Late in the year 2000, while chads were still being counted in Florida, and before Bill Clinton’s black helicopter lifted off its pad for what may or may not be the last time, Larry Nichols, a former Clinton employee in Little Rock dialed up the “Quinn in the Morning” talk show at WRRK-FM in Pittsburgh and whispered in his Arkansas twang, “Quinn … Quinn … they’re not leaving.” Referring to the Clintons, of course, Nichols, a frequent long-distance caller to Jim Quinn’s Morning Militia, has been long convinced that the Clintons would never go away.
Like many Clinton-crazies, Larry Nichols has spent the last eight years afraid for his life. Sounding a bit panicky, he usually calls from somewhere in hiding. I picture him with his telephone, hunched under a blanket in a Bates psycho motel near an Arkansas highway, looking over his shoulder with furtive glances toward the door. Not only was Nichols convinced that Bill Clinton wasn’t leaving and that Hillary would have to be pried away like a
Halloween cat clinging to the Oval Office drapes, but he was a big-time believer in the “Arkancides,” those 56 suspicious and untimely deaths around Clinton that many believed to be murders.
This is what the Clinton presidency was like: White House counsel Vince Foster found dead in Fort Marcy Park; Ron Brown, who had said he was not going down alone, died with plenty of others in a plane crash; the next-door neighbor of Gennifer Flowers beaten to within an inch of his life; former Clinton security chief Jerry Parks gunned down in broad daylight at a Little Rock intersection. And there were more. Bizarre stories gushed forth like a muddy geyser out of Hot Springs.
We tried to find out what was happening, but never really could. Every once in awhile there was a glint here, or a glimmer there, like a silver fish under murky waters, but you couldn’t get your hands around it. The Clinton team always had a colorful cast of tough disarming characters ready to beat back the fuddy-duddies who thought something sinister was going down.
Clinton aide Anne Lewis, who looked like a talking teapot from a children’s fairy tale, declared with a wave of her short chubby arms that the Filegate scandal, resulting from two White House security agents haplessly receiving an overflow of Republican FBI files that gushed forth like unstoppable suds from an “I Love Lucy” washing machine, was just a “Sesame Street Snafu.”
Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca, the Ernie and Bert of Filegate, were dismissed by George Stephanopoulos as morons. “Filegate was a bureaucratic f—-up by two morons,” he told Vanity Fair.
“Hell, you work for Bill Clinton, you go up and down more times than a whore’s nightgown,” quipped James Carville. “Nuttin’ to be excited about yet.”
Referring to the sexual harassment lawsuit in which, among other things,
Paula Jones charged that she was asked to kiss then-Governor Clinton’s crooked member, which took a strange veer to the left, the New York Observer editorialized at the beginning of Clinton’s second term, “This is the first swearing in of a president where 40% of the electorate was thinking about the president’s penis. Right now there is a trailer parked on Pennsylvania Avenue, and we are a trailer park nation. Enjoy the next four years.”
And a trailer park nation we were. Like friends around a campfire listening to ghost stories, I used to wake up on winter mornings while it was still dark and tune my bedside radio to “Quinn in the Morning” for the latest tales of black helicopter sightings and calls from Arkansas witnesses who had seen shady capers, train deaths and drug deals going down near Mena. Like kids who love to hear “Where the Wild Things Are” read over and over while hiding under the blankets, conspiracies can be fun.
Larry Nichols was my favorite caller to the Morning Militia, the former Clinton-appointed employee of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, who the Clintons called a “pathological liar” but who had lots of scoops. The latest “Arkancide,” Larry confided to the captivated radio audience one dark morning in a breathless stage whisper, was one of his “witnesses.” He would call back tomorrow morning to tell us who it was. Stay tuned.
