On July 29, 2013, CNN announced a planned documentary on the life of Hillary Clinton. Charles Ferguson, the Academy Award–winning di- rector, was going to direct the piece. Ferguson was a left-wing filmmaker likely to be sympathetic to the former First Family. Almost simultaneously, NBC announced a four-hour miniseries called Hillary with Diane Lane in the title role.
Both efforts led to a furious reaction from the Clinton camp. Some might say overreaction. (Ironically, Republicans also threw a fit, assuming that any portrayal of Mrs. Clinton in the “lamestream media” would be biased in her favor.)
Nick Merrill, a close aide of Hillary Clinton’s, became involved in what the New York Times labeled a “confrontational” meeting with the director, who had requested access and interviews for the piece. Ferguson reported that he was “interrogated” by Merrill. During a “three-month tug of war,” the director claimed that “Clinton aides had told potential sources not to cooperate with his documentary.”
Getting attacked from all sides, on the last day in September 2013, CNN announced its decision to cancel the documentary. NBC, facing similar vitriol over its decision to air a Hillary-themed miniseries, followed suit.
In a column for the Huffington Post, a baffled and infuriated Ferguson explained in detail the hostile treatment he’d received from Team Clinton:
The day after the contract was signed, I received a message from Nick Merrill, Hillary Clinton’s press secretary. He already knew about the film, and clearly had a source within CNN. He interrogated me; at first I answered, but eventually I stopped. When I requested an off-the-record, private conversation with Mrs. Clinton, Merrill replied that she was busy writing her book, and not speaking to the media.
Next came Phillipe [sic] Reines, Hillary Clinton’s media fixer, who contacted various people at CNN, interrogated them, and expressed concern about alleged conflicts of interest generated because my film was a for-profit endeavor (as nearly all documentaries and news organizations are). When I contacted him, he declined to speak with me. He then repeated his allegations to Politico, which published them . . .
CNN and I decided to publicly confirm the film project to clear the air. Immediately afterwards, the chairman of the Republican National Committee announced that the Republicans would boycott CNN with regard to the Republican presidential primary debates in 2016. Shortly afterwards, the entire RNC voted to endorse this position. This did not surprise me. What did surprise me was that, quietly and privately, prominent Democrats made it known both to CNN and to me that they weren’t delighted with the film, either.
Next came David Brock, who published an open letter on his highly partisan Democratic website Media Matters, in which he endorsed the Republican National Committee’s position, repeating Reines’ conflict of interest allegations and suggesting that my documentary would revive old, discredited Clinton scandal stories. Coming from Mr. Brock, this was rather amusing. David Brock began life as an ultraconservative “investigative journalist,” quotation marks very much intended, spreading scandal with little regard for truth. He first attracted attention with The Real Anita Hill, his nasty (and factually wrong) hatchet job on the woman who, during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, said that Thomas had sexually harassed her. Years later, he apologized and switched to the Democrats.
When Brock published his letter about my film, I got in touch with several prominent Democrats who knew Hillary Clinton. I told them that this campaign against the film and against CNN was counterproductive. They conveyed this message to Mrs. Clinton personally, along with my request to speak with her. The answer that came back was, basically, over my dead body.
Asked for a comment on the developments, Merrill emailed a statement to reporters: “Lights, camera, no reaction.” This was a typical response for the Clinton media operation—flippant, seemingly uninterested in the entire issue, and thus highly misleading.
It was easy to understand why the Republicans were making a fuss about the programs. Bashing the liberal media and the Clintons is a sure bet for conservative fundraising. More confusing was the Clintons’ out- sized reaction to a documentary and particularly an NBC miniseries that by almost all accounts seemed relatively innocuous, if not advantageous to them.
Out of curiosity, I emailed a person well connected to the Clinton camp. Why, I asked, did the Clintons care so much about these documentaries? I received a one-word reply.
The NBC miniseries was to begin with First Lady Hillary Clinton’s discovery of her husband’s affair with a twenty-two-year-old intern in the Oval Office. The stain of the Monica Lewinsky scandal—literal as well as figurative—has not dissolved. At least not in the minds of Bill and Hillary Clinton. It was a moment when the Clintons truly hit rock bottom and all was, for a brief moment, nearly lost. For Republicans, and many Democrats, that scandal is where the story of the 2016 campaign really begins. It is also a reminder of how impressive their comeback has actually been, as well as its potential fragility.
A likely GOP contender, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, already has made clear that the Lewinsky scandal and Bill’s impeachment are fair game in any race that might involve Bill Clinton. Speaking on C-SPAN on a show that aired February 9, 2014, Paul called the former president a “sexual predator” and argued that candidates should not accept money associated with him.
“They can’t have it both ways,” said Paul of Democrats accepting Clinton money. “And so I really think that anybody who wants to take money from Bill Clinton or have a fund-raiser has a lot of explaining to do. In fact, I think they should give the money back. If they want to take a position on women’s rights, by all means do. But you can’t do it and take it from a guy who was using his position of authority to take advantage of young women in the workplace.”
Many members of the GOP establishment blanch at such talk, remembering their experience last time with Bill Clinton’s misbehavior.
The public and media seem to disagree. In early 2014, for example, the conservative media outlet Washington Free Beacon reported on the personal papers of Hillary Clinton’s deceased best friend, Diane Blair. The Blair files, decades old, led to a firestorm of publicity, particularly in relation to the Lewinsky affair and Hillary’s contemporaneous reaction. The files were amplified by the popular website the Drudge Report and discussed across the media spectrum for days if not weeks.
