(The Obama White House, besieged by three scandals this week, is reminiscent of the scandal-plagued Clinton White House in the 1990s, many of which were pushed into the national agenda by talk radio programs. The following is an excerpt from The Right Frequency: The Story of the Talk Radio Giants Who Shook Up the Political and Media Establishment, available for a special deal on Amazon until Memorial Day, about talk radio and the Clinton controversies that ultimately led to the president’s impeachment.)
President Bill Clinton, perhaps forgetting he had the most powerful platform in the world, became irate during one radio interview with KMOX in St. Louis in May 1994.
“I have determined that I’m going to be aggressive about it. After I get off the radio today with you, Rush Limbaugh will have three hours to say whatever he wants and I won’t have any opportunity to respond, and there is no truth detector. You won’t get on afterward and say what was true and what wasn’t,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s remark launched one of Rush’s enduring catchphrases. After the interview, Limbaugh said, “I am the truth detector.” Limbaugh has since referred to himself as “America’s Truth Detector,” among his many informal titles.
Clinton, and all the baggage he brought with him from Arkansas, was a true gift to talk radio. Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, Chinagate, Monicagate and various other matters would plague the Clinton presidency for eight years.
It was talk radio, with the help of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page that put the Whitewater scandal on the national agenda. The controversy traced back to 1978 with a real estate investment by the Clintons along with Jim and Susan McDougal into the Whitewater Development Corp., with Hillary’s employer, the Rose law firm handling the legal business for the McDougals. David Hale, a former municipal court judge, alleged Gov. Clinton pressured him to provide an illegal $300,000 loan to the McDougals. The questions followed the Clintons to the White House in part because Hillary’s Rose law partners Vince Foster and Webster Hubbell each got administration posts.
After the Whitewater scandal saw the departure of White House counsel Bernie Nussbaum and Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, a feature in the Wall Street Journal asked people who were involved in the Watergate scandal if there were parallels with that and the Whitewater scandal. While other figures took a stodgy, scholarly approach, Liddy had fun, playing on his Watergate past.
“Despite our political differences, Bernie, I offer this letter of encouragement and urge you to do the right thing. What is important is that you remain loyal, keep your mouth shut and don’t give up Hillary!” Liddy wrote. “The feds will be angry when you refuse to turn rat. They will threaten you with a long prison term. They sentenced me to 21 1/2 years. Don’t let that scare you. Hell, I did only five. They’ll let you out shortly after the Clintons are run out of town. Be strong, Bernie.”
The death of Vince Foster was a major aspect of the Whitewater scandal on some talk programs. One survey found that 49 percent of talk radio listeners were familiar with Foster’s death, compared to just 22 percent of the general public.
After Whitewater came the Paula Jones allegation of sexual harassment. This case led to the president answering questions about Monica Lewinsky under oath, a subsequent cover-up and the first impeachment of a president in 130 years. The 27-year-old former Arkansas state employee claimed a bodyguard for then Governor Clinton invited her to a Little Rock hotel room on May 8, 1991 where the governor kissed her and exposed himself to her. She was 24 at the time.
Ironically in the Jones case—perhaps because it pertained to sex—was driven onto talk radio by the mainstream media when the Washington Post covered the fact that Clinton hired Washington super lawyer Robert Bennett. The presence of Bennett seemed evidence to many observers that the president was concerned about some type of information coming out, and it gave Jones credibility she did not have before.
Throughout 1996, Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Reagan, Oliver North and others piled on Clinton. So did radio host Alan Keyes, who jumped into the 1996 GOP president primary as did California Representative Robert Dornan, a frequent guest host for Rush.
The summer of 1996 came the highly publicized convictions in the Whitewater case, where a federal jury in U.S. District Court in Little Rock believed the testimony of David Hale over that of President Clinton. Ultimately, 15 people were convicted in the scandal, including Hubbell, Clinton’s successor Governor Jim Guy Tucker, and Jim and Susan McDougal and Hale.