Larry and others made it their business to report anything unusual at the Mena airport, tidbits they might have picked up on the Internet, like when a runway was being lengthened. You’d be amazed how many people on the Internet live within sight of Mena. These folks may be swamp dwellers, but they’re not dumb. They knew that during the Clinton presidency, which New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described in a prophetic pre-Monica column as an “exploding cigar, where the only absolute certainty is no certainty,”
paranoia could employ ya.
Each conspiracy on Quinn’s show had a theme song. “Smuggler’s Blues” by Glen Frye was played for Mena updates, and “Burnin’ Down the House” was the Janet Reno theme song. When Clinton aide Dickie Morris was caught by the national media sucking someone’s toes in a Washington hotel room, Quinn put out a call for the song “Popsicle Toes.” I had “Popsicle Toes” and drove it to Quinn’s house for the Dickie Morris updates, which he played along with a lot of sucking and slurping sounds. My husband gave Quinn a copy of
Streisand’s long drawn-out live version of “He Touched Me” for the sexual harassment update (conservatives were against sexual harassment laws until Ms. Jones erupted with stories about the president. Like a sign from on high, like 666 emblazoned as the sign of a beast, even his penis was crooked!).
Not a person to believe in conspiracy theories, I never bought a tabloid in my life, except for the time The Star ran the irresistible headline “Family Flees Talking Doll” (which co-incidentally, as a result of my involvement in the vast right-wing conspiracy, actually happened to me later in real life). But many of the bizarre stories were intriguing. Not wanting to be perceived as someone who belonged to what Al Gore referred to as the “extra-chromosome crowd,” I gleaned my info-nuggets from a wide array of “legitimate” sources — like The Wall Street Journal which editorialized that “Bill Clinton’s Arkansas was a very strange place” and Joe Klein, the New Yorker’s respected political writer who wrote “Primary Colors,” portraying Clinton aide Betsey Wright, the woman in charge of “bimbo eruptions,” as someone who pointed a loaded gun at Clinton enemies telling them to “get their mind right.” Even Bob Dole’s ad man, Michael Murphy, announced that he was
teaching his pet parrot, Ernie, to repeat, “Whitewater — guilty as sin!”
“I accuse President Clinton of murder,” proclaimed Dr. Jack Wheeler in his column in Strategic Investors, a financial newsletter published by James Davidson, author of “Blood in the Streets.” Wheeler specifically accused Bill Clinton of ordering his personal goon squad of Arkansas state troopers and ex-troopers to kill Luther “Jerry” Parks, the former Clinton security chief who had been gunned down in Little Rock in 1993. “Parks,” said Wheeler,
“was a Little Rock private investigator hired by Vince Foster to collect an extensive surveillance file on then-Governor Clinton, which included Clinton’s participation in cocaine and sex parties at his brother Roger’s apartment.”
James Davidson, founder of the National Taxpayer’s Union, was once a heavy financial backer of Bill Clinton but had since become an ardent foe and sponsor of research into the death of Vince Foster. Warned by his lawyers that he was risking not only his credibility but a libel suit as well if his newsletter was wrong about the charges against Clinton, Davidson hired investigators to check out the allegations coming out of Little Rock. The investigators, said to be shocked at what they found, advised Davidson that he had no need to fear any libel or slander suits.
On the morning after the disappearance of former CIA Director William Colby, I was reading my copy of Strategic Investors, which was announcing that the publisher had financed a trio of top handwriting experts who had just declared that Vince Foster’s suicide note was a forgery. The newsletter also announced that former CIA Director Colby had just joined the board of Strategic Investors. It was a mighty strange thing to be reading right at the very time the news wires were reporting that Colby had just been declared missing from his vacation cabin.
Colby had left for a canoe ride, leaving his radio on and his computer screen glowing in the dark, and a half-eaten clam dinner on his plate. He was a cautious man, said his wife, a man who would never go out canoeing in two-foot-high whitecaps with 25 mph sea winds. Shortly thereafter, his body was found without shoes or lifejacket, which his wife said he always wore. Chills ran up my spine. I could feel the sea winds billow under my life jacket
… I mean sweater!