The reaction has opened the door for all sorts of trolling into the Clintons’ personal lives and the scandals of the 1990s. A longtime intimate of the Clinton family tells me about being besieged by various reporters seeking to write about Bill’s extramarital activities or reopen the Monica Lewinsky scandal with new allegations and information. “It could be death by a thousand cuts over the next year,” a source well connected to the Clintons tells me. “I mean, just from what I’m hearing.”
Associates of Lewinsky’s have what might be called “The Monica Files”—obtained exclusively for this book—hundreds of pages of allegations about the former president of the United States, his former girlfriend Monica, and his wife. These include things as innocuous, if mildly humorous, as the umpteen media requests Lewinsky received from personalities such as Barbara Walters and Larry King to a long list of allegations against the former first couple of seemingly variable validity. All of these are likely to get into the eager hands of reporters and Republican operatives—as part of what might be dubbed the “thousand cuts” operation.
But there were also a number of more detailed allegations compiled by investigators, attorneys, and other Lewinsky advisers in the event that she might be involved in legal action against the president. Most supported claims of a pattern of sexual misconduct or adventurism by the president.
That’s not all the Monica files include. In post-presidential life, aides and White House servants to the Clintons talk about the former president’s use of the White House theater, only steps away from the first lady’s traditional offices in the East Wing, and which was said to double as a forum for presidential dalliances with various women. As long as their identities could be concealed, these aides were willing to be open about what transpired and how they were open secrets in the boys’ club that was the Clinton West Wing. There were any number of young staffers who caught the president’s eye, or hand, or “inadvertent” touch. An adviser to Monica Lewinsky was told a secondhand story, which he related to me, of a young woman along the campaign trail whom Clinton invited to “work out” with him at the Little Rock YMCA, and another to whom he slipped a private White House phone number. At Richard Nixon’s funeral, Clinton was said to have made a pass at the wife of one of the former president’s pallbearers.
A number of sources mentioned to me the former flight attendant whom, in true Kennedy style, Clinton had brought onto the White House staff, where she worked alongside another of his purported mistresses, this one a woman named Marsha. “She’s a great character,” one of her friends tells me at a lunch where she insists on anonymity.
During his first term in office, around 1994, Clinton is said to have called up his close confidant David Pryor of Arkansas to brag. They had known each other well since Clinton’s days in Arkansas, and Pryor, who was then a U.S. senator representing Arkansas, had helped Clinton with his political rise in more ways than one.
The story goes that Clinton looked up to the politician and called to tell Pryor about a major accomplishment. He had been with a pop icon. Pryor, a reserved and conservative gentleman, was shocked. It was not just that Clinton would do something like that while president of the United States; it was that Clinton would go around and brag about it.
Pryor figured he couldn’t really tell Clinton off. But he could try to put an end to the high-profile fling that endangered the president. Pryor called the singer’s agent to pass along the message that she had better knock off the dangerous affair. The agent replied, “I don’t tell [her] what to do.”
Even back at Yale Law School, where he met Hillary, Clinton was known to have control issues. But in those days, his addiction was to food. “Ever hear of the phrase ‘gone in sixty seconds’? That was Bill Clinton with a large pepperoni pizza,” a fellow student at Yale Law School recalls.
Friends point to his election as Arkansas attorney general at the age of thirty-one as being the time when, as one puts it, “the Lothario business kicked in.” Suddenly the budding, young, attractive politico was finding women throwing themselves at him. “When I was in high school, I was a fat kid in overalls,” Clinton remarked to his childhood friend Mack McLarty. “And now all the women want to fuck me!” For a man whose appetites had been indulged his whole life, the women were irresistible. “It was like putting ten pizzas in front of him,” says the fellow Yalie.
Hillary, then, was herself a little different. She was, perhaps, a bit more relaxed. “I think she’s acknowledged it, and if she hasn’t acknowledged it everybody else will tell you: She was an enthusiastic pot user,” says one of her friends from law school.
“Oh, really,” I say, surprised at the revelation. “How often would you say?”
“I don’t know, I’m not in the position to say that,” says the friend, who wasn’t a big pot smoker. “But it was just, she was known to be one of the people. And please don’t cite me on this by name . . . if you talk to other people who knew her reasonably well in law school they will tell you that most people at that time, an undergraduate or in law school, would have been pot users, ranging from the casual and social to the enthusiastic. I think she would have been more enthusiastic, certainly more than Bill.” As for Hillary’s use of other drugs while at Yale, the friend is less forthcoming. “I don’t know, I have heard second- and third-hand but I don’t want to comment.”
Bill famously admitted he had smoked pot but didn’t inhale, a line that was roundly mocked for years.
Indeed, even in 2013, Bill Clinton was still trying to walk back that line. “Well, that—like many things in the press, that whole thing has been totally twisted to try to make something untrue. I was sort of joking about something had to be true. A very distinguished English journalist named Martin Walker said—and then all the other press covered it up, because it messed with the story. He said, ‘You know, Bill Clinton told the truth. He literally didn’t have the ability to do that.’ I didn’t say I was holding it in now. I said, ‘I tried.’ I didn’t deny that I did anything,” Clinton told Hispanic TV host Jorge Ramos. “I never denied that I used marijuana. I told the truth. I thought it was funny. And the only journalist who was there said I told the truth.”
From CLINTON, INC.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine by Daniel Halper. Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Halper. Reprinted by permission of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers