As the latest wave of Benghazi Fever grips the willing Republican Party, and as the far-right media apparatus stokes the fervor, it's impossible to ignore the similarities between the all-scandal strategy that's being adopted by critics of Barack Obama, and the same all-scandal wedge that was used, unsuccessfully, against Bill Clinton, the previous two-term Democratic president.
The Benghazi blueprint matches up right down to the fact that there's no there there, in terms of a criminal White House cover up. It “doesn't add up to much of a scandal,” wrote Michael Hirsh at Politico this week, reviewing the facts of Benghazi to date. “But it's already too late for the truth. Benghazi has taken on a cultural life of its own on the right.” He added, “Benghazi has become to the 2010s what Vince Foster” was in the 1990s.
Foster was the then-deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in Northern Virginia's Fort Marcy Park on July 20, 1993, not far from Washington, D.C. His suicide, which sparked controversy when the so-called Clinton Crazies accused the president and his wife of being part of a plot to murder their friend (he knew too much!), quickly become shorthand for the type of despicable claims that were so casually lobbed in the 1990s.
Looking ahead to Hillary Clinton's possible 2016 presidential run, Hirsh wrote that the “Benghazi-Industrial Complex is going to be as toxic as anything Hillary has faced since ... Vince Foster.”
The analogy is a strong and a factual one. But in trying to understand what's happening today with the ceaseless, two-year Benghazi propaganda campaign, a blitz that's utterly lacking in factual support, it's important to understand how the media game has changed between the Vince Foster era and today. Specifically, it's important to understand what's different and more dangerous about the elaborate and irresponsible gotcha games that Republicans now play in concert with the right-wing media. (Hint: The games today get way more coverage.)
Here's what's key: Twenty years ago the far-right Foster tale was told mostly from the fringes. Word was spread via emerging online bulletin boards, snail mail pamphlets, faxed newsletters, self-published exposes, and VCR tapes, like The Clinton Chronicles, which portrayed the president as a one-man crime syndicate involved in drug-running, prostitution, murder, adultery, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, just to name a few.
At the top of the Foster-feeding pyramid stood the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh's radio show (“Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton”), and Robert Bartley's team of writers at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, who spent eight years lost in a dense, Clinton-thick fog.
Notice the hole in that `90s media menu? Television. Specifically, 24-hour television.
Now, fast-forward to the never-ending Benghazi feast of outrage. Today, that far-right tale is amplified via every single conservative media outlet in existence, and is powered by the most-watched 24-hour cable news channel in America. A news channel that long ago threw away any semblance of accountability.
So yes, Fox News is what's changed between 1994 and 2014, and Fox News is what has elevated Benghazi from a fringe-type “scandal” into the pressing issue adopted by the Republican Party today. (“Benghazi” has been mentioned approximately 1,000 times on Fox since May 1, according to TVeyes.com)
Remember, Rupert Murdoch's all-news channel didn't debut in America until October 1996 when it launched with just 17 million subscribers. (Today it boasts 90 millions subs.) And for the first few years it generally delivered a conservative slant on the news. It didn't function as a hothouse of fabrications the way it does today.
Now, Fox acts as a crucial bridge between the radical and the everyday. Fox gives a voice and a national platform to the same type of deranged, hard-core haters who hounded the new, young Democratic president in the early 1990s. Fox embraces and helps legitimize the kind of conspiratorial talk that flourished back then but mostly on the sidelines. The Murdoch channel has moved derangement into the mainstream of Republican politics.
By making the Foster comparison, I'm not downplaying how Republicans and the president's dedicated detractors irresponsibly flogged the Foster story for years. It stood as one of the most rancid examples of the politics of personal destruction that defined the Clinton era. (The Foster family begged, to no avail, for an end to the use of “outrageous innuendo and speculation for political ends.”)
But given how vast the right-wing noise machine apparatus has expanded since the 1990s, I'm suggesting that if that same type of event unfolded under the current Democratic president and if Fox News decided to hype the story, regardless of facts, for ten, twenty, or thirty months, the scandal wouldn't be treated as a fleeting affair. In other words, if Vince Foster truly were the '90s equivalent of Benghazi, it would have received mountains of more media attention, from all corners.
Fact: During Clinton's eight years in office, the New York Times published less than 30 news articles and columns that mentioned Foster at least three times, according to Nexis. By comparison, since the terror attack in Libya 20 months ago, the Times has published more than 250 hundred articles and columns that mentioned “Benghazi” three or more times.
That's what happens when you add the mighty medium of television into the all-scandal mix. That kind of drumbeat of televised phony outrage forces and/or encourage Republican politicians to respond, as well as the mainstream media.
Meanwhile, how do we know Fox would've gone all in on the dark Foster story? Because in the mid-`90s Fox chief Roger Ailes, then programming CNBC, told Don Imus that Foster's death could have been a murder. At the time, Ailes didn't have the influence or the independence to unleash NBC-owned financial news channel on a reckless Vince Foster witch-hunt. But he certainly would have if he'd been running today's hyper-partisan, hyper-irresponsible version of Fox News.
Also, even years after the ugly Foster smear campaign faded, Fox talkers like Sean Hannity push the lies:
In 2007, Fox News host Sean Hannity hosted a special episode on the “mysterious death” of Foster, hinting that the Clintons might have pulled off “a massive cover-up.”
So yes, I'm pretty sure today's Fox News would have eagerly endorsed the sordid Foster affair, relentlessly demanding that “unanswered questions” be addressed and that sweeping investigations be launched. That in turn, would have forced Republicans into action, which would have sparked endless mainstream news coverage.
That's what happens when televised propaganda is added to the media scandal mix; the megaphone's much bigger, much louder, and in many ways much more dangerous.