The scuttlebutt about Bill Clinton’s connections to drugs and political murders by the Dixie Mafia was once taken about as seriously by the national media as Elvis sightings at the K-Mart, but little by little it was nonetheless being checked out. The New York Times sent writer Philip Weiss to Little Rock get the lowdown. Weiss, a witty, urbane, New York liberal was an unlikely convert to right-wing nuthood, but between the lines of his article, “The Clinton Crazies,” you could tell he didn’t think they were so crazy after all.
Weiss, who had voted for Clinton, later wrote an article for the New York Observer portraying Clinton as a “backwoods governor who allowed ‘rough justice’ in Arkansas,” a state with a “tradition of vigilante violence,” a place “so poor that primitive men with third grade educations were elected sheriff in the 1980s.” Weiss wrote about Forrest City Sheriff Conlee, a man who proudly displayed the pickled testicles of a castrated rape suspect on
his office shelf. The accused rapist, Wayne Drummond, insists to this day that he is innocent of the rape of a distant Clinton cousin.
Shortly after Bill Clinton’s re-election, the White House issued a 331-page report to counter the unending flow of bizarre stories. Entitled the “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” the White House report designated Pittsburgh publisher and billionaire Richard Scaife as the mastermind who engineered the vast right-wing conspiracy from his media mother ship at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. (In case you missed it, by the way, WND editor Joseph Farah is the only journalist fingered by name in the report.)
Clinton spokesman James Carville, looking like a space alien who’d just shuffled his way down a gangplank of a mother ship himself, dismissed the anti-Clinton stories as
just blatherings of the trailer trash. “You drag $100 bills through trailer parks, there’s no telling what you’ll find. I know these people. I went to school with them. I necked with them. I spent nights with them.”
During the Clinton years, it was impossible for writers not to make fools of ourselves. If you ignored the conspiracy stories, you were boring and irrelevant, and if you researched them, there was such a blizzard of contradictory dots, you never really knew if you were a wing-nut or if you were onto something.
And a fate momentarily worse than death was the day my editor at an obscure little newspaper in Pittsburgh, The Observer, got an angry call from Jackie Judd. It was the Jackie Judd, calling the editor about me, a nobody from Pittsburgh, and a grandmother to boot, long distance from ABC News in Washington, D.C., demanding to know where I had received my information. She wanted to know where I had gotten my quote about her, and she wanted it now. “When she calls you, if you can’t remember where you got it,” my editor told me, “just cry.”
When Ms. Judd called back she said a relative in Pittsburgh had sent her my article, “Skeleton Stampede,” about the skeletons in Clinton’s closet. “I can’t open up my closet,” Clinton had once confessed to his friend David Ifshin during the 1992 campaign. “I’ll get crushed by my skeletons.”
Judd was being called on the official ABC carpet to defend some of her statements about the Clinton White House. I had quoted her as saying, “The White House views this as a war, and they’re going to use whatever they can to win it.” So far so good. Judd admitted to saying that. I had received the quote from Micah Morrison at the Wall Street Journal. But the second part of my sentence was wrong. I had misquoted Judd by inadvertently blurring the sentence with two words, saying that she had said ABC News had “unbelievable battles” with the Clinton White House, when it was actually a source at ABC news other than Judd who had given the Wall Street Journal that information. I apologized for the misquote and Judd said she would call back if she needed me to back up her story. Whew!
The White House was reaching deep to intimidate the press — as Bill Clinton had threatened he would do immediately upon his reelection!
At a victory celebration in a Little Rock hotel on his re-election night, Bill Clinton had promised to “spend a lot of time going after detractors who pursued him on Whitewater and other ethical questions.” His enemies, he declared, had “hurt a lot of people in our state with their systematic abuse.” Calling his political attackers “a cancer,” he vowed to “cut them
out of American politics.” Strong language from a winner!
