memory.