Also that summer was the FBI files flap, in which it appeared the Clinton White House was gathering a Nixonian-style enemies list. That was followed by the campaign finance scandal that erupted just before the election provided immense fodder for the talk show hosts. Most hosts learned to love the insufficiently conservative Bob Dole, though not everyone.
“I predict confidently that Bob Dole will be the next president of the United States,” Liddy said on the air.
Neal Boortz said, “Sorry, folks, but I just don’t see how Bob Dole can be elected.”
With a strong economy at his back, and a hapless Dole candidacy, Clinton easily triumphed over the conservative talkers, winning 31 states, though still failing to win a majority, with just 49 percent of the popular vote.
Limbaugh, as it turned out, was somewhat prophetic in his post-election analysis as unusual as it sounded at the time.
“The people said, let’s not have him get away with this,” Limbaugh said. “We sent Bill Clinton back so you Republicans can continue to investigate and find out exactly what has gone on in these last four years.”
Most of 1997 would slog along. The hosts talked endlessly about the campaign finance scandal that involved money from China pouring into the Democratic National Committee in 1996. This scandal had its moments of drama and intrigue and was easier to grasp than the convoluted Whitewater scandal, even if it lacked the colorful cast of characters. But at the end of the day, it was a campaign finance scandal, which makes John Q. Listener’s eyes glaze over and change the dial.
In lieu of an election year and an easy scandal, talk radio took a hit. In September, numbers were trending downward from 14.8 percent in 1996 to 13.7 percent in 1997 according to American Demographics, Inc. Even Limbaugh lost 1 million listeners.
In June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the Jones sexual harassment case can proceed against Clinton while he is still president. Clinton would give his testimony in the Jones case in January 1998, where he denied a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. Lewinsky gave the same testimony. The story leaked that Starr had expanded the scope of his inquiry into whether the president had lied under oath in a federal lawsuit.
The Lewinsky impeachment scandal could not have come at a better time for talk radio.
Meanwhile, hosts such as Liddy and Janet Parshall proudly— and mockingly—claimed to be part of the “vast right wing conspiracy” that Hillary Clinton told NBC News was behind the Lewinsky allegation.
Talk radio ratings were back to 14.8 percent in total listening audience in 1998, according to Arbitron. Limbaugh, who in 1997 had fallen to the number three slot in radio behind Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a personal advice program and Howard Stern, a morning shock jock, reemerged as number one during 1998.
With impeachment in the air, Liddy proposed a question of the week to his callers. “Will President Gore pardon Bill Clinton?” Liddy’s answer was no. He believed President Gore would learn from Gerald Ford and improve his chances for 2000. But he solicited caller input to see what his audience anticipated.
Rush said the liberal media coverage was equivalent to “white cells finally starting to fight a virus.” Rush made no pretense of his glee. “We’re going to have fun with this,” he said.
Boortz asked his listeners to come up with a name for the scandal. “Tailgate” was the most popular, but “Fornigate” was also popular.
When the Clinton DNA-stained blue dress eventually forced the president to admit the truth to a federal grand jury, Clinton delivered an address to the nation, August 17, 1998. The president said, “I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”
The next day Rush conducted a mock interview with the president, asking him several questions such as why did he lie about Republicans cutting Medicare or why did he raise taxes. After each question, was the audio, “It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”
Remarkably, Clinton’s approval rating increased as the impeachment scandal dragged on. As the public grew sick of the matter, they seemed to support leaving Clinton in office. Just before Christmas, the House voted to send two articles of impeachment to the Senate. Both articles failed to even get a majority vote in the Senate. Only the obstruction of justice charge got 50-50 vote, while 10 Republicans bolted to vote against the perjury charge, making it a 45-55 vote.
It seemingly did not bode well for conservatives, but Rush took it in stride.
“I really view the approval numbers for the president more a statement from the people, ’Look, don’t mess with anything here because, really what matters to me is my family and my back pocket and my future. I don’t see this scandal affecting me in any economic way,’ and I don’t think people had a sense of—of what was at jeopardy here,” Limbaugh said. “I don’t think that people really understood that the rule of law here was being shattered, and we were establishing two sets of laws, one for the privileged and one for the not.”