We might expect this kind of venting from a loser with fresh wounds, but who would expect to run into such a nasty winner? Ungracious winners with the full power of the federal government at their disposal can be a frightening prospect.
Relaxing on Air Force One later that night, Mr. Clinton told reporters it was the Oklahoma bombing that proved to be the turning point in his political fortunes. “The bombing broke a spell in the country as the people began searching for our common ground again,” he explained. “Our one duty to the victims of Oklahoma is to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil.”
Adept at the exploitation of tragedies and the politics of division, Clinton had been demagoging the Oklahoma catastrophe before the ashes had cooled. He was apparently oblivious to the fact that those on the other side of the political divide saw the dark force that had given rise to the evil of Oklahoma as him. Though the administration tried to smear right-wing critics, radio talk show listeners, militia members and Republicans as fellow travelers of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, McVeigh turned out to be a virtual loner who was enraged by the incineration of 80 Americans at Waco, a needless incineration that was directly produced by the reckless and irresponsible decision-making processes of the Clinton administration.
“Who are these people,” Clinton asked shortly after the Oklahoma bombing, “who say they love their country but hate their government?” More politics of division and inflammatory rhetoric from a man who knew full well from his participation in the anti-war movement that you can vehemently protest government policies without hating your country. These people who “hate their government” were people just like he was when he proclaimed that he “loathed the military.” Understanding political radicals, because he was once one of them himself, would have given a wiser man an edge in unifying and leading
the country, but Bill Clinton chose to inflame and divide, fueling the opposition’s rage just as surely as his heavy-handed policies at Waco had fueled the rebellion there. In the end, he was no better a leader than his ’60s nemesis, Richard Nixon. He had learned nothing.
Perhaps because the Clinton administration had viewed Pittsburgh as the home of the mastermind of the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” the place from where the “cancer” had sprung, the city seemed to get a little more White House attention than others. When the head of HUD visited town, he pointed across the Monongahela river at a forsaken little town called Braddock and asked if that was where the Morning Militia met. On June 4, 1996, Pittsburghers had a bizarre experience — an unannounced nighttime invasion of black helicopters playing war games over city streets, zooming over McKeesport and Braddock. “Not Armageddon, Just Noisy Helicopter Training,” said the next morning’s headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“World War III did not break out along the Three Rivers last night,” reported Post-Gazette staff writer Michael Newman. “It just sounded like it. As part of a U.S. Department of Defense training exercise, helicopters flew low along the Monogahela, Ohio and Allegheny rivers, from McKeesport to McKees Rocks to the Strip District. They were accompanied by a frighteningly realistic soundtrack of exploding bombs and crackling gunfire. Residents from throughout the area called their local police. One man said the commotion was so loud, his wife went into labor. An official at Pittsburgh’s emergency-management center said the exercises were part of the Defense Department’s normal training. He said last night’s exercises were designed to help helicopter pilots learn to fly at night in urban areas. The exercises, sponsored by local police departments, including the city’s, started shortly after dark and lasted until after midnight.”
“It Would Have Been Nice to Warn Us,” said a headline the next day, followed the day after by “Military Retreats in Face Of Anger: Public’s Reaction Was Too Negative, Army Announces.”
Said Lt. Col. Ken McGraw of the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, “In light of the public reaction, we re-evaluated our training schedule and determined we really couldn’t do much of our training without disruptions to Pittsburgh residents and thought it would be better to cancel it.”
Asked about the safety of flying the Black Hawk helicopters at night over heavily populated areas, McGraw said, “I’m never going to tell you nothing [sic] is foolproof.” He said that in other cities, such as Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago, where similar exercises had been held over the last few years, public reaction had never been anything like in Pittsburgh.
U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., stated that he had been “left with the impression from a meeting with officers at the Special Operations Command” that the training was in part to prepare troops should their expertise be necessary at the Atlanta Olympics. Others said the Army was concerned that conditions in certain cities are ripe for racial conflict. The morning after Pittsburgh’s helicopter invasion, Tom Marr, a Philadelphia talk show host said that invariably in these situations the “black helicopter crowd” comes out of the woodwork, spreading rumors that the Pentagon is ready to aim its guns at American citizens.
Whatever the reason, the black helicopter crowd did get angry — and pour out of the woodwork they did! Some even poured into the streets in their underwear during the treetop anti-terrorist maneuvers by nine Army helicopters that swooped through with mock gunfire and explosions that shook the ground.
“In my granma’s neighborhood,” said waitress Kelly Toth, “people laid down in the streets. The noises came in through the open windows. The helicopters were flying so low you could’ve hit them with a broom handle. They thought the communists were coming to take over, or that it was aliens!”
The owner of La Dolce Vita Sweet Shop in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh’s Little Italy, said he wasn’t surprised to see masked soldiers sliding down ropes onto rooftops from helicopters. “They’ve been doing extractions around here for a long time,” he said, referring to Pittsburgh’s missing persons.
Another woman peering out her apartment window in the wee hours at the black helicopters said, “Oh my God, the militia was right!” On the other hand, Granpa Bup, a World War II vet, said, “These people are crybabies. They should’ve felt the ground shake when a 3,000 pound bomb was dropped on London!”
And so it went, on and on like a novel. Sure, there were nuts in the movement, and I met a few of them, and for awhile was one of them. I was getting so paranoid that when I got a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a donation, I thought it was a death threat! How could it be otherwise, after all, the whole conspiracy food chain thing was said to have started down the street from where I live at the newspaper we call “The Trib.” Sometimes I wrote op-eds for the Trib. But what if Woodward and Bernstein had been dismissed because they met some kook-show named Deep Throat who hung out in underground parking garages?
I admit I went on the conspiracy tour, roamed around in the tall grass in Fort Marcy Park to check out the cannons, looked for the missing bullet and all the rest. In the end, though, I concluded that Chris Ruddy, author of “The Strange Death of Vincent Foster,” was wrong, and that Ken Starr had gotten it right in declaring Foster’s death a suicide.
Others still aren’t so sure, like the lady I met at a Quinn think-tank, at a bar called Kangaroo’s. Introducing herself as a member of the West Virginia militia, she said she had been run off the road by the CIA on the way to the meeting. She explained that lead paint had been outlawed by the government because they wanted to see through our walls with infrared equipment from satellites. To outfox them, she had added lead to her no-lead paint and was there to give us her formula for adding lead.
I figured she might have been an FBI agent, fishing for wing-nuts.
With the Clinton presidency over and G.W. now in office, the only thing we can say for sure is that the biggest nut-ball of them all has just left the building. The lunatics had indeed taken over the asylum, to the tune of “Hail to the Chief.” With Bill Clinton and his wife gone from Pennsylvania Ave., it’s a good bet that we’ll be hearing nothing from the militias, the wing-nuts and the Arkansas fever swamp folks. Even the Internet will simmer down — if it hasn’t already. And no matter how much the liberals complain about George W.,
they will never have to deal with what we did.
I’m no Dionne Warwick with a crystal ball, but I have some solid predictions about the Bush administration: I know Laura Bush won’t go on TV to announce that any of us
are free-loaders. Condoleezza Rice won’t be visiting Al Sharpton with a gun telling him to get his mind right. Mary Matalin won’t be found dead in Fort Marcy Park. Christie Whitman won’t threaten to break anyone’s knee-caps. Even the pro-life ideologue Ashcroft won’t incinerate 80 feminists at the NOW headquarters. And no one in the Secret Service will have any tales about George W. leaving the White House rolled up in a blanket in the floor of a
car having phone sex with an intern.
Clinton’s legacy? Easy. It’ll be two things: his resilience in the face of a self-induced pummeling and, as Hillary put it at the end of the Lewinsky-impeachment saga, that you could say a lot of things about Bill Clinton, but he was never boring.